In an age where game studios are talking to behavioral psychologists and hiring retention experts and monetization specialists in a rush to juice the most out of free-to-player gamers, there's at least one studio developing free-to-play games that doesn't care about metrics, compulsion loops, and user acquisition. Game business never informs game design at NimbleBit. Fun is first, the mechanics of free-to-play are secondary.

Pocket Planes is the next big thing from the two-man studio, and it's philosophically linked with its other titles. Without shaking a virtual change cup in your face, Pocket Planes gives you a vibrant and customizable world and ownership over it as you ferry a fleet of planes from one airport to the next. Designers David and Ian Marsh believe that these components will be enough to organically drive the free-to-play aspect. No business trickery is required.

The Art Of Good Free-To-Play

"[Our] philosophy is to consider monetization as little as possible during the design of the game," Ian tells TouchArcade. "The in-game currencies are balanced to be a natural part of the game without the option to even purchase more during design and beta," he points out. "Adding IAP and deciding how much to charge is always one of the last things we do before launch. We take care to make sure that everything in the game is accessible and achievable without every purchasing IAP."

Ian and David proved that this approach works with Tiny Tower. The game made money even though monetization aspects weren't a focal point. The game also did well with critics, earning all sorts of amazing reviews and even a Game of the Year nod in 2011 from the editorial team at Apple. Millions of people played Tiny Tower, too.

Pocket Planes is still deeply in beta, but I'm as hopelessly ... hooked on it as I was Tiny Tower. Every ten or so minutes I pick up my phone and plan more flights. When I'm not playing, I spend time thinking about new planes and creative ways to expand my cash and transport flow. Should I grind in my current selection of airports until I can buy New York's airport? Or should I keep expanding with much smaller airports to broaden my empire, and slowly build up the necessary resources to acquire international hubs? What if I converted all my fleet to four-seat airplanes? How much could I earn then?

These are the questions running through my head, in part because the simulation aspect of the experience is so good. But I'm also just straight-up invested in the world that I'm creating, and I want to keep making it bigger and better. There are so many small, yet beautiful touches in Pocket Planes that drive my mania. I can name all my planes and customize each of my pilots. My passengers post their thoughts on an in-app Facebook client called "BitBook." I can buy any airport that I can afford, and I can also upgrade it to make it bigger and better. I can build my planes and when I watch them fly, I can collect the game's two currencies randomly floating in the air. Pocket Planes also knows when I'm flying. The day and night cycle is synced to the real world. When I receive a Push notification, my phone emits a soft airplane cabin ding.

These are the aspects that David and Ian believe drive users to spend. These are the things it spends all of its time developing. There is no conversation about loops or feedback. The duo spend their time making games with character, real progression, and meaningful stuff. Their games have a soul.

"I'm not sure if there is some kind of secret sauce, but we definitely focus a lot of time on adding lots of things to our simulation games that make them feel like a functional little world inside," David tells us. "I think the stronger the feeling that there is a buzzing simulation going on inside the game, the more fun it is to influence it and use your actions to mould and direct it."

"I agree with Dave completely," Ian says. "The more detail and emotion you put into these little worlds the more immersed players become and the more they enjoy spending time with it."

"I think the customization has a lot to do with it as well," he continues. "That isn't just a plane flying in the game, it is your plane that you named yourself and spent time finding the perfect paint job for. In Tiny Tower, it isn't just a generic bakery, it's Brad's Bread with interior decoration of his choosing and hand picked employees that took work for him to recruit."

David explains that Tiny Tower and the feedback blowing up NimbleBit's inbox is actively informing the development of Pocket Planes. Users are lauding their game design ideals and are actually thanking David and Ian for making a fun game first.

"I think we definitely are trying to strike the same balance and attitude in all our future free-to-play games because it resonates with players and matches the type of games we prefer to play ourselves," David says. "The other thing we have learned from Tiny Tower and also Pocket Frogs is that the more we can stimulate players imaginations the better. The kind of fan art and fan communities that have grown around those games is amazing and that is a target we are always aiming for."

Pocket Planes is shaping up to be a tremendous game and my praise is coming at a time when more and more new free-to-play games continue to feel like skinner boxes instead of fun things to play with. Ian and David are doing important work here, proving that free-to-play doesn't need to inform fundamental game design.

"Even without spending a dime, players become heavily invested in these worlds because of their character and charm -- not some carefully crafted compulsion loop. That is what keeps them coming back," Ian says.

Fun doesn't need to cost a penny, and that's what NimbleBit strives to make a reality with each release.

