Free-to-play games often look appealing, but it’s difficult to know at a glance whether the business model is insidious and fun ruining, or reasonable and worth pumping a few bucks into. With Freemium Field Test, we’ll take a recent free-to-play iOS game, put it through its paces, and let you know if it’s really worth your time (and money).
If the original Tiny Tower was NimbleBit’s homage to the classic SimTower, then the new Bit City is clearly its take on the better-known SimCity. In both cases, the mobile “tribute” offers a significantly streamlined version of the same core premise, and this time around, you’ll gradually build up your city simply by tapping menus and amassing coins.
But where SimCity’s urban settings felt like real places with interconnected systems and consequences for your actions, Bit City is pretty much just a spending spree: you’ll earn and invest as much money as you can in a location before flipping up to somewhere larger… and doing it all again. But while Bit City is certainly streamlined, there’s still a mindless allure to it.
You won’t see much when you first start up Bit City: a tiny little town with just a few empty plots of land. Tap one and you can place a business, residential, or service (like a school or park) property in the spot. You won’t get to choose what kind of building or property goes there, but it doesn’t really matter anyway: once you tap the yellow Build button on the bottom, a random property on your map undergoes construction and is replaced with something new.
Why? That’s not entirely clear, but doing so increases the amount of money you make every second you play, as seen up top. That tally will continue to balloon with nearly every action you take in the game, whether it’s buying new properties, building atop old ones, raising taxes, or buying cars, boats, and planes to populate the world. Every bit of spending earns you more and more income over time; of course, then new properties cost more as well.
Filling every open plot of land is your goal in each city, and once you do so, you’re free to tap a button and start anew in the next, larger, different-looking location. Despite never again seeing your ever-changing properties from the last area, there’s a gradual sense of progression here: the decisions you make (by spending coins), like raising certain taxes or automating some of the building, carry over into the next city, plus you’ll still earn a small portion of money from the cities you left behind.
You’ll continue to earn ample funds when the game is on your screen, whether you’re tapping Build or not—and you’ll also make a smaller amount of money when you’re not playing, which you’ll collect the next time you open up the app. It’s like last year’s entertaining Best Fiends Forever in that respect, especially since you can amplify your earnings by watching an ad (more on that shortly). And it means that you’ll always have some fresh money to play with every time you launch the game.
But what starts to sink in after a while is that Bit City has no real stakes; as mentioned before, there are no apparent consequences to your admittedly minimal actions here. You can constantly raise taxes on your citizens, but they’ll never move away or revolt. You can fill a city with all businesses, despite the game claiming “very low demand” after the first few, and the population will still increase. It’s simply a game about spending money to make more money.
And you can spend real money, of course! Luckily, Bit City doesn’t make that feel like the default expectation at all, and truth be told, the benefits can be pretty minimal.
What’s more appealing is watching video ads in exchange for benefits. Watching a 30-second ad for some other mobile game or app initiates 10 minutes of Double Time, wherein all income is doubled, construction times are halved, and more bonus coins and Bux appear on the screen. It’s such a drastic enhancement that playing without Double Time quickly feels pointless, so you may be tempted to watch an ad for every 10 minutes you play. That’s what I did.
Alternately, you can spend $5 outright to enable Double Time forever, without ads. I stuck with the video ads, but you might not tolerate the recurring interruption. Also beneficial is watching a video ad when you come back after hours away. Maybe your city amassed 10 billion coins while you were out… but wouldn’t you rather have 20 billion coins to play with? It’s a pretty easy decision to make, and watching a video is the only way to get that bonus.
The premium Bux appear here and there as bonuses from cars and other vehicles, and you’ll also earn them for completing objectives (like constructing 50 buildings). However, they’re also sold in bundles ranging from 3,500 Bux for $5 to 25,000 Bux for $20.
There’s also a cool twist here: you’ll also gradually build up a Pension Pig bank of Bux as you play, and you can only crack that bank by paying $3 in real money. That’s a bad deal if you have, say, 100 Bux in there. But if you wait, it becomes a relative deal compared to the other bundles: I redeemed 4,852 Bux when I finally spent my $3. That gave me a nice stack of premium currency to work with, but ultimately, the benefits seemed minor.
You can spend Bux on in-game benefits, like extending how long your bank collects money when you’re not playing, or reducing vehicle costs—or you can pay to “Fast Forward” the game, which gives you a speedy chunk of coins without the wait. There are also premium buildings to unlock, including real-life icons like the Eiffel Tower and White House, and each comes with a sizable coin earning bonus. However, the top-tier buildings also cost nearly $10 worth of Bux apiece, so it’s a pretty massive investment for a tiny building on your digital map.
There’s something entrancing about Bit City at first, and in the early couple of days, I’d play at every opportunity. I wanted to amass money and boost my earning power, seemingly sure that some great reward awaited in exchange for my diligent play. However, that initial allure faded quite a bit once I realized how superficial this spending-centric simulation really is. After the first few cities, I grew tired of the grind.
Bit City has a “Prestige” option that lets you cash in much of your progress and start over at the first city, with the benefit being a percentage earnings bonus based on how much you had amassed. Rather than just continue flipping cities and moving ahead, you’ll begin anew while pulling in more income.
That’s meant to be appealing, but once I’d pressed the button and realized that the grind was back to square one, I realized that I didn’t have the patience to do it all over again. It’s the complete opposite effect that’s intended, but in an instant, Bit City became Quit City, population: me. And I think I’m staying there.