Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity & the allure of videogame prizes

As the mystery of Curiosity is revealed, Ryan looks at how prizes have motivated players to go to extraordinary lengths to finish a game...

On the 26th May, the incessant tapping of a legion smartphone screens came to an end. From a pool of approximately four million players, a single winner had been found, and Curiosity was over.

Described as a social experiment, industry celebrity Peter Molyneux – along with his team of developers at 22Cans – unleashed Curiosity on the 6th November 2012. When opened, the mobile game presented the player with a mysterious, rotating cube made up of billions of smaller cubes which disintegrated when touched.

Collectively, players had to dig down the hundreds of layers of cubelets to get to the core – and what would have been an otherwise repetitive pastime was given an added sense of intrigue by the mystery of what lay within. Molyneux spoke in typically grand terms about the secret, describing it as “life-changingly amazing by any definition”. What’s more, although the effort to get to the middle of the cube was a collective enterprise, only one player would reap the rewards – and so the rush was on to tap all those billions of cubelets into oblivion.

The rush was so great, in fact, that 22Cans struggled to keep up with the demand: in December, the surge of downloads and players caused the studio’s servers to collapse under the pressure. Even Molyneux, it seems, hadn’t anticipated the allure of his mysterious cube.

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Six months after its launch, Curiosity ended when 18-year-old Edinburgh resident Bryan Henderson chipped away the final block. Molyneux broke the news via Twitter, and for a while, there was some debate as to whether the contents of the cube would ever be made public. Fortunately, it was, and a few hours after that 26th May announcement, the video that Henderson would have seen on breaking the final cube was uploaded to YouTube.

Comprising little more than a white screen and Molyneux dressed in a black suit, the video was as minimal as the game itself. Molyneux talked for a little while about the success of his experiment, and the “sore fingers” of those who’d taken part. He reiterated that the prize in the middle of the cube was “amazing, life-changing,” and asked, “How can anything be worth all that effort?”

The answer, it seems, is deification. 22Cans currently has another project in the works: Godus, the spiritual sequel to Molyneux’s groundbreaking 80s god game, Populous. A free-to-play, multiplayer version of that game, Godus was (somewhat controversially) funded by Kickstarter donors last year, and is likely to come out this autumn, all being well.

The winner of Curiosity will play a part in Godus‘ formation, advising on its rules and even sharing in its profits. “You’ll decide on the rules the game is played by,” Molyneux said. “Here’s the life-changing bit: you’ll share in the success of the product. Every time people spend on Godus, you’ll take a small piece of that pie. It means you’ll decide on how people play that game. You’ll accrue riches from that game, from the start to the finish of your rein.”

Although the nature of Curiosity’s prize is unusual, the notion of physical or financial rewards for completing a game isn’t new. Another UK industry legend, Mel Croucher, had anticipated the idea by three decades, in fact, and his game Pimania was almost certainly the first to offer a reward for its completion.

Published by Croucher’s firm Automata in 1982, Pimania was a text adventure featuring some particularly devious riddles. Like Curiosity, Pimania‘s conundrums and promise of a prize captured the imaginations of the gaming public – though the audience for games was admittedly much smaller back in the early 80s. In the hope of winning a “golden sundial” worth £6,000, players across the UK combed books and maps for clues as to its whereabouts, which Automata said was hidden somewhere in the British Isles.

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The sundial was so well hidden, in fact, that three years after launch, nobody had managed to find it. Magazines of the day began to suspect that the whole thing was a publicity stunt, when two remarkably dedicated players, Sue Cooper and Lizi Newman, followed a trail of clues to the Sussex Downs.

According to an October issue of Computer & Video Games, the players were standing on a rain swept hill, when all of a sudden the game’s programmer, Christian Penfold, leapt out of a nearby hedge and presented the ladies with their coveted prize. We’re not sure how Penfold knew that the players had found the prize’s location; had he been waiting in that hedge – dressed as company mascot Pi-Man, we should add – since the game’s release in 1983?

At any rate, the lucky winners were taken for a slap-up feed at a nearby hostelry in Sleaford, where they hopefully got the chance to dry out a little bit by a warm fire.

