“But I want to help people, not kill ’em!” – Abe “Grampa” Simpson
“Oh. Well, to be honest, the ray only has evil applications. You know, my wife will be happy. She’s hated this whole death ray thing from day one.” – Professor Frink

Lulling people into an hours-long money-losing trance in front of a flashing, stand alone console is a fair bit more profitable than distracting them for a few minutes on their tiny little phones. Correspondingly, the hundred-and-thirty-million dollars that Tapped Out has so far made for EA is chump change next to the annual tens of billions video poker and its ilk bring in; but EA has advantages too.

They don’t have clinical addiction on their side, but they also don’t have to operate under laws that ensure that the video games they write adhere to some vague approximation of real world gambling odds. There are no geographic restrictions, so their players don’t need to be on-site. In fact, they carry EA’s yawning money maw with them wherever they go.

That lack of restrictions and regulations means that EA can do whatever the fuck they want however the fuck they want to do it. Their programming choices, both technically and stylistically, are revealing. Consider:

– When the game starts, “donuts” can be spent with just a single tap and no confirmation. You can set an option to ask for confirmation so that an inadvertent tap on a not altogether precise touch screen can’t actually cost you real money, but you have to set it manually, and even then the game has been known to reset your preference after updates. This essentially opts you “in” after you had opted “out”.

TappedIn2 (640)

I could’ve swore I set “Confirm Donut Spend” to “On”. Huh. Must be a glitch. Oh, well, I’m sure they’ll fix it.

– Compounding that little piece of greed is the fact that literally every task in the game can have “donuts” spent on it to complete, even ones that take just a few minutes or that occur automatically, like a building producing “money” and “XP”. There is no in-game reason to rush production on that with real life cash, but EA makes it easy for you to do so anyway.

– Making this worse still, the tapping accuracy is atrocious. Very often tapping the screen will bring up an item or a person that is nowhere near your finger. Put all three together and it’s ridiculously easy to accidentally spend real currency.
(EA may or may not have an “Inadvertent” column in any of their accounting or gameplay reports, but given how easy they make it to place inadvertent purchases, a look at the actual game logs would probably show mountains of “donuts” spent on the completion of routine tasks that make no sense except as accidents.)

– Critically, the ATM is built right into the machine. This is something the gambling industry has tried to do for years but can’t quite get because it’s just a little too forward in its openness to exploiting the addicted. But where laws and the danger of public outcry over too bold a greed have stalled video slots, EA resides comfortably, never more than a finger push away from credit card information on file with Apple or Google.

TappedIn3 (640)

The credit of such a fine individual as yourself is always good in this establishment.

– The paid content is intermixed everywhere with the unpaid content that is necessary to gameplay. This serves the dual purpose of making accidental purchases more likely, and constantly reminds the player that s/he is missing out by not spending real money.

– The “premium” buildings and characters generate in game “money” and “XP” significantly faster than the free buildings and characters. You’d be stupid not to buy them!

– The “prize wheel”, a rigged minigame where carnie logic makes the best prizes always just out of reach but more tries can be yours for just a little more money, was so nakedly crooked that they had to loosen the odds on it during their Christmas 2013 update after receiving a deluge of customer complaints.i All the slices of the wheel are the same size on the screen, but the good prizes have much lower odds of ever hitting. In response, they made the good prizes a little more likely but still far short of even. This is bait and switch pure and simple; and it’s a common tactic of video poker and slot designers. Tricking people into thinking they almost won or are close to something is a tried and true way to keep them playing.

Add those together and you get a “game” that has but one purpose: maximum revenue. Cooked odds that manipulate you into wanting to spend more? Check. Controls that are imprecise in ways that just so happen to make it easier to spend money? Check. Adding the ability to spend money on in-game items for which there is no in-game reason to purchase? Check. One hundred and thirty million dollars ($130,000,000) and design choices that everywhere reveal your contempt for fun, gameplay and your customers? Checkmate.

Now, some of those decisions are borderline benign, or possibly even slightly noble in trying to offer people a little something extra for their money. But encouraging the accidental spending of “donuts” is clearly sleazy and borders on outright theft, especially when it happens because of programmatic choices like highly inaccurate touch screen reaction. “What’s that, you tapped far away from that house whose essentially meaningless hourly production you just purchased for thirty-five cents? Too bad and keep playing.”* Three card monty is more honest than that. The same goes for putting up casino style spinning wheels that are fixed in a way that would get a real casino owner arrested.

(*If you have an Android device, you can see this for yourself by going to Settings, turning on the Developer Options by repeatedly tapping your build number in the About menu, and then checking the “Show touches” box under Developer Options. The touch accuracy of Tapped Out is often wildly off, particularly if there’s more than one tap-able item on screen.)

