A Brief and Personal Note to Tappers: I started playing Tapped Out in September of 2013, shortly after I bought an Android tablet. I stopped playing Tapped Out in December of 2013, after the Christmas-New Year’s holiday gauntlet disrupted my normal routine enough that I put the game down for a few days and found that I didn’t really miss it. In between, I was playing multiple times per day, waiting for updates to finish, and often making it the first thing I did on-line in the morning and the last thing I did on-line before I went to bed. I got to Level 37 (the highest at the time), built Squidport and Krustyland, and spent lots of time rearranging my city and generally enjoying myself.

So as harsh as I am on the game in the following text, please don’t feel that I am in any way attacking you for playing it. My beef isn’t with you, or with people wanting to build their own Springfields; my beef is solely with the dishonest way the game is designed and presented. I don’t think anyone is stupid for spending money on it, nor do I look down anyone who likes playing it. My aim is only to provide a fuller explanation of why the game isn’t actually joking when it describes itself as “addictive”.

“I’ve got lots of quarters.” – Homer Simpson
“This thing only takes dollars.” – Bart Simpson

The Springfield of The Simpsons is a sprawling, ever-changing place. Sprung from the minds of Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, Sam Simon, and the rest of the staff, it has captivated audiences for decades. The elastic city has all the same people and places as your town, from convenience stores, bars and libraries to cops, teachers and kids; but in Springfield, those mundane realities are goosed with a sense of cynical fun that makes them both stranger and more relatable, funnier and more realistic. That yellow tinged twist on our world captured imaginations around the globe; and now, thanks to the modern miracles of touchscreens, cheap microprocessors, and copyright licensing contracts, you can build your own.

The description for The Simpsons Tapped Out in the Google Play store begins thusly (CAPS in the original):

THIS GAME IS LIFE-RUININGLY FUN! Homer accidentally caused a meltdown that wiped out Springfield. D’OH! Now, it’s up to you to rebuild it! From the writers of The Simpsons, tap into a city building game that lets you create your own living, breathing Springfield… for FREE.

From there it gushes about all the characters you can use and all the Springfield fun you’ll have, from creating a town “just like you want it” to growing “Tomacco on Cletus’s Farm”. There’s an eleven point list, the first and last items of which point out that all of this is “free”. Sitting between them and belying that claim is #7, “Party down with Duffman at Duff Brewery”, something that will actually cost you between eight ($8) and thirty ($30) real dollars.

Instead of being free, putting Duffman and the Duff Brewery in your Springfield costs 190 “donuts”, which are the Itchy & Scratchy money of the game and can be purchased in amounts ranging from twelve (12) for $1.99 to twenty-four-hundred (2,400) for $99.99.* The game does give out a few free donuts here and there, but mostly in ones and twos, with a bonus of ten a few times per year. So while it’s theoretically possible to acquire 190 donuts without spending any actual dollars, in practice it would take two years or longer.

Price # of Donuts Cost Per Donut Cost for Duffman & Brewery
$1.99 12 $0.17 $31.51
$99.99 2400 $0.04 $7.92

(*Even at rock bottom, that one building makes Tapped Out more expensive than 99 of the top 100 games in the Google Play store that aren’t labeled “free”. And to do it that “cheap”, you have to spend a hundred bucks, which would make it more expensive than every single paid app in the top 100, games and otherwise.)

TappedIn1 (640)

Duffman is reaching for your wallet, oh yeah!

What explains the bait and switch? The simple explanation is lazy copy editing. There are plenty of free characters and buildings they could’ve used in their list instead of something “premium” like Duffman, but no one in a position of real authority cared enough to change it. Sloppy, shoddy work like that is a hallmark of the game, however, so while they may be lying about partying with Duffman for free, it’s truth in advertising as far as overall quality.

The real reason they’re promising free while reaching for your credit card is the same reason pickpockets bump into their targets: misdirection. The conscious human mind isn’t good at doing more than one thing at a time, and we are an easily distracted lot because of it. You notice the light bump from the stranger in the crowd, but you don’t notice the hand dipping into your pocket. “Freemium” games like Tapped Out use the same concept, but instead of jostling your shoulder, they trick your brain.

