Journey to the Center of the Curiosity Cube

This post is contributed by Lisa Walker, an ecommerce strategist focused on emerging business trends and technology at Elastic Path.

For those interested in understanding the potential of game design on smartphones, one particular app bears closer inspection—22 Can’s Curiosity—what’s inside the cube.

Labeled as a multi-player social experiment, rather than a game per se, Curiosity’s premise is simple: in the middle of a white room floats a giant multi-layered cube with each layer composed of billions of smaller cubes (“cubelets”). The player’s task is to destroy the individual cubelets on the current by tapping at them to reveal the layer beneath.

The ultimate goal is to be the one who clicks the final cubelet, thus revealing a video link to a secret—a secret which Cube inventor Peter Molyneux says will be life-changing, and can be kept or shared at the winner’s discretion.

Rules of the Game

Released in early November 2012 as a “free to play” iOS and Android app, Curiosity-what’s inside the cube has attracted over 3 million players, an acceptable adoption rate if one considers the 123,982 games currently listed on the iOS store, but a mere drop in the bucket if you consider the estimated 77.0 million social gaming audience that is emerging in the US alone (Casual Games Association).

The initial version of Curiosity offered an in-game economy with each cubelet destroyed gaining the player points. These points could be exchanged for cubelet-destroying tools—firecrackers, chisels, bombs, and the like—or for the opportunity to view game statistics: cube age, layers removed, and number of cubelets remaining on the current layer.

As players began to work at the task of removing the billions of cubelets on each layer, Curiosity evolved from its gaming/goal-oriented function to a communication surface that players littered with ephemeral messages and art.

“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.

Evolving Features

In mid-December 2012 Molyneux and his team at 22Cans released Version 2.0 of Curiosity, and the enhancements offer a fascinating look at how an economy within a game and game-play itself can be expanded at the developers will.

  • Those playing from the impulse to create drawings and carve out messages, can now purchase a drawing tool which enhances one’s creative capabilities.
  • Those playing to gain points or maximize their cube destruction rate, can now purchase the chance to find one of 1,000 cube–eating ‘golden badgers’ hidden on each layer.
  • Those interested in learning more about player insights and cube statistics, can now purchase “time-limited” analytics—from total users playing the cube to number registered on Facebook, from average time to destroy a layer to cubelet destruction rate per user, and from number of players by country to active users in past 24 hours.

These new features can be seen as part of Molyneux’s learning curve as he observes and responds to particular behaviors of his players. His challenge? “How can I adjust this and make it so those people who only tapped 10 times then tap 1000 times?”

Shafts of Light

Also released in Version 2 are shafts of light which reveal where others are tapping the cube. Now that players can see the activity of other users, it will be interesting to observe if these shafts of light compel players to gather around where others are tapping or purchase tools they see in use.

If so, Molyneux’s experiment may support recent discoveries in neuroscience which theorize that human beings form mind-to-mind connections with each other on a neurological level, giving us our propensity to mimic others’ behavior.

“The facilitators of these connections are called mirror neurons. They mirror in ourselves, on a neurological level, what we witness others experience. In other words, when we see another person eating a banana, mirror neurons fire in the same area of the brain that is responsible for eating a banana ourselves….In this way we learn by watching others.” (Source)

Even though the connections that create mimicry happen unconsciously and automatically, by understanding that we as humans have a propensity to mimic behaviors we observe, social game designers can leverage this knowledge to create specific game dynamics that extend engagement or encourage in-game purchases by simply revealing what other players are doing.

Smartphone User Experience

As the experiment unfolds, new features are added and new points of analysis emerge, the information and insight provided by Curiosity-what’s inside the cube will help set the stage for next generation of innovative digital entertainment.

Simply by understanding how fast people “click” on the surface of the phone and where they click is extremely powerful knowledge to possess and will provide valuable lessons which can be applied to application development on the smartphone for years to come

“Smartphones are far more powerful than anyone who’s using them realises,” explains Molyneux “not just in terms of technology but in regards to psychology. You’ve always got it with you – gaming was always an event, but now you’ve always got an access point. But there’s nothing in software terms that’s as wonderful as the device itself.” (Source)

And the ultimate, life changing prize?

Given our advances in pattern recognition and ability to comb large databases of consumer information, if Molyneux releases the sum total of the analytics of Curiosity’s 3 million plus users —where they tapped and when, where the players came from, what time they played, combined with all the players information from Facebook—this could truly be a life-changing prize. For within these statistics lie powerful insight as to what fosters game engagement and purchasing behavior on smartphones.

Luckily for us, even though Curiosity’s life span is limited to the numbers of layers left, Molyneux’s ambitions don’t end with the cube and its life-changing secret. He is utilizing his understanding of gameplay, analytics and smartphone psychology that Curiosity is providing for 21 forthcoming experiments, the first of which is Godus, a reinvention of the god game, more information on which can be found at 22Cans.com.

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