Curiosity: Behind the amazing success (and disaster) of a mobile gaming hit

After an embarrassingly flaky debut, a new app from "god game" pioneer Peter Molyneux and his 22Cans startup shows what happens when a half million people gradually peck away at a giant virtual cube.

Curiosity lets people tap little "cubelets" to make them disappear. Writing messages is one motivation to keep on tapping at the 64 billion cubelets.
Curiosity lets people tap little "cubelets" to make them disappear. Writing messages is one motivation to keep on tapping at the 64 billion cubelets. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

For storied video game designer Peter Molyneux, November 6 was supposed to be the calm before the storm. But it became the storm itself when his newest project, Curiosity, arrived a day early and exploded in popularity.

Molyneux's new gaming startup, 22Cans, planned to launch Curiosity on November 7. Twenty-two hours ahead of time, though, Apple's App Store published the "experiment," which is something like letting thousands of people pop the same sheet of bubble wrap at the same time.

So began a roller-coaster ride that combined a humiliating server failure with an intriguing new take on global-scale video games in the smartphone era. But now, with the server problems licked, Curiosity 2.0 due soon, and 22Cans' grander plans taking shape, Molyneux is starting to sound less mortified and more optimistic.

"It's literally the biggest tragedy I've ever had in my career," Molyneux said in an interview. "It's also been the biggest joy."

That's a big change from two weeks ago, when word of Curiosity got out and the game went viral. 22Cans' servers were overwhelmed, preventing many from reaching the game's giant virtual online cube and wiping out players' stores of carefully collected virtual coins.

But instead of dealing with the crisis at 22Cans headquarters in Guildford, England, Molyneux was trying to get back from a conference in Israel. He spent four and a half agonizing hours trying to get through Tel Aviv's notoriously rigorous airport security more than 2,000 miles away.

For a blow-by-blow look at the launch drama, check the timeline of Curiosity's difficult debut .

"Israel has got the most insane security, and through none of it are you allowed to use your mobile phone," Molyneux said. "Knowing Curiosity was alive, I was occasionally pretending to drop something to look at my phone."

The desperation of the moment still was evident in his voice as he described how his hopes of communicating were dashed once again on the plane.

"As luck would have it, the person sitting next to me on the plane was an aircraft inspector. He said, 'You can't use that,'" Molyneux recounted. When the inspector left his seat for a moment, Molyneux mashed his phone against the window to try to get a signal. He said was thinking, "I don't care if the plane crashes and kills a thousand people. I've got to find out what's happening."

Curiosity was simply too popular too soon, almost immediately overtaking 22Cans' plan to gradually increase server capacity.

"I'll be honest. This is my fault. I never in my wildest dreams expected millions of people to download Curiosity in the first few days. It's an experiment. You just tap on it. I could see in my mind's eye, even with my most optimistic nature, we'd see at first a thousand people, maybe after a month, a hundred thousand," Molyneux said. "That hundred thousand figure was reached within three hours of launching Curiosity."

Peter Molyneux explains 22Cans' upcoming game, Godus.
Peter Molyneux explains 22Cans' upcoming game, Godus. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

To cope with the load, 22cans' Curiosity team of six programmers stripped out lots of features -- the Facebook log-in, the ability to check where on the cube your contacts were tapping, detailed statistics. With the upcoming release of Curiosity 2.0, the company will restore these features and hopes to fulfill its original ambition. It will make Curiosity a real-time collective experience rather than individual actions that only synchronize with others' actions in fits and starts. And it will open the door to more experiments.

Video game renown
Perhaps Molyneux' track record has something to do with it. He's a notable figure in the video game world -- notable enough for membership in the Order of the British Empire for distinguished service.

In the 1980s, "I was selling floppy disks to schools," Molyneux said, but he found they sold better with free games on them. He then moved into writing those games himself, though his first, Entrepreneur, was an abject failure that sold only two copies. His fortunes turned later that decade when his "god game" Populous sold 5 million copies, luring players who wanted to lead a civilization in competition with another deity.

