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Not even Apple knows what's inside Curiosity's cube Exclusive
Not even Apple knows what's inside  Curiosity 's cube
November 8, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

November 8, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Smartphone/Tablet, Programming, Art, Design, Exclusive



5:00 PM, 30,000 feet in the air. Peter Molyneux jumped on a flight back from Israel to England on the news that Curiosity, his experimental passion project, had just unexpectedly gone live on the App Store.

Desperate to see what was happening, he pressed his phone against the plane's tiny window, in the vain hope of getting some kind of signal.

"I thought, if this crashes the plane, me turning my phone on, so be it," Molyneux tells me.

The creator famed as much for his wild dreams and big promises as much for with his work at Lionhead seems to have been thwarted, just a little, by Apple's certification and release process. He'd thought he'd get more of a 24-hour window ahead of Curiosity's launch. "I woke up in Israel and I looked at my Twitters and they were live with people already tapping, so I just rushed to the airport and got on the first plane I could back to England."

The app gives participants an incredibly simple task: There's a black cube in a white room ("quite a beautiful-looking cube," Molyneux enthuses) that erodes as people around the world tap away at it in a race to see what's at its center. Only one person can attain the secret inside, and in typical Molyneux fashion, the creator has said that whatever the mystery is, it'll be completely transformative for the recipient.

"Firstly, it's amazing, and it's amazing by any scale," he says. "Secondly, that person's life will change forever."

Our phone conversation coincides with the clearing of the cube's first layer -- 100 million taps in less than 24 hours, he says. "What people do is they leave little messages around; they can tap away little messages," he says. "Some people leave artwork, some people do rude things, other people then turn those rude things into nice things."

The wonderment in his voice at the idea of thousands of people around the world tapping at Curiosity's black cube, at the potential to learn and study their behavior, is palpable. He sighs. When he talks about it, it's with the elegance of oratory, of someone who passionately believes in things bigger than himself. It becomes easy to see why the man known for over-promising so frequently can carry others away on the tide of his faith in possibility.

But how did that work on Apple? Molyneux says getting Curiosity certified was "pretty tough."

"It's very unique, it's very different, some of the tech in it is very unusual... It tests these very logical and very sensible guidelines that Apple has," Molyneux says.

The biggest issue in getting approval was that Apple demanded to know what was at the center of the cube, and Molyneux would not bend. "I've only told one other person in the world and I needed to tell that person to help me implement the video we're sending out," he says "If I tell somebody else... if it escapes out, it will ruin this simple, pure experiment."

"We're just asking: Is mystery and curiosity enough to drive people to do impossible things?"

Apparently. Molyneux says early response to Curiosity has surpassed all the expectations of his studio, 22Cans -- both abstractly and in terms of the technical architecture that underlies it.

"All of our systems are stretched and none of us have slept," he says. "We didn't expect this tidal wave of people."

In the end Apple consented to let Molyneux keep his mystery, so long as information about what Curiosity is was made clear in the app info. He says it has nothing to do with his career or his reputation.

"Apple doesn't have a clue who I am, and neither should they," Molyneux says. "I just explained -- 'Look, I can't tell you what is in there. You have to trust us that it is something amazing.'"

"They were very, very understanding," he continues. "They could have easily turned around and said, 'You know what? Why should we take the risk?' But I think they saw it was the use of mobile in a completely different way... It took us about four weeks to get through, but we did get through."

Requested revisions mainly hinged on terms and conditions, and some aspects of the free game's shop, which includes upgraded taps that players can buy through in-app purchases. "And this is the first time we've ever submitted any app to the App Store, so there were a number of schoolboy errors we made in the first instance," he says. "They went as fast as I think they could. I think it's amazing you can get through so quickly."

Now that Apple has consented to play host to Molyneux's experiment (the app is also available on Android), the first challenge is managing traffic. "My expectation was we would get a few thousand people and they would tap for maybe a minute, and then say, 'Oh, that's interesting, I'll check back tomorrow and have a look at it," he says. "Instead what we found was there aren't a few thousand -- there's a few hundreds of thousands of people, and the people who are joining the cube aren't tapping for a few minutes, they're tapping for a few hours, and they're creating this living piece of art, almost."

