Peter Molyneux is not your average game developer. Legendary for his brisk creativity and his unending enthusiasm, Molyneux has made a career out of defying expectations. You know him from titles like Fable and Black & White. But despite a soaring career in big-name console and PC games, he recently walked away from all of that to work at a tiny gaming start-up called 22cans. His latest game (for iOS and Android devices) may not even qualify for the moniker "game." It's more like a social experiment with gaming elements built in. But if you shudder at the thought of playing Facebook games, don't let the "social" spook you. You've never played anything like Curiosity.
On the surface, it’s a ridiculously simple idea: An enormous, floating cube, made up of billions of tiny cubes called “cubelets” holds a secret at its center. Molyneux is on record promising players that the secret is something big and “life-changing,” though he says it’s not money. He claims it took him twenty years to think of it. To get to the center, every cubelet must be tapped on. Tap on one, and it disappears. Keep tapping and tapping, and eventually, the giant cube will be gone and the secret at its center laid bare. And did I mention that the entire experience is 100% free?
But there’s a twist. Anyone with a touchscreen device can play Curiosity — and only one player will be the one to tap the very last cube and reach the life-changing secret at the center. Will it be you? Will it be me? We have to tap away all those cubelets to find out.
You wouldn’t think there’d be that much to write about an app that asks you to tap on tiny boxes ad infinitum. But there’s something about what Peter Molyneux and his staff at 22cans have come up with that’s remarkably compelling. You start tapping those cubelets and before you know it, you’ve been at it for an hour and have tapped away hundreds if not thousands of the little things. I’m not sure I can pinpoint why, but there’s an incredibly addictive quality about Curiosity.
There’s more to it than just tapping cubelets, though. Tapping cubelets gives you virtual coins. If you tap them in succession, without missing, you start a chain of coin multipliers. The more you tap without missing, the faster your coin count will climb. There’s a time limit of about two seconds between consecutive taps in order to get those combo points, but zooming or moving the camera don’t count against you. You also get a bonus amount of coins whenever you clear all of the cubelets on your screen. Doesn’t matter how close in or far out you’re zoomed for this to work, but the farther out you’re zoomed — and therefore, the more cubelets there are on your screen — the bigger your bonus will be.
If you’re earning coins, then there has to be something to spend them on, right? An in-game store offers you several items to spend your coins on, including tools that make more cubelets disappear at a time. I tried one of the higher-end tools that let me destroy 25 cubelets at once, in a grid of five-by-five, for seven minutes. The destructive power was something of a rush, but it surprised me how little of the cube I ended up disposing of, even after tapping away like mad for the entirety of those seven minutes.
Pro tip: if you own a stylus, try using it to play Curiosity. I’ve found that a stylus helps me tap much faster and with better accuracy!
The store also gives you the opportunity to check the game’s current stats, such as your personal tapping and coin totals, as well as the total number of cubelets tapped overall so far and the total and current number of players. It’s fascinating information, but the game requires you to spend 100 of your coins each time you want to access it. Similarly, 50 doings will give you a list comparing your stats with your friends. Don’t cry foul; 100 coins is a tiny amount that will have no real effect on your bank. The game’s audio settings are also hidden away on the store page, but you don’t have to spend any coins to adjust these settings.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Curiosity is that there’s only one instance of the game running. Unlike an MMO, which typically run numerous instances on multiple servers, Curiosity‘s cube is the only one of its kind. Even Android players, which were added sometime after the iOS app’s debut, are accessing the same cube as everyone else. This means there are hundreds of thousands of users online concurrently, all tapping away together, trying to get to the center of that cube.
As you might imagine, it’s not a completely fluid experience; server lag is common. Many times, I’ve been tapping away when suddenly every remaining cube on the screen vanished. I have to assume that this is my device catching up with 22cans’ server load. Those cubelets I was working on weren’t really still there; my device simply thought they were because it wasn’t quite current. It’s not a huge issue, and it hasn’t kept me from wanting to play. But it can be frustrating to be working on a good run on a high multiplier, and suddenly lose it all because you’re tapping on a screen that’s instantly been emptied. Simply put: I wish 22cans’ server could keep up with players in real time. As it is, your best bet for an uninterrupted experience is to find an area of the cube where no one else is tapping.
Some users have also complained about the Facebook button in the top right corner, which gets in the way of the interface. There’s also a menu button that rolls out from the bottom right corner. Both of these can be a pain to work around when you’re trying to clear a full screen. But logging in to Facebook will remove the Facebook button, at least. (The first few days, it was all but impossible to login to Facebook due to that pesky server lag. But this seems to have cleared up for most players.)
Molyneux and his team have promised that they have some surprises in store for players as more and more of the cube is removed. What these surprises might be are anybody’s guess. Are they suddenly going to change the shape from a cube to a sphere? Will rewards be given to those who stick with the game longer, tapping away more cubelets than others? Each layer has its own appearance, which could be part of those surprises. The first layer was onyx, under which level two had still images of what looked like a green lava lamp. Level three was orange, while level four (unfinished at the time of this writing) has photos of flowers and fruit. And from the looks of it, we’ve barely scratched the surface. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of levels still to go.
The crew at 22cans have complete control over the cube and can change it anytime, any way that they like. And considering that Curiosity is an experiment, I think it’s safe to say that we the players are going to be experimented on. It’s part of the experience, so just sit back and roll with it.
22cans has huge ambitions, and I’ve never heard of a developer doing anything like what this company has in mind. They intend to create and publish 22 experiments like this one, each one different and challenging. All 22 will build toward a single, massive game that is the primary title 22cans intends to build. Each experiment is made to help 22cans figure out some aspect of this groundbreaking, triple-A game they have in mind.
It’s a little weird to try and review a game that’s not exactly a game (is this even a review? I’m not sure), and which is taking place in real time, so its ending won’t be reached for weeks or even months. How we feel about Curiosity at its end will no doubt be different than how we feel about it now. The anticipation of something is often much better than the payoff, but it’s this exact feeling that Curiosity so smartly feeds off of. It’s J.J. Abrams’ “Mystery Box” made real.
I don’t think anyone would argue that the video games industry doesn’t need more innovation. Gaming is at a major crossroads; some believe that we’ve come to the beginning of the end of TV consoles, as the popularity of casual games and mobile games climb ever higher. 22cans is pushing the envelope of just what gaming is, taking advantage of the latest technologies like touchscreen interfaces in new and fascinating ways. This jolt of creativity is exactly what gaming needs — and frankly, what gamers crave.
We will always go to wherever gaming is exciting and compelling, and whatever Curiosity is, it certainly fits that mold. I’m playing it every day, and even if I’m not the one to reach the center first, I can’t wait to see what happens next.