“Freemium” is a Frankenstein’s monster of a word, as well as the hip new thing in making money in the video game business. (The fact that mashing “free” and “premium” into a single word created an oxymoron seems not to have occurred to anyone.) In the case of Tapped Out, that sleight of neuron is done by exploiting the differences between the Springfield you have on the screen in front of your eyes and the one that exists in your imagination behind them. If you’ve ever watched the show (and if you’re reading this or playing Tapped Out, odds are you have), you know that the real Springfield has the Duff Brewery, Barney’s Bowlarama, and other places that cost “donuts”. Your mind wants to replicate that pattern in your Springfield. It’s not an overriding need or anything, but like a dent in a fender or a mark on a wall, the discrepancy is impossible not to notice.

It’s a persistent mental disturbance and the only way to soothe it is to give EA money to make it go away. And that is the essence of freemium games: creating a mental itch and offering to scratch it with money. The people selling the salve are responsible for the irritation in the first place, but that fact is unlikely to occur as you push the purchase button.

Plenty of people have purchased plenty of overpriced video games before, of course. What makes a freemium game like Tapped Out fundamentally different than a crappy console game like Simpsons Wrestling, or a button-mashing arcade game like the unimaginatively named The Simpsons Arcade Game, is its hybrid economic model.

Quarter sucking arcade games were great for video game companies because every time someone wanted to play, they had to spend money. Even people who got really good and could beat The Simpsons Arcade Game on a single play didn’t bother them. That person dropped a lot of quarters in that machine to become so skilled, and the more quarters they dropped, the more valuable the machine was to the arcade owner and the company that made it.

Home and portable consoles were also great for video game companies. Sure you had to pay a license fee to Nintendo or somebody, but you had a known and interested base of potential customers with disposable income and the inherent marketing juice of putting that system’s symbol on the box. Best of all, people paid a serious premium for the ability to play at home. Back when Bart vs. the Space Mutants became the first Simpsons game for home systems, new cartridges retailed for $40-$50, which still sounds like a lot and is a whopping $86 in 2013 money. But there was a problem: people only paid once.

Freemium is the neck bolt electrified combination of the two models. Instead of charging people a little money for a few tries or a lot of money to play as much as they want, freemium gives the game away in the expectation that people will play it and then spend money voluntarily for advantages and bonuses within the game. It combines an arcade style keep-paying-always mechanic with the attractive convenience of a game people can play anywhere: home, work, school, you name it. It’s like putting a slot for quarters in the bottom of the customers’ pockets.

Best of all, the companies behind the games don’t need to build any hardware; their customers are already carrying the console around with them. The only things they produce are infinitely replicable bits, so the marginal cost of each new customer is effectively zero and anyone with a phone or a tablet, which is all but everyone,* is able to spend at every waking moment.

(*Or, at least, everyone with enough cash or remaining credit to be interesting to them.)

That combination has been extraordinarily lucrative for EA and News Corporation, but it also creates a new problem: how to keep people playing the same game indefinitely? In an arcade or on a console, how much time someone spends playing the game isn’t a major concern. You want people to enjoy the game, of course, if for no other reason than that their friends and family are potential customers too, but how long it takes them to finish doesn’t matter much. Whether they spent enough money to beat the final boss in an arcade game or at their leisure in front of their TV, you got paid.

Tapped Out doesn’t work that way. The more time someone spends playing the game, the more money they’ll likely end up spending, and that is why The Simpsons Tapped Out has less in common with a traditional “video game” than it does with video poker and video slot machines. The only way to win is to stop playing.

Continue to Chapter 2: Designing Addictively Rigged Games for Fun and Profit


9 Responses to “1 – Quarters, Dollars, and Credit Cards: The Games We Pay”

  1. 1 Umeesooo
    30 January 2015 at 1:16 pm

    I play Tapped Out. I have over 180 donuts, and I haven’t spent a cent on the game.

    • 5 August 2015 at 9:21 pm

      Is there any way I can find this collected into an ebook or pdf format, with the text reversed back into black on white, where i can read it on my tablet comfortably? in a book format? I’d like to read this, but as I see it now, it’s very uncomfortable to read, i’d love to download it like that in order to read the whole piece. thank you. [s]

      • 5 August 2015 at 10:07 pm

        I should say, never mind! not only did i write this in the wrong place, but I can see now, that such a thing can be purchased at Amazon, i apologize for my post. (please ignore!)

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