"It's way, way more than we ever dared hope or expect," he adds. "This is an experiment... It's a game, it's a graffiti board, it's a living thing. The trouble is our servers, designed for tens of thousands for people, are struggling to keep up. None of us went home last night."

A fix -- and further announcements about Curiosity -- are imminent, says Molyneux. But once the server crunch goes away, the analytics can begin. "The fascinating thing is, why do people start [tapping] in the middle and then spread out? There's no rule to do that, so we want to say why, when people reveal a tiny bit of the surface below, do people start in the middle and spread out? What do the taps mean?"

"We want to share all that data, and share the instruction... what we're doing with that data, and that's when I think it gets really fascinating," he enthuses. "A little bit later we're going to be using some of that Facebook data which people have allowed us to use, and use it to enhance the experience. We're going to be changing some rules; our first rule change will probably come next week, and that'll be really exciting. All of this exciting stuff is yet to be."

It's working, he says. Only two people in the world might know what's really inside the cube, and whether it'll be as momentous a discovery as Molyneux promises. But for now he's the one having his expectations surpassed. "It's amazing," he says. "We've got tons of graphs and data coming in, and looking at that is the most inspirational thing I have seen as a game designer, ever."


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Comments


John Trauger
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This is why I like this guy.

Ardney Carter
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Heh, good for him. The idea has seemed interesting to me since it was announced but I have to admit I share his surprise that people are spending more than just a few minutes per session tapping at it.

Yama Habib
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Ah, this whole thing is insane! The success of curiosity all came down to how large of a userbase would pick it up, and to hear that there are hundreds of thousands of people tapping at this cube? There's a ton of insight as to general human behavior in its purest form here, and I'm loving it.

Still staunchly against the $77k or whatever option to just buy the cube, however...assuming that ended up making it into the final release. Lifechanging or not, I feel like that just cheapens the entire experience for everyone. Not to mention, you could probably make more money without that option, since it stands to reason that the amount of small in-app purchases for bigger taps will increase (possibly exponentially) as the cube nears completion.

Carlo Delallana
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What if the "life changing thing" is Molyneux surprising you with $100,000

Yama Habib
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There's a very good chance that the schmuck who hits the center of the cube ends up with all of the profits.

Bruno Xavier
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'All profits' will not be possible, Apple will always eat their piece of the cake.
And of course Apple knows what is inside the cube, the app reviewer knows (he/she is the 'second' who knows it), else Apple would not let the app get in;
Anyway, I like the way he markets his stuff.

Matthew Fairchild
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This sounds very intriguing. Heard of it for the first time today and may have to check it out right now!

Phil Nolan
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The real question is, why is it only on ios? Could only handle the smaller number of users?

Ardney Carter
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The article states it's also available on android.

Kris Graft
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Eh? From the article: "Now that Apple has consented to play host to Molyneux's experiment (the app is also available on Android), the first challenge is managing traffic."

Jason Carter
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I bet the person that gets to the center just gets a message saying:

"The meaning of life"

And that's it.

Ted Spence
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So far this game is a phenomenal "Error Accessing Server" simulation.

Bruno Xavier
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In my country it got horrible reviews and amazing 2 stars.
Mainly because of that I guess.

Merc Hoffner
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Total self promoting self congratulatory faux drivel. He is a pied piper marketing man.

Please correct me if I'm misunderstanding the premise here as I refuse to participate in his self indulgence but if I understand him right and we do some basic maths:

If they truly expected order 1000s of users and received 100,000s of users, and if they expected minutes of play and received hours of play then doing the multiplication (100,000 / 1000 * 60 / 1), users are tapping away at a rate on the order of 6000 X faster than expected. Thus a finite task originally projected to take say a year would be complete within 2 hours. Therefore his talk about being 'blown away' by popularity are precisely total inane hokum bunk. The phrases are artificially constructed to confer the image of humility to the human spirit, when this is really an elaborate marketing machine in his head. I suppose that makes him a 'true' artist. There you go Molyneux. Exposed with maths. Probably not the first time.

