Why does Tiny Tower work?


This is a breakdown of the very successful free to play game Tiny Tower, currently only available on iOS. This post was originally written on 22nd July 2011. If you want to know why Tiny Tower works, read on. 



Tiny Tower is a free to play app on iOS. You’ve probably heard of it, it made headlines for racking up a million downloads in 4 days. I’m going to try and break down the main reasons behind why it works. 

Pixel graphics. The Tiny Tower world is rendered in genuinely likeable pixel art. It is instantly recognisable to gamers as a videogame. The characters, or bitizens, sport a variety of hairstyles, hats and hipster glasses while the different stores and floors are easily recognisable and clearly differentiated. Compare this briefly with the leader of the pack in terms of casual social gaming: Zynga’s Cityville. With its dated looking popups and dead eyed, joylessly animated inhabitants, it looks more like a Microsoft Office Assistant reunion than a full blown ‘real videogame’. It’s very easy for gamers to reject a lot of these type of games on a visual basis alone. Tiny Tower however, eschews the common 3D isometric viewpoint and absolutely resembles a traditional, retro style videogame.

Native design. There is a simple reason Tiny Tower’s portrait orientation suits the iOS platform so well – it was built specifically for it. Ian Marsh (one half of twin brother coding team Nimblebit – Tiny Tower’s creators) mentions in an interview that they chose a tower as it was a perfect fit for users “right at home with vertical scrolling”. As a game designed solely for iOS, it sidesteps navigational irritations which may be unavoidable in ports from other systems. Kairosoft’s Pocket Academy, a game in which the aim is to build up a successful school, is ported from the PC – a primarily mouse controlled platform. Using a finger to both scroll and place objects on a small map on a small screen can prove frustrating. Any game that doesn’t use the fluid tactile language which users are fluent in risks a degree of separation between user and game.

Task tempo. Tiny Tower is not an overly demanding experience, quickly settling into an unhurried routine. Especially earlier on, after restocking duties are completed/in progress, there’s actually very little to do beyond ferry people (slowly) to the floor they wish to go. Unlike many other casual social games, it doesn’t overwhelm you with a ton of popup boxes and messages. The feeling is relaxed; no pressure, no scrabble for clicks and rapid expansion. It doesn’t agressively encourage you to stay and play, but it doesn’t mind if you do, and will gently reward you with tower bux here and there. Game Dev Story, another title by Kairosoft, operates on the border of overwhelming you with messages and progress. It’s a very addictive, relatively short lived experience which demands your attention constantly. Tiny Tower is in it for the long haul, providing steady, plodding, constant progress over time.

Depth. Ok, so Tiny Tower is an extremely simple game with minimal strategy, but micromangement does exist for gamers who want to play the game efficiently or ‘well’. VIPs serve to speed up your in-game progress, the celebrity shopper will increase custom in the store they are placed in, or even buy out all remaining stock of one item. Others reduce the time it takes to restock an item or to build a floor. Different types of VIPs seem to appear randomly, but the longer you play the more you will be exposed to. Early on in the game, each floor will have fairly low value goods, so a VIP that buys out every item in your shop will have a similar effect on each of them. As your tower expands, the goods on higher floors become worth more and you can hold more stock of each one, so the choice of where to send the VIP becomes a little more complex. In order to play the game most efficiently, you will have one floor with a long restocking wait, one with a high value item fully in stock, a floor under construction, other floors fully stocked and 3 employees in each store. Delving deeper, you don’t actually need 3 employees in each store all the time, but rather you need 3 to achieve a fully stocked floor (which naturally gives a bonus), at which point you can shuffle them into another job to achieve the same thing. Then there are employee skill levels. Putting employees in their dream job doubles their productivity, but having a set of well suited employees on a given floor is also important for revenue generation and overall progress. Most players will not play Tiny Tower with a drive for maximum efficiency, but the option is there for people who do. These people are generally core gamers, and this is an important feature of the game.

Monetisation, what monetisation? Tiny Tower is very gentle with its in app purchasing persuasion. There are two types of in game currency – Coins and Tower Bux. Tower Bux can be bought for real money and can  be exchanged for Coins in game. The game’s demands for Bux are low and the game seems generous, awarding a steady stream of Bux as you play. It is quickly established that you never need to make a purchase involving real money to enjoy the game. This apparent lack of pressure and the ability to anything in the game without having to pay is appealing to traditional gamers and is important in persuading them that this is a ‘real game’ that’s ok for them to play. Because of this, the question that plays at the player is do you want to buy Bux? The pressure to buy Bux comes from two significant sources, the first is linked to the slow pace of the game vs player impatience. Almost every action in the game can be sped up with Bux, more Bux means faster progress. The second is through competition with other players. Tower comparision comes via a really smart, really neat implementation of a leaderboard. Not only can you check at any time where you stand in relation to your friends’ towers, but you can actually go inside them and look around! For the leader, the guy with the tallest tower amongst his friends, this provides a sense of pride. He gets to look down on his chums from the heady heights of the 47th floor. For the beginner: a wide eyed look into what’s possible if they put their head down and work hard on their tower. For all players it provides an option to have a look at the different sorts of stores and services their friends have inside their towers and how rich they are. As long as you have friends playing the game, there is a constant low level pressure (think boat on the horizon rather than T-Rex in the wing mirror) to overtake the tower in front and to stay ahead of the tower behind.

