Curiosity: Do we care what’s inside the box?

November 20, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

The word ‘curiosity’ gained two new definitions this year. The first being the NASA Mars Rover which recently touched down on the red planet, and the second being the new social experiment-’em-up from Lionhead visionary Peter Molyneux’s new studio 22Cans. As usual, its launch was preceded by inflated words of hyperbole from the man whom I expect claims the word as his middle name, and everyone knew it wasn’t going to live up to it.

To be honest, I wasn’t the slightest bit interested in what was essentially a tapping exercise disguised as a thrilling MMO-style puzzle game. So often these trends and hypes pass me by as I shake my head and tut ‘kids these days’, like an old codger cradling a pint of local ale at that awful pub down your road.

Just as often I’m also told to ‘get with the times’ and ‘be optimistic’ about these things. Often I’m proven wrong, although never completely, and I retain my cynicism only because people who promise the world can very rarely deliver it. Anyway, enough of my moaning; is Curiosity: What’s Inside the Box? actually any good? Well, this isn’t a review and I never indented to even write about the game, let alone review it. However, Curiosity has been such a monumental failure in my eyes that I just had to say something about it.

Setting the scene
To ensure we’re all on the same page, I’ll explain the game in brief. There’s an enormous cube made up of zillions of little cubes (cubelets) suspended in a white room. You have to zoom right in and destroy cubelets by tapping them. The idea is that everyone who’s playing the game is tapping away at the same giant cube and, eventually, we’ll reach the middle. Apparently the contents of the monolithic shape is ‘life changing by every definition of the word’ or some such other inflated bollocks.

The trick is that you earn coins for every cubelet you destroy and can increase your combo multiplier by tapping cubes accurately and in quick succession. Coins can be spent in the shop to buy various tools and power-ups to assist you in destroying cubelets. You can also spend real money on these tools, including a much-fabled Diamond Pick that costs £50,000. That’s real, cold, hard, British Pounds Sterling my friends. The mind boggles.

All this is fine in theory, but Curiosity relies on such a delicate balance of expectation, reliance and participation that something was bound to go wrong.

The overwhelmingly banal sight of the much-touted 'cube'. Let the world join hands and rejoice...

The house of cards…
Firstly, the game relies on millions of people repeating the same action ad infinitum. The amount of server space required to accommodate this many is mammoth but not unexpected. Without those millions of people, getting to the centre of the cube is going to take an extremely long time and while I don’t think Molyneux hopes we get there soon, he’s also got to be mindful of people losing interest. It’s not much fun if just ten people are having to work overtime just to clear one surface because the cube was designed to be tackled by millions.

Secondly, the only way 22Cans is going to make any money (the game is free) is through the in-game shop. While I can imagine there are many, many people who have already bought things and put their hard-earned cash into the game, only having one revenue stream is risky. As soon as people start to get tired of the game, so will their wallets close and the well will dry up. 22Cans have to ensure they make their money back before the hype dies down.

The reliance on our natural thirst for secrets is another possible leakage point. While I myself hate being kept in the dark, I’m content to wait until others crack the cube and then read on Wikipedia in a few years time what was actually inside it. I honestly couldn’t give a shit and I doubt I’m alone in that mindset. There are those who just can’t stand the waiting and will be feverishly tapping away in the vain hope that they’ll witness the contents before humanity finally annihilates itself.

I suppose the idea is to hook people in with the simple, sedate tapping and then feed them constant jibes to pique their curiosity to the point where they become rabid conspiracy-theorists. The fact is, though, everyone has their breaking point and steadily along the lifespan of the cube people will lose interest. Pure curiosity only sates for so long.

Finally, the game must be, by definition, pretty much untested. Sure you can test that it loads and that the controls work, but how can you possibly QA test millions of simultaneous users? It’s the reason many MMOs, especially free ones, are often patched to within an inch of their lives within the first few months of release. No-one can truly test that many people using one service and that’s even when most MMOs use multiple instances of each area to stop things getting too crowded. With Curiosity being a single, universal space for all to play in it’s certainly a big gamble.

