I’ve worked in video games for a while, and what I’m going to write next is probably a product of a career spent mostly in the world of traditional video game products. Make a game, release a game, be done with the game. That’s how I like to work and that’s the kind of game I personally like to play. I had a few brushes with working on them, such as the Sims series in which a base game is released and expansion packs follow for years and years. I knew immediately that I had to get out of that. The model in which a game becomes a service or platform — constantly fed a steady stream of content and features — is about the last thing I want to be a part of. And as far as playing those games, when does it end? I need it to end.
You know who doesn’t want it to end? Companies who want to make lots and lots of money. It’s like opening a spigot of cash and putting in all the resources to make sure it flows on for years and years. The aforementioned expansion pack model worked in the age of physical products, but the App Store age introduced the possibility of milking players through a little something called microtransactions. This model allows a company to release a game for free so that anyone can download and play it, but through careful monetization design, they can encourage players to spend real money to gain access to features that make the game more playable and, well, fun.
This freemium model became the next jewel in EA Mobile’s eye. As we’ve already seen, EA spent several years beefing up their mobile division, both by bolstering their internal staff and buying up development studios with proven track records in the mobile space. Though they’d released three mobile games by the end of 2009, EA Mobile probably didn’t see much revenue from them. After all, paying five bucks for a two hour (or less) experience probably wasn’t a best-selling idea.
And so they went back to the drawing board. The question was how do they make a Simpsons mobile game that turns into money but also has the high quality expected of a game based on The Simpsons? They turned to a style of game called a ‘clicker,’ or in the case of mobile, a tapper game. The game doesn’t require swipes or moving characters around. The player simply taps. Tap menus, tap characters, tap whatever shiny animated thing is calling their attention. This formed the foundation of an idea that EA Mobile brought to the folks at Fox. According to producers from the show, it was a studio called Bight Games that brought the idea to them.
Like the last several companies we’ve seen in this series, Bight Games started their existence as a mobile game studio. They weren’t independent for long before EA Mobile scooped them up as well in August 2011. As part of EA Mobile, they suggested using the Simpsons license to make a game in which players must not just explore Springfield, but build it out themselves. The idea caught on with the folks at Fox, who themselves were well familiar with the variety of freemium games available on their smartphones. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the first time a game pitch instantly caught on with the staff of the TV show, seeing as everyone had a smartphone by 2011 and there was no shortage of simple tapper games on the App Store.
And that is where the idea for The Simpsons Tapped Out originated. It launched in March 2012 and was so popular out of the gate that the servers crashed, leaving many unhappy fans in the first few months. It took some time to stabilize, but the developers eventually found their footing. Eight years and two hundred million dollars later, there’s so much content for the game that it can’t possibly all be experienced… at least not without spending thousands of real dollars to speed things along.
Executive producer Matt Selman has the best introduction for the game: “The essence of Tapped Out has been, ‘How can we insult Tapped Out as much as we can?’”
While we’d finally seen a dedicated writing crew from the Simpsons staff for The Simpsons Game, there hadn’t been much need for writing on the mobile games. None of them were story-heavy and the few bits of text and dialogue had the kinds of jokes I might write in two minutes on a bus, so the games didn’t feel like a professional writer spent time drafting the perfect way to explain how to make Homer jump on landmines. With Tapped Out, several writers from the Simpsons staff dedicate their time to actually craft all of the dialogue in the game. The dialogue isn’t voiced (which would be prohibitively expensive with the amount of dialogue in this game), but there’s enough sound and small voice clips from the archive to keep things aurally interesting. This leads to the design philosophy outlined above in which the fourth wall is constantly broken and no punches are pulled in making fun of players for playing such a dumb game. But it was the kind of dumb that many of us have fallen into in our game-playing lives. J. Stewart Burns, writer from the show and head writer for Tapped Out, noted that “EA got a little annoyed at first. They didn’t really like the idea that we were insulting people as they were spending money in the game and calling them idiots for that.” After all, a free game is a free game and not a bad way to pass some time during a commute. Eventually, it’s easy to see how a game with a steady drip feed of jokes can entice players to spend real money to get faster access to the comedy.
