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The Curiosity experiment, and the church of Peter Molyneux Exclusive
The  Curiosity  experiment, and the church of Peter Molyneux
May 30, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

May 30, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Indie, Design, Exclusive

My favorite story about Peter Molyneux has to do with the time he told me he didn't care if his plane crashed or not, so long as he could know what was happening with Curiosity.

Because of Apple's caprices, the cube-tapping experimental game had launched sooner than 22cans expected, and Molyneux had to rush back from Israel to the UK in a whirlwind. In a breathless phone interview, he told me about how even though flight regulations warn against seeking mobile signals in the air, he pressed his device against the plane window, damn the risk, just in case there'd be some way for him to see Curiosity's initial flood of users.

There is something that appears to be profoundly uncynical about Molyneux, and I suspect that's what keeps people paying attention to his work despite their own visible cynicism sowed since the days when Black & White and Fable made impossible promises, and simply delivered regular old flawed video games.

The jam-inspiring "Peter Molydeux" Twitter account continues to be as much a loving celebration of the man's tireless optimism and often esoteric visions as it is a mockery of them. Recent 'Molydeux' ideas like "What if a door was your companion? You can place him/her on any surface and can only interact with others on the other side of the door?" are striking because they're partially ridiculous, but there's a fascinating seed therein. It's a good analogue for Molyneux himself.

With Curiosity, mobile app users could access a massive cube ("quite a beautiful-looking cube," an enthusiastic Molyneux told me once) and simply by tapping on it, collaborate to strip away its layers. The over-arching group quest was to reach the center of the cube, but therein was packed a quest for the individual: Be the first one to reach the cube's center. The user to wick away the very last cubelet was promised to earn an unknown, mysterious, "life-changing" secret.

It was also by any estimation an experiment in monetization, whether or not that element was part of the sell. Users could pay for upgraded taps, the ability to destroy layers more quickly than their fellows. Later on, Curiosity enabled users to add cubelets, potentially reversing the progress of other players and keeping the cube alive if they spent money.

The ability to observe social behavior, like writing and drawing on the cube's face, and to gather user data about engagement and expense, was part of what Molyneux told me last year was most exciting to his team about Curiosity. Hopefully 22cans will release that info soon, but for now, all talk is about the revelation at the cube's center, which was unveiled just days ago.

Inside the cube

When Molyneux described the reward at the center of Curiosity's cube as "amazing by any scale," he sounded transported by his own creation, utterly in love with the digital medium and the joy of experimental creation. Now the experiment has ended. While Curiosity's winner had the right to keep their secret, 18 year-old Bryan Henderson of Edinburgh -- who completed the cube just about an hour after downloading the app and joining the game for the first time -- chose to share his revelation with the rest of the world ("He has said he will share!!!!!!!!!" Molyneux enthused via Twitter with no fewer than nine exclamation points).

Shortly after Henderson claimed his prize, the announcement video circulated widely, featuring Molyneux haloed by light and standing at the center of a smooth white cube interior. The minimalism of the presentation gave it a surreal, retro-futurist air, like the Architect at the center of the Matrix. The facts of the prize: The ability to be the reigning "digital god" in 22cans' upcoming world-builder Godus, and to share a slice of its profits.

Cue cynics -- and their generally-reasonable reservations. What message can we gain from the efforts of many leading to a reward for one? Is a job on a dev team a "life-changing secret?" How much control will young Henderson have over Kickstarter-backed Godus, and is that fair to those who backed it expecting Molyneux's leadership? Godus, incidentally, has confused its players enough already with the recent revelation that it'd have a free-to-play mobile release via DeNA after raising $800,000 from 17,000 backers, many of whom doubtless considered their donation a pre-order.

What was inside the cube? Peter Molyneux, in more than one sense. The internet's grumbling sigh, equal parts unsurprised and fond, followed, amid the usual smattering of genuine irritation. UK journalist Jim Rossignol of Rock, Paper Shotgun put it quite well on Twitter: "But perhaps that's the point. Molyneux's hyperbolic invention is the show, now. The games will all have Peter inside, one way or another."

