Yesterday, my rant on Curiosity was featured in the RPS Sunday Papers, and today it did the rounds on the /r/games/ subreddit. I’m amazed and bemused that it attracted attention, as it was thrown together in a bit of a hurry for a blog with a single-digit readership, and I thought the things I said had surely already been put more eloquently by established writers.

I’m thrilled that it attracted feedback, though, and particularly pleased that many of the comments were negative. No sarcasm; it’s been a useful experience to learn where and why my arguments didn’t work.

I’ve posted in the RPS comment thread; I stayed out of the Reddit thread because it’s more of a general conversation about the merits of the game, not about the article, and I’m not about to ruin a discussion (and it is a good one, worth reading) by making it about me. But I wanted to respond here, in one place, to some of the points made.

"Molyneux describes this as an experiment, so you’re being unfair judging it as a game"

I didn’t address this, and should have, but I’m really not convinced by the ‘experiment’ label. It feels like a cover story to hide a multitude of sins that we don’t accept in games. Curiosity is a game first and foremost, created by a game designer, with scoring and power-ups and potent compulsion loops; a very minimal game, but not one that feels more like an experiment than a game. I don’t buy that it’s some kind of art project. The potential addictiveness is too well calculated for that.

People have made good cases for it as a technological experiment though, returning huge amounts of useful data on server scaling and massively shared spaces. Can’t argue with that interpretation.

"Molyneux is upfront about all of this… it’s the whole point of Curiosity"

I’m not claiming any special insights. I’m just saying that what I see bothers me.

"You can’t judge whether someone else is wasting time"

It’s a good point. I can’t objectively do so. One person’s idleness might be another person’s therapy. But I still think it’s fair to point out there’s a contrast between 3 million hours tapping cubes and 3 million hours reading, or editing Wikipedia, or playing one of the many vastly better games which will never see more than a tiny fraction of the attention.

It’s also worth noting, for balance, that 3 million hours is orders of magnitude less than the annual number of man-hours the world spends watching reality TV. Curiosity is not going to destroy human productivity, but it still feels disappointing to see so much time lavished on something so mundane.

"You just assert that the game is no fun"

Yeah, I screwed this up. Mea culpa. After writing it I’ve realised there are quite a few people who do find it fun, relaxing, and pleasant. The ‘virtual bubble wrap’ analogy seems to have been coined as a snide criticism but it’s also being used as a point of comparison by people who like Curiosity because it’s satisfying and unchallenging and hypnotic. I see the appeal of that.

"Molyneux is being ironic/has something up his sleeve"

I hope so much that the people saying this are right, and that we’re being trolled. I will laugh hard and be quite relieved. But I also hoped the suspended glass box with David Blaine in it would, at the very end of the 44 days, with everyone watching, accidentally fall and smash into a wreck of twisted metal and razor-sharp glass shards, only for a spotlight to highlight Blaine stepping out of the cab of the crane and taking a bow.

I guess sooner or later we’ll learn if Peter Molyneux is a better showman than David Blaine.

"You’re being hyperbolic"

Yeah. I’m the worst hyperbolist ever.

"Would everyone please stop talking about Curiosity!"

Okay.

Curiosity (for iOS and Android) may be the Molyneuxiest game of Peter Molyneux’s career. It’s high-concept, abstract, and unique.

It also feels like one of the most exploitative games ever made.

So, let’s play a game. There’s a huge sheet of graph paper, about 400 square metres with a 2mm grid, and every player—thousands of them—is holding a pencil. You all simultaneously colour in the tiny squares on the graph paper, one by one.

When, collectively, you’ve filled in every single square, you are rewarded with a slightly smaller sheet of graph paper! And you begin again.

It may sound like I’m taking the piss a little, but I promise you this is a 1:1 analogy for the mechanics of Curiosity.

If this sounds like menial labour, then you fully understand the experience of playing this game. The only thing there is to do is to try to chain up a good score multiplier, or leave messages and draw cocks in clear areas of the grid before others inevitably wipe them out by tapping the cubelets surrounding them.

Yet this bizarre stripped-down non-game is indisputably addictive. The constant feedback and the call of the untouched cubes makes it hard to pull yourself away. Like a slot machine in a casino, it’s built to feed on compulsion.

