Anatomy of a blockbuster: Tiny Tower
Thursday, 6th October 2011 at 10:00 am
Develop's monthly dissection of a recent hit game
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A textbook iOS success story, from the moment it was released Tiny Tower enchanted the global iPhone user.
Its glorious debut reportedly saw a million copies downloaded in its first four days on release, and it quickly became a favourite water cooler talking point for the iOS trendsetters: ‘Are you playing it?’, ‘How does your tower look?’ And that all important question: ‘How many floors do you have?’.
During July 2011, if you weren’t the landlord of a diminutive virtual skyscraper, you simply weren’t in with the games industry elite.
The premise of Tiny Tower is a simple one. One floor at a time, the player must construct a soaring concrete building, filling its rooms with a variety of residential apartments, services, retailers and entertainment spaces, always carefully balancing the ecosystem to maximise efficiency and growth.
Metaphorically and near-literally, Tiny Tower serves up a neat vertical slice of the SimCity game concept.
Heavily focused on a compulsion loop that has proved furiously addictive the world over, it also plays itself in the background, even when your iPhone is out of battery.
It is built around a freemium model that tempts users to part with their cash in return for faster access to funds.
Before Tiny Tower’s foundations were laid, NimbleBit was already infamous in the industry as the team that created amphibian-breeding iOS game Pocket Frogs; a title synonymous with compulsion loop game design.
The studio has a healthy back catalogue of iOS releases, and like so many app developers, is somewhat publicity shy.
UNIQUE SELLING POINT
There are numerous games inspired by SimCity, and the ballooning of the number of titles built around tight compulsion loops is well documented.
How Tiny Tower stands out from its dense crowd of rivals is through its character. From the name of its residents to the colour schemes of each floor, much of the game is randomised, resulting in an experience that feels very personal to the end-user.
They may be near identical the world over, but each Tiny Tower constructed feels like a completely unique creation.
It also does a fine job of crafting an illusion of depth, and most importantly boasts a way player’s can share how they’re doing; the tower itself.
At a glance Tiny Tower builders can see – and show – how they are progressing by viewing their blossoming skyscraper in its entirety, resplendent with tiny residents beavering away.
WHY IT WORKS
Nimblebit’s creation is the game that keeps on giving. There’s always new stock arriving, residents moving in and percentage bars reaching completion.
What’s more, Tiny Tower’s manically repeating core game loop of restock-sell-buy is so compact and tidy that it can run dozens of times simultaneously without complicating the gameplay.
The result is a title that constantly rewards the player, and relentlessly asks for more. It is compelling to play long beyond the point when it has stopped being explicitly fun, and even after the consumer has realised it’s apparent depth is all an illusion, it still charms them into diving into its shallow waters.
TRY IT YOURSELF
Do what Tiny Tower did to the god game. Choose a well loved strategy genre, and boil it down to its most basic form. Don’t be afraid of giving your audience something so simple they can learn it all in three minutes. That’s the point.
Then create a short compulsion loop – keep it to three or four basic stages – and integrate that into you game.
Don’t put a compulsion loop over the top of a theme; put it into your creation’s theme. Have it repeat over and over, slowing down its rotation gradually as the game progresses and the player gains experience.
Now comes the tricky part. You need to craft a suggestion of strategy so that the user feels they are playing in their own way. It needs to be easy to stumble upon, but not essential to play the game.
And, if you’re fashioning a compulsion loop to make yourself some money, you’ll probably want to add in a way the player can fill up those percentage bars a little bit faster with some in-game currency.
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