It all began in January 2014.
Like any grand opera the opening overture establishes the themes.
After downloading and launching The Simpsons: Tapped Out for the first time it proceeds to download a further update in a most curious manner:
Three minutes later:
Five minutes later:
In this way Tapped Out lays bare both its gaming philosophy and psychological ploys. The game is from beginning to end (scratch that- there is no end) a series of time-lapsed progress bars whose sole purpose in completing is to unlock more progress bars to complete. You build stuff to buy stuff to build more stuff by waiting for stuff.
Each tap on the screen counts off another wasted heartbeat as you retreat into a non-judgemental world free from challenge and threat. Slowly your immune system shuts down and soon your body atrophies into dust.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
But we all know this. Everyone knew about this garbage back with Farmville. Swap out the Simpsons for dumb-looking pigs and YOLO we’re back in 2009.
What I didn’t realise was that all it took was the familiar yellow warmth of The Simpsons to break my resolve.
I’m rather enjoying Tapped Out. And I’ve been enjoying it for some time.
Chapter 1: Psychological Warfare
Freemium games exploit the same psychological effects as with gambling:
|Denomination effect||People are less likely to spend larger bills than their equivalent value in smaller bills e.g. spending ten £5 notes “feels” less than spending one £50.|
|IKEA effect||Consumers place a disproportionately high value on products they partially created.|
|Illusion of control||People feel a sense of control over outcomes that they demonstrably do not influence.|
|Planning fallacy||People tend to underestimate how much time will be needed to complete a future task.|
|Post-purchase rationalisation||Consumers who purchase an expensive product tend to overlook any faults/defects in order to justify their purchase.|
|Restraint bias||People tend to overestimate their ability to control impulsive behavior.|
|Time-saving bias||People tend to incorrectly estimate the time that could be saved/lost when modifying an aspect of a task.|
Tapped Out plays on the additional psychological hook of nostalgia. I loved the Simpsons. We all do, really. For me it’s a love so strong I still check out the new episodes every now and then. Every time I am disappointed.
The writing in Tapped Out is surprisingly funny and lovingly self-aware:
But that doesn’t stop them touting their exciting, new episodes:
I think I’ll live without knowing that answer.
Chapter 2: Purchasing the Competitive Edge
There are two currencies in Tapped Out:
- Dollars (standard currency). Earned by completing character tasks and standard building tasks. Used to purchase most content.
- Donuts (premium currency). Earned by levelling up by completing character missions. Used to purchase premium content. Can be purchased bulk for real world money.
Only fools spend real money on fake donuts to earn more fake dollars.
A Mystery Box has a chance of containing a premium item and costs 6 Donuts.
A Homer Buddha is guaranteed to contain a premium item and costs 15 Donuts.
I decided to buy a Homer Buddha…
WTF. My guaranteed premium item gets downgraded to a chance premium gift…
… which contains a bench.
Perfect. I’ll put it with my other bench.
Chapter 3: Chinese Water Torture
A classic freemium tactic is to reward daily play. If you don’t play daily you miss out on The Daily Play Reward! Oh no! The shame!
This is the easy way to earn a Mystery Box:
Want to see a Mystery Box become even more mysterious?:
Boom. Box inside a box. Mystery inside a mystery…
…containing another bench.
Truly I am wasting my time.
I’ll put it with the others.
Somehow I’ve kept playing and I’m now Level 13. Don’t quite remember how that happened.
Chapter 4: A Moment of Reflection
I’m trying to get to sleep and my phone starts vibrating and making noise.
It’s a late night in February. I’ve been “playing” for over a month now.
I remember the first few days. Building those first few buildings with only Homer and Lisa. Having to wait twenty minutes for what? A pointless word bubble and a task that takes an hour…
What garbage. I’m going back to sleep.
Chapter 5: A Moment of Shame
I don’t have any friends who play Tapped Out.
I don’t want my friends to know I play Tapped Out.