Interestingly, yet in line with many other free to play casual games, Tiny Tower has recently added pop up messages offering a small amount of Bux in exchange for something other than money, e.g. downloading a free episode of a news program. This provides a middle way for players who are reluctant to purchase virtual goods.

Emotional Connection. Stephanie Kaiser, Product Lead on Wooga’s Monster World Facebook game delivered a presentation which touched upon this recently that is well worth watching or reading a summary of. Tiny Tower is thin, but does encourage some emotional connection within its open walled world. The game’s in game ‘social network’ BitBook is a simple pixel reimagining of a Facebook wall that presents the bitizens’ thoughts as posts. It’s a cute feature which perhaps suffers from too much repetition, but does also provide some positive feedback and encourages player imagined narratives of their bitizens’ lives. Move a worker into their dream job and you’ll see a celebratory BitBook post illustrating their happiness. Sometimes a special character will appear and request that a specific bitizen be located, whether to deliver a special parcel, take them on a date, or other personalised request. This encourages you to be able to put your bitizens’ names to faces – or rather, it helps you gradually learn who’s who within your tower. There are basic customisation options; renaming and changing the colour scheme of each individual floor and changing the appearance of each individual bitizen.

Lack of negativity. Tiny Tower provides an experience where very little negative feedback is given to the player. No one goes on strike, no one quits their job or trashes their apartment if you choose to evict them. Visitors waiting to use the lobby lift can be left standing there and will never complain. Stores run out of stock and close, but there are no angry customers. When you do return to the game, the first thing you see isn’t a bunch of stores with their lights off (that’s the second thing you see) – it’s a pop up message saying “Welcome Back! You earned a bunch of money while you were away!”. If you were away long enough you get another message indicating the construction of the next floor has been completed, and that you collected yet more money from your bitizens. On your bitizens’ birthdays, it’s you that gets given Bux. You’ll never be told you’re a bad player, your tower can never fail.

Task/Reward. Short term tasks such as stocking and ferrying people in the lift provide the expected instant rewards. As with many successful casual social games, you receive several rewards for longer term tasks. The significant example in Tiny Tower is dream jobs. In order to get your bitizens into their dream jobs, you need to have built the store they want to work in. Store construction is chosen by the player from several categories (food, service, retail etc) but the selection of the actual store is chosen by the game. Let’s take example bitizen Gary Moreno:

He’s pretty skilled in the service industry, so right now he enjoys his job at the Day-Spa. His ultimate goal is to score a job in the Tea House – but you don’t have one and the only way to get one is to keep building Food floors until you do. However, a successful tower needs a balance of floor categories, so it may be a while before Gary gets to realise his ambition. Moving bitizens into their dream jobs is something that happens slowly and over time, but when you do manage to, you get multiple rewards:

 – Tower Bux

– Revenue of the store and tower is increased (more coins)

– Gary Moreno is happy and will post on BitBook about it

– You matched up numbers in a list and earned a green smiley face in your bitizen list

Dream jobs are important because they provide a long term goal for players to keep them motivated through the grind of repeating smaller tasks over and over again. The rewards from moving someone into their dream job award both of the in game currencies, increase the player’s emotional connection with the game and helps fulfill the endless human desire to put things in order.

Summary. Tiny Tower is a solid example of a casual game with social elements and a monetisation model that works (for now at least). It doesn’t have a strong viral presence or in-game progression/variety to keep players engaged in the longer term and neither does it appear to have an aggressive iteration/update schedule. The single most significant thing about this game is how many traditional gamers appear to playing it. If you were to ask a core gamer who plays Tiny Tower whether they consider it a ‘real videogame’, I have no doubt that you’ll find a lot of hesitation and a lot of quick dismissals (regardless of how much they themselves play it). This is a significant step forwards from the vehement denials you’d be likely to encounter asking the same question of Farmville, Cityville and other well known free to play casual titles. Games like Tiny Tower are blurring the distinction between casual social games and ‘real videogames’, not by being a traditional videogame that appeals to the mainstream, but by being a casual game that has attracted ‘real’ gamers.


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