Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Monkey Brains: Jurassic Park Builder

“So what do you actually do in Jurassic Park Builder?”

It’s a fair question, and after watching my son play this, slightly obsessively over the past few months, I still don’t really know. It seems to be a game about prodding the screen, and waiting. Mainly waiting I think.

There is the apocryphal story of the caged lab monkeys who are given a button. In the control, the button dispenses a treat. In the other group, it sometimes dispenses a treat, and sometimes doesn’t. The monkeys in the control just get on with their lives, sauntering over to the button and nonchalantly collecting their reward, then sauntering off, safe in the knowledge that the button provides.

The other monkeys, however, sit in front of their random button all day, pressing it compulsively, till a pile of grapes sits untouched on the floor next to them. They forgo all forms of social interaction and sit before their tyrannical button all day long.

These monkeys have become addicted to a form of gambling. This mechanism hooks into some primordial part of the brain that tries to find patterns, even when none exist, that obsessively searches for cause and effect. But because its random, the monkeys can’t work out the pattern, and it drives them nuts. If you feel sorry for the monkeys at this point, then for pity’s sake don’t install Jurassic Park Builder on their ipad.

Games like Jurassic Park Builder hook into our monkey brains, and push the same buttons. And this kind of game seems to be phenomenally popular on mobile platforms.  They come in many different skins, but all operate on largely the same superficial level. Fundamentally, they are not really games at all, though they ape the sim genre, and borrow tropes from RTS and RPGs. It’s a digital facade, like a wild west movie set. The look like games, they sound like games, but they are not really games. They are simulacrums, pseudo-games.

These pseudo games all have the same meta game, which is basically acquiring things, amassing digital objects. The designers have done a fantastic job of balancing these rewards. If stuff is given away too easily it becomes worthless and players don’t value it. Make it too expensive and it’s also a turn off. But there is that sweet spot, just ever so slightly below too expensive, which is compulsive. There are probably GDC talks on nailing this spot, and on tracking its exponential curve upwards, and the designers have clearly honed their skills, like the torturer who keeps his victim from passing out.

I’ve heard of fathers setting the alarm for 3 in the morning to wake them up to farm mushrooms or something for there kids ipad game.

There’s another apocryphal story of the frog and the pan of water. If you put the frog in a pan of hot water, it will quite sensibly jump out. However, if you put the frog in a pan of cold water and then gradually heat up the water, very slowly, it will stay put and boil. In a similar way the pseudo games start out innocent enough, but gradually increase the barriers, meticulously edging towards insanity until an eight year old is told that he has to wait 72 hours for a dinosaur to hatch. From a dinosaur egg he has just spent 72 hours or more harvesting dino dollars for.

Of course, there is a shortcut, and here at last the pseudo games bare their teeth. If you hand over some real money you can speed the process up. Kids don’t know the true value of money of course, let alone dino dollars. The pseudo game’s real business model is as follows:

“Get kids to extort the money from their parents.”

This is why micro transactions are fundamentally bad for games and the industry, they are the antithesis of the generosity found in games like Ni No Kuni and Little Big Planet which ask for your money up front and then shower you with joy.

After several weeks of tireless prodding my son appeared to me in tears saying his park had gone. Of course, being a cloud based app there are no save files or backups that can be loaded even if it meant losing a few hours play. Somehow all his progress had been deleted. I emailed the devs, not expecting much, and to be honest, they responded very quickly and politely. They couldn’t find our game on their servers, but by way of compensation we were given 50 dino dollars.

I had secretly hoped that this would be the end of the phase and we could get back to playing The Windwaker HD, but no such luck. I thought about uninstalling it but that would probably only have increased its allure. I wanted to let him realise for himself that its all a con, like those claw games in arcades.

I had to wait to a long time, but it paid off. After installing Minecraft on PS3 and tablet, Jurassic Park Builder has not been touched. Funnily enough, our kids had been playing Minecraft in the back garden for ages with a pile of old bricks and quarry tiles. So Minecraft in Creative mode was just a natural extension of their play. So far, they have made a city of Venetian canals, a cluster of sky pods supported on impossible spires, a complex network of underground railways, and labyrinthine library straight out of Borges.

