On a recent Sunday afternoon in Central Park, several of my friends were all hunched over their iPhones, busily tapping at their phones, deeply engrossed in game play. I peered over their shoulders and realizing they were playing the same game. But it wasn’t technology Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies or even GagaVille.
Instead, they were furiously building virtual communities on a game called Tiny Tower that challenges players to build a soaring skyscraper, floor by floor. Players start with a simple building and work to erect new floors, adding apartment complexes, restaurants, stores and even nightclubs. The game itself is rendered in cutesy, 8-bit graphics that resemble vintage arcade and videogames.
One of the game’s selling points is the insidery glimpse one gets into the lives of those who occupy their buildings, the Bitizens. You can read their status updates on a Facebook-like social network called BitBook and see what they like (and don’t like) about living in your building. If you choose, you can adjust their jobs and living situations accordingly. The game also incorporates several entertaining social elements: Players can find their friends who are also playing the game and see how they’ve built out their towers.
The game, which debuted on June 22, has already attacted 4.5 million downloads. It’s a far cry from a game like Angry Birds, which has hundreds of millions of downloads, but its a strong start for a game limited to the iPhone that is also competing with thousands of other titles in the App Store. By comparison, its roughly around the same number of downloads as Instagram.
Tiny Towers was created by a pair of 28-year-old twin brothers, David and Ian Marsh, who build pocket-sized games under the moniker NimbleBit, a game studio based in San Diego. They first started making games in 2008 and have released more than a dozen titles since then. Several, including Pocket Frogs and Hanoi, have become fan favorites among iPhone owners.
But Tiny Tower, is NimbleBit’s “biggest hit so far,” said David Marsh.
Each day, Tiny Tower is opened 6 million times by those who have it on their phone. The average player plays it for 1.5 hours a day, or the equivalent of 150 years each day, according to the company.
David Marsh attributed the early traction of the game to people’s interest in running the lives of their digital offspring.
“People like the idea of having control over their own little world,” he said. “You can imagine a whole story for what’s going on in the tower, the people having personalities and its really fun.”
Tiny Tower itself is free to download, but players can purchase items within the game that adds more functions to the game, such as the ability to construct new floors faster, install speedier elevators and the like. Mr. Marsh said that given the growing competitiveness of the App Store, its easier to attract new players by offering them a free game, rather than one that costs $1 or $2 dollars.
“We found it was much easier to get your game out there, get a lot of eyeballs on it and build an audience if its free,” he said.
So far, the strategy seems to be working. Mr. Marsh said roughly 4 percent of players buy items within the game – enough to keep their independent studio in business.
“The games we’ve made have been able to pay the bills,” he said.