Beyond the petty greed and bean counter logic that leads to those kind of embarrassingly small-time cons are the deeper elements of gameplay where EA nakedly apes the design psychology of video gambling. Like a lesser cousin to the concept of “flow” or “the zone” that is universally described among video slot and poker addicts, playing Tapped Out is an all but thoughtless experience most of the time. Sure, there are moments when you have to think (adding a new building or decoration, even rearranging whole neighborhoods and street patterns), but most of the time gameplay is so routine as to be nearly unconscious.

Once the game opens, you are typically confronted with a mess of bobbing symbols over most or all of the characters and buildings. Tapping each causes a shower of (in game) money and experience to fall over the surrounding area. So, for example, if Lisa has completed her four-hour task of “Play the Sax”, a small yellow “thumbs up” will appear over her head. Tap once on Lisa and stacks of cash and some golden “XP” will explode around her. Tapping on each of those will send them into your collections of money and experience points. Houses, restaurants, other characters, all of them naturally generate money and experience after a certain amount of time. Tapping each one in succession to make them burst forth with their precious cargo is the first part of every session with Tapped Out.

TappedIn4 (640)

The key to great gameplay is one word: tappa-tappa-tappa.

At first, when your Springfield has just a few buildings and only a handful of characters, this cleaning up process takes a few seconds. As the number of buildings and characters increases, so does the amount of time needed to gather all of the money and experience they have generated. After a month or so with the game, it’s easily possible for the cleaning up to take well over a minute, and you’re still just scratching the surface of the game’s expansiveness.

Once the money and experience have been gathered, there is often a character or two who’ve sprouted small speech bubbles. Tapping on them reveals whatever little “story” tasks the game has in mind for you next. You may need to send Bart, Lisa and Milhouse to Sunday school. That takes each of them twelve hours and requires that you’ve built the church. You may need to send Chief Wiggum to eat at Krusty Burger. That takes him thirty minutes and, obviously, requires the Krusty Burger. These story tasks provide a small amount of bonus experience and advance you deeper into the game by progressively unlocking more buildings and characters.

TappedIn5 (640)

Homer would like to say something. For budgetary reasons, however, most text will be unspoken.

Finally, after any story bubbles have been explained to you, it’s time to set your other characters to whatever tasks they’ll perform while you’re out living your stupid real life. Each character must be individually tapped to open a menu that then allows you to select whatever job they’ll do. Longer tasks, up to thirty-six hours, generate more money and experience in total; but shorter tasks, down to as little as six seconds (though most characters’ shortest task is one hour), provide money and experience at a greater rate. So, for example, a one-hour job, like having Mr. Burns take a “brisk constitutional”, pays $75 and 20 XP; while having Burns spend eight hours to “hide nuclear waste” pays just $200 and 75 XP, a 33% slower earn rate for money and a whopping 53% slower rate for XP. In other words, the game rewards you for coming back as often as possible.

TappedIn6 (640)

Sure, you could check back in a few hours or even tomorrow, but wouldn’t you rather come back in just sixty minutes?

Beyond just encouraging you to check in early and often during your day, the game gradually increases the amount of time you can spend in its zone during each visit. The more characters and buildings you have to tap, the longer those autopilot portions of the game last. These remain chickenshit amounts of time and money compared to video poker, of course. There play sessions are measured in hours while time in Springfield is measured in minutes. But the concept is the same: time-on-device.

The more time people play, the more money they spend. Hooking them longer with every psychological trick and concept that can be written into software code is just good business. That basic math applies equally to the EA game in people’s pockets as it does to the more refined earners on the casino floor. Call it “gambling”. Call it “freemium”. The chip doing the work doesn’t care.

Continue to Chapter 5, “Training the Beast: Fixing Mechanical Problems and Increasing Flow.


i“Holiday Wheel, now with more winning!”, by “feelingblind”, 10 January 2014, http://tstogame.com/2014/01/10/holiday-wheel-now-with-more-winning/


1 Response to “4 – Domesticating the Beast: Video Gambling to Video Gaming”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


deadhomersociety (at) gmail

Run a Simpsons site or Twitter account? Let us know!

Twitter Updates

The Mob Has Spoken

Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Ah Hee Hee Hee on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Ezra Estephan on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch
Anonymous on Homeronymus Bosch

Subscribe to Our Newsletter


Useful Legal Tidbit

Even though it’s obvious to anyone with a functional frontal lobe and a shred of morality, we feel the need to include this disclaimer. This website (which openly advocates for the cancellation of a beloved television series) is in no way, shape or form affiliated with the FOX Network, the News Corporation, subsidiaries thereof, or any of Rupert Murdoch’s wives or children. “The Simpsons” is (unfortunately) the intellectual property of FOX. We and our crack team of one (1) lawyer believe that everything on this site falls under the definition of Fair Use and is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. No revenue is generated from this endeavor; we’re here because we love “The Simpsons”. And besides, you can’t like, own a potato, man, it’s one of Mother Earth’s creatures.