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.