A creature of ideas

To categorize Molyneux as a careless narcissist might be a misstep, though. In many ways gaming itself is founded on idealism, dreams and promises. All games are marketed on vision and hype. Molyneux's work is the quintessence of that element of gaming culture: Unswerving faith, a counterweight to the bitterness and cynicism that assumes a financial agenda or a manipulative urge for profits at the core of every visionary. He is a creature of ideas, and his desire for experimentation and enthusiasm is the opportunity to reflect on the nature of interactive entertainment and participatory creation.

He has both a compatriot and an antithesis in academic, author and game designer Ian Bogost, whose Cow Clicker, a cynical critique of Facebook games, is in its own way kin to Curiosity -- both games are about seeing what will happen when you ask a potentially-massive addressable audience to click on something repeatedly. The former game explicitly promised nothing, while the latter implicitly promised the world.

Both games are important demonstrations as regards the motivations of the creators and their players alike. Cow Clicker surprised its creator with a sea of devoted players who really didn't care what he did to them, that he gave them nothing, and that he had fun at their expense; it surprised its creator with the revelation that many people were just attracted to the idea of owning a digital object, to the simple zen-like repetition of clicking on a cow.

"I'm jealous that [Molyneux] made a more boring clicking game than I did," Bogost (predictably) snarked. "I also think Curiosity was brilliant and inspired. But that doesn't make it any less selfish or brazen," he later added, noting "Curiosity was *not* an experiment. Experiment' is a rhetorical ruse meant to distract you from the fact that it's promotional."

Curiosity and hope

One can wonder endlessly about Molyneux's private motivations for Curiosity, and whether his players' reactions surprised or disappointed him. It's still hard for me, though, to see the hopeful man with the big promises as a secret cynic -- just as it's hard to see Bogost as secretly caring, optimistic, curious about players (though he is). I'd much rather believe that, far from using Curiosity to exploit optimism, promote Godus or glamorize unpaid internships, Molyneux instead lives in his own luminous little world where hope springs eternal.

Maybe the mechanics aren't the whole message. I think Cow Clicker wasn't necessarily an "experiment" either, but a statement of values, and it wasn't necessarily non-promotional, having inadvertently become Bogost's most famous work. Isn't it possible that, like Bogost, Molyneux used a system he didn't like in and of itself to promote an idea he cared about?

The purpose and reception of two fundamentally similar games is completely altered by who made them and why; by what players expected versus what they got, which is the most important takeaway of this whole episode, for me.

The games industry, uncomfortably lumbering all over the muddy lines that separate business from art, culture and individual expression, is often disappointing and depressing, and cynicism is often well-earned.

That's why it feels like an interesting choice to believe in Molyneux in a pure way, to embrace hyperbolic invention as a legitimate and necessary sentiment in the games landscape. If Curiosity is a statement of values, it says that curiosity and hope are meaningful to games, that imaginary worlds can be as momentous to someone, if not everyone, as real ones, and that the opportunity to create is a life-changing reward.

"Also: everyone's an apologist for Molyneux because the rest of the games biz is so unambitious and forgettable," says Bogost. "So there's that."

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John Flush
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isn't this the 'game' you can pay to troll the players by putting cubes back on?

Kenneth Blaney
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It was. It isn't anymore.

Ian Bogost
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For what it's worth, I had this trollish mechanic in the Cow Clicker Cube, which I added shortly after Curiosity was announced and before Molyneux released it. It's an obvious thing to do so I'm not saying he "stole" it from me, just that I'm amused at how easy it was to anticipate.

Ramin Shokrizade
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I see Molyneux as molding himself as a 21st Century "Willy Wonka". Back in the 20th Century I set the goal of meeting Richard Garriott, Sid Meier, and Molyneux. Now only the elusive Molyneux remains. To me he can be anything he wants, as long as he stays Molyneux.

Tyler Shogren
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He ought to wink at the camera a bit more, just so we know he's not insane.

