Tiny Tower Versus Dream Heights
Written by Colby Saturday, 04 February 2012 12:00
The three person studio, NimbleBit, has created a cute homage to games such as SimTower, while incorporating many of the addiction mechanics present in most Facebook games. While it does borrow from many different games, the art style and lack of pushiness to share with friends or buy "Bux" make it really endearing. Zynga, the evil Emperor of social gaming, has taken notice and is on the path to producing its own clone named Dream Heights. At what point does re-imagining and iterating become blatant theft?
Some of my first experiences with video games were with the "Sim" games produced by Maxis. I'm refering back to the time before The Sims, when SimTower, SimFarm, SimAnt, and of course SimCity 2000 were all the rage. Although there are certain simulation/strategy franchises that are still able to reamain fresh and interesting, such as Civilization, the aforementioned games have all fallen by the wayside. If I owned a PC rather than a Mac I would probably be neck deep in nostaliga with a downloaded copy of SimTower right this moment. Downloading and playing Tiny Tower was an attempt to enjoy a game that would have the same feel as a game like SimTower.
Despite the fact that you are building a tower from the ground up trying to maximize the effeciency of its economy and the happiness of its citizens, Tiny Tower is very different from SimTower. Most of the mechanics are borrowed from social games that rely on waiting for certain tasks or rescources to become available, so that you are actually only engaged with the game for a couple minutes at the most. Instead of planting cotton and waiting for it to grow, you instruct the workers of a floor to stock a certain item and then wait for them to finish so they can begin selling that item. The wait times vary from a couple minutes to several hours. The meta-strategy is to make sure you have enough residential floors and occupants of those floors to keep three workers in each of the commercial floors. By matching their skills with the floors they work on, you can maximize the number of transactions going on in your whole tower. Tiny Tower uses that constant treadmill of building more floors and housing more residents to keep the player checking back, but any sort of end goal is completely absent.
NimbleBit does include a number of elements that make the game somewhat more interesting. The art style is one. I can only describe it as being pixel/voxel based so that it is comparable to a 2-D version of Minecraft or Voxatron. The characters are varied and cute. A BitBook can be accessed from the options menu so you can see what drama your residents are experiencing at any moment. The Bux system is also well done. The game is free but Buxs can be purchased in-app and then used to upgrade different elements of the tower as a whole, increase the supply of a given floor, or customize the appearance of any floor. The game doesn't nag you to spend money, but it is an option if you would like to better certain parts of the experience. Bux can also be earned by completing tasks or missions so purchasing them never felt overly compelling to me.
Overall, Tiny Tower is a fun cute game, that can be completely free if you want it to be. It won the iTunes Game of the Year Award and has been featured by many other media outlets. All the popularity and the huge stockpile of cash that has resulted has drawn the attention of industry giant Zynga. Zynga has recently announced that it will be putting out a very similar game - Dream Heights - on iPhone. How similar is it? So similar that NimbleBit has put together a compilation of side by side screenshots of the two games along with a passive-aggresive letter basically saying "hey good luck with the game you stole from us." Zynga responded by saying, "You should be careful not to throw stones when you live in glass towers..." While it is true that Tiny Tower builds on gameplay mechanics laid down by past games, it is a far strecth to compare it to the nearly exact replication that Zynga is guilty of.
While I am glad to see David take a shot at Goliath, this issue is not exactly black and white. At what point is borrowing ideas and influences from other games wrong? Where does imitation turn from the highest form of flattery to theft? I for one would be depressed if break throughs in gaming could be patened or copyrighted so that no other game studio could include them. What if Epic owned the right to the wave based co-op game mode they've created in the Gears of War series? What if Bejeweled was the only match-three game allowed to come to the market? Cross pollination of ideas between different studios is one of the factors that produces the best games. No game is completely original, but the highest quality games must include some originality.
Another question that needs to be asked is how to combat this creative theft between studios. I can't imagine that it would be cost effective for Nintendo to scour the internet making every website remove their flash knockoffs of Super Mario Bros. It is also probably more trouble than it's worth for NimbleBit to file some sort of lawsuit against Zynga. It would be a long drawn out process with huge attorney fees, and the payoff may or may not be that great. The proper court that this case should be settled in is the court of public opinion. Just by the letter NimbleBit has drawn a metric ton of attention to the fact that they are being ripped off. Hopefully, it will help. Undoubtedly, many will play this new game, but perhaps less will now play it. I know this has personally given me a greater desire to support NimbleBit through buying their in-game currency even though the gameplay payoff isn't great. Zynga is now no longer just polluting the gaming industry with a plethora of shallow social games, but they're pirating the ideas. Wherever the line between theft and inspiration lies, it will probably be a decision that consumers make. As consumers it is our job to vote, and the way for us to do this is with our wallets.