“I like Minecraft, because it doesn’t have any money in it,” said my son the other day, and I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Ni no kuni

My son’s ongoing project to categorize the entirety of existence into top ten lists show no signs of slowing down. Variations, such as “Who is strongest, Superman or Galactus?” are really only masking this deeper agenda. It turns out they are exactly the same strength: 50 (at least according to Top Trumps). This is a deeply unsatisfactory answer to this seven-year-old.

Thankfully the answer to the question, “What is the best videogame ever?” is completely unambiguous, at least to him. “Ni no kuni.” There is no need for a lengthy debate on the subject. “I love Ni No Kuni,” he says with a sigh.

At this point I can allow myself a moment of fatherly pride, like the time in the games shop when he recognized the Ghostbusters theme, and shouted across the aisle in a very excited voice, generating some serious respect from the staff, who, with greying heavy metal t-shirts observed: “Eee, it warms the cockles of your heart to see a kid know the Ghostbusters theme.”

Why is Ni No Kuni number one? It transported us to another world (which is what Ni No Kuni means, of course, and why it is the title of this blog). It was an adventure that we went on together. We played every day for about an hour, after I got home from work and before he went to bed, and we spent a good 70+ hours completing it. My son did the exploring and then handed the pad over in a panic for the combat. It is not an easy game, being at heart an old-school unapologetic JRPG, but he was still able to follow the drama of the unfolding battles, and we could discuss tactics at length.

It was fascinating to see some of those old design tropes work their magic, to see him jumping up and down with excitement on levelling up a character, or obsessively collecting the rare creatures of the Ni No Kuni universe, and pouring over the creatures compendium, a catalogue of the world’s beautifully designed creatures that can be captured and trained, Pokemon style.

Above all the game is generous. You get to meet dragons and fight them, which is pretty cool, but then the game exceeds all expectations and wipes away decades of learned cynicism from invisible walls, and the necessary but disappointing limits of game worlds. You then get to fly the dragon. And then the whole landscape of Ni No Kuni opens up beneath you, that landscape that took hours to traverse, full of random encounters, is now spread out before you and you can go anywhere. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed wonderment this moment elicited - worth the price of admission alone. We stayed up way past his bedtime that night.

There are moments so surreal that they can only have come from a Japanese RPG, or maybe an episode of Adventure Time, like when you have to travel into guts of the giant mother of all the fairies, and clean out her insides from the giant octopus sea creatures that have infested her and made her rather poorly. Of course, the inside of the Fairy Godmother looks like a nursery. When you defeat the boss you have to make your escape out her giant bum hole. This is comedy gold to small children.

The generosity of the devs shines through almost every aspect of the game: they want the player to experience everything it has to offer, everything that they have lovingly crafted, they don’t want my son to miss anything. The worst thing about Ni No Kuni is that it had to end, and it left a huge Ni No Kuni shaped hole in our lives, which we have yet to fill.

The story also rises above the usual pompous cliches of video games. Telling the story of Oliver, a young boy who loses his mother, and is left an orphan, and then travels to a magical parallel world, in the company of Drippy, a soft toy made by his mother that comes alive and inexplicably speaks with a heavy Welsh accent - with fantastic voice acting and translation by the way. It may all be a figment of Oliver’s imagination, an escape from his grief, and the game never offers any easy answers, and in the end it doesn’t seem to matter.
The Studio Ghibli animated cutscenes are wonderful and if your eyes don’t fill with exaggerated anime tears during the opening scenes, as Oliver grieves over the loss of his mother, then you have a stone for a heart. This is deep stuff for video games,where death is a constant, a minor inconvenience, but loss is rare. Oliver’s pain is universal, because we are all left orphans eventually. The realization that one day your parents are going to die is scarier to a kid than any monsters the devs might have conjured up. This is the hook that pulls you through the game, you really want to help Oliver, but the game refuses to hand out neat Hollywood endings, and we learn that in the end, death is final. The idea that kids don’t understand the full weight of mortality is a myth. It’s said we are the only animal that knows it is going to die - this is the apple from the tree of knowledge, the price we pay for mega brains. We found our son crying inexplicably on the stairs one morning when he was six. We coaxed the reason out of him: “I’m scared to die, I don’t want to not be alive,” he sobbed. I’m not sure if this was the exact moment it had dawned on him. There’s nothing you can do to make that better. We gave him hugs. And some chocolate. After a while he calmed down but you could still see the cold fear in his eyes. He had been evicted from the Garden.

Ni No Kuni’s message of helping people and living a good life, is the only thing that makes it bearable. Oh, and chocolate.