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Extrasolar's unique take on exploration, discovery, and 'free-to-play'

Extrasolar is a tough game to describe, but here goes: It's a free-to-play alternate reality browser game about exploring an alien planet, that doesn't actually use the free-to-play business model.

Mike Rose, Blogger

December 17, 2013

7 Min Read

Extrasolar is a tough game to describe -- if you even want to call it a game at all -- but here goes my attempt: It's a free-to-play alternate reality browser game about exploring an alien planet, that doesn't actually use the free-to-play business model. Another way to put it: This latest title from Cogs team Lazy 8 Studios is unlike anything you've played before, pulling in traditional free-to-play browser game elements, and then spitting on the free-to-play model and giving it all away for one fixed price regardless. "It's basically a game that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, and allows you to play through this living story, interacting with characters like they are real people," explains developer Rob Jagnow to Gamasutra. "It's very graphics-rich, but you can play it all over crap browsers, because all the rendering is done in the cloud." Here's the idea: You control a space rover as it trundles along the surface of a distant planet. Each time the rover moves, it takes a photo and beams it back to you, giving you an idea of how the planets looks from billions of miles away. Imagine a game that allows you to play a NASA scientist controlling the Mars Rover, and you have a good idea of what to expect. "Within the fiction of the game, you're telling your rover where to go, what time of day you want to take the photos at, what direction you want that photo to be in, whether you want the flash on, or 360 degree panorama," Jagnow notes. "Hours later, you get this gorgeous photo of the surface of the planet, and there's light, you're tagging and identifying species, and tagging other mysterious things you find on the island."

"We honestly like to avoid the word game. 'Interactive story' feels like a better description."

But how is this all working behind the scenes? How is it that every photo taken by any player is entirely unique to any other photos taken by anyone else? "When you specific the coordinates of where you want to go, it gets uploaded to a server that we have in the cloud," explains the dev. "We put your virtual rover in this virtual space that has this rich island with tens of thousands of alien species, and we draw an image from that location, and save it to a hard drive." Hours later, this image gets served up to you, as if you are genuinely exploring an alien planet. "We really wanted to give the impression that you're exploring this planet, much like NASA does with Mars," adds Jagnow. "You're exploring one photo at a time, the difference being that there's a lot more interesting stuff than on Mars." So do the devs actually describe Extrasolar as a game? There's nothing to stop it being described this way, but to call it a game would perhaps undersell the experience -- it feels far more like an interactive work of fiction than a straight game. "We honestly like to avoid the word game," notes Jagnow. "'Interactive story' feels like a better description. The game itself has a very unusual evolutionary path, and our team has an unusual evolutionary path. I'm not really from the games industry - I cut my teeth at Pixar. I spent two summers working there, I have a PhD in computer graphics, so I'm really a graphics and rendering guy, and not really a game guy." "Because of that, the assumptions that I have about games are really different," he continues. "I guess I'm unencumbered about a lot of the assumptions about what a game is supposed to be, and how it's supposed to be played." This is what led Jagnow and co. to attempt an alternate reality game with a twist -- and one that has caused some players to misunderstand exactly what they are getting. The videos in the game, for example, are all live action, with Jagnow himself taking the role of one of the main characters. "When I pitched this game to people, even when I made it clear that this was supposed to be interacting with virtual characters, some of the questions I got were really strange," says Jagnow. "One of them was 'Isn't rendering all of those cutscenes going to be expensive?' It really shows the frame of mind that a lot of developers are in today. When I said we'll use live actors, they said "'That's just crazy talk!'" "The other common question I got was, 'How do I destroy the other rovers?'," he laughs. "Again, we're so burdened by our assumptions about what a game is and what a game is supposed to be, people really thought there must surely be death and killing because there's aliens. It really took people a while to understand that when we say it's a real space expedition, that's what we mean."

"The game lends itself to microtransactions... but we went with this model because we just feel like it's the less abusive, more easily understandable, more generous model."

Extrasolar features a classic free-to-play "energy" model, whereby players set their rover in motion, and then have to wait at least an hour before the rover reaches its destination. While many developers and players have been calling for the death of the energy mechanic, Lazy 8 was keen to implement it -- but for reasons you might not expect. "It's really part of the story," explains Jagnow. "This is a real common thing in the freemium game model, where often times you have the option to grind and do something that's time-intensive, to earn more energy. Or you can pay." But despite what appears to be the underlay for a free-to-play model, Extrasolar isn't that at all. Rather, you can choose to either play through the game for free with restrictions in place, or pay a single $9.50 to unlock the full game (with the energy system still in place). "We're doing this because it creates a real excellent fiction," adds Jagnow. "In this game there is no grind. It's funny - when players start to play, you can play for about 30 mins, and then you have to wait. You have to pay 4 hours if you're an non-paying player. And people are like 'But I want more! I want to play right now!'" "And it's a little frustrating when you first get started," admits Jagnow. "But once players really get into the system, and really get a feel for it, they really appreciate that the game is respectful of your time. In the same way that, when you're writing a movie script, you're never supposed to write a line of dialogue that doesn't advance the story. We want everything you do in the same to advance the story. We try to keep the events densely spaced through the environment so that you're always discovering something new." Jagnow tells me that as of yet, around 15 percent of the closed beta testers have paid to unlock the game, versus playing through it for free with restrictions in place. Surely his team has considered just going full free-to-play, with microtransactions to unlock the game bit-by-bit? "We get this a lot," he tells me. "We have had hundreds of hours of design meetings, deciding how we're going to do this, what's our primary business model, and if that fails, what is going to be our alternative business model." "Yeah, the game lends itself to microtransactions, so we could have said 'Ridiculously generous demo, but when you do pay, you pay in small amounts,'" he continues. "But we went with this model - you pay $9.50 once and you're done - partly because we just feel like it's the less abusive, more easily understandable, more generous model. And we just really like it." Right now, 15 percent of players paying for the game is enough to make the model viable, he reasons. "So we really think if the game isn't financially viable, we would consider a micro-transaction model -- but really we just like this better. It feels a lot friendlier. Simple as that." Extrasolar is due to launch to the public at the end of January -- however, the Lazy 8 team is constantly bringing people into the closed beta, so if you're interested, it's worth signing up on the website.

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