Upwardly mobile: the Tiny Tower time-suck

Friday, 7th September 2012 12:28 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Mobile games represent an increasing proportion of the VG247 team’s gaming hours. Brenna Hillier confesses to a terrible fixation on miniature, pixelated people.

Every now and then Pat suffers the pangs of primal managerial instinct and demands that the VG247 crew get together to play games and Bond As A Team. The results of this are generally fairly amusing as we’re about as co-operative as cats, but also because our tastes are so diverse.

After we’ve had our usual ten-minute argument as to why nobody else wants to do whatever Pat’s obsessed with at the moment, we’re required to submit a list of the games we’re currently playing in the hopes of getting a match. Last time this occurred, I was forced to admit that the game I’m spending the most time with, the game I return to every day, the game I think about when I’m working or cooking or trying to fall asleep, is Tiny Tower. Yes: I’m obsessed with a 14 month old, free-to-play indie mobile game.

Look – I’ve got a little developer in there.
They’re making a city-building sim.

Tiny Tower! Why are you so compelling? Insert Credit gave you a one finger review which accurately sums up your game mechanics. In essence, you require me to look at you several times an hour, and tap the screen. You require no manual dexterity or strategic planning, and allow for only the barest amount of creativity. You are genuinely less interactive than Farmville. You don’t even have a…

Hang on a second; I have to check my Tiny Tower.

Since I discovered Tiny Tower last month, at least a year behind the rest of the world, I have met several recovering obsessives, all of them fellow games writers.

“I am carefully pretending you didn’t mention That Game,” one told me via IM. “That part of my life is over.”

“I fucking loved Tiny Tower. I used to keep it on my desk at work and it would beep and I’d be on it like a shark. I was going to get all the floors, and then they kept releasing updates and I was like, fuck those guys, I can’t get anything done any more,” a more animated former addict advised me.

“I think [name redacted] had the biggest Tower,” another colleague told me of the Great Australian Games Media Tiny Tower Movement of 2011. “It was like, 150 floors or something. He had them all.”

“Does he still play?” I asked, fascinated by this wondrous vision.

“I think he threw his phone under a bus.”

Sometimes I am strongly tempted to follow suit. I have only been playing Tiny Tower for a few weeks but already I am starting to wonder if I can ever break free of its grip through any other means. I have had to implement a “once an hour” rule during office hours. I keep it open almost constantly when I’m off-duty. I have been advised, both gently and in stronger language, to get off my phone during social events. I have lost sleep over it, waiting for just one more stock cycle before I have to leave it unattended.

What is the appeal?

There are several reasons I am still playing Tiny Tower even though it is arguably having an adverse effect on my life. The first is that, like Pokémon, the impetus to catch ‘em all is strong. Nimblebit’s pixel art is so charmingly clever that each new floor I discover is like receiving a small present. I want to see them all in action and marvel at their little delights, and I want to look upon a list of ticked boxes and enjoy that fruitless sense of achievement by which the games industry holds my brain hostage. It takes me about two days to pay for and construct each no floor, a commitment which will only increase, but what is time to me? Free, that’s what.

Here’s Sherry at the dentist’s.
I am replete with satisfaction.

Perhaps more compellingly, Tiny Tower plugs right into something I call the Dollhouse Effect. I didn’t have a dollhouse growing up – nor the Castle Greyskull playset I routinely asked for in the same breath – but I regularly built shelters for My Little Ponies, Hot Wheels, Barbie dolls and Transformers out of whatever childhood resources were at hand – shoeboxes, Lego, piles of twigs glued together with tears over not having a He-Man action figure. In these more or less skilful constructions I enacted elaborate dramas full of human interest (and explosions). Each toy developed a distinct personality; my model Ferrari Testerossa was a boastful leader and Moonstone the pony was a wise elder brother. Making these completely imaginary personalities happy (after blowing off their arms and legs in bomb-filled conflicts) filled me with immense satisfaction.

Seven year-old Brenna is clearly still present somewhere deep inside and gets a heck of a kick out of making imaginary people happy. The first bitizen to move into my Tower was called Sherry Kelley and she wore a little pink hat; I remember because I was filled with undeserved pride at having attracted her to my luxurious commercial enterprise.

