Friday, 8 June 2012

Peter Molyneux's curious lack of insight


I just read about Peter Molyneux's latest idea for a game. I hadn't known much about Molyneux before, apart from the fact that many consider him to be a buffoon. Now I know why.

This game, called Curiosity, gives millions of players the task of 'chipping away' (ie. clicking the mouse button over and over) at a single, massive cube. The player (or syndicate of players) who make the final chip will reveal what's inside that cube: a "truly amazing, absolutely unique" mystery prize. To chip away at the cube, players will need to buy chisels, which range from 59p "iron chisels", to a £50,000 "diamond chisel". 


"This is not a money-making exercise; it is a test about the psychology of monetisation", says Molyneux. He's fascinated to see whether the power of curiosity will be enough to make anyone buy the diamond chisel, or whether large numbers of people will band together via social media to do so. Ugh. It's like first-year art school where students learn that even the most banal idea can be made to sound important if you put enough wanky spin on it.



But Molyneux is famous for getting over-excited about his own projects. As Eurogamer put it
"...Molyneux's well known for dreaming big, as ad men might put it. He describes his design ideas with an astonishing emotional vividness, making claims for his games that sometimes - just sometimes - don't turn out to stand up to much scrutiny, and if you ever see him talking, you can see his green eyes twitch very occasionally, and you can sense his rational mind, barricaded deep within his head, held hostage by his showboating imagination." 
Peter, what you don't seem to appreciate is that your bold new "experiment in monetisation" isn't an experiment at all. It's a rehash of a tried and tested business formula that's been around for millenia. It's called "gambling". More specifically, it's called "the lottery". The idea is simple: entice people into spending money for the slim chance of winning a jackpot; the more they spend, the higher their chances, though the odds are always massively against them.

There's nothing innovative or interesting about this. It's just an old business practice. And a cynical, primitive one that preys on people's weaknesses, at that. One that's found an unfortunate psychological loophole that enables people to repeatedly give away their money for nothing.

There are only two main differences that I can see between Molyneux's 'game' and the lottery, and neither are good:

  • watching balls jumping and bouncing around in a lotto machine is arguably much more fun than repeatedly clicking on a virtual cube.
  • Both involve throwing money away in the vain hope of winning something against massive odds, but at least the lottery entrant's decision is a calculated one, since she knows what the prize is.
Molyneux has had his fair share of hare-brained ideas, but this time his wide-eyed folly has led him away from the merely whimsical and toward the downright unethical. It's doubtful that any game developer could create a prize that is worth £50,000, let alone a man who is famous for making games that under-deliver on their promises. In lieu of a genuinely worthy prize, then, Molyneux has nothing left to bait us with but snake oil. 

By not telling us what the prize is, he ensures that our imagination conjures up something far more wonderful than he could ever hope to produce, thereby encouraging us to chase this mirage and spend money we wouldn't otherwise spend, toward a project that doesn't deserve our money.

If this were anyone else, I would view Curiosity as the work of a shrewd, cynical shyster who has no qualms on exploiting people's weaknesses for financial gain. But as it's Peter Molyneux, I'm willing to soften my position and admit that it's probably just the work of a well-meaning buffoon. 



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