Virtual Economy Analysis: The Simpsons: Tapped Out October 18 2013

The Simpsons: Tapped Out  is currently the top grossing iOS app in the US and several other markets, and the 2nd top grossing app on the entire Android platform. In this analysis, I will try to summarize the monetization strategies and virtual economy features of this city-building and management game developed by EA Studios, and even venture to suggest how the game could be improved.

The reason why I wanted to cover The Simpsons is simple. It is the biggest. It has the biggest developer, highest production costs (those original voice actors can’t be cheap!) and some of the biggest revenues of mobile games currently on the market. The high production costs alone would make me analyze this, as mobile game design is normally thought as a low-budget enterprise. High-budget productions, especially in gaming and film, tend to conservative affairs that follow a thoroughly tested formula. Does this hold true in the new medium of mobile games?

First impressions: Social game with high production values

The core loop of the game is about building a city – Simpsons’ Springfield. By building, you unlock characters who can perform different actions. The characters earn you money and donuts, the currencies of the game.

In the tutorial missions and some way after, the high production values really show. Sounds are varied and well designed, response times are fast and the user interface is easy to use. The game brims with content. The six month old game already incorporates three expansion packs.  

The tutorial follows the tried-and-true method of introducing the player to both the gameplay and the in-app purchases. The first five levels are done within the first 30 minutes. At this point you should have obtained enough money and donuts to last for a few levels more. Money is the soft currency of the game, relatively easy to obtain by playing the game. Donuts are the hard currency: rare, valuable and required in copious amounts to get the best items and the most profitable buildings. Donuts can also be used to increase building speed.

Every resource in the game has to be collected from the map manually after it has been earned, which engages players to log in more often. The developers have ensured that this interaction feels really juicy. Collection animations and sounds are designed to make resource collecting fun instead of a chore. Many games could learn from the user flow of The Simpsons, as moving about and doing things in the game is incredibly smooth. The only thing distracting the experience for me were the several updates that took a while to complete. 

Progress in The Simpsons: Tapped Out is measured in levels that are gained with XP, with more XP required for higher levels. As the figure above shows, the first levels are easy to reach, but the XP requirements rise steeply as the game progresses. The abrupt rise in XP requirements that starts in the 20rd level also marks the end of the launch content. All levels after level 20 have been released in post-launch expansion packs. Steepening the experience requirements on the later levels makes sense for several reasons. First, it’s an inexpensive way to stretch out content and provide goals for players. Second, ramping up the requirements serves the monetization strategy, as it creates incentives to spend hard currency to speed up progression. Finally, high-level players are more inclined to accept steeper requirements since they have already committed considerable amounts of time (and possibly money) into the game. While a new player faced with such high requirements might stop playing, committed players are much more likely to continue.

The friend mechanic of “alternate Springfields” shows how great a city that has progressed further looks like, encouraging players to develop their own Springfields and to add their friends. This should benefit both user acquisition and retention.  Another feedback type mechanism that encourages playing is the “Conform-o-Meter”, a meter that rises depending on several different measurements, including “Gluttony” (build more restaurants) and “Vanity” (more decorations). The Conform-o-Meter’s reading provides percentage bonuses to XP earnings and in-game money earned from buildings and completed missions. Besides encouraging construction, it also encourages players to diversify their purchases. If you only have a lot of one measure, such as gluttony, you will miss out on bonuses from other stats.  

Thus far, the game’s design seems right out of a Zynga textbook: monetization mechanics, gambling, login hooks and lots of notifications are all there. Everything is designed to ensure that the player knows how to play, returns to play again, and especially understands why they should pay for the in-app purchases. Still, all this is achieved with style. The user flow to the store feels remarkably smooth (it is one of the first things presented in the tutorial) and aggressive in-game advertising and merchandising of the purchases is completely absent. 

The virtual economy: Tight core loop, no surprises in item pricing


The core loop of the virtual economy of The Simpsons: Tapped Out is depicted in the figure above. The figure shows that the core loop is quite typical for a city building game. Real money consumption speeds up soft currency production. Soft currency production offers diminishing returns, which encourages more real money consumption. What sets the game slightly apart from some others is that many kinds of items are needed to maximize the productivity gains, thus encouraging the buying of all types of items, not just a few. Every resource has a built-in sink and the system is designed optimally to soak in hard currency.

Almost all items in The Simpsons: Tapped Out offer functional gameplay benefits in the form of percentage points added to XP and Money collection over time, making them attractive purchases. However, major characters and buildings are only available for soft currency earned through gameplay, which makes sense in terms of retaining non-paying and low-spending players. Still, there are plenty of useful items that are obtained with hard currency.

