The lights are on
I tried getting into NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower back when multiple Game Informer editors were breathlessly ranting about their miniature enterprises. Something about the free-to-play, microtransaction-focused formula didn’t click with me. Open up new shops, stock products, and give the tiny Bitizens their dream jobs? Why? I didn’t feel like babysitting a vertical mega mall. Then LucasArts/Disney Mobile came along and partnered with NimbleBit to put a Star Wars veneer across the entire experience with Tiny Death Star. Apparently all I needed was an 8-bit Emperor Palpatine barking orders at me and elevator-music versions of John Williams’ themes to reel me in. Eventually my sporadic moments of tending to my Tiny Death Star snowballed into hours, and I was hooked. Then the unthinkable happened: A bug blindsided me with a debt so huge it would make Jabba feel sorry for me.
My Tiny Death Star started out great. I began like any enterprising Imperial officer might. I built some apartments, spent Imperial Bux to move in some residents, then tried to line them up with their dream jobs. With the help of GI’s Tiny Tower veterans I was on my way to arming my battle station with fully operational cafes and toy stores. I adored hunting down Leia in the top-secret Imperial levels and watching Ewoks somehow travel from Endor to my Death Star to buy some Blue Milk. Things were looking up for the Empire’s burgeoning moon-sized mall.
I even indulged in a microtransaction, a rare act I usually perform when I really like a free-to-play game and want to show my support to a developer. I purchased a $4.99 pack that scored me 4,500 coins and 50 Imperial Bux. Coins are earned by selling products in stores and spent on building new levels. Imperial Bux are Tiny Death Star’s most valuable currency. These bills allow you to speed up the process of restocking and selling goods, building levels, and acquiring new Bitizens. I wasn’t rolling in the credits, but I was getting by and enjoying myself.
And then I tried to give one special Bitizen his dream job at Rebo’s Karaoke. Max Rebo is the chunky blue alien musician in Jabba’s Palace from Return of the Jedi. Of course he would operate a karaoke place on the Death Star. I spent my last six Imperial Bux to custom order the music bar and was looking forward to earning some more coins. Then I noticed my balance. Through some enigmatic disturbance in the Force I suddenly had -136 Imperial Bux (check the image at the top of this article). Tiny Death Star only rarely awards players with free Bux. To put it in perspective, a pack of 150 Imperial Bux costs $9.99. I liked Tiny Death Star enough that I hadn’t ruled out making a few more microtransactions in the future, but knowing I would have to throw down 10 Earth dollars before it made a difference was disheartening.
Normally this sort of glitch might make someone stop playing a game. Free-to-play games make their money on enticing players with game-improving microtransactions, so there’s an implied trust that purchased currency is safe. But I liked the game itself, despite NimbleBit’s unfortunate bug that required me to dig myself out of a -136 Bux debt. I refused to toss down the $9.99 on principle. I made a game out of pulling myself out of the hole. The Emperor threw me a Bux each time I hunted down a sneaky Rebel, awarded a Bitizen its dream job, or built a new level. It was slow going, but I was excited for the day when my Bux account would be out of the red.
Help me, Recruiting Officer, you are literally my only hope
I hit a wall around the -65 Bux mark. Despite building over 30 levels my elevator was still painfully slow, and couldn't be upgraded with out precious Bux. Finding new tenants also requires Bux. Without them, you need to wait an extremely long time or hope a Recruiting Officer VIP shows up to populate an apartment. It just wasn’t happening, and without Bitizens I simply couldn’t expand. Despite my crippling debt I continued to restock my stores and save up coins. Because who knows, maybe NimbleBit would update the game and solve my problem. Why would negative Bux even be a thing? Another Game Informer coworker had some Bux spontaneously docked from his account as well, so we know it’s not an isolated incident. NimbleBit didn’t respond to our request for comment or offer a solution to this mysterious ailment.
I never did pull myself out of debt the legitimate way. I'm proud of how close I got, however. One night my inhibitions were muted thanks to a couple of space beers, and I pulled the trigger on a microtransaction that would get me out of the hole. I felt dirty for giving NimbleBit money for a game that had essentially stolen from me. However, seeing my balance zeroed out was oddly satisfying. And then I just stopped playing. My goal had been reached, even if it was illegitimate. Construction of my Tiny Death Star has waned, and I imagine it’s visually similar to the sad, half-completed iteration in Return of the Jedi. And there it will likely remain – easy pickings for a fleet of Rebels brave enough to make a run at my woefully exposed energy core. I don’t even care if the soothing sounds of Rebo’s Karaoke are muted by the biggest explosion the galaxy has seen since the Big Bang.
My experience in Tiny Death Star was a worst-case scenario for anyone dabbling in a microtransaction-based game. The digital rewards we receive for spending a few dollars here and there in free-to-play games are intangible and fleeting; something that’s made even more apparent when your fake money is drained from your fake account. I’m not sure if I learned a specific lesson during my time with Tiny Death Star, but I can issue a warning. Don’t expect the money you dump into free-to-play games to be safe. Like Obi-wan’s corpse after falling to Vader’s lightsaber, it can all disappear in an instant.