As the latest game from veteran designer Peter Molyneux, Godus has been the subject of plenty of hype before its launch. Hardly a shock, for anyone who’s followed his work since the turn of the century.
The Fable and Black & White games were exactly the same, as was Project Milo, an ambitious project for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console that didn’t make it to release.
Molyneux’s first mobile game, Curiosity: What’s Inside the Cube, made lots of headlines before and after its release in November 2012, as players tapped away layers of a giant cube to discover a mysterious prize at its centre.
Godus’ pre-release hype isn’t new, then: when Molyneux talks to interviewers or conference audiences, he talks honestly and engagingly about his grand creative ambitions for whatever project he’s working on at the time.
That stokes high expectations. When the games are actually released, they tend to meet some of those expectations, and disappoint others.
It’s reaching so high – and sometimes missing – that makes Molyneux such an interesting and important creative figure in the games industry – and such fertile fodder for an affectionate Twitter parody.
Molyneux’s public enthusiasm about his 22Cans studio’s second mobile game, Godus, has been clear since its earliest days, when the company was raising just over £526,000 on crowdfunding website Kickstarter to make it.
The fact that it’s a land-shaping god game that looks a bit like the Populous and Powermonger games that made his initial reputation 25 years ago has only served to stoke that anticipation further, despite a wider debate about the “free-to-play” business model that it would use.
“The god game genre was almost invented for free-to-play 25 years ago. It works so beautifully for what free-to-play represents,” Molyneux told a conference in April 2013. “It is already a fantastic, amazing and incredible game, and free-to-play makes it even more fantastic, amazing and incredible.”
16 months later, is it? Well, Godus – like some of Molyneux’s other games – hits some expectations, and misses others. But in some early reviews, the emphasis has been firmly on the latter.
Respected iOS site TouchArcade headlined its review “The FarmVillian Nightmare Come True”, awarding Godus one star out of five: “Leaving the player like Tantalus, ever reaching and never satisfied... I made a few in-app purchases and was left feeling the emotional equivalent of a wet fart.”
Another well-regarded site, Pocket Gamer, awarded Godus 5/10 and called it “a flawed and meandering experience which goes to a lot of effort to achieve very little”, while Digitally Downloaded slammed it as “nothing short of offensive... a symbol for just how infuriating free-to-play has become”.
A few days into the game, I’d disagree – certainly with the latter verdict.
Godus does have its flaws: its touch controls for shaping its virtual world aren’t quite right; the little followers that you command can be maddening in their ability to pick the strangest paths to a destination; and it’s a bit slow in its early hours.
And yet... When you settle into the pace of Godus (or, just as much, when it settles into the pace of your day) and reach a point when you have enough followers and settlements to ensure you’re not constantly running short of resources, it opens up into something that’s much better.
The game is all about your followers, who worship you as a god for your ability to remake the landscape – and later, create swamps, make trees spring up and rain down meteors at the tap of a finger.
Your job is to help them grow, first by shaping the land into flat bits suitable for them to build houses on, then by squidging those houses into settlements – farming, building and mining – while opening up new parts of the landscape for them to colonise.
Along the way, you’ll harvest resources – “Belief” from followers, which is what you spend when pulling rock and grass around in the world, wheat from fields and ore from mines – and fend off members of a rival tribe who turn up to mock your people.
There’s a rhythm to the gameplay, as you send followers out to build new houses, harvest the belief, use that to create space for more houses, and discover beacons on hillsides which, when lit, unlock large swaths of new territory.
That’s balanced with a system of virtual cards to access new godly powers, follower attributes and buildings:
Once a card has been discovered, you unlock it by finding “stickers” – either through uncovering treasure chests hidden in the landscape – nearby scenery sparkles to hint at their whereabouts – or by sending followers off on voyages.
The voyages are a separate Lemmings-like series of levels where you use your land-shaping skills to get the little people safely from A to B, while avoiding swamps and enemies en-route.
The voyages are where the pathfinding frustrations are most noticeable: you may think you’ve identified the fastest route to the goal – each level is against the clock – but your followers won’t always agree.
