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The Secret Meta-story of 'Curiosity'

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Thursday, May 16, 2013
I don't know what's in the cube, but I do know that what's outside of it offers valuable insight into the current state of video games.

The end is in sight. Even as I write this, people are chipping away at 22cans’ Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube? Block by block, they’re inching towards revealing what Peter Molyneux has described as a potentially life-changing experience for the person that reaches the inside. It’s the type of sentiment so outlandish, so classically Molyneux that it preemptively parodies itself. There has been a lot of talk about Curiosity: whether it’s a game, whether it’s a scam, and (of course) what’s in its center. Maybe I lack faith or imagination, but I think the story around Curiosity is its most interesting feature. Regardless of how you feel about it, Curiosity is a case study of some of today’s most important industry dynamics:
  
1. The rise of the independent studio


For several years now, non-traditional game studios have been able to gain mainstream press and recognition without a huge development budget or a formal marketing offensive. Interesting ideas and word of mouth amplified by social media have put articles about games like Papers, Please and Proteus right alongside Halo and Call of Duty on major press websites. Blanketing the airwaves and getting magazine cover stories is no longer the only way to spread the word.


2. The importance of new platforms


As closed off as places like the iOS app store is, it is still an easier and cheaper option than trying to get onto one of Sony or Nintendo’s hand held devices. Experiments like Curiosity would never make it onto a cartridge and would probably be buried in a sea of mediocrity in the poorly maintained digital stores of other companies. The hardware platform itself is also an integral part to Curiosity. It thrives on an always-on device that a person constantly carries with them. It’s a small, opt-in activity that people can quickly access whenever they want, instead of having to set aside a chunk of time devoted exclusively to a game.


3. The proliferation of Freemium


We’ve always paid to play video games, but the way we pay for them has drastically shifted since the proliferation of Facebook and smartphones. It’s becoming increasingly common to pay for mechanics, rather than play time. You can tap away to your hearts content, but making a sizable dent requires you to start chipping in a few dollars here and there for better tools. As uncomfortable as it may be, the micro transactions in everything from Farmville to Deadspace 3 means that the “games as a service” trend will be with us for some time.


4. The evolution of the old guard


Molyneux has been around for decades and was a major force in the creating the entire “god game” genre. Regardless of how I feel about the strange new world of free-to-play experimentation Curiosity represents, its nice to see long time designers explore new territory. Molyneux joins folks like Soren Johnson, Brenda Brathwaite, and John Romero who have done the same.


5. The iteration of the old guard


At the same time, Curiosity represents another trend from long-time developers: the impulse to remake and refine past efforts. Part way through the Curiosity experiment, it became a glorified advertisement for Godus, 22cans upcoming god game. It’s a project that falls in line with Molyneux’s background, but it also positions him alongside other developers who have turned to smaller, more flexible teams and funding methods in order to continue to make the type of games that they have made in the past. Kickstarter is overflowing with remakes, homages, and ports of revived classics. Richard Garriott’s not-quite-Ultima game, Shroud of the Avatar, is the prime example, but there are dozens (maybe hundreds or even thousands) more.


6. The Kickstarter Explosion


Speaking of Kickstarter, Curiosity and its connection to Godus serves to highlight the ever growing number of video game Kickstarter projects. It’s hard to know the service’s long term influence, but it has become a part of the conversation any time you talk about where the money it takes to make games comes from. It’s a crucial tool for capturing money that would have otherwise never found its way to small, obscure studios like 22cans.


7. The conversation between developers and players


Curiosity‘s relatively public development cycle and the game’s open-ended nature exemplifies the increasing overlap between creators and players. Curiosity‘s nature means it is dependent on what people make of it, while a robust games press and social media platforms give us unprecedented insight into what Molyneux thinks about all of it. Thankfully, it seems like he is a pretty down to earth guy


I remember one person went on there and sketched the Twin Towers. Then someone else drew a plane crashing into them. And then someone changed all that into a big peace sign. I mean, all of these live commentaries are fascinating.


If you limit people’s ability to communicate, then they find other ways. We’ve been astounded by that. I was also amazed by a group of Italians who set out to turn all the penis drawings into palm trees.


What some would consider digital graffiti, Molyneux welcomes as expression. With the exception of hastening the end of the experiment in order to keep people interested, Molyneux and 22cans have gracefully handled what the players have made of the game. In doing so, Curiosity has become a snapshot of a set of broad trends within the medium.

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