I wanted to hate Pocket Planes, I really did. At first, Nimblebit’s follow-up to its freemium iOS hit Tiny Tower certainly felt like the same species of cute-but-empty time-suck. “Iteration without innovation,” my original notes read. “Feels like work. Again.”
“Feels like work” is the most prominent, and probably most accurate, criticism of Nimblebit’s design approach. In the analysis of Tiny Tower I wrote last year, I described the game as an exercise in Frederick W. Taylor’s theory of scientific management. The player is driven to strive for maximum efficiency, to eliminate the smallest wasteful actions, just as early 20th-century factory workers were trained to minimize wasteful movements. To be “good” at Tiny Tower, you had to be good at policing yourself. Chiefly, you needed to discard any pretense that your actions meant anything: Min-maxing wasn’t a strategy, it was the game. There was no defined victory condition, only endless growth.
Pocket Planes operates on a similar conceit. Instead of building a skyscraper, you amass a fleet of airplanes as you expand your services to cities across the globe. Ferry passengers and cargo to earn money to buy new airports and aircraft to ferry more passengers and cargo. It’s easy to see this game as yet another hamster wheel, and to some degree it certainly is. But while I wanted to hate Pocket Planes, I've found myself too fascinated with its design to stop playing. More than any other iOS game in recent memory, Pocket Planes simultaneously embodies both the best and worst facets of mobile game design.
Let’s start with the worst. If you’ve played a freemium game in the last few years, you’ve probably encountered the dreaded “energy” mechanic — an artificial constraint that limits your ability to play until you kick in real-world money, or wait until a timer refreshes in real time. Simon Parkin’s recent editorial calls energy “one of the most disruptive and effective design concepts to hit the game industry,” but “also one of the most pernicious.”
Pocket Planes doesn’t employ “energy” per se, but it does chain you to the clock. Depending on distance, each flight takes a certain number of real-world minutes to complete. Once you’ve sent each of your aircraft off on its path, there’s nothing to do but wait. You can warp your planes to their destinations by spending “bux,” but bux are rare, and you also need them to buy planes and aircraft parts. Like many other freemium games, Nimblebit’s titles have two forms of currency — bux and coins — and the design compels the player to spend the more valuable currency to progress. More bux are available in the store for real-world money, of course. This could be seen as a monetization tactic masquerading as gameplay, which strikes many players as more insulting than clever.
And Pocket Planes is pretty transparent in this regard. I wasn’t quite accurate when I said there was nothing to do but wait while your planes are in the air. As you watch a plane fly, coins (and the occasional bux) will float by, and a quick tap will add them to your coffers. It’s a bizarre visual manifestation of the in-game economy, an almost literal drip-feed of currency that is at once practical — bux are valuable, after all — and also off-putting. It’s a bit disenchanting to see a constant visual reminder that your growing airline empire is really only about money.
Yet the floating coins are perhaps the perfect symbol for Pocket Planes’ odd fusion of design approaches. They alleviate one of the key issues with Tiny Tower, the scarcity of currency. Bux are much easier to come by, both as payments for flights and as floating freebies. And in one sense, the floating money is entirely appropriate for a game that makes no pretense of character development or narrative. The bitizens you ferry around are, if possible, even less interesting than in Tiny Tower, since you learn nothing about them other than how many coins they’ll give you to get to their destination. (Though one might argue that’s the perfect representation of the real-world airline industry.)
The strategic layer to Pocket Planes is similarly thin. There's just enough decision-making to keep you engaged most of the time: Which route is the most cost-efficient? Which airport hub should I open next? Should I spend my cash on a new airplane slot or upgrading my existing fleet? Yet not much heavy critical thinking is needed until you’ve ranked up to about level 10 and have to start deciding which airports and airplanes to upgrade (or shut down) to best serve your growing empire.
