Pocket Planes On The Train

As I mentioned in my last post, I take the BART to work every morning. The entire trip usually lasts about 35 minutes door to door, assuming there are no freak outages. While sandwiched between a mob of sweaty people, I take out my iPod Touch and fire up Pocket Planes. After playing for nearly two months, I’m ready to give my two cents about it.

Pocket Planes is the latest tycoon simulation game from NimbleBit, a very small indie game developer that was responsible for last year’s endearing building game Tiny Tower. In Pocket Planes, your goal is to manage an airline and expand your business empire. To that effect, you must open airports in cities, launch flights to transport passengers and cargo, and buy plane parts to expand your fleet. It’s a relatively simple game wrapped in a cute retro, 8-bit layout but offers a great deal of entertainment for gamers who enjoy ‘maximizing’ their stats and achievements.

I’ll go into more detail about the game under the fold.

When starting the game, players are prompted to select a region (e.g. Africa or Europe) to open their initial airports. I decided to begin my business in North America (West) because I thought I’d have an easier time remembering the city names and locations. Unfortunately, I overlooked the fact that choosing a continent I was less familiar with could have helped me improve my geography knowledge in real life. Oh well.

The initial planes are small and slow. They can only hold 2 passengers each and take a very long time to reach their destination. However, as the game progresses, players can upgrade existing planes to cover their deficiencies or simply buy new planes with expanded capacity, longer range, and faster engines. Adding to the game’s emphasis on player options, you can also obtain plane parts and try to ‘match three’ to create a full plane.

Airports are categorized into three classes, symbolized by three colors: black (level 1), blue (level 2), and red (level 3). Higher class airports benefit from more traffic and cargo. Some of the larger planes can only land in higher class airports.

On a regular basis, players review a list of planes in their fleet. The game indicates whether  each plane is mid-flight or landed. The goal is to keep planes moving between airports, transporting passengers and cargo to collect fares. Because some planes can only carry cargo while others can only carry passengers, players must connect the right plane with the right airport at the right time. The game is definitely geared toward players who enjoy process optimization.

As a free-to-play mobile experience, the fundamental engine/framework that powers Pocket Planes is an endless cycle of actions and rewards designed to keep players eternally engrossed. That’s because unlike a traditional retail store game, players are not paying an upfront cost. NimbleBit only makes money if a player is actually engaged with the game. That requires long-term commitment and a lot of re-engagement.

Here’s the game in a nutshell. Successful flights generate revenue (coins), which in turn enables the purchase of new airports. This in turn enables players to send even more flights that generate even more revenue. Eventually, players can try to unlock every plane and every airport.

When you put it that way… it does seem like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up an ever-increasing hill.

NimbleBit has enabled in-app payments and a hard currency called bux. Players can use bux to acquire new plane parts, speed up flights, and fatten their wallets with coins.

Although NimbleBit’s business model relies on players purchasing bux, they’ve been generous enough to give players an option to obtain bux through grinding. Occasionally, players can transport celebrities or famous artifacts to earn bux instead of coins.

I personally don’t like to grind. But at least giving players the choice to grind instead of pay their way past artificial barriers shows a respect for the ‘games as fun’ mantra that many modern free-to-play simulations have abandoned. As I’ll discuss later, NimbleBit’s decision to make the game seem less like a money-sucking machine pays dividends in terms of good PR, virality, and brand equity. When users hear that NimbleBit’s is releasing a new game, they feel happy because they see the studio as a bunch of creative, respectable, underdogs who are just trying to make a fun game in the world of Zyngas and EAs.

Perhaps the feature I enjoy most about Pocket Planes is its support for offline devices. Seeing as I’m using an iPod Touch rather than an iPhone on the BART (which has spotty Wi-Fi anyway), this single feature has elevated the game to the top of my playlist.

You don’t need a persistent connection in order to play because the game doesn’t constantly send data back and forth from a server to your device. Instead, the game runs on an internal clock. Whenever you log in, it automatically calculates the amount of time that has elapsed since your last play session and updates the game accordingly, giving you the revenue you would have generated had you left the game running.

Synced to the cloud via Apple’s Game Center, it’s obviously beneficial for players to be connected. However, it’s not a requirement.

Of course, not everything about Pocket Planes is great. There are some nagging typos in the interface (“build ans airport?”) and some persistent slowdowns. The sound effects are also rather annoying (to the point that I disabled them completely). However, the biggest flaw is that despite how “player-friendly” the game is overall, there’s still a mandatory grind that hurts players’ experience.

Basically, Pocket Planes uses a leveling system (i.e. experience points, leveling up, etc.) that enforces a hard cap on the number of airports you can build. Even if you accumulate a million coins in the game, you can’t open a new airport until you’ve earned enough experience to level up. Even then, you can only open 1 additional airport per level. And no, there’s no way to directly increase experience yield with bux or to buy more airport slots. The hammer really drops when you’ve opened your sixth airport because that’s about the time the internal economy has started to pick up. Suddenly, BAM! Brick wall!

During my game, I ended up having to shutter some of my smaller airports to free up a slot to buy a larger airport. My ultimate goal is to expand my airline to Asia. However, the airport cap really threw a wrench in my plan. Was this the designer’s intention? Perhaps the cap is intentionally set low to slow down the pace of the game. I do see the other side too. Dedicated players could just grind for a month and maximize the game, leaving NimbleBit penniless.

Either way, the forced grind drastically hampers the euphoric feeling of continuous improvement and expansion within the game and will likely cause many players to lose interest. I’ve always been a big believer that as long as a player feels like they’re making progress, he or she will keep playing. Psychologically, it’s like waiting in line. As long as you have something to do, the wait doesn’t seem so bad.

In a recent software update, the designers increased the airport cap by 2. This means if you previously could build 5 airports at a particular level, now you can build 7. The new cap helped alleviate the brick wall effect, but only for a few days. In the long run, NimbleBit must re-balance the experience levels so that players gain levels faster at the start of the game. They can slow things down after Level 30. At least let players take over 2 continents before putting up the brick wall.

Graphically, the decision to adopt pixel graphics is somewhat hit or miss. From a logistical standpoint, I understand that pixel graphics are quick and easy to create. A small studio with fewer than 10 employees such as NimbleBit uses simple graphics and templates to make it easier to scale live operations and provide players with continuous updates.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, I personally have a soft spot for retro pixel graphics. I find them simple and cute. The more simple and abstract a game character looks, the more the player imprints his or her own personality on that character. Sadly, I conducted an informal focus group of undergraduates (children of the 00s) and they liked the gameplay but hated the graphics. “It looks too old, too blocky, too ugly.”

It’s clear that Pocket Planes is a labor of love. The amount of unnecessary detail put into the game (hot air balloons and space ships?) suggest the team at NimbleBit didn’t just cut and paste a ‘get rich quick’ business model. They clearly let their imaginations run wild to create something artsy that could appeal to a very distinct segment of the gamer population and leverage good word of mouth.

The implementation of the BitBook (a play on Facebook and Twitter) is an example of a feature that adds nothing to the game from a pure monetization/gameplay perspective, but gives it a fun and lovable personality. Likewise, every plane can be repainted. Every pilot can renamed. You can even dress them up in funny costumes!

If you’re looking for a simple game to pass the time and can stomach some slow grind, I recommend Pocket Planes. It’s fairly easy to start playing and (most importantly) easy to kick to the curb when times get busy.

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