What is the future of The Simpsons video games?

Over its 28 year history, spanning 29 seasons and 600+ episodes, The Simpsons has racked up its fair share of video games. Not content with its breakout success on the Fox network, the show entered into the console world just 2 years after its debut with Bart vs. the Space Mutants in 1991. Business execs were keen to ride the wave of Bartmania sweeping across the nation and fans were equally as eager to play as the “underachiever and proud of it.” It’s no wonder then why 6 more Bart-centric games were released between 1991 and 1992 alone, all to varying degrees of success. Quantity over quality was the driving factor but as the decade progressed, the video games broadened away from Bart’s adventurous exploits and into new territory.

Krusty’s Fun House, released in 1994, was a Lemmings-style puzzle game centred on Krusty’s, er, infamous rat infestation? The Simpsons Cartoon Studio came out a couple of years later in 1996 giving players the ability to create their very own animations, albeit with a rather limited choice of options. (Though once you’ve created murderous lawn mowing Ned Flanders, is there anything else you really need?). And the following year in 1997, we were able to tour ‘America’s Crud Bucket’ itself with Virtual Springfield.

With the television show proving to remain ever as popular into a new millennium, the video games showed no signs of stopping either. The advance in computer graphics and home console power produced a number of video game titles throughout the early noughties from Tony Hawk rip-offs to…Crazy Taxi rip-offs. If parents were worried about their children wishing to indulge in murderous, crime-ridden escapades with the GTA franchise, The Simpsons Hit & Run offered a mighty similar family-friendly alternative in 2003. In fact, the worst you could probably do in ‘GTA: Springfield’ was kick a pedestrian and watch them shoot straight upwards into the air, only to land and carry on as if nothing had ever happened. In 2007 the aptly-named The Simpsons Game was released on just about every home console available at the time and featured a richer storyline with more varied game play.

In the span of 16 years, a whopping 23 video games had been created under The Simpsons license by a variety of developers. 2D platform, 3D platform, puzzle, wrestling, racing – you certainly can’t fault them for trying out a range of genres, even if the majority of them were of relatively poor quality. However, in the 10 years that have passed since 2007 fans of The Simpsons have only been treated to a further 4 video games. All of them were mobile games and the most recent was released in 2012. It’s been 5 years now with no signs of a new game so what gives?

The Simpsons game that’s not a game

The Simpsons: Tapped Out has been the newest offering for gamers for quite some time now. The main issue being that The Simpsons: Tapped Out isn’t a regular video game – it’s a freemium game, which in effect means it’s barely a game at all. Freemium (or free-to-play) games work on the concept of giving the foundation of a game to the player with the ability to unlock more of it as they play. Except the term ‘play’ is used very loosely since it most often involves simply waiting for a particular task to be completed.

In The Simpsons: Tapped Out, Homer has caused yet another meltdown and obliterated the town of Springfield. It’s up to the player to rebuild the area and along the way collect characters we all know and love from the television show. So on an extremely basic level The Simpsons: Tapped Out is a city-building simulation game, akin to the SimCity or Anno franchises. A city-building simulation game themed around The Simpsons is something I was originally interested in but after learning it was a freemium mobile app I quickly lost interest. It wasn’t until 2014 after I’d bought a brand new phone that I took the punt and downloaded it, hoping to waste away some quiet lunch breaks at work and finally see what all the fuss was about.

Roughly 1 month later, I’d had enough. The main problem with The Simpsons: Tapped Out doesn’t take a month to notice but over that period all of its faults bubbled up to the surface and became horribly apparent. There were bugs, crashes, lazy writing and boring quests but the major fault was crystal clear within the first 10 minutes of ‘game play’ and it came as no surprise. The introduction of donuts, the premium in-game currency, highlighted all the content locked away behind pay walls, only available to desperate players by spending at least £1.49/$1.99/€1.99 at a time. There are other methods to earn donuts but in most cases they’re slow to obtain or require an excessive amount of attention. Worst of all, you probably won’t get enough to unlock that building you’ve been wanting anyway.

Frugal players left to earn donuts without spending obscene amounts on microtransactions can look forward to mindless tapping on buildings to collect XP and cash. Afterwards, they can manage their citizens of Springfield to ensure they complete quests ranging from waiting a few minutes to waiting days at a time. But don’t worry; this literal waiting game can be sped up with the purchase of donuts.

The final nail in the coffin for me was the realisation that unless I spent an absurd amount of time keeping up with the game’s timed special events, some content would be permanently inaccessible. In the short space of time I played, numerous events occurred that required you to constantly keep on top of the citizen management before time ran out. Actual timed deadlines in a video game? I’m sure people have enough of those at school or work – aren’t games meant to be…fun?

