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!

New report on mobile virtual goods and currencies analyses over 2,000 items July 18 2012

Mobile Games Virtual Goods & Currencies Pricing ReportI'm happy to announce that we've just published our new analysis report focusing on virtual goods and currencies in mobile games. Mobile and tablet games are a rapidly growing category where most revenues now come from in-app purchases. Our analysis is the first in-depth look at how successful publishers are designing and pricing their in-app offerings.

The Mobile Games Virtual Goods & Currencies Pricing Report 1/2012 is based on Virtual Economists' unique manually collected data set covering over 2,000 virtual goods and 200 virtual currency packages in top-grossing mobile titles. The analysis covers such topics as price distribution, pricing for whales, consumables, durables, vanity goods, functional goods and virtual currency quantity discounts. The entire data set is also available for purchase without restrictions. A highly economical bundle containing both the data and the report is also available.

In-app purchase pricing is the factor that most directly influences revenues from a mobile game. Leading publishers invest heavily into optimizing their in-app offerings. Our reports and data are intended to allow any developer to quickly benchmark their lineups against industry leaders, with zero homework required.

The new report is a sister product to our successful Social Games Virtual Goods & Currencies Pricing Report that was well received in the industry.

Virtual Economists Ltd is a virtual economy consulting company founded in 2008 by Dr Vili Lehdonvirta and Eino Joas. Our clients are game developers, publishers, online communities and virtual currency operators around the world. Drop us a line at or follow Virtual Economists on Twitter for news and product announcements.

Why do people buy virtual goods? Answers from three angles March 03 2012

What makes someone buy a virtual good? This is something I get asked a lot, and it's also a topic I did a lot of research on in the past. This post is inteded to serve as a brief summary for those who haven't bothered with this question before, or are perhaps just getting into the virtual goods business.

You can approach the answer to the virtual goods purchases question from three angles:

  1. Unique needs of different user segments. For example, your male twentysomething wants to attract the attention of an online crush (so he buys a virtual bottle of gift champagne), while your pre-teen male wants to feel like a big boy (so he buys a virtual samurai sword).
  2. Game mechanics. For example, if players get hooked on a Tamagochi-style virtual pet that needs to be fed regularly, then soon enough you will have players buying virtual pet food. Likewise a limited energy bar tends to create demand for recharges. More complex mechanics are also common.
  3. Attributes of virtual goods. Here the focus is on what's unique about a particular virtual good that makes it desirable. Why does one virtual samurai sword sell while the other doesn't? What different factors distinguish one item from another and how do you create a good lineup?
Standard consumer research provides answers from the first angle. But to maximize your virtual goods sales you also need to understand the other two.

Concerning the second angle, one resource that you might find helpful is a paper I co-authored with Juho Hamari on the intersection of game mechanics and sales/marketing a few years ago: Game Design as Marketing: How Game Mechanics Create Demand for Virtual Goods. The same topic is today also sometimes examined under the rubric of "gamification".

As for the third angle, a resource that you might find helpful is another fairly popular paper I wrote a few years ago, titled Virtual Item Sales as a Revenue Model: Identifying Attributes that Drive Purchase Decisions. I also gave a presentation on the topic at the GDC 2010 Social & Online Games Summit. The presentation slides are embedded below.