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.