So, a veritable house of cards, stacked higher than ever before. I can imagine dear Peter, standing there as one of his 22Cans employees balanced the final card on the top, crossing his fingers and quietly, somewhere in the recesses of his brilliant mind, wondering how long it would take for it to come down. Not long, it seems.

…came tumbling down.
Almost every single one of these possible issues has not only arisen but in fact they’ve all compounded to make Curiosity one of the most broken games in recent memory.

First on the list is the fact that, mere hours after launch, the servers went kaput. Thousands of the people who downloaded the game, myself included, were totally unable to play it. Great start guys. There was no apology or statement made, just an ‘Error with connecting to server’ message and probably the most annoying, looping, monotone whalesong ever produced. This is unprecedented; everyone at 22Cans knew that the game relied on millions getting involved and then inexplicably failed to accommodate them.

This is the best they could do. A few of us have taken to calling it the 'Retry Game'...

Imagine you cooked a meal for a million people. You slaved for months, making sure each dish was perfect and tasty. You then gave them all a date to come to dinner but the only way they could get there was on specially hired buses that would take them to a secret location. You would book enough buses for a million, right? I mean that would be the smart thing. 22Cans have essentially booked enough buses for about 250,000 and given the others no explanation for the lack of transport other than ‘we’re working on getting more buses.’ Well, we know you are; the point is, why didn’t you have enough in the first place?The end result is thousands of vexed people and way too much food for 250,000 to eat.

When I finally managed to get into the game, the first thing I noticed was the lack of a shop. I found the icon but it was curiously greyed out. After a bit of research I discovered I wasn’t alone, but not everyone was having the same issue. In fact, around 650 people had already bought the ridiculously expensive Diamond Pick.

That said, the fact that 22Cans’ single revenue stream was cut off from a considerable number of the players that managed to get into the game, coupled with the thousands who didn’t, means the monetary future of Curiosity is definitely in question. I did finally manage to get into the shop only to find that most of the few items on offer were ludicrously priced (up to 3 billion coins for the Diamond Pick) and couldn’t be bought with real money. When I tried to buy the one thing I could afford, some sort of stat tracker thing, I got an error directing me to contact 22Cans. I can’t imagine how many e-mails they’re getting about that.

It’s also incredibly boring. You just tap cubes. Over and over and over. Sure there’s nice audio cues and sparkly sparkles and bonuses and combos and multipliers but you’re still just tapping fucking cubes. Molyneux would probably say something like ‘well in a shooter you’re just pulling the trigger’ or something, but it’s not the same and we all know it.

Is it worth it?
The big question is whether it’s all worth the effort. A laggy, broken game of cube-tapping that lived up to my low expectations but still left me with a sense of ignorance to what the fuck all the fuss was about. As usual, Molyneux has hyped something to the point of frenzy before revealing a possibly entertaining but certainly far from Earth-shaking thing.

He claims there’ll be continuous gameplay updates and changes but we have no idea what they’ll be. They could range from a new pick to motion control to some sort of ground-breaking real-world interaction, but let’s be honest, are we expecting any more than a few new ways to tap a cube? We also have no indication when they’ll be released, so we could be waiting months for any change. I suppose whether you care about this depends on how entranced you are with the core gameplay, but even if you are, these new updates run the risk of changing it to the point where you’re not.

Annoyingly, only time will tell whether our effort is usefully invested. If none of us bother to play the game (or not enough of us can actually get to the cube), then we’ll never know what’s inside and whether it would’ve been worth it. If we all jump on the bandwagon we could potentially be wasting our time.

There’s also the consideration that all our effort will likely be so one latecomer can get what’s inside the cube. Why tap now when you can tap later and really make a difference? Of course there’s no way of knowing how many layers there are and how long it’s going to take to get to the middle, so the ‘winner’ will likely be a very lucky, casual player who only just decided to get into this whole Curiosity thing all his/her friends have been banging on about for weeks/months/years.

All the people who’ve been tapping away from the start will feel cheated and sidelined, and 22Cans’ response will likely be: “You knew what you were getting into. We didn’t promise you anything. That’s the name of the game. Better luck next time.” Which is fair enough really.