  • ZenMonkey

    I completely agree with that last statement. All a player of a Nimblebit game needs is a little extra patience to achieve whatever she wants. There are people who automatically dismiss freemiums because of the very existence of IAP, but the true measure of a game is whether it leads the player to buy, or provides only a boost if the player desires it. There are a surprising number of decent (and invariably small-developer) games that achieve this -- and those are the only games where I actually will buy something once, as a thank-you.

  • Inaba-kun

    Tiny Tower was a mindless timer grind fest, it really was horribly, horribly over-rated. Mega Mall story did the same thing infinitely better and without the obnoxious in-app purchases. 

    I know you guys like to champion the indies here, but Nimblebit are really nothing special. They're using the same, extremely tired and lazy blocky art style every other indie does, and free to play simply means free from fun unless you enjoy being fleeced by in-app purchases of imaginary currency. There wasn't even any real gameplay in Tiny Tower, just moving a collection of jumbo pixels up and down in a lift and waiting for timers to reach zero.

    The app store actually has some quality games now, such as anything by Cave or Epic. Those are the games with genuinely high production values which push the app store in the right direction - towards a more realistic price tag with no reliance on in-app purchases at all.  The race to the bottom, and free really is as low as you can go, has poisoned the app store.

    • VirtualBoyFreak

      Inaba-kun, we sometimes need some mindless timer grind fest games to disconnect from real life a bit.

      I generally consider myself a freemium hater, but I have two exceptions: NimbleBit and SuperMono. They've made great freemium games such as Tiny Tower and Forever Drive respectively.

      Sure, I prefer premium games, but out of all the freemium garbage, those two devs sure make good games.

    • Adams Immersive

      Actually, I’d say their pixel art style is quite distinctively their own, and the IAP in Tiny Tower is so un-obnoxious I forget the option even exists!

      Certainly this genre of game is not for everyone (I enjoy it only to a point myself, and no further). I like the extreme simplicity of TT vs. other sims. And yes, the look too.

      I too bemoan the race to the bottom—but it’s driven by gamers as much as anyone. Sell your game for more and watch it fail, sadly. Unless, just maybe, you have a giant team, a brand name, and/or a giant marketing budget to back you up.

    • maniacfive

      You've fallen into the classic internet mistake of dismissing an argument by stating your opinion like its fact. You can disagree, but try not to make blanket statements.

      Funny though, becase the two devs you mention, utterley irrelevant. Cave might be AAA, but the games they put out are very niche, and due to the price, outside the 'take a punt mark' for many. An obvious different market to s games which appeal toma wide market, from kids to grandparents.

      And Epic. Sure IB is great, but honestly Pocket Frogs was more successful at being a social thing than clashmobs is. Just look at the size of the trading thread!

      • Derek Chin

        Whatever else might be said, it is true that Tiny Tower is, mechanically, no different than the standard appointment gaming rampant in the "hated" category.  The only reason Tiny Tower avoids that distinction is that they are much less obnoxious about the IAP.   And the mentioned example of Mega Mall Story is a good contrast - a game with a similar theme that has a lot more gameplay depth.

        It doesn't mean Tiny Tower is bad though. Appointment gaming, at least for the time being, is pretty popular and I'd argue that Tiny Tower is one of the better iterations, even when ignoring the IAP factor.

      • Charles Albert

        so what? shoud we look into trading thread instead of playability? sorry, but he stated facts: yes, their games are 
        gameplay-wise almost non-existant; yes, their formula has really nothing special. It may amuse a lot of people, but gameplay-wise it is horrible.

      • Inaba-kun

        My apologies, I thought it was taken as read that the stuff people hammer out in comment threads is by and large, their opinion. I'll remember to add "in my opinion" at the end of every sentence.

        If you think Cave are too obscure (perhaps in the West, they're not obscure in Japan), then how about SquareEnix as another example of an iOS dev avoiding the freemium route? Their games are of mixed quality to be sure, but Chaos Rings 2 has had more effort put into it than pretty much every freemium game put together. 

        I come from a console background, I'm used to paying a high price and getting a high quality game. I don't want to be forced to wait to play again, (or pay real money to speed the timer up), or be stuck with games so shallow you end up doing mindless busywork and nothing else. That's not to say indie games can't be amazing, look at Journey on the PS3 for a great example. Beautiful visuals, and a great, original game design. 

        In my opinion of course.

    • Charles Albert

      Whew, started to think that no one was going to press the reality button around here, thanks!