The first layer of Curiosity's cube was black; tapping it millions of blocks away revealed the layer beneath.
The first layer of Curiosity's cube was black; tapping it millions of blocks away revealed the layer beneath. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

After that came hits such as Dungeon Keeper, a role reversal in which the player defends his territory against incursion from heroes, and Project Milo, in which a player uses a Kinect controller to interact with a boy and guide him around a virtual world.

Central to many video games is the idea of motivation. Players stay engaged with opportunities to solve puzzles, vanquish enemies, build empires, and escape into alternative realms where they have more control over the future.

Molyneux has experimented with morality as a motivation, too. Where some games such as the Grand Theft Auto series explore the rewards of criminality, Molyneux's Fable series from Microsoft offers moral choices in which choosing the "good" path can help the player's fortunes.

Curiosity accommodates some very different motives: The urge to reveal hidden photos and text. The desire to tidy up. The instinct to collaborate on a group project the same way thousands of ants build an anthill one grain of sand at a time. The compulsion to write crude graffiti -- or to obliterate it. And, closest to Molyneux's heart, the desire to find out the secret message he's hidden deep within the cube.

What is Curiosity?
Curiosity is many things. It's the first of 22 experiments that 22Cans plans to launch on the road to building new games adapted for the era of the Net-connected mobile device. It's a marketing vehicle to promote 22Cans' Kickstarter-funded god game, Godus. And at its most basic level, it's a game whose bare-bones simplicity actually has room for surprising complexity.

People like to uncover the interesting parts of photos once they're discovered on the face of the cube.
People like to uncover the interesting parts of photos once they're discovered on the face of the cube. (Click to enlarge.) screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Curiosity, an app for iOS and Android, is as primitive and repetitive as popping plastic bubble-wrap. But apparently it's just as addictive, because it's kept hundreds of thousands of people engaged.

The game shows a single cube floating in a virtual room. This cube is constructed from more than 64 billion tiny cubelets that become visible if you zoom in close. If you tap a cubelet, it disappears with a tinkling noise into tiny shards.

So what makes this better than virtual bubble wrap?

First of all, there are the gold coins. Destroying a cubelet gets you a single coin at first, but multipliers kick in as you tap ever more cubelets without missing and tapping a blank patch. You get double the coins after a run of 12 cubelets, triple at 26, quadruple at 42, and so on.

It's a pretty crude reward system, but you can cash in your coins for assorted tools that let you destroy more cubes per tap. Some tools are disabled for now, to be unlocked in the future, so perhaps there's a reason to save up.

Molyneux is intrigued by the possibilities. For example, what will happen when the end gets close?

"If you watch a marathon, all the runners will run in a pack, slipstreaming behind each other. Then there will come a point where somebody makes a break for it and runs in front," and he expects a similar realization in Curiosity when people realize it's changing from a cooperative project to a competition.

"That's why we have this notion of saving up," he adds. "Are you a hoarder? Will you spend [your coins] in a blaze of glory on the last few levels? Or are you a cooperator, spending now to get through early levels? It's a deeply interesting experiment in group mentality."

More experiments will center on Curiosity's virtual money -- but later with a connection to real-world money through in-app purchases.

"It's going to form a part of the experiment at some point in the cube. Monetization needs to be fair. We need to get our servers reliable before we monetize in any way," he said. "To test that motivation is fascinating."

Art and graffiti
And other motives are at work, too. Some people like to rapidly tap with multiple fingers, leaving tracks of obliterated cubes behind with a strategy that's good for long runs of coins. Others like to tidy up, perhaps motivated by the bonus awarded if a player clears the screen of all cubelets.

Artwork such as this heart often doesn't last long as others tap away the cubelets.
Artwork such as this heart often doesn't last long as others tap away the cubelets. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Second, there's the chance for global graffiti. Many people use the face of the cube as a tabula rasa, tapping away cubelets to construct pixelated words, patterns, or artwork. At the same time, others undo what's been created.

"One person is turning everything risque into little works of art. A lot of kids draw penises. He goes round and changes them into dog's faces and palm trees," Molyneux said.

