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NimbleBit builds a tiny empire of quality freemium apps

NimbleBit's David Marsh kindly met with me at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) this week. While he's not interested in discussing the Zynga/Tiny Tower fiasco (a game he first showed me at GDC last year), the public's interest in that story is understandable. Zynga is a social company that uses analytics and testing to make its games easy to play and monetize. However, Marsh says he and his developer brother don't bother with a lot of analytics.

"Part of the thing," he admits, "is that we don't try to figure it out a lot, because that's not the most fun part of making the game for us." NimbleBit consists of the two brothers, another programmer hired last August and David's wife, who manages support. The group is happiest while making good games that monetize themselves because users enjoy them so much. That's a contrast to many of the social and freemium titles out there. NimbleBit makes its games with love, and that's why it's funny when other companies try to copy their success without that key ingredient.

When I asked Marsh if NimbleBit would consider acquisition by a larger game developer, he reiterated what he told me last year. "We're making enough money." Tiny Tower has consistently been on the App Store's top grossing list since its initial push, and then again after Apple picked it as the iPhone Game of the Year. "Getting Game of the Year for iPhone was really awesome for us," said Marsh.

NimbleBit's next title, Pocket Planes, looks like it will follow the same pattern of success. Marsh gave me a quick demo of the latest build. The look and feel are very similar to Tiny Tower, but the goal is to build a network of planes that around the world, as opposed to an apartment building. Originally, says Marsh, the idea was to make a game about trains, and he even showed me a screenshot with train cars that had interiors using the Tiny Tower floors layout. But they found that running trains around tracks was too limiting and slow to be fun, so the trains became planes.

Marsh says taking to the air has inspired a nice "jetsetting feel, about exploring rather than being stuck on rails." The build I saw looked great. You can buy planes with bucks earned either by playing the game or with in-app purchases, and then you can build airports at various cities, "unlocking" them with in-game gold (of course, any of that might change in the final release). Once you've got a plane and some airports to travel to, you can take missions from the in-game citizens, ferrying passengers or cargo from city to city. Each plane has a range, and each trip costs a certain amount, so the game currently consists of figuring out just how money you'll make versus spend on a certain mission.

If you think that sounds complicated, you're right. Pocket Planes is the most complex freemium title that NimbleBit has put together yet. That doesn't mean it's inaccessible. While the worst you can do in Pocket Frogs or Tiny Tower is leave your frogs or bitizens unattended, in Pocket Planes you could lose money by playing badly. Could NimbleBit have the same success with a title that's more complex?

Marsh says he and his brother are doing what they always do: making a game they want to play. "We're aware of the fact that it might have a smaller potential audience" due to the complexity, he says, "but that's one of the things we're interested to find out." Marsh also says that because it is still early in the development, there's lots of time left to spin the game more casual or complex. One idea he and Ian have played around with is "plane parts," which users could buy, trade, or collect, and use build planes with various stats. But that system isn't quite done, and it might not be included in the final game (or might be added in with a later update).

NimbleBit hopes to release Pocket Plans in "summer, hopefully." Pocket Planes looks terrific, and it's great to see NimbleBit make great games that support a solid freemium model with excellent gameplay.

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