Please do correct me if I misunderstood how the game works. But I wouldn't be surprised if the 'prize' is getting to make your own first game under his tutelage as his 'last'.

Adam Rebika
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You nailed it.

Mikhail Mukin
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"error accessing" now, but if I was making it I would make sure that it scales how much remains based on overall "density" of tapping (or at least have a check for time passed etc). Also, as I assume the final prize is decided on a server, they can always change it manually (did not see the game yet!).

If it is a "life changing movie"... the only movie that can possibly change my life would be the one that gives me an account access for something very substantial. $100K will not change my life... but for a mil or more... hm... maybe I should be ready to tap when is it running! ;)

Lance McKee
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I agree with you on this being kind of a silly marketing thing, but it is an interesting one compared to most. I was wondering how logic was done to figure how long it takes to get to the center. I haven't tried the program and might be misunderstanding the concept, but one thought I had is that he could have included the rate of tapping or maybe just time to have the "taps required" adjust itself.

If this were a completely free game it would be one thing, but to me this just seems like more of what has become so common lately. Everyone gets curious, and some people even go pretty crazy with curiosity. I don't really like the idea of designing games to exploit those characteristics that humans have instead of focusing on providing a valuable product or service. Maybe I'm just not seeing it from the right angle though and this game is something that people really are getting value from.

Daneel Filimonov
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@Lance McKee I think that's exactly why it was created, (as an experiment) to see how far people will go, and how willing they are to spend absurd amounts of time (and/or money) in something so simple.

Lance McKee
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@Daneel Filimonov: I'm sure you're right. I feel like I see so much trickery going on lately, so maybe I'm starting to assume that's the case in situations where it's not.

Ian Uniacke
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"Please do correct me if I misunderstood how the game works. But I wouldn't be surprised if the 'prize' is getting to make your own first game under his tutelage as his 'last'. "

So like some sort of post modern Willy Wonka? :D

Ian Uniacke
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As for your theory there is no way of confirming that. For all we know they have scaling updates to allow for varying population. We know there is an update coming this week that will change game play in some way.

Luis Guimaraes
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Most probably it never ends, or is date-based: my bet is that it'll only open in Christmas, maybe for the guy with the most clicks, the best fastest tapping averages, or just randomization.

Maybe that's how the world ends...

Thomas Grove
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I just like the article's title so much!

Jeremy Alessi
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I hate to say it, but someone just needs to hack this thing already. You'll probably get a job at 22 Cans ;)

Johnathon Swift
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My guess? It's everyone that's worked on the cube. All the names, any pictures the game's taken from a front facing camera (does it do that? Believe I saw pre-release screenshots, maybe it doesn't). Anyway, everyone. It's everyone that's worked on the cube, everyone that helped you, the only person to get to the center, see what's inside.

At least, that's what I'd do/

Ian Uniacke
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Interesting but I doubt Apple would let an app secretly take photos of you.

David Konkol
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Unless this is a human head ala the movie "Seven" anything else isnt going to live up to the hype.

Lance McKee
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Hey that's a good guess. Has anyone here heard from Gwyneth recently? I hope she's all right.

Maria Jayne
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"I thought, if this crashes the plane, me turning my phone on, so be it,"

I'm sure everyone else on that plane felt the same way.

Michael Joseph
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Cell phones can crash planes? Then why do they let them on and don't let me take a bottle of water?

Maria Jayne
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Your cell phone goes through the scanners to ensure that's all it is, the bottle of water could be an explosive or chemical substance used to destroy the plane or terrorize the passengers, it doesn't have to be water just because it looks like it is.

As for Cell phones crashing planes, no idea, but every flight I've been on has specifically said, turn them off or turn them to flight mode. I imagine that feedback I get on my speakers at home is also possible in the pilots headset.

More to the point, you're on a plane where it might, risking your own life I couldn't less care about, risking other peoples for the sake of a phone call/checking your email? Is there any situation where that becomes acceptable?

