I stopped getting angry about lowest common denominator pop culture years ago. Not that I’m so above it or something. If anything, the further I went down the rabbit hole of my own interests, the less I felt the need to prove my intellect by poking holes in reality shows a few groin-hits away from being Idiocracy-caliber entertainment. It’s a natural evolution many face as they become more entrenched in niche genres and study the works that truly inspire them. Blather to enough people about whatever drone metal album or artsy Taiwanese film you’re gung-ho about this week, and suddenly railing against Scary Movie 16 or Fifty Shades of Grey seems obvious at best, petty at worst. Junk like that is the definition of “critic-proof” entertainment. The latest Twilight wannabe isn’t getting greenlit with pop culture bloggers in mind, so why should I waste my time screaming into the abyss about its blindingly apparent shittiness?* There’s already enough troubling or middling media out there that gets a free critical pass to last me a lifetime of writing. Isn’t it better to engage with a cultural force when the people consuming it are actually open to a dialogue?
If video games are, by and large, the most “lowest common denominator” of mainstream entertainments, then “freemium” games are the lowest-est. Also known as “free-to-play” games, “social” games, and — in some very enlightening YouTube comments — “worse than Hitler,” freemium games are the bane of every “serious” gamer’s existence. And honestly, with good reason! Freemium games usually employ the mechanics of simulated building games like SimCity and the grind-heavy, “rare” item fetishization of RPGs to create something that looks like a game and quacks like a game, but honestly has way more in common with that stoner dude who tried to get you to sell Cutco knives with him the summer after graduation. In these pseudo-games like FarmVille — maybe you’ve heard of it — players progress in baby steps if they aren’t willing to shell out or annoy their friends with constant invites. The entire point of these games is to accrue cool shit for your farm/city/what-have-you, which happens at a glacial pace if you’re not willing to transfer your real-world money into whatever cutely-themed currency Zynga and their brethren designed for your specific virtual display case. They are money funnels, and they are notoriously audacious in how little they try to hide that fact.
Normal people hate freemium games because they have a basic understanding of what constitutes “evil” in our modern world, and also because getting six requests a day to build fake burger restaurants with your aunt is a torture no human being should ever have to experience again. Gamers hate freemium games because a lot of their more wily money-making practices quickly sunk their teeth into video games you don’t have to log off of Facebook to play. Imagine the twinkle in every game publisher CEO’s eyes when he realized people will shell out $2.99 for completely useless new outfits, or that certain obsessives will pay extra for content that once was included in the package.** Gamers hate freemium games because they take the most notable elements of gaming — challenge, discovery, patience — and substitute them with a credit card fee. They transform inventory management into checking your bank statement.
Gabe Newell saw this episode in ’94 and his brain blew up.
2013 is a couple years late for live-snarking a freemium game. The “I can’t believe I’m actually playing FarmVille” angle is something countless bloggers had to get out of their system, and I’m sure one of the edgier gaming sites already offered a Souplantation gift card to any L.A. alt-comic who would play FishVille on ketamine or whatever. I’m certainly not breaking any new ground by pointing out that these games are awful and morally bankrupt. Zynga imploded about a year ago, and while it scrambles to maintain relevancy and revenue, the inevitable Schadenfreude almost immediately rendered the company an industry joke. So, I thought freemium games were another dumb-as-dirt, bottom-of-the-barrel, future trivia card answer that I shouldn’t even bother calling out. Like Insane Clown Posse or those Friedberg & Seltzer parody flicks, I became more annoyed with people incessantly pointing out that a self-evidently awful thing was awful than the artistic abortion itself. I actively ignored opinion pieces about FarmVille and Mafia Wars, because what more was there to say? People who kept the freemium industry humming weren’t interested in the sort of games I liked, just like how Two and a Half Men fans probably don’t have much to say about Mad Men. It didn’t seem worth adding my vitriol to the already enormous outcry.
Then, I actually played a freemium game. And it was weird.
EA debuted The Simpsons: Tapped Out for the iPhone in early 2012. The game came out with limited fanfare, but it’s been a solid moneymaker for EA over the course of the past year. It’s a mobile, freemium game in which you’re tasked with building your own personal Springfield. The premise is clever and fits the world of the show because Springfield’s geography is famously cartoonish and impossible to pin down, so Tapped Out is a means for Simpsons geeks to construct their own versions of the hamlet. As a Simpsons fan and a video game player, I was definitely curious, but could never muster up the enthusiasm to actually download it. When I found out a couple of my friends played Tapped Out casually, I felt that joining them would be a good opportunity to not only get whatever drew me to the game out of my system, but write about the freemium craze that so deeply impacted gaming’s recent history. Despite going out of my way to ignore the trend, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, right?
I don’t know what this is and frankly, I don’t want to.
The Simpsons is one of the least likely franchise behemoths to ever birth a self-sustaining industry. In its glory years, the show satirized every element of American life, not least of which the braindead way we absorb most media. While its portrayal of a less-than-perfect nuclear family was certainly relatable and warm, The Simpsons always tempered its sentiment with a biting mistrust of empty authority and corporate interest. But as the show entered its second decade, its subversiveness became passive, alluded to in quick meta quips and easy religion/politics-bashing but never actually indicting anything or anyone. You don’t have to be Professor Frink to figure out why. Along with the natural decline of the show itself, The Simpsons morphed into an evergreen money-printing machine like Star Wars or Marvel Comics. A franchise can’t lend itself to theme park rides and free-to-play iPhone apps if it’s pissing off people left and right, so The Simpsons slowly morphed into the sort of comforting, microwave-dinner slice of limp Americana it eviscerated in the ’90s. Once upon a time, Lisa Simpsons had a mental breakdown because a cigarette company sponsored a beauty pageant she was in. Nowadays, Springfield’s citizens all join hands with billionaire tyrant Mr. Burns to teach him that life is just a little sunnier with a Coca-Cola in your hands.***
I think I’ve made it pretty clear by now that The Simpsons is a big deal to me. So playing The Simpsons: Tapped Out sort of feels like an alien parasite dressed up as my best friend and keeps asking to see my wallet.
Things start out innocuously enough. Homer finally succeeds in blowing up the Springfield Power Plant, and instead of taking the obvious cues from my Simpsons/Fallout crossover fanfiction, the game tasks the player with rebuilding the town from the ground-up. As the player builds more houses, he gets experience and “money”; “money” can be used to buy a limited number people, places, and things from the show, while experience helps the player level up. Leveling up unlocks new story quests and grants the player a donut. Donuts are the true currency of Tapped Out, the means of accomplishing anything in a reasonable amount of time. Pretty much any extra a diehard Simpsons fan would want in his virtual Springfield (meaning, everything but trees and nondescript houses) requires donuts, not “money.” They’re granted to the player sparingly, through leveling up and (I assume) inviting friends. Oh, players can also buy them with real money (not Tapped Out “money”), which is pretty much the only way to obtain a Springfield that doesn’t look exactly like everyone else’s within the first few weeks of playing.
Me, every time I thought I had a lot of “money” in The Simpsons: Tapped Out.
Players also obtain “money” and experience through giving Simpsons characters tasks to perform. Every Simpsons character is now a one-joke caricature of him or herself these days, so Flanders’ tasks are all annoying religious person things, and Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel’s are all poor hillbilly person gags. These tasks take anywhere from a few seconds to a whole day to perform, unless the player invests his precious donuts into speeding it up. I usually set characters on their longest tasks, left the game alone for a day, and logged back in to collect the dollar sign and XP symbols they’d vomited up. Every day or two, I received a level-up consolation prize that advanced the vague story, a Kwik-E-Mart here, a Milhouse’s house there. But my puny supply of donuts wouldn’t get me the things I really wanted, like Hank Scorpio’s volcano lair or Lumpy the boa constrictor. (It was Whacking Day when I played the game, which meant my Springfield would be occasionally overrun by snakes. This was a welcome play mechanic because it gave me more things to click on and collect, and clicking on things and collecting them is the most satisfying function of this game.)
Tapped Out is not without its charms. It’s a well-themed little time-waster, with a crisp color palette and some momentarily fun character animations. The writing is about on par with the current quality of the show, which means I half-smiled once every twenty jokes or so. While the references to what’s problematic about this sort of experience are pretty tame (“I’ll just tell [Apple] my kids did it!” Homer decides in the opening cinematic, as he wastes his life savings on a freemium game), any sign of self-awareness is welcome compared to the deceitful earnestness of something like FarmVille. My two friends who humored me by shacking up their Springfields next to mine on my virtual map, seemed to be playing Tapped Out the sane and healthy way. Most of their city planning came from the included buildings players get upon leveling up, with a few small touches here and there. (One of my friends suggested using unused iTunes gift cards to grab donuts, which I did once to get the full experience.) For all my complaints, I don’t think playing freemium games in this fashion is some affront to good taste. Taken slowly and sparsely, Tapped Out can be a little Simpsons-themed Zen garden one maintains on the go. My one friend who plays Tapped Out is an avid gamer and Simpsons fanatic whose passion for both puts me to shame. She also works full-time and recently became a mother, so her gaming time is limited. Something like Tapped Out is perfect for her, because it allows her to engage with the mechanics of an activity she deeply enjoys a couple times a day without truly taking time away from her more pressing responsibilities.
It’s not like Tapped Out is even mechanically evil. Recently, a young French designer who goes by the username aniwey created a popular, imaginative browser game called Candy Box. The game functions much like freemium titles, with time restraints placed on how often the player can receive currency and go on quests. It’s a silly little game, where candy and lollipops become coveted resources and the graphics never surpass what even the crudest calculators can render. But the internet’s reaction to Candy Box was completely the opposite of how it reacted to Zynga’s rise to prominence. One of my acquaintances even compared Candy Box‘s difficulty curve and attention to inventory management to an ASCII version of Dark Souls, one of the most hardcore, capital-G “Gamer” games of recent memory. Yet many of its mechanics are undeniably similar to the freemium design philosophy.
The difference lies in motivation. Whereas Candy Box‘s wait periods and gradual builds in currency inspire the player to approach quests with caution and actually manage an inventory, Tapped Out‘s attempt to inspire impatience. Candy Box reveals its world slowly, asking the player to revel in every new ability (potion-brewing was especially unexpected) and focus on playing the game in the moment. Tapped Out reveals its best goodies right off the bat, and constantly tempts the player to just put in the credit card number and be on with it. Simply, the game everyone likes treats you like a human being and rewards you for playing it. The games everyone hates tease you with a bunch of shiny things to buy and teach you that the best way to obtain them is to skip over the game itself. No matter how many times I made Hans Moleman get hit in the groin with a football for some measly experience points in Tapped Out, I felt like the exercise was pointless because it wasn’t leading to anything. There was no genuine sense of progress in the game, and all the cool items could only be gotten with money and time I wasn’t willing to spend. I soon felt like I was checking my Springfield out of a mere sense of obligation. I deleted the game from my phone within a week.
I left The Simpsons: Tapped Out bored and a little annoyed, but no poorer for the experience. And that’s when something struck me: Tapped Out was never very subtle about how much it wanted my money. It was very blatant about how much different amounts of donuts cost, and while not having them made the game significantly harder to play, it was easy enough to ignore the pleas for my credit card. Tapped Out is not a success because of shady hidden fees or tricking players into spending money. (Well, okay, children playing on their parents’ iPads might be confused.) It wasn’t still going because of players like my friends and me, people who casually dropped in on this free little cartoon sandbox once or twice a day. Then I remembered all the stories about FarmVille I read in passing years before, stories like a mother shaking her baby to death for interrupting her game. And suddenly, having actually now played a freemium game and realizing that any mentally healthy person could easily see through its money traps, I realized that this whole little subculture wasn’t some Justin Bieber-esque, end-of-culture phenomenon that people should probably just ignore.
These freemium games hurt and exploit sick people for money. And suddenly, a dumb piece of pop culture got me very, very angry again.
Again, I’m not saying anything shocking or new here. Zynga’s shady business practices have been well-documented, and it’s common knowledge that a small percentage of players fund a disgusting majority of their in-game purchases. And with Zynga on the ropes financially, it seems like common sense might win the day in the end. But still, playing Tapped Out made me realize just how sad and disgusting it is that companies knowingly sell these sunshiney, pastel addiction machines to people who just can’t help themselves. Game mechanics, when implemented correctly, are certainly addicting. It’s not the action of pressing a button that keeps the player going; it’s the feedback and the feeling he receives from seeing the result of that button press. A certain sort of mind could easily fall into a vicious cycle where receiving that feedback is all too pleasing. Hell, I didn’t even really like Tapped Out and I thought about trading in ten bucks for some donuts a couple times! Playing video games can be a rewarding, positive experience. It can make you think about the world around you differently, or help you see it through another person’s eyes. Perhaps my anger about this is a couple years late. But seeing two of my favorite things in the world — The Simpsons and video games — smushed together to take advantage of people who can’t help themselves made me sincerely hope that freemium addicts seek the help and care that they need, and that more game publishers realize they can profitably use these mechanics and do more than take our money. They can teach us things along the way, too.
Sam Simon, co-developer of The Simpsons, was recently on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Simon greatly inspired the tone and feeling of The Simpsons before leaving the show in its fourth season. The Simpsons made Simon a very, very rich man, and he continues to receive huge royalties from it today. He is currently in a battle with terminal cancer, and while his health deteriorates, he still seems incredibly grateful for his storied career and the opportunities it presented him. While I have no doubt that Simon lives as comfortably as one can in his current condition, he uses huge amounts of his money to fund charitable foundations and provide for the less fortunate. Simon is amazingly passionate about helping animals, the environment, and those suffering in faraway countries. He understands the responsibility that comes with his wealth, and he jokes with Maron that he’ll mainly be remembered as a guy who could sign a mean check. I take solace in the fact that at least some part of this weird, wicked machine that was once The Simpsons I loved is helping the world and not just trying to sell it something.
*Twilight, on the other hand, is quite a fascinating cesspool in which to wade around, and its bizarre, chastity-influenced sexual component and whacked gender roles are definitely genuinely harmful for the young girls that read it. So yes, there are exceptions.
**Expansion packs and the like obviously predate the freemium trend by decades, but extraneous DLC certainly reached new heights after the FarmVille craze.
***Yes, there were always the Bart Simpson dolls and the Butterfingers TV spots, but it was easier to put up with a little shilling when the show at the heart of it was still brilliant and uncompromising.
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