Perhaps to some people the pressure of those timed events is fun. Perhaps to some people the shallow citizen management system is enough to be considered game play. Perhaps I’m the one who finds it difficult to separate the genres of freemium games and regular console-based gaming. These sorts of apps aren’t for engrossing yourself into during long sittings – they’re 5 minute checkups sporadically throughout the day. A quick tap and it is back to work or time to catch the train or ready to take dinner out of the oven. From that description, it all sounds rather fine and dandy – if gamers like that sort of thing then so be it, what’s the problem?

I call him Gamblor!

The computer game industry exists to create money, let’s get that out of the way. As much as video games can be considered art, the likes of Electronic Arts, Activision and Nintendo aren’t making them purely out of the kindness of their hearts. With AAA games now costing more than ever to create, executive boards and investors want to see their rising expenditure reflected with rising profits. The landscape of gaming has changed enormously and for these large companies, simply selling an individual copy isn’t enough. Season passes, downloadable content, pre-order bonuses, microtransactions and loot boxes are slowly but surely becoming the industry norm. Anywhere they can make an easy profit, they’ll try. In fact, there’s an entire industry built around easy profiteering, one that is spreading further and further into video games…

The Simpsons: Tapped Out is gambling. It largely exists to exploit users into spending money and masks itself under the false pretences of a video game. Its hand outs of free donuts and new buildings every now and then are the pretty waitresses who come and top up your booze to ensure you keep playing on those video poker machines. Scratch-R cards are literal lottery tickets available to purchase and try your luck with. The app has been designed from the ground up to utilize humankind’s addictive nature and unfortunately for the players, the house always wins.

In its first year of release, The Simpsons: Tapped Out earned EA over $100 million. It was the top grossing app around the world in countries from Canada to Belgium. In other words, it worked. The teasing of locked content, the ease of which to purchase just a few donuts more, the…lack of much else to actually do in the game created the perfect storm for it to succeed. Whether it was eager children unaware of what they were tapping or adults who just couldn’t resist, $100 million equates to a lot of players falling prey to the game’s rather blatant tactics. Fast forward four years and The Simpsons: Tapped Out racked up 37.5 billion minutes of playtime and 19.6 billion donuts consumed, proving to remain popular despite huge competition on the app marketplace. There’s no denying that, as shallow as the game is, players are hooked and keep coming back. With the main fan site of the game being called ‘TSTO Addicts’ however, that should come as little surprise. If you’d like to find out in much more detail the addictive nature of The Simpsons: Tapped Out and how it uses the psychological tricks of slots and video poker, I highly suggest reading the mini-book Tapped In: How EA Combined The Simpsons with Video Gambling to Make $130 Million (and counting) by Charlie Sweatpants.

With a captive audience willing to spend hefty amounts of money on in-game microtransactions, EA have placed themselves in the perfect position to receive big profits for little cost. When compared to AAA game titles_, The Simpsons: Tapped Out_ and other mobile app games cost pittance in comparison. Smaller development teams and server overheads make those microtransactions even more profitable but it’s certainly not limited to mobile. As mention, gambling components have been implemented more and more into video games, a notable example being the newly released Star Wars Battlefront II. Thankfully such moves have been met with negative reception though some franchises now contain gambling as standard. For example, FIFA’s ‘Ultimate Team’ relies on purchasing loot packs of football player cards and auctioning them to achieve the best team. Currently EA is testing the waters and pushing their luck to see just how many microtransactions they can add a top a $60 price tag and they’ll continue to do so. Remember, this is the same company that was voted ‘America’s Worst Company’ twice in succession.

What better way to note the success of The Simpsons: Tapped Out than to look to the imitations that ensued. The game set a path for similar properties to follow suit, eager to grab that lucrative share of the mobile app market. Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff was released in 2014 and is essentially a carbon copy of The Simpsons: Tapped Out where players must rebuild a destroyed Quahog and reunite Peter Griffin with his friends and family. More recently in 2017, Futurama: Worlds of Tomorrow was released in which players must reconstruct New New York and save Fry’s friends. Imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery. The most obvious similarity here is that all three properties are (or at least were) produced by Fox. However, it’s also interesting to note that all three once had fully-fledged video games released in the past, only to have stopped ever since entering into the mobile app market.

There’s an argument to be made that as tempting as developers make purchasing premium in-game currency, only a very small percentage of players actually spend money on freemium games. Reports have said as little as 0.19% of all players account for over 48% of an app’s revenue. These types of gamers are no different to the big spenders at the casinos, known as ‘whales’ in the industry. Whether they have boat loads of disposable income or are weak to the addictive environment of mobile games, these are the players keeping many games afloat. It is certainly a grey area in terms of how such games should be governed and, as is always the case; the law is constantly playing catch up with technology. With that being said, most people know their limits and how to spend their own money wisely. If the majority players are sensibly utilising the ‘free’ in freemium, what is the real issue?

