Extrasolar is free-to-play wot I get (i.e. it makes sense)

As a rule, I’m really poor. I live in London (England) and currently visit the ‘bottom ten percent of earners’ club on a daily basis, where we pass round boxes of Asda smart price jaffa cakes, slowly sip weak (Tesco value) orange squash and sing wartime ditties to maintain morale: it’s still the most effective way in town, such is the relative vapidity of anything Modern London. Despite working in the med-ya and personally generating literally millions of pounds of revenue a year for a titanic corporation, I still can’t afford to wash my (lovely) hair on a daily basis, nor eat venison sausages very often, let alone buy video games. That’s precisely why I’ve been eyeing up a lot of free-to-play, or f2p as they say up Stoke Newington, and thinking a lot about playing, but not paying, them. There’s this one called Extrasolar, which I think might have finally found a way to eloquently justify them pesky energy bars wot constrain or enjoyment of and ability to, well, actually play f2p games. 

Family Guy is fucking hilarious, isn’t it? I love all their jokes about things: they make jokes about ‘The Jews’, jokes about ‘The Blacks’, jokes about ‘The Women’, jokes about ‘The Gays’, jokes about ‘The Jews’, jokes about ‘The Mariners’, jokes about ‘The Paedos’, jokes about ‘The Hitler’, jokes about ‘The Blacks’, jokes about ‘The Handicapped’, and occasionally jokes about ‘The Western Caucasian Male’ which allows them to say that they make jokes about ‘The Everything Equally’, so they’re not being unfairly offensive to anyone. They’re well smart at Family Guy.
When not making jokes Family Guy is making games, specifically the f2p city building type, you know, a bit like Sim City Societies. It’s a shame then that Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff (currently number two on Google Play and five in the App Store for free titles) is a - get this - shameless rip-off of a Simpsons product?!!!??! So instead of talking more about The Family Guy I’ll have to, sadly, talk about The Simpsons: Tapped Out. MASSIVE bummer. 

We all know the deal by now: f2p city builders (f2p CBZs down the road in Peckham Rye) are a lot like a proper easy Sim City, just without ‘cheetah speed’ to make everything take a lot less time. (Sometimes this analogy doesn’t, in fact, work that well.) In f2p CBZs this lethargic pace is the developer’s sharpest knife; they use it to slowly flay the cash-soaked skin from your drunk/bored/stupid body, until you wake up and witness your exploited visage in the front of the soot-caked spoon you use to hold the remainder of your almost valueless self-respect. It takes and hour for Lisa Simpson to read a book. It takes four hours for Apu Nahasapeemapetilon to work a four hour shift. It takes twenty-four hours for Homer Simpson to ‘get ready for Whacking Day’. It takes thirty seconds to build a house. Time is relative and entirely at the whim of the poo-men and poo-women wot decide how the game makes money. Every task you’re asked to click on to accomplish adds increasingly agonising waits in between the first ‘do this’ click, and the second ‘collect reward’ click. For example: the first action you can get Glenn Quagmire to perform is ‘Raiding Panties’, which takes him thirty minutes to perform. His final ability, granted to you once you’ve thrown away almost six months of your free time on the game, is ‘Altering Police Records’ which bizarrely takes twenty-four hours to come to fruition. You could well say that lovable rapist Glenn Quagmire probably has got a criminal record long enough to take a full solar day to amend, and for that I’d call you an effing moron. 

It’s this steady ramping up of downtime that developers use to drive players towards the digital bureau de change; wearing them down until they’re willing to swap proper money for clams, donuts, gems, stars or little pictures of proper money, all to be spent on circumventing these arbitrary waiting periods. The problem is that these waits don’t ever attempt to be naturalistic: they’re simply timers that get increasingly girthier as a means of reaching the more patient of players. It’s this distancing from reality that, I’ve only just recently discovered, is what really bugs me about energy-based f2p CBZs (E-to-the-B f2p CBZs, ‘cross the river in Archway). I got about twenty minutes into Clash of Clans when the game hit me with its first hour-long wait. Up to that point everything had been thirty seconds or a couple of minutes; make a coffee or do some crunches sorts of waits. This hour came out of nowhere and really made me feel uneasy: it simply came too early into the experience for me to have become normalised to waiting and so I was terrified by it, thus I uninstalled the game in a panic and did not become embroiled in its deviance. (Although anecdotal evidence would suggest that it’s a pretty widely liked piece of software.) 

So, the game called Extrasolar. I heard about this in passing on a popular video game-based podcast; one of the podcastees was approached by a man with a clipboard at a convention and encouraged to ‘sign up’ to a programme run by the eXoplanetary Research Institute (XRI). With a resounding “na mate, I’m busy”, the clipboarded man was rebuffed and this short anecdote about Extrasolar came to an abrupt conclusion. I, however, was intrigued. What type of video game necessitates a load of cloaks and a load of daggers in order to advertise itself at an event almost entirely geared around the free and open advertisement of video games? Why, when I ‘hit up’ the Internet and searched for the words extrasolar and game was I confronted with two separate sites, one of which appeared to explain what’s actually going on in the game, as if it’s all too paradigm shattering for me to understand? Extrasolar was a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, inside a conumdrum, underneath a puzzle, wrapped inside the delicate crepe paper-like sphere of a riddle, floating on the abstract waves of - oops, no sorry, it’s just another alternate reality game (ARG in the borough of - actually, we’ll leave it at that), so no need to get too worked up. 

