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The Weirdness of Pocket Planes

June 25th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Mobile

I have been playing Civ and Gratuitous Tank Battles, as promised. Not a lot of Sins or Pokemon Conquest because there are only so many hours in the day. But my in-between times, as I wait or cook or prepare for bed, have been spent on a stupid little iPhone app from Nimblebit called Pocket Planes. I’m sure you’ve heard of it.

I call it an app and not a game, because I’m not sure if it’s a game, really. Unlike, say, the light sims from Kairo Soft that I love (though Dungeontown was a let down) there’s no real goal or time pressure or even a fail state. It’s not even really a sandbox since there isn’t a lot of variety in what you do.

What do you do? You buy planes and fly loads from city to city. Earn cash to open new airports. Some planes are too big for small cities, so don’t grab the best jets while you are still expanding. Otherwise, that’s it. You get a tone notification on your phone when one of your planes lands, so you can load it up, find a profitable route for the available cargo (it’s hard to fly a route that loses you a lot of money) or just wait for new jobs and plane parts to show up.

That’s it. This is, essentially, ProgressQuest with planes and a cartoon overlay. It’s not Railroad Tycoon where your actions can transform the landscape, beyond investing what money you have in small things to attract more traffic to certain cities. It’s not SimCity where there is a gradual increase in sophistication of your networks and systems – I’ve yet to run into a problem with too many planes at an airport. It’s a Pavlovian call/response system where you are signaled that you can take the planes and load them and fly them.

Since there are limitations on your resources, there is a spatial component to the expansion and there are alternate paths to that expansion (planes? small airports? large centers?) then Pocket Planes probably meets the minimal definition for a strategy game. But I don’t feel like I am thinking or planning or actually transforming much beyond my bank balance. In a way, it’s an animated version of those really lame stock market games that used to hang around in the 80s. There’s not a lot you can do to control the environment, your money maximization plan is pretty clear and if that’s enough for you, then you can enjoy it.

It’s not even that good looking a game.

But for some reason, this silly little thing has taken the world by storm and I play it and I am trying to figure out if there is any reason beyond psychological conditioning for saving up money to access Houston.

Now, I don’t want to downplay psychological conditioning. Though Zynga and other companies have been given bad raps for devising metrics and designing games around virality, compulsion and gaming obsession, I think most very good games build a true connection with something innate in the human brain. The difference between “Just one more turn and I get cannons” and “Visit the farm of five friends to access this special cow” is one of degree and game meaning, not psychological type.

I have lots of very good mobile/tablet games. Most take time and either constant attention while playing (Battle Academy, King of Dragon Pass) or waiting for a friend to play their turn (Ascension). Pocket Planes tells me to take a couple of minutes to get things sorted and then reminds me in 20 minutes when I can do it again.

So it’s a very low investment for the illusion of progress (money and business get bigger!) and the sense of, if not exploration, then conquest of the familiar. Starting in the Great Lakes area and finally opening up Toronto. Connecting Vancouver and San Francisco, two of my favorite cities. Saving for that first intercontinental flight. There is no way that I can fail at any of these things – it’s just a matter of time. Of waiting.

It’s a weird and stupid little thing, and I’m kind of hooked. I may get bored of it eventually. But right now I have passengers that need to get to Winnipeg.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • jrr

    I had similar thoughts about Tiny Tower, which has the same little pixel people and the same lack of gameplay. I like when videogames make me feel clever for solving a puzzle, excited from action, interested in a good story, etc – these just make me feel like a lab rat.

  • twoflower

    I played Tiny Tower all the way up to the point where I had every floor available and then put it down and walked away from it very fast. It got to be a bit of a completionist obsession — I wanted to have all the floors, I wanted to see them all, to paint and name them and personalize the workers, etc. Tiny Tower is pretty good at letting you arrange the tower to your liking and express yourself, within the constraints of the game… but to get there requires a supreme amount of time investment.

    Pocket Planes… there’s not much of that customization element present, and once you’ve experienced the core mechanic (open airport, get new plane) you’ve experienced the entire game’s offerings. So, it’s not nearly as fascinating of a toy. On the plus side it moves at a faster pace than Tiny Tower (which could take hours/days to complete a task, in the later stages). So I guess it’s a bit of a wash, there.

  • Nightwish

    I don’t know, even Diablo does nothing for me, maybe I’m just extremely jaded for some reason.

  • Patrick

    I have always found this kind of app interesting. They seem more Skinner Box than game but they can still be quite enticing. Unfortunately, they do nothing for me when I want to play an actual business strategy game. I have tried most of the Kairo Soft games and I find them a bit too light for me as well.

    Does anyone know of any business games (like Railroad Tycoon) that are available for iOS?

  • jj

    Most people just prefer grinding and repetitive tasks to challenges requiring actual thought or skill, because the reward of progress is guaranteed in the former case.

  • Steve Davey

    Patrick, as far as business games for iOS I would recommend GameDev Story and Grand Prix Story by Kairosoft. The games don’t have a super long shelf life (so not like Railroad Tycoon at all really) but they hooked me hard for about a week each. Game Dev story in particular was a great first find recommended by Bill Harris when I first got my iPad so I look back on it fondly.

    I would love if they could remake the Railroad Tycoon games for the iPad but I’m not sure how they could make the interface work.

  • Chris Floyd

    Yeah, I’m hooked too, and kinda embarrassed about it. (Same thing happened with Tiny Tower for me, too. I played that until I got a golden elevator.)

    However, I’m starting to see the flaws–not including that it’s not really a game (that, I expected from the beginning). There are very few *satisfying* activities in the game. Being able to deliver a full load for one city is nice, but it’s really just a matter of luck or of spending more money than you earn to collect everything up in multiple cities first. Most of the time, I’m one piece of cargo away from having a “full set” and I’m leaving behind random layovers to do it. I feel like in a game like as I’m more successful things should get more orderly, not less. But flying things around and taking whatever opportunity I can get for maximum cash (stranding a George Washington look-alike in Cuzco for a week) makes me feel sloppy. Put another way: There’s no “well oiled machine option” in this game.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Great comment, Floyd, probably because there is no machine at all – it’s barely a system. I didn’t play Tiny Towers – were its stores as disjointed from each other as the cities are in PP?

  • Chris Floyd

    Tiny Tower was a much cleaner model. The floors were pretty much totally independent of each other. But the game wasn’t about connecting anything. You just got more: more residences, more workers, more stores, more income, taller tower. Floors would make money without you doing anything except periodically restocking them. The more complex interactions were special events: A visitor that would buy out all of your inventory at once, or would attract twice as many customers to the place for a certain amount of time.

    Another interesting difference between the two is that your little people—the ones who lived in your building and worked at the shops actually had properties or qualities. They would do better working at some stores than others, and each one had one type of store that they REALLY wanted to work in. A lot of the hook was trying to match up all your little people by finally getting the stores they were interested in. This was a gamble because the stores that appeared were random; you could only pick one of four or five categories (food, service, etc.). The analog in PP are the pilots, but they’re just flash (I haven’t re-dressed a single one of them). The passengers have the place they want to go to, but then they’re gone and who cares? So I think the game has less personality than Tiny Tower did, or is at least less about the cute little Bitizens.

  • Bruce

    Hey you made the Penny Arcade Report!