Daneel Filimonov
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Or maybe he's the only sane one left?! :O

Michael Joseph
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Molyneux reminds me of Barack Obama. Charming, likeable, cult of personality inspiring figure, makes a lot of big promises, gives us hope, but his best talents are right there on the surface in plain view. We could be imagining/wanting that there exists a lot more on the inside than is really there.

The parallel to Curiosity is fitting. Would we be disappointed at what's ultimately inside the Molyneux onion cube once we peeled back it's layers? In the end would we find much more than a status quo game designer? Can marketing folks learn more from Molyneux than game designers and developers?

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

John Owens
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Andrew I think we acknowledge that both men aren't perfect but who is and their achievements and attitude inspire and give the rest of us hope.

Even if the man very rarely matches up to the legend, we still feel a need to believe.

Daniel Cook
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The key issue here is people mistaking dreams for promises. There is a vast swath of gaming culture that thrives on cynicism and are interested in seeing optimism in the worst possible light. Run away and preserve some brief spark of optimism in your life.

I think it is okay to dream big. It is okay to fall short of those dreams most of the time as long as you deliver on them occasionally. Molyneux does this. If you feel an urge to tear someone down when confronted by impossible dreams, then maybe the fear of failure is in you, not the dreamer.

As creators, we've got much to do with such little time. Why in the world would you waste it being cynical about a happy dreamer? It makes zero sense to me.

Daneel Filimonov
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Indeed, why not reach for the stars?

Andy Lundell
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One major difference between an "impossible dream" and a "Broken Promise" is whether or not money changes hands before we learn the truth.

Daniel Cook
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Rarely has a more damning critique of the entire boxed product model ever been uttered. ;-)

Imagine some crazy industry built on:
Step 1) Build hype and brand awareness.
Step 2) Build a product that vaguely matches some points.
Step 3) Release the product to a primed audience sight unseen.
Step 4) Gather $$$ and Repeat. (Ignoring complaints)

I will submit that Peter Molyneux is not alone in his participation in this egregious blight on consumers. Another interpretation of Peter Hate is that as a dreamer, perhaps he is an easy lightning rod for those who are with buying expensive games due to pre-orders, hyped up previews and overly optimistic marketing campaigns (Ex: All of them). I couldn't agree more that the way retail games are sold is quite abusive and folks have a lot of pent up anger because of it.

Hmm...what alternative business model could gamers burned out on hype turn to where they get to play a product for free up front for as long as they like before deciding to pay...

Ian Uniacke
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I find it incredibly peculiar that the games industry is the only industry I know of that suffers this blight of a criticism. If you want to try the new burger at McDonald's, you pay for it and if you don't like it don't buy another one. If you go to the cinema you pay the ticket price and if you don't like it you get to discuss that with your friends but you don't demand any return of money because the experience of that movie, good or bad, was what you were paying for. Why do gamers particularly feel so entitled and above regular business?

Michael Joseph
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@Ian Uniackle

Movie goers more frequently than you might think ask and receive refunds for tickets (usually if they walk out early) for films that they felt were advertised in a way that substantially misrepresented the film.

@Daniel Cook
I think the "Peter Molyneux is a dreamer" is part of what is frankly, NOT BELIEVED by many. When a person keeps saying that they are shooting for the moon yet they keep landing in the neighbors yard then... that "dreamer" characterization starts to become questioned. There are folks with very little resources who are dreaming and doing amazing things... what's Peter's excuse for always falling short? If you're saying he's a dreamer only up to the point where it's just not practical then... well, that's just about like every other AAA developer out there. Because WE KNOW IT IS NOT A QUESTION OF COMPETENCE that he falls short.

And you wouldn't call someone who didn't believe in Santa Clause a cynical, time waster who is afraid of failure would you? Skepticism is not cynicism. It would be foolish to confuse the two. I for one no longer believe in Peter Molyneux's claims and it has nothing at all to do with levels of optimism. It's experience.

Seriously, as a personal exercise, think of dreamers in any field throughout history who have worked for decades to make a single dream a reality and then think of Peter Molyneux who seems to abandon so called dreams faster than a teenager abandons their latest free mobile app.

