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.

Massive price cut for proprietary virtual goods and currencies data May 06 2012

I'm happy to report that we've now sold enough copies of the Social Games Virtual Goods & Currencies Pricing Report and Data 1/2012 to cover their production costs. To celebrate this, we've downright slashed the prices! You can now get the report for $149, and the bundle containing both the report and the data for as little as $199!

Wondering how to maximize your virtual goods revenues? Save yourself the homework and learn the numbers using our painstakingly collected data set of over 3,000 virtual items and over 100 virtual currency packages, giving you an unprecedented view to the monetization strategies of some of the most successful games on the planet. It's no secret that top publishers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and experimentation to determine best-selling prices and virtual goods assortments. Our reports and data offer a very cost-effective shortcut to some of the most important insights in the field.

Photo: (CC) BY 2.0 _sarchi

Designing Successful Virtual Currency by Breaking (Almost) Every Rule in the Economics Textbook March 08 2012

Here are the slides from my presentation given at Game Developers Conference 2012 on 7 March. Click through to Slideshare and open the notes tab to see a partial transcript of the things that I discussed during the 1-hour lecture. I really enjoyed giving the talk. The room was packed and I got some great questions and comments at the end. Thanks to everyone for attending! The conversation continues on Twitter.

Virtual Economists' Vili Lehdonvirta speaks about virtual currency design at Game Developers Conference tomorrow at 2pm March 06 2012

I'm giving a one-hour lecture on virtual currency design at the GDC tomorrow (Wed 7 Mar) at 2pm. The venue is Moscone Center, West Hall, 3rd Fl, Room 3022. Find me after the talk to get a GDC attendee discount code for Virtual Economists' new Virtual Goods & Currencies Pricing Reports and Data for social games and mobile games.

My previous GDC talk on virtual goods design was a hit and has since been viewed over 7,000 times on slideshare. Below is the abstract of tomorrow's talk. See you there!

Designing Virtual Currency by Breaking (Almost) Every Rule in the Economics Textbook
Many games today feature virtual money of some sort, whether a "hard currency" sold for real money or a "soft currency" earned through play. The question that this lecture answers is, how do you design money? Not how do players obtain money, nor how do they spend it - but how do you design the money itself. Economists have identified around a dozen attributes of a good money - the kind of money that makes an economy efficient. These attributes make a great guideline for designing serious digital currencies. But in game design, we don't always want things to be efficient - we might want them to be challenging and fun instead. In this lecture, we therefore turn the economists' advice on its head and come up with a guideline for designing "bad money"! Both historical and virtual examples are included.