Simply put, due to The Simpsons: Tapped Out EA have no incentive to create a new Simpsons video game. With small development and running costs, decent profits and a dependable audience invested in creating their own Springfield towns, why bother wasting money creating something bigger? More to the point, is there even a place for a brand new game based on The Simpsons in this day and age?

I used to be with ‘it’, then they changed what ‘it’ was…

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the lack of video games based on The Simpsons is one that most fans have known for some time now – the animated sitcom is well past its prime. Without diving into the mammoth topic of quite why it isn’t as good as it used to be, why it’s changed so much over 28 years and why it’ll never be the same again, The Simpsons certainly isn’t as popular as it was even 10 years ago, never mind 20. Current episodes typically receive around 4 million viewers, nothing compared to during the height of its success in the early 1990s where it would regularly reach over 20 million. It’s only logical that as the show’s popularity has decreased, so has the reasoning to continue creating video games based on it.

And if we’re being totally honest, The Simpsons: Tapped Out isn’t the newest offering for fans of the series to play. In 2015, Lego Dimensions was released – an action-adventure video game similar to Skylanders, Disney Infinity _and Nintendo’s amiibo system. After purchasing the base game as a starter pack, players were able to buy additional packs of Lego toys which unlocked levels and characters from a variety of franchises. One such franchise was The Simpsons, which is hardly surprising given the popularity of their Lego range beginning in 2014 with a minifigure collection and later expanding to complete sets for The Simpsons House and the Kwik-E-Mart. Not to mention the Season 25 episode “_Brick Like Me”, also released in 2014 which saw Homer wake up in alternate reality made out of Lego bricks.

Ever since 2005 with the release of Lego Star Wars, the library of franchises given the Lego video game treatment has grown rapidly. Perhaps the minifigure collection was a sign of things to come, something fans of The Simpsons were eagerly waiting for - a fully-fledged Lego Simpsons game. The open world, family-friendly nature of the Lego games would make for a perfect spiritual-successor to The Simpsons Hit & Run. Unfortunately, in Lego Dimensions we’re treated to a rather lifeless open world version of Springfield as well a level based on the episode “The Mysterious Voyage of Homer”. It’s certainly not terrible content but the gimmick of mixing together various characters means playing alongside Wonder Women and Gandalf detracts from feeling like a true Simpsons video game. Besides, any hope of additional content for Lego Dimensions has been firmly dashed since the announcement of its cancellation in October 2017.

There is one ray of light to look to as a shining example of how it should be done – South Park. Much like The Simpsons, South Park has also had its fair share of video games ever since its debut. But what makes the two series so different in this regard is the personalities of its creators. Whilst Matt Groening is still involved in the production of The Simpsons, it’s certainly not to the same level as Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Over 20 years, the two have led the way in writing, directing and voice acting. They’re very much responsible for the show’s well known cutting satire on a wide range of topics and with only a 6-day turn around in creating an episode; the show has the ability to react very quickly to current trends.

And thankfully for South Park fans, Trey Parker and Matt Stone aren’t fans of games such as The Simpsons: Tapped Out and Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff. In 2014 they even released an episode titled “Freemium Isn’t Free” ridiculing the popularity of freemium mobile apps and their potential addictiveness. In fact, they aren’t even fans of their own video games. Early on in the show’s history, the two signed a publishing deal with Acclaim to create South Park video games to…lacklustre results. South Park, South Park: Chef’s Luv Shack and South Park Rally were all poorly received and according to Trey Parker “they just screwed up every game we did, it sucks.” Hence why in 2014, they were eager to make amends for their past mistakes and create a South Park game they had much more control over. And being video gamers themselves, they knew more about the type of game they wanted to see – ultimately a turn-based RPG titled ‘South Park: The Stick of Truth’.

After a troubled production involving numerous delays, South Park: The Stick of Truth was met with positive reviews on its release, praising it as a successful adaptation of licensed material to a video game. The game had the luxury of being able to look completely identical to the show and faithfully mirror its animation style. For its sequel, South Park: The Fractured But Whole, Trey Parker even watched online Let’s Plays of The Stick of Truth to see the ways in which game play could be improved and what actual players thought of it. The question is would anyone from The Simpsons do the same? Does Matt Groening understand the intricacies of video games and their production? Has Al Jean watched Let’s Plays of The Simpsons: Hit & Run? (ahem) Would anyone from Fox or EA see profits still roll in from The Simpsons: Tapped Out and want to move on to something else? To quote Leonard Nimoy - the answer is no.

So what is the future of The Simpsons video games?

Honestly, it’s not looking good…