The pricing strategy of The Simpsons is slightly peculiar. The figure below illustrates this. Most in-app purchases are priced at the 2-8 dollar range. Cheap consumable items that are meant to be recurring purchases (what we call “popcorn goods”) are absent. So are expensive items targeted at high-spending players (items worth over $20, what we call “whale harpoons”). These often raise ire in players who either cannot afford them or simply don't want not pay for them.

Instead of such tactical offerings, The Simpsons offers a fairly uniform range of purchase options. It is possible to spend a lot, especially if you are using donuts to speed up the action, but for most players, just a few purchases will be enough to make the game more enjoyable. This is true even in the later levels, where player progression slows down. None of the products stand out, and there are no obviously useful purchases that really upgrade the playing experience, unlike, say, the Builder’s Huts in Clash of Clans. With a more creative inventory design, monetization could probably be improved without breaking the game.

This conservative pricing strategy makes sense, because a free Simpsons-themed game by a well known developer is sure to draw a large audience initially. It is safer to attract these customers to play the game over a long time than to scare them off with large price tags or try to cash them out quickly. More expensive content (both in soft and hard currency terms) has been added in the expansion packs, confirming this theory. Periodically added content works well with large developers and large budgets and it can really bring new life into a game. For small studios, this is not as feasible, as the money that could be used for content development is often needed for marketing, as initial audiences and therefore revenues are smaller. 

Conclusions: Big budget, little risk

It is clear that The Simpsons: Tapped Out is more on the traditional side of monetization and some features (like added growth on buying items) are straight from another Electronic Arts mobile game: The Sims Mobile. It seems that my guess was correct: big budget means conservative design. The Simpsons is almost like a traditional social game, following on the footsteps of Facebook games that are already several years old and well tested and analyzed.

Simpsons: Tapped Out is a success of high production values, monetization and analytics rather than innovative game design. The gameplay is slow and rather unexciting compared to other games in the market. The gradual slowing down of the gameplay may not in the long run satisfy customers who have more engaging options available in the market. With a bit of creativity and added player engagement, retention rates could be much higher and the game would have a longer life span, even without content upgrades.

EA Mobile has a vast amount of consumer data at their disposal from their earlier successes, and it is likely that this data along with the hugely popular franchise has contributed a lot to the continuing success of The Simpsons: Tapped Out. The numbers speak for themselves: bigger apparently makes better, at least in terms of profits. But as others have showed, this is not the only way to victory. It is possible to do with a lot less. Stay tuned for the next edition of Virtual Economy Analysis!

Designing Virtual Markets for Fun and Profit: Vili Lehdonvirta's GDC lecture online April 01 2013

Here are the slides of my Game Developers Conference 2013 talk Designing Virtual Markets for Fun and Profit. To hear the audio of the talk, view the presentation on Slideshare. Thanks to the hundreds of people who showed up and asked smart questions (and special thanks to you all for granting me and Ted Castronova our little special request at the end;).

My consulting practice, Virtual Economists, is about to publish a new product: F2P Games Virtual Goods & Currencies Pricing Report + Data. You can preorder it now at a reduced price to have it delivered in May. This is what pays for my GDC trips, so if you like my talks, check it out! We also supply reports and data on mobile and social virtual goods and currencies.

Designing Virtual Markets for Fun and Profit

Game Developers Conference, San Francisco, 27 March 2013

Today's games are full of different kinds of markets for buying and selling virtual goods and currencies, such as item shops, auction houses, NPC vendors, and real-money marketplaces. Some markets are player-to-player, some are publisher-to-player, and some involve even more parties. Some markets are fun to use, some are quick and efficient, and some generate social interaction. Based on economic theory, consulting experience, and real examples, this lecture shows you how to approach this complex space in a structured manner in order to design great markets that support your gameplay or monetization goals. 

About the speaker: Dr Vili Lehdonvirta is one of the world's leading scholars dealing with virtual goods and currencies. He is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, an adjunct professor at the University of Turku, and the principal author of the World Bank report on virtual economies. He has advised leading interactive entertainment companies including Rovio (Angry Birds), Sulake (Habbo), CCP Games (EVE Online), Digital Chocolate, Gameforge, and Live Gamer. He has lectured at the Game Developers Conference, Game Developers Conference China, Online and Social Games Summit, Virtual Goods Summit, and numerous other industry events. Before his academic career, Lehdonvirta worked as a game developer, creating some of the web's first real-time multiplayer games with a micropayment revenue model. His book on virtual economy design (with Edward Castronova) will be published by MIT Press.