I'm not sure when my wife introduced me to Godzi Lab's game Happy Street, but I've rued the day many times since then. It is the most bizarrely addictive game I've come across, and I can't explain why. It's silly, it's a bit stupid, and it's very simple. Maybe those are reasons enough to love it.
Happy Street made its debut almost a year ago for iOS and Android, and it's also available as a Mac game from the Mac App Store. It's a city-building game in which you help Billy, an anthropomorphic fox, create a thriving metropolis populated with plenty of other animal friends. The game is rendered entirely in 2D - there's no 3D stuff to worry about. You're given quests to complete, and crafting items is a key part of the game play.
It's also free to play, which certainly explains part of Happy Street's appeal. The key to building certain structures and expanding your territory is the collection of gems, called Flooz, which you can either earn through gameplay, through social connections with other players, or by purchasing outright.
But Godzi Lab has done it right - while you can purchase Flooz, and it will make it easier for you to play especially in later stages, it isn't strictly necessary to buy Flooz.
What brings me back to Happy Street over and over again is that I've actually begun to care about the characters in the game. There's scheming Pepin, a wolf who regularly comes to you to ask you to craft him items, for which he'll pay well above market value and sometimes throw in a Flooz too. Sometimes I wonder just what the heck Pepin is up to, when he asks for fertilizer one minute and an oven the next. There's Zoe, an adorable cat with a spunky attitude and a silly sense of humor who has a crush on Billy. Will Billy and Zoe ever get together? There's Nyok, the ursine resident of a nearby forest who cooks and crafts items that you need (he's in love with Dahlia, one of Billy's roommates). There's Sopica, the flighty artist who lives on a nearby mountainside, who also helps you craft items made from the stones found in those hills.
Soon you find your Happy Street populated with dozens of characters - not all of them are fleshed out as the special characters, but they still have wants, needs and desires that you need to cater to. This is one of the many challenges of Happy Street - you have to build a city that provides them with everything they need - from places to eat to places to buy things and places to play. You need to make sure the shops, stores and venues are well-stocked (you simply click on them once they're empty to replenish their inventory). In a clever bit of cross-promotion, Godzi Lab has created arcade games you can buy to entertain your Happy Street residents that play iBlast Moki and Stardunk, two other games this mobile game developer produces.
Happy Street has a very strong social component. You are encouraged to connect with friends who play the game, either through Game Center or Facebook. Once you're connected, you can visit their streets once per day and help them maintain their shops' inventories; do so and you're rewarded with a few extra Flooz and some coins, which can be used to buy different kinds of buildings or expand your city limits.
I have some friends who have been playing avidly for a very long time, and they've made their way up to level 40 or better. Others are far behind. Some have stopped playing all together, but I don't mind too much, because their cities remain online and connected, so I can visit them and get Flooz and cash.
Godzi Lab has also continuously updated Happy Street with added content. It regularly offers seasonally-themed items; I have places on my street dedicated to Chinese New Year, Christmas, Easter and St. Patrick's Day, and now I'm saving enough Flooz to outfit my street with some summer beach scenes.
So why am I ashamed by my addiction?
For one thing, Happy Street looks ridiculous. I've caught sight of a few people looking at my iPad when I play it. It just appears unseemly for a man in his mid-40s to be playing a cartoonish-looking game with foxes, wolves and cats walking around in human clothing when he should be - I don't know, reading sports scores or checking the stock market or something.
For another, I've been a vocal critic of the free-to-play revenue model. (iMore and Mobile Nations has devoted a lot to this issue - check out Rene's thoughts, this iMore show and the Talk Mobile feature, for example.) I think many developers go overboard with In-App Purchases to rake in revenue from addicted players. And many have implemented systems that so fundamentally change or corrupt gameplay that it's impossible to win or even get very far without spending money. Sometimes lots of money. I think that's wrong. But as I point out, Godzi Lab has very carefully toed the line by not falling into this trap.
There's also an element of peer pressure. While I've surpassed many of my friends, some of my Happy Street friends have blown by me. As has my wife. I'm trying desperately to catch up to them. I have trouble admitting just how bothered I am by the fact that others are doing better at Happy Street than me.
I haven't gotten caught up in other casual mobile game phenomena like Candy Crush Saga, which has gripped some of my coworkers with an almost heroin-like addiction, but I've had a long-term love affair with Happy Street. It's almost always among the most frequently-used apps on my iPad.
In the end, I have to offer Godzi Lab a tip of the hat. And for as long as they update the game with new content and don't mess with the balance too much, I'll probably keep playing Happy Street indefinitely. Even if I have trouble admitting it.