But beyond the character dialogue is the actual gameplay. The premise sets up the idea that Springfield has blown up and it’s up to Homer and the player (characterized as a giant sky finger) to rebuild the town by completing quests and earning new buildings, props, and characters to expand the town. The Simpson house is the first available building but additional structures and their associated characters are unlocked as quests are completed. A quest is simply a time sink in which a character is directed to perform a task, such as planting a tomacco field, which is automatically completed after a certain amount of time. Therein lies the bait. A player can decide to grind it out and simply wait for those tasks to complete, or they can spend the game’s virtual currency to instantly complete the task. Donuts are the currency used for accelerating tasks and while some donuts can be earned through gameplay, they are as rare as penguins in the tropics. But hey, there’s a virtual store right there. Why not spend some real dough to get a few more donuts? I know I did when I first played. I justified it based on the fact that I’d played a certain number of hours, so why not kick them a few real bucks? There’s also an in-game cash currency that can be used to buy some buildings and items, but the prime content always requires donuts.
Beyond that predatory monetization stuff, there’s actually a fun little game. The genre for this sort of thing is called city builder, because that’s basically what the player is doing the entire time. Stuck in an isometric perspective, the player can move their camera around the map and place buildings and props as they unlock them. For proper city planners, it all begins with roads and paths to lay out the grid for their Springfield, and then buildings are placed. The diehard fans try to match the layout seen in the real Springfield (such as it is), but players are allowed to get as wacky as they please. Fulfill Homer’s dream by placing Moe’s Tavern and the Kwik-E-Mart next to the Simpson house! Move over to Krustyland and build the deadly theme park of your dreams! Forget Springfield altogether and build the perfect Halloween town! The sheer amount of content is staggering and players will never run out of fun new things to place in their town. Space is limited, so eventually players must also buy additional land to expand their town. A classic lesson in real estate development.
My playing curve just about matched that description. I resisted the game for years because, as I already said, I need things to end. But I couldn’t be an avid Simpsons game guy and not play it, so I eventually gave in and checked it out. I built the town as accurately as I could get it, using sources such as the map in Virtual Springfield and the hyper-detailed Springfield map from Jerry Lerma and Terry Hogan. And, you know, that was fun for a while. I spent that bit of money on donuts and that helped me get a few more cool things. I was drawn to the Treehouse of Horror content, of course. But eventually I found myself wanting more and I was sure as heck no whale. That, my friends, is when I cheated and cheated hard. I was playing the Android version and found a handy hacked app of the game that allowed me to grant myself a ridiculous amount of cash and donuts, which in turn allowed me to expand the size of the map and acquire more buildings than I knew what to do with. This fast track to the late game content did allow me to add some cool stuff to my Springfield, but it also led me to the point where the game just wasn’t interesting anymore. I had a town of Springfield folks, aliens walking alongside the kids from Springfield Elementary. It was a wild west of jokes and characters, but the chaos wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. I needed it to end, and I ended it.
I check in now and then as new expansions are released, but usually only the Treehouse of Horror stuff around Halloween time. During those annual visits to my town, I find myself wondering about the legacy of this game. It won’t go on forever, right? I can’t imagine. It’s sad to think that the servers may someday get shut down and the game just… won’t exist anymore. I dream of a version of this game, when all is said and done, in which all the content is packaged up into a single app. No online connection, none of those service features. Just a standalone city builder, you know? The Springfield version of Sim City. It may work or may not, but if you lock a hundred game designers in a room for a hundred years, I’m sure they can do it. They can take some of those hundreds of millions of dollars and make it happen.
But until then, The Simpsons Tapped Out is the only game in town. It’s been in development for eight years and earned so much money that I can’t see EA ever deciding to try anything else. In many ways, this game ticks the boxes I’ve outlined as requirements for a good Simpsons game. The stories are driven by the writers from the show, and the dialogue is straight from their brains. It’s so self-aware and jokey with its video game existence that even the most dense player can recognize when they’re being made fun of. The jokes are so jam packed in there that players barely have time to breathe. The art isn’t the janky 3D goofballs that horrified us in the early aughts. All of the art and animation is on par with anything one might see on the TV show (if all the action was only seen from one angle). So, you know, it’s got good stuff! It’s maybe all we could have asked for.
And maybe, just maybe, this is the Simpsons game that we deserve.