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Game marketing as a game itself: Was Molyneux's Curiosity really an experiment?

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A life changing reward for a lucky player, that's what's been promised. Out of thousands, the person that chips away the last cubelet of the layered Cube on their Android or iPhone, wins something "life-changingly amazing by any definition". Tapping the screen endlessly wasn't the only option either - in addition to winning digital coins (spent on tools for chipping more efficiently), it was possible to pay real money (1, 7 or 10 dollars) to remove huge blocks of cubelets at once. But get this: it was also possible to pay real money to *add cubelets back*.

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This has been going on for almost 7 months. Curiosity is a part of the 22 Experiments project by game designer Peter Molyneux (Dungeon Keeper, Populous, Black & White, Fable series) and his recently founded 22Cans studio. Many critics and fans repeatedly accuse Molyneux for overhypeing his own work in a grandiose manner. True or not, with every new project the promises are getting bigger while the style continually serves to mystify, trying almost too hard to sweep us off our feet. This time it was a cat in a bag: we were promised something spectacular, and the only way to uncover this uncannily undefined mystery was to be a part of the experiment. The experiment (which is the word Molyneux himself uses to describe Curiosity) ended on May 26th, with one lucky Scottish player chipping away the last cubelet.

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The announcement of the winner was a Matrix-like scene. Molyneux being Morpheus, he finally gave a red pill to One persistent player. Surrounded with white, dressed in black, his voice echoing like an undismissable but calming conscience after a sought-out catharsis. All of us who wondered "What is the Cube?" got our answer. The red pill though, is only one. In addition to getting a cut of every sale of Molyneux's upcoming game Godus, the winner gets to be a digital god. The rest of us, well... We get to look forward to the next experiment, while enjoying the 'privilege' of partaking in a 'historical', first of its kind, 'world-altering' event. What really happened here?

Stay with me while I go off on a tangent. The announcement video instantly reminded me of two science fiction movies I recently saw: a) an animated short called Lucky Day Forever, and b) an episode of the excellent mini series Black Mirror, called 15 Million Merits.

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            a) In Lucky Day Forever, the main character is living in a highly polarized futuristic city. He lives in the ghetto, a dangerous, dirty and decaying part of the city. He workes as a janitor among the glass babylonian towers of wealth in the rich, impeccably white district. What keeps all the poor and destitute citizens in check is the promise of winning a place among the perfect elite. By playing the ubiqutous lottery, everyone has a chance to win a body replacement and a place among the tall, strong, white-teethed superstars they are bombarded with on TV. If you care to watch it yourself (which you should, it's short and well worth it), *SPOILERS* ahead: protagonist manages to get a winning ticket and rushes to join the cream of the society, expecting love, fame, fortune and happiness. Needless to say, his new life turns out to be a big lie - superficial, meaningless and completely void of love. *END of SPOILERS*. What does this carrot-chasing, this lure of grand prizes, remind me of?

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            b) In 15 Million Merits (you can watch the full version on Youtube), we see a guy sleeping in a high-tech cubicle, eating in a high-tech cafeteria, riding a bike in a high-tech gym, surrounded with people who are doing the same thing. Details aside, they are there to get into a competition à la American Idol/Britain's Got Talent. To get in, they have to pay 15 million Merits. They earn Merits by biking, playing first person shooters, watching vulgar shows and enduring ad after ad, commercial after commercial, blasting from the huge screens. Each refusal to do so detracts a certain sum from their Merits total. This is without a doubt a very dystopian iteration of Britain's Got Talent - the goal of reaching fame and glory through ruthless competition is worth sacrificing anything. Furthermore, *SPOILERS* people who actually get to perform have to drink a certain beverage beforehand, which makes them very susceptible to persuasion. A female singer (who would otherwise never do so) is talked into accepting a role in their pornographic ads. Near the end of the movie, the protagonist flips out and holds a powerful speech in front of the judges (uses strong language). He shows the charade for what it is. The judges play along, and transform this subversive element into another cog in the machine: he gets his own show filled with ads, where his once passionate, now watered-down threats of suicide are just another way to make the rats stay in the labyrinth. *END of SPOILERS* Again, what does all this carrot-chasing, this lure of grand prizes, remind me of?

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            Let' get back on track. How does all of this relate to Molyneux and his Cube experiment? All three examples (two fictional, one real) are about making people involved. They are all about getting people on the hype train, getting them excited, and making a selected few the symbols of what the consumer should yearn for. The real one, the Cube example, even gives a way to prolong the road to success, to undone what other players have managed to undertake to uncover the secret of the Cube. Having this on mind, how can we not ask ourselves: was Molyneux's Curiosity ever an experiment? Are experiments not about finding the answer, acquiring new knowledge, testing a hypothesis with a scientific mindset? Maybe Curiosity is all of those, maybe not. Perhaps the result of this 'experiment' was known all along. A friend asked me yesterday: "how is this whole thing different from a pyramid scam?" That aside, the most useful byproduct was probably the hype. It was a perfect way to get the word out, to transform the Cube, 22Cans, Peter Molyneux himself and ultimately Godus into something that is talked about. Self-sustaining publicity. Did it work? Don't ask me, I'm the one talking about it.

Here is a quote from Molyneux which sheds some light on what he sees as a game design issue, and what he offers as a conceptual solution: "I am fed up to the back teeth of consuming other people's visions - of directors' and screenwriters' ideas of what a hero should be; of novelists writing stories that they think are good, but I think are rubbish. Why can't we have stories about me? I want to have my own unique experiences."

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But what is the definiton of a unique experience? To express ourselves, to influence the world we dived into, in a unique manner? Is this really how we want to express ourselves then - buying lottery tickets? All for the promise of that one Willy Wonka golden ticket, that appeal of entering the Sphere, that mystery of uncovering what is inside the Cube. Which element here is the ground-breaking, world-altering fulfillment of the promise? The part where one of 'us' gets to be become one of 'them'? Do we really want, and need to be manipulated like this in order to be entertained and excited?

Personally, I'd rather call things for what they really are.

EDIT (2013/05/30): I rest my case.

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