This internal debate adds some complexity to your play, but doesn’t address the bigger issue, which is why there is a leveling-up system at all. Your level is tied to the number of airports you can have open, but how gaining XP works is obscure at best. The XP system also seems at odds with the economic system; why isn’t opening airports only dependent on cash reserves? If the idea is to keep players grinding, shouldn’t the one system suffice? And without a defined end, a victory condition that will make all the grinding worthwhile. Here I think Pocket Planes falls into the common mobile-game trap of bolting on systems in service of an unclear goal. The more a mechanic feels like an artificial constraint, the easier it gets to become disillusioned with the game.
It’s easy to see lots of missed opportunities in Pocket Planes. The type of cargo you carry is irrelevant, for example: There’s no incentive to deliver medical supplies as opposed to live bees, and all cargo apparently weighs the same. It could also have been interesting to see more explicitly how plane weight or design could affect flight efficiency, or to see what happens when a passenger is left at a layover for too long. (As far as I can tell, they’re content to camp out in the airport indefinitely.)
Yet on the other hand it’s refreshing, particularly given that this is a mobile game meant to be played in quick intervals on a train or waiting in line, that the objectives are so transparently meaningless. “Feels like work” is one of the chief reasons I’ll give up on an RPG. Just because I’m retrieving the Rending Maleficent Cudgel of Blistering Destiny to unite the Ancient Shamanic Fiefdom of Challamurragate doesn’t mean I’m not just going on another damned fetch quest. Why is that any less like work than ferrying sandwiches to Saskatoon?
One of the strengths of great mobile games is that they cut through the fluff to emphasize mechanics, demonstrating an awareness that the player, who is probably on the go, doesn’t have the time or attention span for anything else. Nimblebit has refined fluff-reduction to an art. Pocket Planes may be somewhat crass in its transparency and simplicity, but at least it doesn’t contribute to narrative fatigue.
The ever-present “Tweet” button does get tiresome, though. I understand that mobile games have unique opportunities to advertise through social media, but at a certain level of saturation games can very easily start feeling like viruses. I wonder here, as I wondered with Sword & Sworcery, whether the ultimate purpose of the game is to propagate itself. While Pocket Planes’ social layer is somewhat built out in that there are rewards for contributing to a successful “flight crew,” there is no in-game interaction to speak of between crew members — and if the global event every crew is sending jobs to isn’t located in your corner of the world, you’re useless. At least until the next event comes along.
But perhaps the best example of a feature that’s simultaneously irritating and effective is the use of notifications. It should go without saying that the iPhone is Pocket Planes’ natural habitat; without the device in your pocket, the periodic Pavlovian ding of a landing plane doesn’t work as easily. That little sound, like the Achievement Unlocked bloop on the Xbox 360, has a curiously compelling effect. It makes you feel as if you’ve accomplished something meaningful when you’ve simply pressed a few buttons. But more importantly, it draws you back into the game, prompting you to send that aircraft off on its next flight lest you waste valuable time keeping it idle. In this relentless focus on efficiency, Pocket Planes is very much like its predecessor. With apologies to Southwest Airlines, “Wanna get away?” is something of an ironic question here. That little cabin ding is always pulling you right back in.
Certainly it can get irritating, feeling the need to take out your phone every few minutes to accomplish some menial, unnecessary task. Yet I think Nimblebit realizes that people do that already (often without regard for other human beings in their physical company). If they can make playing their game as routine as checking Twitter, why not do it? In the mobile space, there’s only so much attention to spare. For a mobile game developer, attention means survival — and Nimblebit wants to secure yours as efficiently as possible.
So I'm left ambivalent about Pocket Planes. Nimblebit's refinements to its formula have succeeded in making work feel more fun, if only incrementally. They've tuned that drip-feed of progress to a more precise focus. And maybe it's the change of conceit, but growing an airline empire across the globe certainly feels more satisfying than restocking shelves in an indefinitely under-construction tower. Yet in this always-on world, is a game that demands our constant attention really what we need? If you really Wanna Get Away, maybe the first step is switching off.