The iPhone might be the most popular video game system of all time. It almost definitely is when lumped in with the iPad and iTouch—Apple had sold 250 million of its iOS devices in October of last year, a total that has surely skyrocketed after the holidays. To put that in perspective, the PlayStation 2, the best-selling traditional video game console of all time, barely surpassed 150 million units sold in its lifetime.
That’s probably not surprising though, considering the way Angry Birds captured the cultural zeitgeist or the number of games of Words with Friends taking place in any given lecture hall. With that in mind, when the typical deluge of year-end best of lists hit earlier this month, I wasn’t interested where traditional blockbuster console games like Call of Duty or Skyrim ended up; I wanted to see what games took the smartphone crown.
Perhaps no accolade is more relevant than Apple’s own Game of the Year nod, which carries with it prime billing in the App Store and a chance to become even more massively successful. Apple bestowed the honor on the free-to-download Tiny Tower (also available for Android phones), which is interesting, because Tiny Tower really isn’t a game at all.
Tiny Tower is kind of a watered down amalgamation of The Sims and SimCity (or, for the video game historians out there, SimTower). The player takes on the role of a proprietor of a residential/commercial highrise, responsible for building new floors, stocking a variety of stores, assigning jobs to residents, and (no joke) operating the elevator. All of these tasks are accomplished by either tapping on menu items or waiting around doing nothing.
Tiny Tower doesn’t fit any traditional definition of a game, video or otherwise. There’s no winning or losing. The stated objective is to build your tower as high as it can go, but upward progress is inevitable as long as you have the app open and keep poking at it. There’s no skill involved; there’s hardly any agency. Just keep restocking stores and customers will keep buying things, giving you money, which you promptly spend to build a new store that will let you sell more things to build another store. Basically, you’re playing a combination of Donald Trump and Sisyphus.
I realize that this makes Tiny Tower sound at best pointlessly boring and at worst like some kind of existential crisis-inspiring exercise in futility. But over one million people a day currently play Tiny Tower, and it’s not because they’re masochists. Like any good game, Tiny Tower hides the man behind the curtain well. It has simple but effective artwork and continually offers positive reinforcement to keep your mind off the fact that you’re essentially running up a hamster wheel.
That’s the one thing that stands out about Tiny Tower, especially as your building starts reaching higher and higher: you’re bombarded with notifications and updates about stores ready to be restocked, new residents moving in, and visitors waiting to be ferried up the elevator. The constant stimuli and clear progress as your tower climbs into the sky are the quick fixes that keep Tiny Tower players coming back. By default, the game will even send you notifications when you close the app, reminding you that the occupants of your tower relentlessly march on, awaiting your return.
Vapid gameplay hasn’t impeded Tiny Tower’s success for another reason: its audience doesn’t care. The nature of smartphone games is that for many people, they’re meant to pass the time, not necessarily stand as entertaining on their own. Tiny Tower may be pointless, but its good presentation makes it an easy choice over staring out the window of a Metro train. Still, it’s not like smartphone games have to be tedious. Angry Birds is a legitimately good game by any standard—it takes a simple puzzle game concept and keeps offering inventive new takes on it. The current number one (free) game in the App Store, Temple Run, is simple, but it has real gameplay that actually challenges the player. In comparison, Tiny Tower just looks like an interactive screensaver.
Despite my problems with it, I’m not immune to Tiny Tower’s charms. I first downloaded the game back in July shortly after it came out, and I fell right into its addictive gameplay. But after a few days, I started to see my growing tower as a mocking monument to time wasted. (I also got really annoyed when I had to restock buffalo wings for the hundredth time.) When I revisited the game again before writing this column, however, I found my tower exactly as I left it, with shops and restaurants begging for supplies. The inexorable progress I made—like the gameplay itself—wasn’t going anywhere.