I pored over Sherry’s profile and discovered it was her dream to work as a dentist. From that moment on it became my mission to construct a dentist’s office and get her a job in it. As I moved her through a couple of roles on the way to our joint goal, I viewed her increasing satisfaction with growing pleasure. When she finally landed her ultimate gig, I popped her into a surgeon’s outfit at significant in-game currency cost to celebrate.

I now have almost 60 floors and over 100 bitizens. I no longer remember their names or what they want from life, relying on menus to keep track of them and my end goal of Universal Human Job Satisfaction; I’ll never have another Sherry moment, but one was enough. I’m hooked. I’m yet to send a cent Nimblebit’s way and having looked at the economics of it I doubt I’d ever be tempted to lash out on a micro-transaction – but if they ever ask me for $5 on Kickstarter I will open my wallet and bleed through a fixed grin of addiction.



  1. Stace Harman

    Oh, my dear Ms Hillier, I can entirely relate.

    I’ve been “playing” Tiny Tower since April. I have 145 floors having spent zero real-world money (sorry, Nimblebit), with new additions taking three days to construct and costing in excess of 3,000,000 shiny, gold coins.

    My only consolation is that, one day, it *will* all be over and I’ll have no more floors to build. Until it’s updated and new ones are added.

    *Help me*

    #1 2 years ago
  2. OlderGamer

    What? You guys play mobile and not just the latest, greatest trip A franchise sequel?

    But, but, console, but core….but, but…


    In all seriousness, I too am spending more time playing other things too. Still play the traditional stuff too, just not nearly as much as I used to.

    Nice article, enjoyable.

    #2 2 years ago
  3. Brenna Hillier

    Stace, I knew we were brothers of the soul from the very first. 3 million coins? Lord help us all.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Alex Donaldson

    3 million? Christ. I love Tiny Tower, but my real guilty pleasure is the Kairosoft games. Most people forgot about them after Game Dev Story, but I’ve immediately purchased every single game they’ve released as soon as it’s released and LOVE them all. They just recently did one where you manage an RPG town, building weapons shops and potion shops and places, attracting adventurers who in turn protect your town from monsters. Being an RPG nut, I love it.

    The Kairosoft games scratch the same itch that SC2000 and Theme Hospital did when I was a kid.

    It really is a sign of how things have changed, I guess, but when I’m on trains and things my go-to game is EA’s bloody Monopoly game for iPad. I never in a million years would’ve thought that the case. Even the more core style iOS/mobile games like Death Rally and Mass Effect Infiltrator I play… but never on the go. I sit down on the sofa and play those. On a train? Monopoly.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Brenna Hillier

    Kairosoft! Get thee behind me. The sleepless nights. The lost hours. The bare-faced lies: “I’m just going to try the lite version, I’m not buying anything, I won’t stay up late, oh, five dollars fell out of my Google Play wallet I don’t know how and now it is four in the morning and I have the best mall in the world mwa ha ha ha.”

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Johnny Cullen

    I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t care of Kairosoft outside of Game Dev Story. I want Game Dev Story 2 to hurry up and come west. :(

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Ireland Michael

    Well, it’s a good thing you all haven’t tried out Pocket Planes then…

    #7 2 years ago
  8. Stace Harman

    @7 I did, but after opening 18 airports on a couple of continents I drifted away from it. It didn’t sink its teeth into me the way TT has.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. Giskard

    @7/8 Pocket Planes is far more constrained than TT. For one, you can not have a finite amount of layovers, and getting extra airports outside of your main route mostly just decreases profitability.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. james_barber

    change the clock forwards on your phone.. and then back again, no need to wait hours for floors to be built then :) haha

    #10 2 years ago
  11. evilreverend

    the thing i love about Tiny Tower above all other mobile games i have played is that it doesn’t force you to purchase premium currency. as long as you put in time, you receive enough tower bux to help you out. i wish other social and mobile games would learn from Tiny Tower.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. revolting

    Kairosoft’s Dungeon Village was a major, major problem for me. Game Dev Story’s mechanics where your little guys go off on RPG quests, fight dragons and farm epic loots? Instantly purchased, instantly addicted, and constantly played for 2 months straight. I put more hours into that little gem than many a AAA title.

    #12 2 years ago

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