Someone even painstakingly tapped out a marriage proposal, Molyneux said. "A lot of people want to express themselves on the cube," once they realize they're "connected to the entire world."

Third, there are the pictures. Some layers have photographs or other imagery that people want to reveal. Underneath one of the early layers were close-up photos of eyes, and people tapped away the cubes to reveal those eyes first before turning to the more mundane regions around them.

Molyneux was intrigued to see that on one layer, showing words excerpted from Charles Dickens, people tapped away enough to understand the word, but moved on to the next before instead of tapping to fully reveal the world.

The secret
Last, there's the secret.

Somewhere inside the cube is one cubelet that, when tapped, will reveal to a single person a Web address with a message that only Molyneux and one other person know. And Molyneux is terribly excited about it.

"I wake up thinking about it," he said. "I am known for saying exciting things and getting people excited, maybe overexcited, and that's been interpreted as overpromising. Maybe this time I'm understating the promise."

The secret isn't necessarily in the last, centermost cubelet, Molyneux said. If it looks like people are losing interest, 22Cans will "bring forward the end date," but right now he expects that "we have many hundreds of layers to go through yet."

The impetus for Curiosity was a TED talk by J.J. Abrams about the power of a secret, Molyneux said.

"When he was a kid, his grandfather gave him a locked box. He said, 'Don't open the box, just wonder what's in the box. It motivated him to be a brilliant writer," Molyneux said. "If that motivated him, maybe it's enough for me to say, 'Inside the center of this cube, for one person, there is something amazing, wonderful, and life-changing. It isn't just a dead cat or philosophical saying or video of 22cans saying 'Hurrah!" It is something truly meaningful."

And that curiosity apparently motivates people. 22Cans can show messages across the cube, and one is the phrase, "What's inside the cube?"

"What happens to the tap rate if we remind people? We notice the length of time people tap goes up," Molyneux said. Not only that, it keeps them coming back to the cube even though most people abandon new apps quickly. "That keeps them coming back."

Promoting Godus
Molyneux knows what to do with the limelight. He's promoting Curiosity, of course, and a succeeding experiment that will be "more like a game than Curiosity." And last week, peeling away one Curiosity cube layer revealed another 22Cans ambition: a new god game called Godus. The company is funding Godus with Kickstarter, and it's raised $270,000 since then.

A mockup of the terrain of 22Cans' Godus game due to arrive in September 2013. It's a god game, and players will be able to flick tornadoes across the landscape with a mouse movement or touch-screen swipe.
A mockup of the terrain of 22Cans' Godus game due to arrive in September 2013. It's a god game, and players will be able to flick tornadoes across the landscape with a mouse movement or touch-screen swipe. 22Cans

It's a new god game that draws on Populous, Dungeon Master, Black and White, and Fable. "We're going to steal the best bits and throw away the worst bits," he said in a video about Godus. That means the mutable landscape of Populous, the subterranean treasures of Dungeon Keeper, and the direct intervention of the hand of god in Black and White, he said. It'll run on Windows PCs, iOS devices, and maybe Macs, and it'll work in adrenaline-charged multiplayer or more relaxed single player modes.

But don't expect Godus to be a direct descendent of Curiosity's massive multiplayer approach, since linking each player's worlds into a single universe will be technically difficult and expensive. "Having all these worlds connected is a huge thing and it's going to require lots of servers, so big stretch goal, I'm afraid," Molyneux said in a video about Godus.

It's clear, though, that Molyneux is hooked on the idea of a game that spans the world through smartphones. "It's a new psychology. Never before have we been able to join people together in a single experience," Molyneux said.

He revels in what it's shown so far.

"On Curiosity, people have proposed to each other. There are obituaries on the cube. There are people from all cultures. There are political statements on the cube, art on the cube, crudity on the cube, censorship on the cube. All these come about because of stupidly simple thing of people tapping. If I can learn from that, then I could be part of making an experience that 100 million people could touch in one day," Molyneux said.

"We'd better get the servers right."

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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