If an ARG is the seamless melding of various technologies and mediums to provide a (somewhat) more engaging experience to the player, then what sort of ‘we’ll call you up in the middle of the night with your kidnapped children’ tomfoolery does Extrasolar pull? Well, it’s not the kind of ARG that has you running around the streets of major metropolitan areas in the middle of the night. The kind that are attended by sexy high street fashionista ‘geeks’ and overweight middle aged men wearing fluorescent tank tops, jorts and Oakleys on neoprene loss-prevention cords. It’s more of the classic kind, like Majestic.

From the off you have to pretend that you’re not playing the game Extrasolar, but actually assuming the role of crowd sourced muscle tasked with manning an exploratory rover on a newly discovered planet. You’re told by XRI that we’re all here to explore new worlds and seek out (maybe) new life, tasks completed solely through trundling along really slowly and taking pictures. Almost as soon as you begin this, a mysterious individual with a penchant for sick ASCII art (what else for a haXor) contacts you via your actual email account (!). As with most people on the Internet, this digital phantom is convinced that some shady shit is going down with the mission and that XRI is “hiding stuff from youse”. What follows is a back and forth, with you alternately performing photography errands for ‘the corporation’ and ‘the free world’. It’s all quite enthralling really, even though all you’re really doing is moving an icon around on a map, reading emails and once in a while looking at a very lovely procedurally generated digital piccy. It’s a very leisurely process, you see, because limited bandwidth (in the story) means the commands you give to your rover and the pictures it sends back in return take four hours to travel through space. This means that once I’ve inputted the maximum two commands in the morning when I get to work, I’m left to wait and dream until I get home and check my findings at night. Then I - you guessed it - queue up another two, study my data and then wait patiently until the following day, possibly partaking in another activity to pass the time - only possibly though. I’ve got myself into a right little routine; genuinely feeling as though I’m moonlighting as a spaceman-spacedriver: it’s great. I suppose this is why people still visit role-playing servers in Half Life mods; that sense of genuinely letting go is pretty powerful.

But it’s all a lie. 

When I drag myself out of the sweaty funk of being taken in by the game, I see its masterful straddling of the broad shoulders of payment/narrative/gameplay integration: they may as well be tied tightly together with strawberry bootlaces the synergising (and I don’t use that word lightly) is so beautifully, tastily stimulating.

FACT I: XRI, the haXor, your rover and this faraway planet are all fictional.
FACT II: Despite FACT I being unequivocally true, it’s dead easy to believe that FACT I is not unequivocally true.
FACT III: FACTS II and I are provable because Extrasolar presents the player with a very concise and believable world, one that intersects with the real world enough to create the illusion that it too operates within, and not alongside, our day-to-day lives.
FACT IV: FACT III, therefore, facilitates the game’s ability to ask you for money in a way that works within the narrative and the moral sensibilities of modern video games.
Thus ends the facts box-out.

The game, completely free in its purest (the one I played) form, asks you for money as a means of ‘increasing your bandwidth allotment’, which is a snazzy way of saying “the developers of this game are effing geniuses when it comes to this payment stuff”. Paying into one of the two tiers of upgrades ‘increases the rate at which data is sent and received’, essentially functioning just like so many special currencies used in E-to-the-B f2p CBZs: (say this following bit with an Italian Job-era Michael Caine voice) it only goes and bloody speeds things up! Upon upgrade, which is, admittedly, a one-time affair, your bandwidth quadruples, allowing tasks to be completed in only one hour. But wait, there’s even more! Once fully upgraded, your rover can accept up to four queued commands at a time, at least doubling the productivity of your day. Throw in a few additions to your camera, like infrared and panoramic shots, and Extrasolar manages the almost unmanageable: it’s a f2p game where the payment model is genuinely inseparable from the narrative/gameplay experience, and not simply something hovering, like a sheet of back hair-covered Clingfilm sleaze, between player and game. 

Both That Simpsons E-to-the-B f2p CBZ and That (fucking hilarious) Family Guy E-to-the-B f2p CBZ make light of the fact they are shit, hollow and wholly pointless experiences. They have the audacity to poke fun at their own banality, insinuating that by being aware of their own shortcomings they are somehow absolved of being cynical, lazy and exploitative. A game like Clash of Clans has more going for it (barely), but still fails to explain - much less contextualise - all the waiting inherent in its design, and why players should wish to expedite it past the obvious “I’m bored” rationale. Extrasolar, in being an ARG and having a more thoughtful design philosophy, carefully justifies its monetisation within its wider experience. While its payment model isn’t identical to the aforementioned three games by virtue of its preference of a single payment over microtransactions (it’s essentially an energy-based f2p and early access hybrid), it does show how energy-based play constriction can be elegantly slotted into a game. It legitimises the practice of using the prevention of play as a play mechanic and not simply as a means of revenue generation. That’s not to say that all games could redeem themselves with a little bit more context - Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff will almost certainly never be anything but damnable - simply that care and love certainly both improve many aspects of a game, including how much money it can convince drunk/bored/stupid people to spend on a whim.

Speaking of being poor: I’ve set up one of them Patreon pages wot a lot of other writers have got themselves these days. If you like my thought process and fancy helping me legitimise my type of video game criticism to a terribly unsupportive girlfriend and the wider world, then please consider a small donation to my peerlessly altruistic cause. It resides here: patreon.com/ashouses. Chrz.