In the main game, they can also get stuck on top of mountains when being sent to a specific place, for no obvious reason. Religious sticklers may argue that this is a perfectly-realistic simulation of godhood, of course.
The land-shaping can be frustrating too: often it works beautifully, with delicate flicks of your finger on the touchscreen sweeping away a layer of landscape in a neat curve.
Other times, you’ll gouge away the wrong layer or find yourself swipe-swipe-swiping multiple times to do what you want – again, most frustrating in the timed voyage levels, where a misplaced shelf of rock can doom your followers to failure.
For a game that’s essentially about little characters going about their business while you reshape the landscape around them, those two flaws aren’t good news, although the more I’ve played, the less annoyed I was – or, perhaps, the better I learned to anticipate strange pathfinding routines and control my flicks.
The other criticism of Godus that holds water is an early hump where it can feel like the game is a lot of waiting: you don’t have many followers, so as soon as you earn belief from them, you use it up on even fairly minor scenery alterations.
Unlocking cards for new powers seems slow at this point too: digging for the chests spends more belief. It wouldn’t surprise me if a fair few players dropped out at this point, figuring that Godus was going to be a long, slow grind unless they paid.
I tried something different: I paid.
The game’s secondary currency is gems, which you can spend on instant belief boosts, as well as wheat and ore, and “gifts from god” power-ups to make your people happier. The gems start at £2.99 for 50 and rise to £69.99 for 1,400.
I spent £6.99 on a pack of 120, and that has seemed to be enough to get me over that initial hump, to a point where I had enough followers to generate decent amounts of belief every time I logged in.
Everything followed on from there: I pushed on to a 1,100-strong tribe at the time of writing, which is giving me more than enough resources to if not quite move mountains yet, certainly give hills and shallow seas short shrift, while continuing my expansion and exploration.
Should a “free-to-play” game be in the position of needing a seven-quid payment fairly early on to make it less frustrating? Probably not.
Might Godus have avoided this compromise if 22Cans had designed and released it as a paid game in the first place, though? Perhaps, although Molyneux and his company are responding to the mobile games market.
Minecraft and Football Manager Handheld aside, successful paid games (or at least, paid games successful enough to support two years of development plus scope for future updates) are thin on the ground. Making Godus free-to-play was a logical decision.
22Cans can (and likely will) tweak Godus to ease that early-game frustration hump, which will help more players progress to the point where the game really starts to open up. I’m still looking ahead to the introduction of ships, gem mining and – in a sneak peek at a future update within the cards screen – “The Imperial Age of Godus”.
For now, the game has settled into a very-moreish rhythm of settlement expansion while working on the landscapes I expect to colonise tomorrow, the next day and beyond, and refining my farming and mining systems. I ping the odd meteor planetwards to remind everyone who’s god, too.
There’s certainly more that could be added to Godus’ gameplay as it stands. More contact with other tribes, for example: the mockery from the Astari tribe – and their infrequent festivals that attract my followers to defect if they’re not happy enough – suggests there’s more to come on this score later in the game.
Godus has more scope with social features too: perhaps I’m overly influenced by Minecraft here, but imagine sharing islands with friends, collaborating (together or asynchronously) to harness the landscape. Or visiting the lands of friends in a more meaningful way than simply admiring their work.
This should be the big benefit of Godus being free-to-play: hopefully Molyneux has a big pool of ideas to expand its gameplay in the months (and years?) ahead, in the same way that a game like Clash of Clans has evolved over time.
Note, in its Kickstarter campaign, 22Cans announced “stretch goal” rewards for surpassing its initial funding target. Those hit included the ability to create your own sect or join those of other players; multi-player co-op and “possession” modes; and first-person crafting.
Hopefully Godus will be commercially successful enough to move into a cycle of updates and expansion that will introduce those and/or other features.
There’s the spark of something genuinely special here, beyond a FarmVillian Nightmare, and well beyond the flood of base-building Clash of Clans clones and uninspired Candy Crush-apeing puzzlers cluttering up the app stores.
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