The Simpsons: Tapped Out

As I write to you, I'm aware that I may have to excuse myself in about ten minutes to see to my Springfield.

Yep, as in The Simpsons

When The Simpsons: Tapped Out launched on iOS over twelve months ago, it was a disaster. It was a typical loudly heralded EA launch that even more typically turned into an EA disaster. The servers had enormous trouble connecting new players, and the players that finally did manage to make it onboard would sometimes have their entire games wiped out in the blink of an eye (SimCity, anyone?)

Thankfully, EA overcame the growing pains, although the convoluted 'Origin' system is still fundamentally flawed and unpleasant to deal with, and the game can take an inconveniently long time to load. Fortunately, this is the only part of the game that suffers. The remainder is an absolute nerd sim paradise, where players are asked to build a Springfield. Much in the style of similar games that have come before it (Farmville, Hay Day, Tiny Tower) The Simpsons: Tapped Out is freemium. Meaning the game is free to download, but has many micro-transactions hidden within. 

I've found it easy in the past to turn up my nose at spending real money on these fiercely addictive games, but The Simpsons: Tapped Out has had me almost reaching for the credit card a number of times. I've always managed to resist, as the price curve is quite steep: a decent new building and/or character is worth about $10 - not much when you look at the amount of content you can get for free, but once you've gone over the threshold, I imagine it would be difficult to resist spending more. The Simpsons: Tapped Out is, after all, one of the highest grossing games in the App Store, even though it's free. It's topped only by Candy Crush Saga whose inexplicable popularity I can't begin to understand. 

The game is likely only a real boon to The Simpsons fans. Even if you don't watch the show today, the pop culture icon has such a huge nostalgic weight for so many of the hipster smart phone audience that the delight of returning to a self-crafted Springfield is fantastic. Wonderfully, Fox has actually done this properly. The animations look like the show, and there's an abundance of original voice talent that been recorded especially for the game.

I've been playing the game, on and off (mostly off, and then on for short intense periods), since its launch. I've spent a lot of time in addictive simulation games (Pet HotelHay DayPocket PlanesTiny TowerTiny Death Star and others), but I've had the longest relationship with The Simpsons: Tapped Out. There are several unique devices used that put the game above the rest.

The central device at the heart of all of these games is the real time mechanic. Want to build that house? No worries, save up game money, plonk it down, and in 24 hours it'll be there. Want to speed it up? No worries, just spend a couple of REAL bucks and it's yours! For most simulation games, the first few days of play are a giddy rush of productivity, as easy beginner levels have shorter time limits and most new elements are cheap. But the time and money formula inevitably reaches a certain threshold and progress becomes grindingly slow. That's where these games have lost me in the past. I can't be bothered checking in once an hour for five days straight just so I can get a new building. Not so with The Simpsons: Tapped Out

Fox Game Studios are also a huge monolith compared to smaller icons of the genre such as Nimblebit, and so they can afford to be innovative and consistently update the game with a huge amount of original content every season. The Christmas pack, which will be ending within the next 48 hours, has generated huge user interest. There are dozens of walkthroughs that explain away the countless Easter Eggs, or groups of players who commit to 'saving up' game money for updates so they can be the first ones with the new stuff when the update lands. The end result is that there's so much new content that it's hard to get bored. 

There's also a lot to do. To earn money, you need to collect rent from houses or shops and send characters on humorous tasks. The more often you visit the game, the more money you make. A 30 minute task will yield you $50, for example, but a 60 minute task will only lead you $80. The game rewards you for wasting as much time as possible in it. And when you do, it's surprising how much quicker you move. It's an incredibly well-designed bit of math that makes the game about as strong and harmful as heroin. 

Once you have enough money to build a new building or a new character (who will generate more money so you can obtain other buildings and characters), you need to make sure you have the necessary land to build on, which can come at quite a price. You also get discounts if your town is especially well decorated, or there's an even distribution of shops, public service buildings, and houses. So aesthetic is important. And of course, you get more money if you have 'friends'. I've managed to veer away from pestering people on Facebook, and have instead reached out to forums, where hundreds of players cry out for friendships so they can mutually reap the rewards of shared gameplay: more cash and XP. Most players who lean towards 'hardcore' have grand, beautifully designed Springfields that bear a striking resemblance to the actual television show, and in a corner somewhere will have hundreds of houses cramped together, designed to generate as much game money fuel as possible to keep the town expanding. It's a genius play, and one that I've adopted myself. 

Yes, my heart's a little bit stolen. The game is made all the more compelling by genuinely funny missions and character animations. The resonance of The Simpsons for those who grew up with it is alarmingly powerful, and it's a strange kind of intimacy that this game manipulates. Historically, The Simpsons attempts at video games have not been strong, but this cleverly designed gem is one of the best simulation games on the market, and creates an odd and powerful intimacy between player and town. 

Now, I've chatted on far too long. My tomacco crop is probably ready for harvesting, and Bart, Milhouse and Lisa will be out of school. Oh! And Marge will be finished up on 'protesting something'. Maybe, just maybe, by this afternoon I'll be able to finally build the penitentiary... I'd get there quicker if I just stayed in it for twenty minutes. Or thirty. Or just spent my real money.