A fierce stare at Monstermind

05Oct11

Monstermind is the beast-in-beta Facebook game sprung from the grimy dubstepping fixie-riding London loins of Bossa Studios. And guess what?

It involves building a city.

Excuse me I just passed out for several hours thanks to acute déjà vu.

But wait, is this city-building look simply a facade? The familiarity shouldn’t scare off regular Facebook gamers at least. This a B-Movie world where idyllic stylish retro workplaces and homes are forever under threat of attack from well known movie monster lookalikes. These monsters both attack your city and can be purchased and sent to destroy others. Forget anti-social masquerading as social, ‘sharing’, begging for golden flowers from your Aunt Jemma. In Monstermind you can send a sixty strong army of giant gorillas to smash the hell out of your friends’ towns.

I will bruck up your yard for jokes bruv

And so the important part of Monstermind is revealed, the PvP mechanic.

The instinctive action is to set up your town like a fortress. If your town hall is attacked, the lights go out in the city and nothing is earning you money. When you return to your town over gaming sessions, there is a moment just before it loads where you’ll wonder what you’ll be faced with as you walk in the door. Quite often it will be a smouldering mess of soot and rubble. Other people’s monsters have wrecked your ‘hood.

Defense options include active tanks and bombs, stationary turrets and sandbags help to shore up your perimeter.  Common sense and gaming logic dictates that this tower defense style of play is the way to go, creating a haven for the happy Farmville refugees pootling about in Your Namesville.

"I'm Quentin Wedgewood, delighted to meet you."

Upon setting foot into your demolished town, having been picked on for the 800th time by a friend’s girlfriend, you are consoled by dozens of small blue flasks scattered over the screen representing XP. So in pillaging your town mercilessly, the bullies are actually helping you, which is where the real mechanic suddenly flashes a sly wink.

It’s totally beneficial to be attacked and for others to allow you to attack them.

What it means is you can put those feelings of revenge to the side (for now) and indulge in a program of mutually agreed destruction with your best bud, ploughing their field joyously while they rifle through your lunch box for Orange Clubs. Everyone’s a winner. You get XP and tons of money when you smash their stuff up, and then more XP when you return to the ashes of Corruption City. It’s a pretty good job that keeping your townspeople happy and safe is not a gameplay requirement. Instead of agonising over each stupid little barber shop stomped and over investing time/money into perimeter defense (which require personnel, which require more residences), you can go straight to the fun part: attacking your friends’ towns with sixty giant gorillas.

Now comes the most interesting point, the part of the game that actually toys with the social bit of social gaming.

The mutual destruction works fine while both people benefit. Lower level players get huge XP smashing up a higher level town, so two players may even out level wise. Then before you know it, the noob friend you introduced to the game is the same level as you, or horrifyingly, eclipses your progress. Then you find out he’s been invading someone else’s town too.

We were not on a break

You start putting up some more perimeter defenses, “the computer player keeps getting in” you say. You’re living in Animal Farm now. There’s the accident, you return to your city and repair your town hall mid-pillage which activates all the defenses and you inadvertently destroy all your friend’s expensive monsters. This is very funny, you will laugh while you apologise, if you apologise. You attack his place while he’s rearranging some stuff. You see he’s in someone else’s town and you jump in to ‘help’, racing to get the loot for yourself. The co-op agreement has become uneasy, it remains to be seen whether you are to formally renounce it. Even if you do, it’s part of the game to take down the cities of friends. All you can do to prevent it is to funnel buckets of money at expensive laser gun placements, stunting your own progression. Assuming you are successful in your efforts to secure the town, you find yourself holed up in Pleasantville, the military having long taken over your once lovely town. You are isolated, alone. This is the Cold War, a thousand strong flying saucer army is on standby. You are a millionaire.

Monstermind is not just not without faults, it’s flooded with them. It’s buggy, slow, your monsters disappear, the connection breaks, the connection doesn’t break but the game tells you it has, you lose all your monsters once, twice, three times. Mousing over to collect items is a Facebook cliche/relic that makes trackpad playing intolerable. You’ll be cursing for a repair-all button (now there’s something I’d pay Facebook credits for). The music is incredibly loud, there is a sharp interest drop after reaching the higher levels due to an extreme lack of content. But these are things that can and may well be changed, fixed and tightened up. Facebook games are no strangers to iterating.

The essence of Monstermind, the feelings it provokes and the questions it asks of social gaming are wonderful. Too many ‘social’ games, especially on Facebook are anything but. Here is a Facebook game that declares itself overtly anti-social and in doing so disguises a clever system of interaction between players. Go and play it, and feel free to come and smash my town up, I’ve left the back door key under the rose circle, for now.

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