22cans’ Curiosity is the most important videogame this year. Dismiss it as simply a cynical attempt to purge fame-hungry gamers of their hard earned cash and you’re missing the point: the point is whether or not you’d spend the money, real money, on something you can’t qualify or quantify purely to be the one that did. Is fame something you can buy? Is curiosity something tangible that you can wrap into an in-app purchase, manifesting as little more than a poised, delicate tap on a glass panel with an air of finality and anticipation?
Curiosity asks more questions that it can possibly ever answer, an unknown entity that has confused and intrigued a ready audience desperate to know more. Peter Molyneux attracts a certain amount of discussion around every decision he makes in the industry, but this decision is yours, the development team merely setting everything in place and handing you the keys.
Somebody will be famous, somebody will – apparently – have their lives changed forever, and the rest of us will be left wishing it was us. Or, will we? Is our curiosity reward enough?[drop2]It doesn’t actually matter that we don’t yet know what the prize will be, only that there is one. Mankind’s age-old desires to be the first, be competitive, be known, will be plenty enough to carry this project through to the end.
Sixty billion blocks, each one tapped individually but under the umbrella of global co-operation won’t take long to plough through – times set on numerous other apps that purely record the number of taps or the length of time one holds a finger down are testament to that.
People like to be atop a scoreboard, above their peers, and Curiosity only offers a place for one winner. The person that breaks open the cube’s centre, the last block destroyed, will be the one, but it’s not purely about sitting there repeatedly wiggling a finger ad infinitum, the real trick is that the game comes laden with expensive extras that accelerate the speed at which blocks vanish from under your digits: will you be the one that splashes out on something that costs as much as a sports car?
Say what you will, this notion of the unknown and the promise of something special is hugely exciting, and it’s more so because of these additional, entirely optional purchases. They’re crucial enough to mean that without them the cube will take a lifetime to erode, but having one doesn’t automatically mean that success is yours for the taking – victory in Curiosity will be won on multiple levels, but it won’t necessarily depend on your bank balance, more your concious will to see what’s there.
After all, isn’t the cube just a means to an end? A vessel, designed purely as a barrier between potentially millions of users and one ultimate reward? I asked Jack Attridge, designer at 22Cans, the question everyone wants to know – just what that reward is. “The only person in the world that knows is Mr Molyneux himself,” says Jack, as if he’s been asked the question a thousand times already. And the concept of that life-changing prize? “Peter’s claims have been controversial in the past,” he replies, “but he has confided in the individuals at 22Cans that it’s really something special that most will not find disappointing.”
As Jack goes on to say, it’s not always the secret, but the mystery around it, citing the case of a 100 year old package in Norway by way of grounding the theory in reality. “I know personally I’m more excited about what people will do with the cube more than what’s inside,” he says, “which goes to show that there’s many points of discovery to the experience. So I’m afraid I can’t comment too much without knowing what’s inside the cube myself! It’s just something we will all have to stay tuned for.”
We discuss how the game plays on the notion of co-operation, yet is somewhat at odds with the fact that this is a purely, singular competitive game. I suggest the concept is flawed, and full of contradiction. “I don’t feel that the conflict of cooperation and competition is flawed,” Jack replies, “but instead beautiful and exciting. Concepts such as contradiction are rarely explored in games, and these are the kind of complex themes we feel games should be further exploring to push the boundaries of this art form. We have a powerful platform here with which to do something different and on a massive scale.”
But as Curiosity is largely a social experiment, a look into the psyche of the human mind, the game is free to approach the ultimate conclusion however it sees fit. “We definitely have always considered the idea of the whole world needing to unite over one thing only to have personal agendas as being a great concept,” says Jack. “As a social experiment this and other aspects of the experience certainly shadow our reality in many ways and that has the power to be very resonant and insightful.”
Jack goes on to discuss how life isn’t black and white but the mechanical nature of games mean that the medium very often portrays life this way. “A strong relationship between mechanics can help to bring to life complex emotions concerning motivation,” he adds. “We are fascinated to see if some people feel conflicted. Even consider the idea that the world working together chipping away at the cube is wonderful yet you are effectively destroying that same thing.”
“Some may feel that this is flawed from a traditional game perspective, but in order to create fresh experiences we need to think differently.”
We touch on the visual design of the game, but focusing on how players may use the cube to carve out images. “This is one interesting thing about the cube that is a very contentious issue,” says the game’s designer. “In our play-tests people crafted amazing artwork and carvings from QR codes to full-on characters. From the ‘outer space’ view seeing the cube crumble away overtime looks like tribal cave paintings developing as players randomly chip away at it.”
I ask whether players can save their ‘art’, or find a way to record a given layer to return to it later, and Jack says that whilst some people will be disheartened if their work is vandalised, the freedom to experiment in this manner given to players shouldn’t detract from the main objective of the game, which is finding out what’s inside.[drop]”The philosophy of the cube is that it is a large open canvas for the whole world to leave their mark and to engage with each other, so we don’t want to allow people to isolate themselves,” Jack explains.
“iOS devices allow you to take photos and post them to social media websites and play-testers have already proven this is a great way to share discoveries on the cube,” he says, before going on to confirm that it’s by not allowing players to review their progress that “makes the experience so special”. “There are games from the 80s you can pull out and play and carry on as if they came out yesterday,” he says.
“With Curiosity however, it is a once-in-a-lifetime-experience. Once it’s over, it’s over, and if you weren’t there then you missed out.”
“That fantastic feeling of saying ‘I was there when Nirvana headlined Reading in 1991’ is a exciting accolade of exclusivity that feels vacant from much media,” I’m told. “So other than taking screenshots, the layers of the cube can only be immortalised as much as time itself.”
So if we can’t go back, can we at least see how we’re doing? “We will be publishing some data as the experiment progresses but there will be various live statistics that players will be able to spend their in-game coins on within Curiosity,” Jack explains. “Just having this data available to the public is interesting to see whether people will react to it by wanting to better themselves to be above the ‘average taps per day’ or to see if they can shorten the ‘expected days left’ figure by starting a movement with their followers on twitter. Essentially we will be able to measure a plethora of metrics and determine what the most useful and fascinating data is.”
And finally, I ask Jack whether there are plans to ‘control’ the way the cube reacts to players, to ensure that there’s always a balance. “With each experiment we are developing technology that we hope to use in one final ambitious game,” he replies. “What we have developed for curiosity is a way for us to change and balance pretty much anything from a server live at the click of a button. when dealing with new experiences such as Curiosity we cannot be sure how the wider world will interpret it and so it would be foolish to try and guess that before releasing it.”
“As the world responds to the cube we can make sure that the cube responds to the world by balancing and changing anything we like instantly whether that is to fine-tune gameplay balance or just to see how players will respond.”
If nothing else, this is a social experiment, a game, an experience that’s likely to only happen once. Regardless of your thoughts and feelings, 22cans are trying something innovative and – yes – a little controversial; but if it is a once-in-a-lifetime exercise then I’m happy to say that I’m going to be a part of it. I’m unlikely to win (and my feelings on expensive IAP will stay stoic) but as we’ve discussed, perhaps just knowing what’s inside the cube will be reward enough.
Curious? That’s entirely the point.
We’ll see soon enough.