I’ve been messing around lately with Tiny Tower on the iPad 1. If you haven’t played it, the gist is that you build up a tower full of “bitizens” who live in your tower’s apartments and work in its shops. Employed bitizens make money over time, which you can spend to build ever more floors to get more shops to employ more bitizens to make more money. You can speed this process up by spending “tower bux” which you can either earn in-game or buy with real money. It’s very much a “wait to play” game where you check in on it, stock your shops, then check back in a few hours later to restock again and see if you’ve accrued enough money to build a new floor. I’ve currently got 48 floors. 2
You can speed things up by spending tower bux, and you can hasten your accrual of tower bux by exchanging a few real bucks –$30 will net you 1,000 tower bux. Apparently this is doing well for the developers, as Tiny Tower has shown up on the iTunes list of highest grossing apps and it has millions of players. I think they’ve missed an opportunity to make even more money, though, by not taking advantage of something called “benign envy.” 3
The idea is that there are two kinds of envy: benign and malicious. As explained in series of papers by Niels van de Ven and his colleagues 4 the latter is the kind we may be more familiar with –it’s the “They’ve got something I want, I wish they didn’t have it” variety. It especially happens when we don’t think someone deserves some nice new shiny thing that they’ve got. Benign envy, on the other hand, occurs when someone else has something we want, but we think that they deserve to have it. They worked for it, or it’s a just reward for their good character, or whatever.
When we experience benign envy, we don’t want to tear the other person down as much as we want to build ourselves up to get what they have. If doing so seems relatively easy, research has shown that such feelings of benign envy will motivate us to do what we can to close the gap. This may include spending more money to acquire a product that the other person has. In one study, van de Vern made subjects feel envious of a friend who got a desirable internship, and the result was that subjects, who were college students, studied harder to better their chances. In a follow-up study, they inspired envy for a friend who got a new iPhone, to the point where they subjects they’d be willing to pay 64% more for the gadget than would a control group. 5
Where I think Tiny Tower is missing out on some extra revenue is that it doesn’t allow you to purchase
specific shops. The game is largely capricious about what specific shops appear –flag a floor for food and you may get either a Sky Burger or a Fancy Cuisine. This is important because some shops are WAY better than others because of how deep their stocks are, which lets them generate more money while you’re away from the game.
And while Tiny Tower allows you to peek in on your GameCenter friends’ towers and see what shops they have, it doesn’t allow you to do much about it if they have, say, a Tutoring Center that stocks an awesome 5,400 units of “Trig Help” at three coins a pop while the best service shop you have only sells a fraction of that before you have to manually restock. If Tiny Tower let you buy a Tutoring Center with real money, I’d bet they’d make a lot more, especially after people visited their friends and got a little dose of benign envy.
Of course, that’s not to say that people would always see this mechanic as fair or feel annoyed over the fact that their friends are cheapening their luck and persistence by breaking out the credit card. It’s a delicate balancing act. I’m just saying, I really want a Private Investigator before I hit 50 floors.