The name tells you the objective, and the reason you’ll feel compelled to pursue it, in reverse order. "Curiosity—What’s Inside the Cube?" is the newest game from Peter Molyneux, the infamous designer whose unorthodox titles have alternatingly delighted and disappointed gamers for the better part of the last two decades. But calling Curiosity a "game" requires a somewhat loose definition of the term. Essentially, players tap their smartphone screens to chip away at a massive virtual cube, its layers falling away in real time as people from around the world chisel away tirelessly with their fingertips. Until the last cubelet has been chiseled, that is, and a single player discovers the secret of what’s inside.
Instead of drawing in players with cute characters, addictive mechanics, or meaningless high scores, here, mystery is the main attraction. There are some other diversions to be found: You can gain multipliers with sustained tapping, earn gold for an in-game store that’s yet to open, and enjoy messages, patterns, and doodles graffitied in by other players. But the real draw is the big secret.
Molyneux hasn’t told anyone what’s at the center of the cube, though in interviews he has referred to it as "amazing" and "life-changing." In terms of the way video-game incentives conventionally work, it’s diabolically unfair. Thousands of people play; only one wins. But it also represents a daring new idea of what a mobile game can be—a synchronous, shared experience where everyone is playing on the same team and there’s not really anyone on the other side. Except for maybe Molyneux himself.
That’s not an altogether unfamiliar dynamic for the designer. Curiosity is the first project from 22Cans, the independent studio Molyneux founded after leaving his job as creative director at Microsoft Studios Europe earlier this year. There, he frustrated the gaming community as the creator of the Fable series—an inventive string of RPGs that, in the estimation of many, promised more than they delivered. And admittedly, it’s hard to imagine what could be in that cube that would really be worth all that effort. Many users, painfully aware of Molyneux’s track record, expect that after millions of man hours of tapping, some kid in Germany will crush the last cubelet and see the word "love" appear on his screen.
But for Molyneux himself, the whole experience is an opportunity to get back to his indie gaming roots—and potentially a chance to steer mobile gaming into some more thought-provoking territory in general. In an interview with the International Business Times, he made the case for smartphone games that reached beyond lowest common denominator distraction:
We could have just done another of those mobile games; some of those make $700,000 a day. But my feeling is that those are just destroying all the fascinated consumers that have these devices and it’s saying 'this is gaming. It’s greedy and it wants your money. It wants to take your time and not give anything back.
What Zynga has started is this idea of using analytics to alter pricing, mainly to get more money. Of course, we have to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think you can make money be squeezing people dry or by making people fascinated.
As Molyneux explains in this month’s edition of Wired, however, Curiosity is actually part game, part proof of concept—an exploration of the technical possibilities of having huge numbers of users interacting with a dynamic game environment in real time. It’s one of a series of such experiments his new team’s planning as they put together their real first project, a game about which Molyneux only speaks vaguely and cryptically, but one he ultimately envisions as a phenomenon that will boast 100 million active players every day.
So far, the Curiosity experiment has been a little too successful for its own good. After drawing in 200,000 total users in its first 24 hours, the cube having shed over 100 million cubelets, the app buckled under the pressure and has been spitting out error messages sporadically since. But the initial popularity proves two things: Curiosity’s a truly powerful thing, and even a mysterious, life-changing mega cube is susceptible to server problems.