After the hunt for Pimania’s prize ended, Automata published an amusing answer sheet, which not only laid out the solution to the game, but also revealed the lengths that some players had gone to in order to get win that elusive prize:

“Thanks to you, the public, who became Pimaniacs: to the man who went to Bethlehem on Christmas Day, to the young man who went to Stonehenge on Midsummer’s Day, and interfered with a Druid, to the loony who tried to book a ticket on the Space Shuttle, to the lady who cited us for causing her divorce, and to the thousands of Pimaniacs the world over…”

The success of Pimania led Automata to make another prize game, this one called My Name Is Uncle Groucho, You Win A Fat Cigar. Also a text adventure, it required players to find Groucho Marx and discover the identity of another famous movie star. Those smart enough to figure out all the cues would have the opportunity to win a particularly lavish prize: a trip to Hollywood on Concorde, a meeting with the enigmatic movie star mentioned in the game, and a trip back home on a luxury liner.

Stoke-on-Trent resident Phil Daley eventually won, and identified the hidden celebrity as Mickey Mouse.

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A year after My Name Is Uncle Groucho, another text adventure emerged with prizes of its own. Created by Fighting Fantasy gamebook designer and Games Workshop co-founder Ian Livingstone, Eureka! was a lavish game published by Domark. Housed in a handsome cardboard box and packaged with a book full of drawings and riddles, the game was a cryptic jaunt through history, from the time of dinosaurs via ancient Rome to the Caribbean of the 1980s.

Although not the best example of a text adventure at the time, the quality of the packaging and the prize on offer made it an enticing proposition: the first person to ring a hidden phone number with the correct password would win a then-impressive £25,000. A 15-year-old lad named Nathan Woodley eventually won the prize, and after re-reading a 1985 article he wrote about how he solved Eureka’s secrets, we’re still none the wiser.

A rather different prize game emerged the same year Woodley wrote that Eureka article. Called Gyron, it was a first-person, wire-frame maze game with a palpably strange atmosphere. Trapping the player among high walls and huge spheres that rolled around in arcane patterns, it was considered to be so challenging that its creators offered a lavish reward for the winner: a Porsche 924, or an alternate cash prize of £12,500. As it turned out, this backfired a little bit, since 60 people managed to complete Gyron by the middle of 1985. To find just one victor, developer Firebird created a new version of the game (Gyron Arena) and organised a series of play-offs in the UK and Europe. We couldn’t find out the identity of the winner, but we understand (thanks to Matt Westcott on Twitter) that whoever it was took the cash and not the sports car.

After the 1980s, the idea of offering prizes for completing games appeared to fizzle out – certainly, there were few with the same profile as Pimania, Uncle Groucho, Gyron or Eureka in the UK. Peter Molyneux’s Curiosity, then, is something of a throwback, albeit one that uses modern technology in an original way: the notion of thousands of players interacting on one common playing field via their mobile phones would have seemed inconceivable even a decade ago.

Whether Curiosity’s prize is as astoundingly life-changing as we’d been promised is a matter for debate. Certainly, the financial rewards the winner will receive hinge entirely on how successful Godus is – if players flock to the free-to-play game in their millions, and actually spend money on it, Mr Henderson could soon be very rich. If Godus isn’t a hit, he may have preferred to have received a £6,000 gold sundial.

Whatever you make of the prize, Curiosity was at the very least an intriguing experiment. With it, Molyneux proved that players really would flock to perform the most mundane of tasks, even if their reward for doing so was nebulous in the extreme. Curiosity broke gaming down to its most basic parts – almost to the point where you could ask whether it was even a game at all. As players picked the cube apart, they found their own games to play as they did so – creating various works of graffiti, which were gradually obliterated and altered as other players chipped in with little sculptures of their own.

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All the while, they were motivated by the tiny, tiny possibility that they might receive something wonderful. Those 80s games mentioned earlier may have proved that players would go to all sorts of lengths to win a prize – such as wandering rainy British hills in search of clues – but Curiosity taught us that the answer to a mystery can be just as enticing as cash, a golden garden ornament, or a trip on a supersonic plane.

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