“I’m not worried, Lis. You know why? Because of this: the Krusty Brand Seal of Approval. You can only find it on products which meet the high personal standards of Krusty the Klown.” – Bart Simpson
“Oww!” – Krusty the Klown
“Oops, I should’ve warned you, that clock gets incredibly hot if you leave it plugged in.” – Merchandising Suit
“That’s okay.” – Krusty the Klown

Like the primitive physical reel slot machines of yore, Tapped Out is an obvious first effort, suffering from a humiliating list of glitches and programming shortcuts. Most notably, the game crashes . . . a lot. “Unfortunately, The Simpsons Tapped Out has stopped working” is a common message, but is only true in the technical sense of the word. Inside that weak and easily distracted human brain the game is very much still working, making players wait patiently to reload it so they can get their little fix.

But even when it is running, it suffers from the kind of cheapskate corner cutting that is the hallmark of accountant-run conglomerates. The text and dialogue amount to just a few simple sentences, yet typos and misspellings are frequent. Only characters voiced by the main Simpsons cast speak, so Homer and Lisa talk while Milhouse and Martin remain conspicuously silent. Hiring an editor and paying minor cast members would cost them a minuscule rounding error of cash, but why bother? Nobody’s going to put the game down because “epistemological” is spelled wrong or they didn’t get to hear Pamela Hayden voice Milhouse.

Nickel-and-dime shoddiness like that is on display everywhere. Most of the graphics are static images with very little in the way of animation. And while there’s something to be said for simplicity, it’s hard to explain how, in a game where telling characters to go do things is 90% of what the player does, those same characters simply disappear in front of buildings instead of actually walking in the doors. The models aren’t even all the way thought through. Sidewalks are unbroken by driveways, parking lots or curb cuts. Buildings can be rotated to face only two of four directions, so half of your structures face away from the street they’re on because EA didn’t bother to draw a back side for any of them. Those shortcuts and more lead to a general ugliness that the SimCity franchise (also recently shat on by EA) left behind in the last millennium.

Beneath those chintzy half-measures, the game is also plagued with problems that strongly indicate sloppy and/or careless programming. It needs frequent (non-content) updates, starting with a massive patch needed just to play. Compounding matters, while it’s downloading, you are essentially locked out of your device as switching to another application will cause the download to pause until you return. Icons in menus often disappear temporarily, as do whole buildings in your city.

The game is so poorly constructed that its own loading screen doesn’t work properly. Assuming the whole screen doesn’t start randomly flashing white, there’s a spinning donut in the lower right that lets you know that it’s starting. But if the donut is spinning smoothly, that means the game is frozen and won’t load no matter how long you leave it there. Only if the donut is chunking along, stopping then spinning, stopping then spinning, is the game actually working. The programmatic errors that no one in authority cared enough to have fixed are so bad that the initial launch had to be recalled because of server problems that took half a year to fix. (CNET called it “one of the more embarrassing meltdowns in app history”.i) Even after that fiasco, the system still crashes so routinely that the game actually has a cute “technical difficulties” graphic it uses in an attempt to defray anger.

All that may be lazy and disrespectful to players, but even EA doesn’t actually want its software to routinely fail. It costs them money every time a person cancels out rather than wait for a bug fix to freeze their phone while it downloads, quits after getting frustrated by another mid-game crash, or stops playing because the servers are down yet again. Those developmental problems haven’t stopped the program from ringing up gigantic quantities of cash, of course, but even an organization as ponderous and incompetent as Electronic Arts can’t help but recognize that its own shoddy merchandise is hurting the bottom line.

When they do get around to fixing something, however, the green tint through which they see the world colors what they fix and how they fix it. Before an update at the end of 2013, you had to actually hunt down and find all the characters wandering around your city. Everyone from Marge and Homer to Lenny, Carl and Kang meander aimlessly at all times and are frequently obscured by buildings, decorations or other characters. As the game expanded, this hunt and peck process took longer and became more frustrating.

There are any number of gamer-friendly ways to design around this problem. They could’ve added a list or menu to make selection easier. They could’ve put in a map with character locations. They could’ve implemented a bulk assign function to have all remaining characters perform tasks that take the same amount of time. The original system was so slapdash and clumsy that almost any change would’ve been an improvement, so there were no wrong answers.

EA’s solution was to add a small icon in the corner that shows the face of the next selectable character. Tapping it centers the screen on that character and brings up their task menu. It is leaps and bounds better than scrolling all over the map searching for one or more unassigned characters. Now it’s easy to tell whether or not all the characters are currently busy and takes just the press of a button to find any that aren’t.

But there is a curious logic behind that choice. For starters, creating it was as minor a programming task as possible. The big tell on this is the fact that the character selection order is always the same as the order in which the characters were added. So, after any characters with active story tasks, Homer comes first because he’s the first character you can control, then Lisa, and so on down the list. The game just sees who’s next in whatever numerical order it has them and acts as though you tapped on them. The screen already centers on characters you tap directly instead of with the shortcut, so the only change to the game was to add an already existing icon that had the same function as another area of the screen. You can’t change the order and no other graphical changes or additions were required, so it’s as tiny a change to the code as they could make.

More important (and telling) is the impact on time-on-device and time in the zone. The new “select next” icon saves the player time, but far less than other options could’ve. Meanwhile, the time it does save used to be spent on an action that was disruptive to flow rather than conducive to it. Swiping randomly over a city while your eyes strain to pick out a grouping of tiny pixels that is only slightly different than the ones around it isn’t relaxing or meditative; it’s exhausting and annoying. But repetitive tapping in a predictable order that allows the player to go incredibly fast is quintessential flow.

Given its bloated nature and organizational dysfunction, it’s an open question as to whether or not maximizing flow and time-on-device were deliberate choices on the part of EA. Maybe they studied video gambling tactics or hired people from that industry and it’s all intentional. Maybe it was just the cheapest possible task for some low-level code monkeys who hate their jobs anyway. But whether the design was intentional, accidental or somewhere in between has no effect on the way the game plays or the chip playing it feels. Any way you slice it, players spend more time in the zone.

Tapped Out may be a primitive effort, full of typos, penny pinching, and an inescapable tangle of glitches, crashes and deliberately terrible controls, but EA is refining it all the time. And with each new version, the flow lasts longer, players spend more time, and revenue increases.

Continue to Chapter 6, “The Infinite Profit Margins of Colored Pixels.


i“How Electronic Arts resurrected its DOA Simpsons game”, by Roger Cheng, 20 August 2012, http://news.cnet.com/8301-1035_3-57495733-94/how-electronic-arts-resurrected-its-doa-simpsons-game/

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