Trapped in a Tiny Tower

This is my tower. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
This is my tower. There are many like it, but this one is mine.

I have spent way too much time this weekend playing tiny tower. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy my holiday—just that, every fleeting moment I could snag between grilling, family events and fireworks, I would dash to my phone to restock my tiny businesses.

As time-wasters go, Tiny Tower has a leg up on the competition. The writing is clever (and delightfully referential), and the pixel art feels fresh in a market over-saturated in nostalgia. The art’s strength is in abstraction of the familiar: an Apple Store, a wood-grilled pizza parlor, and a brewery are all represented, each row no more than about 50 pixels tall. With a nod to its social-game ancestors, Tiny Tower even abstracts Facebook: your ‘bitizens’ will post status updates about their jobs, favorite pop-culture quotes, or speculations on 8-bit existence. Sam Cooper, one of my “Mapple Store” genius bar associates (complete with blue polo—you can customize each character’s outfits) muses, “If we were thinking with portals then we wouldn’t need these elevators!”

Any game that can engross both me and my stalwartly non-gamer girlfriend has to be doing something right, and the pacing of tiny tower is perfectly tuned: floor pricing (=floorNumber^2 * 150, as near as I can determine) starts out low enough to permit rapid development, and scales exponentially as you build out your businesses (and get addicted). Your stores’ income scales, too, providing you maintain a balance between residential and commercial floors—the price of the next expansion tends to be just barely out of reach, and this feels fair. To date it has not taken more than a few hours of inventory management grinding to make it to the next floor, and if you can’t wait, that’s where Nimblebit provide the easy out of in-app purchases to get more towerbux. Reviewers have discussed Tiny Tower’s freemium model already so I won’t repeat their findings here, beyond applauding Nimblebit for creating an entirely optional payment model that still grows ever more enticing as the times and costs involved in the game scale.

Your narrative role within Tiny Tower is confusing, to say the least. The game’s interactions cast the player alternately as zoning board, inventory manager, landlord, human resources director, and… elevator operator? That last one is the most unique among sim-style god-games, and it ends up being the majority of what you do when the game is open: in between building new levels and restocking merchandise, you spend most of out time shuttling bitizens up and down your tower, rewarded for your engagement by the random appearance of time-saving VIP characters that can sell out a specific product or shave three hours off a build time. You don’t have to leave the game open after restocking your inventory, but you’ll want to. You are also periodically asked to play the front desk and identify particular inhabitants of your tower, for a variety of reasons. ID actions occur about every five minutes you have the game foregrounded: perhaps a package has been delivered for bitizen Peggy Moore, or perhaps (and this happened!) the game informs you that only Fred Duncan is a bad enough dude to save the president. These are good mechanics, adding to the games character and allowing you to play at your own pace as you get to know your pixellated minions.

And what of those bitizens? Between the expansions, restocking, and elevator maintenance, this unabashedly simple game does offer flashes of insight into the workings of an economy. Many of my bitizens have creative talent, but ended up stuck in dead-end retail jobs; more than a few of my tower’s inhabitants had to spend some time working at a sub shop before they landed their dream gig at that travel agency. I’ve grown attached to my tiny champions of commerce, reading each sprite’s personal stories between the lines of the games’ wall-posts and popup notifications.

Tiny Tower is a well-made game, and I’m glad to be playing it. I’ve got to run, though—I need to restock the bike shop on 11, and one of my bitizens just warned me there may be some angry birds trapped in the ventilation.

Tiny Tower is available for iPad and iPhone—for free—from the Apple App Store. Good luck maintaining your social life!

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