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I guess I just like liking things

While I was playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out the other day, I said to my wife, “The Muntz house cost me $74,000!  That’s crazy!”  Her response was, “Why do you need to buy it?”

I didn’t have an immediate answer for her.

The best response, I guess, is “Because it’s there!” You can climb Mt. Everest if you want, I’ll be buying buildings in Tapped Out. We’ll let history sort out who chose more wisely.

Practically, if I don’t buy the next house/building in the quest chain, the game has no purpose and won’t really continue. I’ve mentioned before how this is a new type of gaming experience for me. In most games you upgrade because you need better tools/weapons to get past a more difficult section. In Tapped Out, the buildings earn money every so often, and you need money to buy more buildings.  It’s… kind of evil, really, this cycle.

But here’s where Tapped Out differs from Farmville and its ilk, at least for me: it’s the Simpsons.  I have a lot invested in these characters and their town. When I get the chance to build Town Hall, I want to for two reasons: I get more of Springfield rebuilt, plus I get Mayor Quimby. Because I know the character from years of seeing him on the show, I enjoy having him roam around town spouting Quimbyisms. Plus, now I have another money earner, which will help me buy more buildings.

I currently have 24 characters. If I was able to devote time every hour to send them all on a 1-hour task, they would earn me $1,680 every hour. In 44 hours (not counting special quests which earn more) that would buy the Muntz house. But after that, the Post Office costs $138,000, and it doesn’t even come with a character. I can’t see what the other available buildings cost, because they don’t show the cost until a quest opens the ability to buy them, but I can guess they’re going to be even more expensive.

Recently I got the Springfield Downs, the dog racing facility. It’s rare for a game to openly mock a person playing it and get away with it, but that’s exactly what’s going on with this building. See, instead of paying out money every 4 or 12 or 24 hours, Springfield Downs lets you bet on races. Every bet is for $5,000, but you might get back $6,250, $7,500, $10,000, $15,000, or $25,000. It takes 3 hours for my characters to earn the $5,000 bet, but it would take them 15 to earn $25,000, so it seems like a good idea! It is not. It never will be. Much like playing the lottery in real life, it makes more sense to keep earning and save up. Because if you lose the bet (and you will), that $5,000 doesn’t cost you three hours, it costs you six.

Another part of the evil beauty of this game is the monthly task mechanic. In October, the game had spooky trappings all over, with both buildings and characters getting makeovers into Halloween-themed things. In addition, certain jobs rewarded the player with treats, and enough treats could buy special items.  December has a similar thing going on, only it’s “Santa Coins” instead of treats. Spending Santa Coins on house decorations allows those houses to earn Santa Coins daily, which can then be — well, you see where this is going. 450 Santa Coins later, and I’m currently building the Try-N-Save.

Every month or so when the game is updated, more buildings, characters, and levels become available. The current level cap is 24 (which I am halfway through), but it won’t surprise me when they raise it to 30 or more.  The game has 23 years of history to draw from, and it costs them nothing to add more virtual land (another thing that gets crazy expensive as time goes on – my first extra lots cost $2,400, current lots are going for $33,000).

The donut system is one more level of evil that proves some of the most sadistic and greedy minds in the business today are working on this particular game. Not only do donuts allow you to speed up construction on a building (it can take 24 hours for a building to go up), but enough donuts will buy you premium buildings and characters you won’t get any other way. Two hundred donuts, for instance, will buy you the Springfield sign, which then makes all jobs earn 4.5% more money. You want to know how you can earn 200 donuts in the game? You can’t. You earn 1 or 2 donuts every time you level up, so right now the most you could earn from that would be 48. You might get an unexpected donut from a task now and then, but it’s so rare that it might as well not even happen. You want more donuts? Sure enough, you can spend real word money to buy them. $99 (again, of real money) will buy you 1,400 in-game donuts. In real life, $99 will get you around 396 real donuts, assuming a $3/dozen price, which seems generous. So of course it’s ridiculous. But the thing is, when you get to the point where there are only one or two buildings left to get, and there’s no way for you to get Duff Man or Otto or Bumblebee Man without spending donuts, it gets very, very tempting to spend that real money. “Hey,” you’ll rationalize, “the game was free, so if I spend $20 on donuts it’s like I paid that much for the game, and that’s pretty good for a game I like this much.” You have no idea how much sense that statement makes until you get to the point I’m at. I’ve never been addicted to drugs, but I think I’m starting to understand that lifestyle a bit more.

So, back to the question: “Why upgrade?” My goal in most games is to see the story unfold, see where it ends up. Tapped Out has a bare minimum of story: you’re recreating Springfield after a nuclear power plant disaster. Sure, you get other mini stories when you’re given quests, and they are cleverly written, but there’s really not much there. I don’t think I have a good answer to the question. At this point, I’ve become fascinated with the gameplay mechanics, in part because I’ve never played a game like this before (although The Sims comes close), but also because I feel it’s helping me understand myself as a gamer a bit more. Now, I’m not sure if it’s revealing good things about Me As A Gamer yet, but it is at least very interesting.

I do know, though, that I have to keep playing. A few days ago I planted a corn crop at Cletus’s farm, and it won’t be ready for another 86 days.

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