I'm going to, with your permission, go outside of my remit here and comment on a game which is neither video nor has anything to do with Japan but is, nevertheless, eating away my time in tiny increments. I am talking of Ikariam, an on-line "Civilization Lite" that is played in your browser and has, despite my initial resistance, managed to suck me in.

At its base the game plays somewhat like Settlers meets Civilization for a nice cup of coffee. You sign up for free, pick a world and start a town. You upgrade buildings, build new buildings, research technologies and harvest wood and whatever natural bounty your island has on offer. The twist is, apart from being free and instant-play browser based, that the game is always on and actions take time. I come into work in the morning, check on my village, make some decisions, set an upgrade going and am then told it takes 3 or 4 hours. So I shut down my browser and get to work. When I check back at lunchtime the upgrade is finished and new orders can be issued. Don't expect to be playing this game intensively for hours on end, it doesn't work that way, which I think is where its genius lies.

What Ikariam is doing right:
- instant, browser-based play
You start up Firefox (or Explorer if you're not security or usability literate), type in the URL, sign up and within seconds you're playing a game. No intro logos, no downloads and installs, no driver updates and reboots, it's right there.
- totally free
You pay exactly nothing to play this game. There is a mass of functionality and gameplay right there without having to whip out your credit card. However, should you want to get a little more out of it you can, with smaller payments for extra items and systems that could give you an advantage. There is no going to the shops to pay an obscene amount of money for a product which may or may not hold your attention for, say, 10 hours worth of enjoyment. If you don't like it, then don't play it. If you do, play it. If you love it, pay some extra money. How can you, as a consumer, not like this business model?
- time investment / always on
This game does not require you to sit at your monitor for hours on end. You play it in short bursts of a few minutes spread over a day. When you have the time you check out what's going on, when you don't the game plays out in your absence. This is a great way to play games, if you ask me. It's great setting up some tasks and coming back a few hours later to see how things have progressed.
- other people
I am personally not a big fan of multiplayer gaming. You usually end up having to play with strangers or go through a tiresome process of organising all your friends to all play at a certain time and date. Ikariam does offer some scope for griefing, obviously, but generally I get a great sense of community. One aspect of this is the communal upgrading of your island's natural resources. By donating an amount of, say, wood to the forest it can be upgraded. The game keeps track of who donated how much and if you all band together you can upgrade your resources for the whole island's benefit. Seeing someone donating more than three times you have really makes you feel guilty and dig into your pockets a little more.

Is this the future, though? Maybe people have beardstroked about the browser game as being the perihelion of the video game future. It certainly has many benefits, both for the developer and the customer. For the developer it removes the need of publishers and thus a certain necessary loss of creative control in favour of the terror of our current business model's financial realities. This can of course lead to cheaper development and more risk taking but in the end even developers need to make money, so this may be an argument too far. Updates and patches are never sent out to the users as the game is played on-line, which makes the transition from beta to final product a little easier and also allows for easy expansion. Piracy is also, obviously, useless in browser games, as it's technically impossible for now and utterly useless for a free to play game. Micropayments for extra stuff could be a very lucrative system, if Korea is anything to go by, though you'd need a certain level of popularity to be able to retire on the proceeds, I'm sure.

For the customer too it's ideal. No need to buy extra hardware nor upgrade your PC, in the state things are now at least. There is no need to lug around a memory card as you can log in from any computer and pick up where you left off. And it's free, for as much as you'd like it to be. Ikariam seems to work on a system where buying some extra items with real money adds temporary boosts and bonuses, which can help you progress further faster. If Ikariam will earn a huge profit from this is unknown to me, but it certainly seems a sound way to go about it. Some Korean free MMOs have, reportedly, only a free to micropayment pick-up rate of less than 1%, which is still enough to make money, apparently. Adding advertising revenue to this model can also help. Either way, the customer can play the game and enjoy it while never having to pay a single dime/yen/penny for it, unless they really like it a lot, in which case a few dimes/yen/pennies can add to their enjoyment.

I hope Ikariam will grow into the massive success it deserves to be, especially once they deal with a few of the balancing issues where newcomers may be overwhelmed by long playing veterans. I'm also keeping an eye open on EA's efforts in this field and the many other publishers dipping their toes in. As consumers we will hopefully experience a rise in great quality, free games soon, and as developers we'll find new opportunities for businesses away from today's rather cripplingly expensive hardware-led boxed models.

Players can try to find me and shower me with free marble, if they are so inclined, on the IOTA server on sunny Houlios [23:82] > Shanksville. Seriously, send marble.


  1. I sent you some goodies to keep you trucking.

    You really should move to the TCE world though!

  2. Always nice to find out about these new (somewhat obscure) games. The concept is genius but it probably means that I'll be even worse than in normal "strategy" games. The good news is that my citizens seem to miss me all the time - at least that's what gmail says...

  3. Unfortunately I can't check it from work. It seems to be a firewall preventing me from connecting to my game... :(
    So I can only play it twice a day and given the fact that it takes hours to do anything, I'm pretty much stuck to do just two or three things each time, which makes any progress somewhat tedious.
    Still, I'm already sucked into it.

  4. Actually, GarageGames is starting something similar to this. It's in public beta right now but it looks as good as many other computer games out there, despite being browser-based.

    Here's the link:

  5. Thanks for introducing me to this time hog, JC. Now, I'm hooked!


  6. Yeah, it's crazy addictive! And though the game plays while you're not, I still end up checking every five minutes to see whether my 3 hour upgrade has finished yet...

  7. My thoughts exactly. Even if it says it will take more than an hour, I still find myself checking every few minutes. I can't seem to wait to see what every construction/development brings.


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