Merc Hoffner
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While there were historic fears of the microwaves igniting fuel or interfering with the plane's own electronics and communications, I heard the more contemporary reason phones aren't allowed to operate on planes is because they're still able to tenuously access the cell towers on the ground (good unobstructed line of sight means they can get signal even at the distance), but because they have a wide view of the towers and move so fast, they simultaneously intermittently link to and hop between large numbers of towers very quickly. These accesses and hand-offs create huge amounts of network traffic that disrupts the networks' efficient running. Hence they're not allowed, but they do operate, and the rules may change as the protocols get better.

Maria Jayne
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@Joe "But hey, who cares if you're ignorant if you can get a dig in at Peter Molyneux, right?"

I see ignorance on both sides, of course my ignorance doesn't risk killing everyone on a plane if the rules turn out to be for a reason I am ignorant of. If you know something the multi billion dollar airlines don't, you should tell them, you'll make a mint and can safely ignore ignorant folk.

Patrick Miller
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Marla, the point is that the multibillion-dollar airlines are forced to comply with FCC regulations on this one for the sake of cell networks, not airline safety. If cell phones could actually bring down a plane, you can bet they'd be the first things to go.

Luis Guimaraes
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If there was any change a cellphone could crash a plane they'd be absolutely forbidden by all means possible, travel dismounted to special lead cases with double code locks, ready to be drop out of the plane if it was open mid-flight by any reason...

If they let you keep your cellphone with you it's because it's safe.

William Johnson
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I use to really dislike Molyneux. He'd always promise the world and I'd felt a little betrayed when I didn't get the world. And then he left Microsoft and I started to put it in to context. The man is a dreamer. He has some very crazy dreams, but I respect it, at least now. If you asked me about him ten years ago, I'd say he's dumb. But now, I think he's the kind of crazy dumb I want to see more of.

I guess now that all the games are looking the same and play the same, (this is hyperbole, I don't actually mean it) I think I'd like to see a game that tried to be even just a quarter as ambitious as Molyneux use to talk about.

With that said, I can't get the stupid thing to connect! I want to start tapping on this dumb thing to see what its all about.

David Canela
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I'm curious whether whatever is at the center will be another let-down or something genuinely awesome. I guess that means in some way, Molyneux has already won... ;)

Michael Pianta
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I can't imagine what could be at the center that could be so amazing and that would change my life. Seriously, the only thing I can think of is lots of money. But that's not amazing, really, it would just be an unusually formatted lottery. It's got to be more substantial than money, I would think.

Carlo Delallana
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Love it or loathe it we are talking about it and if that's the goal of this experiment then 22Cans succeeded.

Brian Young
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So this isn't another satiric take on social games as Skinner boxes? Like Cow Clicker Cubed? Hmmm.

Ian Bogost
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I implemented a cube clicker in Cow Clicker months ago, fwiw.

Sean Kiley
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Reaching the center give you direct communication to all other players!

Luis Guimaraes
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That's something nice.

Maybe they're not sure yet what's in there and the point in to get people crowd-brainstorming ideas for them... Yours would be quite fitting as something really awesome.

TC Weidner
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probably a trip around the world, life changing for some, a pain in the ass for others. Or a trip into low orbit by one of those new commercial venture rockets, that has cross marketing written all over it. A marketing stunt sounds about right.

Michael Joseph
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No no no. The grand prize is the life changing opportunity to have dinner with the one and only...

Peter Molyneux! Peter Molyneux is at the center of the cube and every click brings us closer to him.

During this dinner, and not unlike the cube itself, Peter will unveil all.

Doug Poston
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My guess, there is nothing in the center of the cube other than a note/video saying "There is nothing here. But you are the only one who knows this."

Sven Uilhoorn
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Sounds a bit like the sign on the Golden Gate alike bridge in San Andreas..

"there are no easter eggs up here go away"

Darcy Nelson
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"We're just asking: Is mystery and curiosity enough to drive people to do impossible things?"

Impossible is not a word I would use to describe something that is, as far as we know, frigging inevitable.

Jeremy Alessi
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On December 21st, 2012 one lucky person will find out we're all actually living in a game called "Populous". Moments later Molyneux will pull the plug thus fulfilling the prophecy contained in the Mayan calendar.

Luis Blondet
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I can't believe Gamasutra and so many educated people have fallen for Molyneux's marketing machine.

*facepalm*


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