At some point in the future, the last piece of graph paper will be reached. And the person who colours in the very last square on that smallest piece of graph paper will win…

Well, we don’t know. We’re just told that it will be:

truly amazing.  It’s truly unique and I believe life changing for anybody

Leaving aside the fact that only one person gets to enjoy it, let’s take a moment to consider the source. Are people willing to take, on blind faith, the word of Molyneux, an accomplished designer but a man whose name for over 10 years, by his own admission, has been the canonical example of overpromise and underdeliver? 

In this TED talk, game designer Jane McGonigal talks about the incredible number of human hours that are spent on games every day, and how designers can try to harness this energy for positive means. I wish Molyneux had watched this talk.

It’s an interesting exercise to try to estimate how much time will be spent playing Curiosity.

The first layer of the cube was 4096 cubelets to an edge. So that’s 4096*4096 cubelets to a side, and 6 sides… that makes 100663296 cubelets in the first layer.

Let’s say each player can tap 5 cubelets a second. It’s probably faster than this when an agile player is working in a large untouched area, but it’s a lot slower when hunting for the scattered remnants toward the end of a layer. I think 5 cubelets per second is a safe overestimate.

So, 100 million cubes, 5 per second… that’s 233 man-days, minimum. January 1st to August 21st, working 24/7. That’s a lot of time, and it’s already been spent—the first layer is gone. Nobody is ever getting that time back.

But that’s just one layer. Let’s try to work it out for the whole cube.

The problem is that we don’t know how many layers the cube has, and whether it’s hollow or solid. It could have as many as 2048 layers, though the inner ones will be very small—the smallest just 2x2x2 cubelets.

For the sake of argument, let’s say it has 1024 layers, so a line through the original, intact cube from the centre of a face to the centre of its opposite face will pass through the same amount of empty space as it does solid cube. That’s pure speculation, as it could have only a handful of layers, or it could be a solid cube, so I split the difference between the two extremes.

With 1024 layers, there would be 60129542144 cubelets. Total time to clear: 3.3 million man-hours. A massive human resource.

After that many man-hours, could what’s inside the cube—no matter how amazing it is—possibly be anything other than a massive anticlimax?

Something that is this huge a timesink would be entirely forgivable if it was fun. But there is no fun here. It’s a mindless grind. It’s literally just tapping squares on a screen, and the transient graffiti we see on the sides of the cube? That’s the result of boredom, because there’s nothing else to do.

But if it’s not bad enough that this colossal timesink has been unleashed on the world, there’s something even more troubling about Curiosity. It hasn’t happened yet, but they’ve talked about it. It’s their plans for $50,000 DLC.

Exploiting compulsive behaviour and milking players for all the money they’re worth is not a new thing. Facebook games have done it for a while. Vegas has been doing it for decades. It’s distasteful whatever guise it’s in. And an A-list game developer doing it feels like a step toward widespread acceptance.

None of the DLC, up to and including the $50,000, will come with any guarantee. If it doesn’t net the buyer the prize, there is no other reward; it’s money down the drain. While we don’t know whether the prize at the cube’s centre will be life changing, for most people losing $50,000 surely would be. It could lose someone their house, destroy someone’s marriage. Molyneux could be placing himself in the role of enabler for somebody’s self-destructive gambling habit.

However Molyneux dresses it up:

This is not a money-making exercise; it is a test about the psychology of monetisation.

…it’s the attempted exploitation of whales and it feels like the crossing of a moral line.

I like Molyneux. But this is not OK. Maybe they were never going ahead with this plan after all. Maybe it was just for publicity. Maybe it’s real but Apple and Google will put a block on it; I certainly can’t see Apple being OK with it. But if this goes ahead, I’ll say it plainly: it’s a loathsome, exploitative act and it should be Molyneux’s career obituary.

Update: Wow, I got linked on the RPS Sunday Papers! For new readers—which is basically everyone—I wrote a few words of introduction here.

Update 2: Now linked on /r/Games. A lot of worthwhile discussion there and on the RPS comment thread. Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to give opinions. I’ve tried to address the most common points and criticisms in a followup post.