Michael Joseph
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optimism, pessimism, cynicism contrary to popular belief are not general states of mind. Someone can be pessimistic about some future events or outcomes and optimistic about others. They can be cynical about system X but hopeful about system Y.

Referring to people as pessimists or cynics is I think too often used as a way to insult them. And it's really unfortunate. There's nothing wrong with not being irrationally optimistic. I think the main thing to watch for is whether feelings of pessimism, cynicism or skepticism are specifically directed towards certain topics as opposed to being generally held feelings.

Heck, I think the world can benefit from more skeptics. We'd have a lot fewer people being exploited.

Altug Isigan
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the problem is that such issues cannot simply be reduced to "buy it and if you don't like it, don't buy it again". This reduces your ability to criticize something to your spending power and to the size of your wallet. It changes absolutely nothing about the system which, if you are critical of it, just tells you "if you don't like it don't buy it".

Johnathon Swift
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I just absolutely love Molyneux, and he gets so much hate for being excited and optimistic. Like "why aren't you a cynic like the rest of us, stop making like the world is a good place you ass!" is somehow a criticism.

But that's just his attitude, and it has little reflection on what he makes, which is always interesting. He was the first big "western" developer to even try free to play, putting up multi million copy selling Fable 2 into chapters with the first being free ala a gated Asian MMO. This was years before Valve made TF2 free to play and all that "shocking" business, but Molyneux doesn't get any credit for it because he just does things "Cause he's crazy" while other people do similar things "cause they're brilliant".

I really wanted to play Milo, it was the only reason I was ever even interested in a Kinect. It amazes me to think back and look at how he wanted to use cloud computing to make Milo more intelligent as time went on, and how badly that was received, and yet years later Microsoft is now suddenly trumpeting cloud computing as a big thing for the Xbox One.

It will be a sad day when Molyneux retires. I'd love a games industry with a lot more Molyneuxs, and a lot less Call of Duty: Ghost Dogs.

Curtiss Murphy
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"It will be a sad day when Molyneux retires. I'd love a games industry with a lot more Molyneuxs, and a lot less Call of Duty: Ghost Dogs."

Nom, nom, nom.

Andy Lundell
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"It amazes me to think back and look at how he wanted to use cloud computing to make Milo more intelligent as time went on, and how badly that was received"

It was badly received because nobody believed it was possible! Still don't.

It's easy to play game-design mad-libs and fill in the blanks with trendy technologies.

It's not enough to say you want an AI that seems absolutely real, experiences the full range of human emotion, and get's smarter the more people use it. That's not an invention. That's in a million sci-fi novels.

To be taken seriously you have to produce proof that you can DO it. Until then, of COURSE it'll be badly received!

Alex Covic
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I like to tell the story of hearing Molyneux in an interview for a German public radio station. Peter talked about his new born son and about his own childhood. Nothing in this 10-15 minute interview was about "video games"! He did not "sell" anything. He just embraced the non-gaming questions by a non-gaming-press journalist. It was deeply personal and touching. The most sincere conversation two people could have had.

How many can do that at GDC Europe/Gamescom? This too, is Peter Molyneux.

And if that is not enough, just play Dungeon Keeper again. Or watch his acceptance speech from 2011 at the BAFTAs. Or his insecure moment in the Minecraft/Mojang documentary. The Peter you (want to?) see, is the Peter you get?

Oh, and I am an atheist, btw.

brad coleman
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Okay so wait did someone buy the 50k hammer? Thought that was part of the game was to offer up a one time 50k hammer for someone to buy?

If that didn't happen it sounds like they decided to pull the plug and let someone win.

Leandro Pezzente
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Not being hired by world-renowed Peter Molyneux isn't a life changing reward ? Do you have any idea how much about game desing can that boy learn ?

Oliver Waters
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What if all of our past life experiences up until now are all just a simulation of life? And the ideology of God is actually just the consequence of Peter Molyneux winning Curiosity within a much greater, bigger universe — hence why we are all so skeptical of Catholicism & Christianity, because Peter created them thinking they would be really great, abstract and bizarre notions to implement into a game engine.