Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 16, 2012
Barely a game?

Early this year there was a story going round of Zynga ripping off a 3-man indie game studio by cloning their hit game Tiny Tower. More recently I saw on some forums that somebody described both Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes, another game from the same indie studio, as being "barely a game". So, barely a game but successful enough that the big guys needed to clone it? Interesting enough for me to download both games for my iPod Touch (they are free) and have a look what the fuzz is about. I'm always interested in the question what games are, although I don't think that there is a unique answer to it;

After playing Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes for a few days, I can see where the "barely a game" description is coming from. First of all these certainly aren't "games for gamers"; you can't possibly play them for very long in one session. Instead they are designed to run in the background, with you looking after them once in a while. Pocket Planes is generally on a shorter timer, Tiny Tower has some waiting times in the hours. Both will happily "ping" you if you let them, telling you that they need attention while you were doing something else on your iPhone / iPad / iPod Touch.

My favorite definition of what makes a good game is Sid Meier's "a [good] game is a series of interesting choices". Tiny Tower has very few of those, but Pocket Planes is doing better there. In fact I've played "Tycoon"-type games which looked a lot more complex but in the end didn't really have more interesting choices than Pocket Planes. In Tiny Tower your main choice of what to stock in your shops depends more on when you think you will play the game next than being a real in-game decision.

Both games work with what I'd call the Tamagotchi principle: You are getting rewarded for "looking after" your creation, whether that is a high-rise tower or an airline. While you aren't really punished for not checking in regularly and playing, the games still make it very clear that you are losing opportunities. Pocket Planes are only making money once you send them somewhere, and they arrive after minutes. Tiny Tower greets you with many floors with the lights out if you leave it alone for hours, and then you first need to give orders to stock goods, and then log in another time to confirm delivery before the tower is making money again.

What I like about both games is that their Free2Play model is the fairest possible: You can play the whole game forever without paying, but if you want you can accelerate your progress by spending real money. The more you play, the more there is to do. Both games, while not strictly "endless", have rather large limits: 160 floors with things in them in Tiny Tower, 251 airports in Pocket Planes, enough for a rather large number of hours. But I guess most people would get bored before getting to that limit, as gameplay doesn't change while you advance. I don't see me playing these games for long, but for a while they are fun enough if you are looking for something very casual.

I do think it is good to have very basic games around. I noticed that especially PC games of the same genre often get more complicated every year, targeting people who played previous versions or similar games. Especially with strategy games it often isn't easy to find games that would be accessible to new players, or could be played in a more casual way. And there are a lot of multiplayer games, like shooters and PvP online strategy games, where those new players can't get into, because the matchmaking is so bad, and the new players don't stand a chance against the veterans. So maybe a game like Pocket Planes is "barely a game" if you compare it to the usual management games, but it certainly would be a good introduction to the genre.

There's a game called Mornington Crescent. The game is played by taking it in turns to name London tube stations. So I might start and say Victoria. Then you could take a turn and say Walthamstow Central.

To win you pick Mornington Crescent (a tube stop in Camden).

That's it.

The artistry of the game is to pretend there's some complicated rule system. Often when two of you introduce new people to the game and say Victoria, "I'll meet your Victoria with a District Line gambit to Turnham Green," "oh nice Turnham Green gambit, best I can do in response is Hammersmith, your go Tobold," this all gets people thinking the game is more complicated than just saying Mornington Crescent to win. So you can get people tentatively trying a station a little closer to Camden and so forth.

But it's the least game-filled game I know and yet still very much a game.
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