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I have a growing suspicion that our obsession with smartphones is a bit more distasteful than we acknowledge. More than a useful tool or means of communication, whipping out our iPhone or Android device has grown into a full-fledged nervous tic in our collective subconscious. The truly distasteful part though is that whether it’s scrolling down Twitter feeds or even just swiping back and forth across the rows of icons on our home screen, the tasks we pull out our smartphones to accomplish often equate more to escaping awkward social situations than actually helping us be productive. NimbleBit’s games fit into this strange Pavlovian societal function perfectly—now we’ve got stores to restock, airplanes to board and BitBook profiles to check to fill our empty bus rides and boring conversations with.
In doing research for another article I was writing, I came across a lecture by renown indie developer and game critic Jonathan Blow from a few years ago. In the lecture he was addressing the rise in popularity of social games like FarmVille. He suggested that companies like Zynga purposefully manipulated players into wasting their time, money and attention on a game that lacks any true substance.
Like NimbleBit’s previous smash hit Tiny Tower, Pocket Planes also fits pretty well into this formula. Pocket Planes turns you into an airline tycoon and gives you a host of pixelated buttons to click and meaningless tasks to perform: loading planes full of cargo and passengers, purchasing new planes, leveling up hospitals and checking your passengers’ profile statuses. It doesn’t hide the fact that NimbleBit wants your constant attention or pretend that it’s a deep game. Unfortunately, unlike Tiny Tower’s streamlined interface, Pocket Planes often feels clunky. Whereas Tiny Tower handled much of the clicking and restocking onscreen, Pocket Planes relies on multiple menu-like game screens that are poorly designed and take some getting used to.
NimbleBit is often touted as a casual game developer that “does it right” and Pocket Planes’ respectful freemium model and lack of urgency is a big part of that. I’ve taken Pocket Planes with me everyone where I went for the past week, and I have rarely felt pressured to return back to my airports when it was inconvenient. I never exited real life conversations for the glare of pixels and planes. I never found NimbleBit’s in-game social network BitBook more interesting than my own Facebook feed. Yet compared to mindlessly flipping through my rows of apps, the pulsating taps that Pocket Planes enticed me with with were still surprisingly satisfying.
While I don’t plan on investing nearly as much time into NimbleBit’s newest, Pocket Planes still buzzes like a good pop song. The gameplay is repetitive, catchy and best in small doses. It’s pure and simple pop gaming—addicting, sweet and crunchy, but sure to leave you with a mouth full of cavities.