    • Fluffeh

      Tiny Tower is an overrated grind fest and Nimblebit is nothing special? I shall be deleting Tiny Tower off my iPad immediately. Thank you for the information.

      But seriously, why do you have to jump on every Nimblebit related post?

      • mclifford82

        But seriously, why do there have to be SO MANY Nimblebit related posts?

      • Eli Hodapp

        Because Nimblebit has an absolutely massive fan base here. The Pocket Frogs thread is the most popular thread in the history of TouchArcade. The better question is, why do you feel the need to comment on stories that don't interest you instead of giving your mouse wheel an additional flick and going on with your day?

      • mclifford82

        Only the first part of your reply was strictly necessary, as it answers the question I asked.  To answer the question you have of me:  I chose to comment because I am interested.  If I wasn't, I would have just given my mouse a care-free flick and been on my way.

        Thanks for the reply.

  • Cat Astrophy

    No need to grind when you can just change your system clock to exploit the real-time barrier lol

    • maniacfive

      That caused problems in Tiny Tower, probably true here.

  • Laszlo Tuss

    Its okay, but next time they should make a REAL game.
    I like them, but i wouldn't pay for stupid in game currency!
    Make a game where is money can be bought by real money, buts only for fastening game time. Like in Infinity Blade and so many others.

  • Jason Hill

    I am STILL playing Tiny Tower and Pocket Frogs. I think pocket planes will be my game of the year this year. Nimblebit is, without a doubt, the best game company for iOS. I can't wait until it comes out.

  • Charles Albert

    Hey, they are really great at doing pretty non-games with near zero playability. Wake me up when they start making real games, please.

    This article is a waste. The guys are great, but the "games" are really meh.

    • mclifford82

      Pretty games?  No.  All of their characters have downs syndrome.

    • gjgustav

      That's a matter of opinion. I'd rather play this than a 3D FPS any time. I don't want to sit down for an hour+ long immersive gaming session. I'm a busy person - I want to pick up a game play for a few minutes and be able to put it down again. Nimblebit offers that.

  • Gavan Woolery

    I actually enjoyed Tiny Tower and think the NimbleBit brothers are great, but IAP is inherently manipulative (at least to those with a bank account), whether or not they intend it.  If the option is there to spend $5 or 50 hours of grinding in the game, of course I will pay $5.

    • csgbroseph

      IAP is only "inherently manipulative" to people with no will power. I think there are plenty of people immune to the urges of IAP.

      • mclifford82

        Sure there are.  His point is still valid.

    • gjgustav

      Well good, then. If you are weak willed and want to pay money instead of actually play the game, then do so. That doesn't make it a bad thing. Especially since you are subsidizing my free play because I do have the will power. 😉

      Nobody has a gun to your head. You have the choice. Play the game, or pay for shortcuts.

  • ohwussup

    charles albert, i know you have a strong opinion - but is it really that strong that you need to hate on other peoples' idea of a great game?  where is your game?

    • mclifford82

      So only Nimblebit love-fests are allowed here?  His opinion is just as valid as anyone else's.

      I won't even go into how idiotic and immature the whole "where is your game" question is.  As if someone has to create video games to be able to critique them.

  • Vinvy

    People keep saying it's good freemium because the IAP is unobtrusive. I keep thinking, "But where is the game, does that have to be unobtrusive as well?" 

    I played Tiny Tower for a while, but would prefer a freemium game I actually play than one I barely even have to sit and watch, and which doesn't seem to progress or change beyond the first 20 minutes. Actually I would prefer no freemium, because freemium to me doesn't instantly mean "IAP", it means, "Boring gameplay."

    I don't know why TA and the community loves them so much, I think it has to do with the underdog story, but Nimblebit games falls into the same traps all freemium games fall into, lack of fun, interesting, gameplay. It's just a stat game minus a lot of the game, and Kairosoft does that with at least a bit of depth and flavor, and without the IAP.

    I do wish Nimblebit all the best though, they are obviously making money, and keeping some people happy; but its always sad to see devs go this route, NGMOCO did it, a far more interesting studio, and failed. How much longer can Nimblebit keep up their underdog image?

  • nickmorgs

    I struggle to see the attraction with Angry Birds but i'm also able to accept that i'm in a minority.

    • Vinvy

      Don't ever let that hold you back from voicing your opinion. 

  • Ruby

    anyoye have idea when will this app be released?>

    • Jacob007

      Summer 2012

  • Jacob007

    Looking forward to it. Just hope theres not as much IAP.