I don’t have any Tapped Out friends.
I need Tapped Out friends to unlock certain items.
Let’s see how social this game gets then.
I add half a dozen “friends” from a Tapped Out forum I joined. Some of them are nicer than others and visit my Springfield every day. Others are less responsive.
I can’t communicate to my new friends in any way. They are all bigger than me and have more stuff. I am building my Springfield to be pretty. They build theirs to be powerful.
Mass-building blue houses to farm as much dollar per square value as possible. How sad.
Chapter 6: A Moment Like Any Other
April. Three months into this passing fancy.
Stop mocking me.
Chapter 7: The Twilight Zone
A most interesting thing happened today. A glitch. A trip off the rails.
Tapped Out logged me into someone else’s game!
They have more stuff than me. And lots of premium characters and buildings.
I decide to leave them a message, the first and only time I communicated with another player. I write the message with bushes.
I started playing the Events (special themed missions that run over calendar events. These events introduce another time pressure and introduce a third type of currency to collect.
For the Easter event you collected coloured eggs.
Now the Egg Council Guy is my favourite Simpsons joke. Ever.
I wanted to win that Egg Council Guy. Badly.
Goddamn Johnny Fiestas. I WANT MY EGG COUNCIL GUY!
I WANT HIM NOW!
Chapter 9: Blacking Out
My memory goes foggy for the next few months.
I don’t even remember what this 1am wake up call was achieving. But I woke up and tapped my fake Springfield for a bit and went back to sleep. This was a week day and I had work in the morning.
Chapter 10: Stonecutters
It’s now July. Six months lost.
First television appearance of Egg Council Guy!
Chapter 11: Professional, high-level play
Need more dollar. Build more blue. More blue mean more dollar.
Chapter 12: Halloween
October. Nine month anniversary!
I <3 you, Tapped Out.
I know. I’m happy too.
Chapter 13: Christmas
Finger tips are numb.
My eyes hurt.
Final Chapter: 90 Days of Corn
Cletus’s Farm has a joke task to make Corn taking 90 days to complete.
So I started it expecting to draw a line under this whole mess…
…but that fact that I’m still playing…
…scares the hell out of me…
… I need to destroy my Springfield.
… I need to escape this prison.
… I need to uninstall Tapped Out.
Right after I finish this corn.
A Freemium Intervention
In the 24 hours following my public outing as a Simpsons: Tapped Out player I was contacted through Facebook, WhatsApp and SMS by my family, girlfriend and best friend:
|My Family||My Girlfriend||My Best Friend|
I need to stop playing Tapped Out. I’ve admitted I had a problem.
Previously, I said I would stop when my 90-day corn finished growing. Uninstalling the app will not be enough though.
I must blow up Springfield.
First things first
I spent 90 days growing corn, actual corn, at Cletus’ Farm. I started this task thinking I’d never stick around to see it complete. This corn symbolises everything wrong with the world (of freemium games) and is a sad testament to the wasted time I spent watching corn, actual corn, grow.
Will they acknowledge me completing the longest task in Tapped Out?
…because I didn’t do it for the money. I did for the acknowledgement – looooooooooove me…
… nothing. Not even a goddamn word bubble.
Time to die.
The End of The World
I spend all my money on Rat Trap Trucks and Principal Skinner’s Honda:
Three dollars of change in my pocket.
There is a little button shaped like a nuclear explosion which stores everything in inventory. It’s the closest I can get to nuking the world (gotta nuke something).
I press the button:
This is how the world ends. Not with a bang but a load screen.
After the Dust Settles
A Tombstone Epitaph
It’s important that you take my lost year “playing” Tapped Out as a warning. The freemium tactics that hook the player into daily grind and regular play are the distilled, pure poison that now flows through Destiny and are prevalent in some form in many videogames.
If you’re showing up to complete a progress bar to unlock another bar to complete then please know you are in danger.
This is my warning to not waste your time with people whose entire business strategy depends on wasting your time: