The Simpsons: Tapped Out is the latest Simpsons branded mobile game for iOS and Android, published by EA. It’s a fun, colorful and funny game with a huge cast of Simpsons characters and it’s full of Groening wit and humor. This city sim game has a lot going for it, but even with its polish and cleverness, it does definitely have its drawbacks.
Tapped Out likes making fun of itself, The Simpsons universe and the entirety of mobile and browser gaming. In building a backstory of why you have to rebuild Springfield from scratch, you’re given an intro short in which Homer accidentally levels the entire town through his incompetence at his job at the local nuclear power plant. You’re then given a short lecture from Professor Frink on alternate dimensions and how you can visit alternate versions of Springfield (towns created by your friends) and how creating buildings will bring Simpsons characters back into existence. It’s an entertaining and tongue-in-cheek way to build a somewhat kinda-sorta-iffy plausible story for the kinds of things you’re just supposed to take for granted in similar games, because they’re just games after all.
If you’ve played EA’s mobile versions of The Sims or one of Zynga’s city or farm sim games, Tapped Out is pretty similar. Well, more similar to a Zynga game in that it’s very simplified and you don’t have to worry about your characters finding work or starving to death. But unlike similar games, Tapped Out never beats you over the head or constantly harasses you to spend real money on additional items. Instead, it’s much more sinister.
Tapped Out is free to play, with additional micro transactions in-game. Well, technically the term is micro transactions, though some of them are not so micro.
Cash money is easy to come by in the game— you collect rent from buildings, you get money from completing quests or having your characters perform tasks. The longer you have to wait for the task to be completed, the more money and XP you get. Each character has their own long list of tasks they can do, from the quick and easy, such as having Homer or Lisa clean up debris around town (takes about six seconds, $35 reward, 1 xp) to things like having Cletus grown a crop of moonshine, which takes 24 hours and gives big rewards.
And then there’s a secondary currency in the form of donuts. Donuts can be used to speed up construction of a building, speed up the completion of a task or quest and they can be used to purchase premium items. You can use donuts to buy cash, but only real world money can buy donuts, unless you have the patience to sloooowly accumulate donuts over time. It’s a pretty standard micro transaction setup, but at times, it can really bring the game down.
While you’re never hassled to buy donuts, the game makes it obvious that if you want any kind of lengthy and comprehensive experience, you’re going to be paying out the nose in real money. There are basic buildings and characters that just cost in-game cash, but about half of the buildings, and some of the coolest stuff, takes donuts. Buildings like Lard Lad Donuts, Frink’s Laboratory, the Springfield Tire Fire and Duff Brewery cost hundreds of donuts. Donuts that if you were to just try and play without spending a dime, would take you months to attain, if at all. The game quietly encourages you to use the donut currency as much as possible, but gives you almost no opportunity at all to gain them from in-game actions. Once you complete the tutorial section of the game, you’ve got 10 donuts, giving the impression that they’re not that hard to come by, but after that, you get one (ONE!) every time you gain a level, and that’s pretty much it.
So if you want to spend donuts to speed up building or quest completion, you can, but know that the 2 donuts or 6 donuts that you’ve been saving up just to knock 8 hours off the completion time of a new building are donuts that you’re not likely to see again unless you pony up real money for them. And sometimes a whole lot of it.
As you can see from the screen above, you can buy a boatload of donuts, but it’s going to cost you $99.99, the maximum iOS in-game purchase price. After spending several days trying not to spend anything at all, I finally realized that I wasn’t going to see much of the game at all if I didn’t, so I ended up spending a total of $30 on virtual donuts, just so I could get a broader sense of the game to review. $30 that ended up buying me only a few in-game purchases. If you wanted to experience the entire game, you could easily spend a couple hundred dollars. On mobile phone game. And that’s when you realize that the game title ‘Tapped Out’, isn’t just a clever title for a game that requires a lot of screen tapping, but it’s exactly how your bank account will feel if you put too much time into playing.
The game itself is a hell of a lot of fun and is extremely addictive. I can’t at all fault the programmers and artists and writers for creating a fun and highly entertaining Simpsons experience, but for every good thing the game designers included, EA orchestrated something else to try and get you to spend gobs of money. It’s like being given a huge bowl of some of the best ice cream you’ve ever had, only to be told that if you want to eat the whole thing, you might as well just sign over your paycheck after a few bites. It’s like being handed a beautiful apple, only to get halfway through and have your face severed on a hidden razor blade and now you’re going to have to sell your TV for facial surgery.
As much fun as it is to rebuild Springfield, put your characters to work doing silly tasks, like putting Krusty to work for 8 hours promoting his own self-importance, or putting Apu to work for a few hours feeding the quintuplets, the thing that really cripples the game is EA.
Unlike most iOS games, Tapped Out doesn’t use Game Center. Instead, it uses Origin, which is slow and unreliable. If you’re over a wi-fi connection, it isn’t too bad, though it does take a bit long to switch screens as the game connects to the Origin servers, but if you’re trying to use your cell connection, you can pretty much forget it. The game is constantly contacting Origin servers— to log in, to display your town, to visit other towns, and about 9/10 times when I tried connecting using a mobile signal only, the game wouldn’t start, it would time out and I would get the dreaded “Can’t connect to Origin servers” screen.
It’s a social game, so you’re encouraged to connect to friends that are also playing, and you do get in-game rewards. But thanks to Origin, trying to connect to two real-life friends was a frustrating experience. Just sending a friend request and having them okay it never seems to be enough. Both times, I also had to have the friend send a friend request to me, and then I had to approve it on my end, and even then, it took no sooner than an hour for them to show up on my friend list and vice versa, and with the second person I tried to connect with, it took 24 hours and multiple text messages back and forth like “I sent you a friend request. I see you as pending, but that’s it…” before finally the friend requests were approved, and then another six hours before we could actually see each others Springfields.
On the one hand, I highly recommend this game if you’re a fan of The Simpsons, but on the other hand, I feel that you might hate me if you actually download and play it. For about a day or two, you’re going to enjoy it on every little work break or every few spare minutes you get at home, and then you’re going to blindly start spending more and more money to get in-game items because… it’s The Simpsons… it’s fun… You’re going to tell yourself for a couple days that the game is fun enough without spending an additional penny on it, and then your town will grow, and you’ll start seeing the huge list of premium items you could get if you only had 150 donuts or 200 donuts. And then you’ll sheepishly tap the “Purchase” button… just once at first, and then you’ll wait another few days and then you’ll tap “Purchase” again, because you’ve just got to have that Lard Lad Donuts. Just one more time. Tapped Out is a hell of a lot of fun, until you realize that EA is just exploiting your emotional attachment to The Simpsons and that innate rodent/primate desire to get get easy rewards by tapping on a button to try and suck every penny they possibly can out of you.
And this is the danger of games that rely on micro-transactions. Just let me pay up front, even if it’s $10 or $20 for an iOS game, but don’t lead me on with Simpsons-flavored cotton candy when you’re picking my pockets. If it weren’t for EA’s involvement, this game could easily get a 4 or 4.5 out of 5, but EA’s greed and insistence on using Origin brings nearly halves that, to a 2.5.
-Great Simpsons humor, lots and lots of Simpsons characters
-Entertaining quests and tasks for your characters to perform
-Good pacing makes it the perfect kind of game for moderate time-wasting when you’re waiting in line, on the crapper or for burning a few minutes at work.
-EA’s involvement in the game at all eventually makes you feel like a money-making psychological experiment in EA’s larger world-domination scheme