So innocuous, so unassuming, so all-encompassing, Tiny Tower is nearly brilliant. The most obvious attraction may well be the price – which is ostensibly nothing – but this game will eventually take your money, and there's simply no calculating how much time.
The smooth opening puts you in control of a tower made up of single floors, each one being either a residential block or a business. ‘Bitizens’ mill about on each business floor automatically, and five can live in a residential block – the little pixel figures shuffle back and forth, leave messages on the in-game 'Bitbook' network about their lives and are irresistible in their yapping, cheerful way. Most importantly, they staff shops. Each bitizen can do any job, to varying degrees of success, but the goal is to match their one ‘dream job’, bagging you three sweet, sweet Tower Bux.
Bux can be used to speed up the in-game processes like restocking a shop or the construction of a new floor, which gets longer the higher you go. A trickle of Bux are awarded in-game, but you can buy buckets through in-app purchases – and, dear reader, we did.
Tiny Tower isn't defined by microtransactions: there's nothing that can't be done, given enough time. But forking out for a single 100 Bux bundle makes the first stretch so much more pleasant, allowing an elevator upgrade and a few extra floors, that it’s hard to resist. Alternatively, you can take breaks. Tiny Tower is persistent once begun, so turn it off when there's three hours of restocking to go and come back later to find the job done. The shops keep selling, too, so returning after half a day feels like a jackpot.
There are so many tricks Tiny Tower pulls to keep you constantly checking – the restocks, the prospect of VIP visitors, new bitizens or adding floors. The fruits of that are clear to see on the App Store’s highest-grossing list: Tiny Tower made its debut at number nine, and at the time of writing is still climbing.
Such momentum will only be maintained with consistent updates and additional content, because after a week and thirty floors, Tiny Tower begins to plateau, humming over without adding anything new. There are no further depths to its simulation; when you reach its limit your attention can’t help but be drawn to underwhelming elements. Bitbook, especially, is clever but a missed opportunity.
Even then, Tiny Tower's ongoing tick-tock of cash and happy bitizens is a fantastic toy. Couldn't that Video Store be more efficient? Am I getting the maximum profit during sleeping hours? In particular, Tiny Tower’s lift is an endless distraction, and the most tactile element of the game. It takes up a portion of the left side of the tower; bitizens get in and request to be dropped off on a specific floor, which you then boost them up to. It's impossible to get it wrong, but the occasional Tower Bux tip, the opportunity to bring in new Bitizens, and the prospect of a VIP visitor will keep you ferrying things around. As the tower increases in size, the lift rides become a way of keeping tabs, each journey a tour of your miniature empire. It's a simple mechanic, but what it adds visually can't be underestimated.
The bitizens change from cute simulacra to cold stats, thoughts idle over production capacity and dream jobs, and checking in every hour or so on that little ant farm behind the screen has long ago become second nature. It hits every trigger so neatly you almost resent it.