Object 65

Super Thermal: A Review

2042, Earth

A review for Super Thermal, one of the most popular, addictive, and baffling games of the early 40s:

Title: Super Thermal
Format: Retinal 3
Developer: Unknown
Price: Free (with to-way optional payments)

In the early days of social video games, developers used 'compulsion loops' and 'variable ratio reinforcement' to craft interactive experiences that would haunt their players' every waking hour. Players were compelled to perform repetitive, skill-free activities such as watering crops or constructing buildings by clicking a button on a plastic peripheral several thousand times a day. In a scarcely believable mockery of actual entertainment, players would hand over cash not to play more but to play less, by speeding up or automating these mindless activities in an illusion of progress.

The social gaming crash of the late teens is usually attributed to the rise of more immersive entertainments such as virtual reality and pervasive games. However, I like to imagine that just before people donned their VR headsets for the first time, they had a final moment of clarity. They would see past the manipulative and derivative nature of these social games, and with a final click on their horrible, germ-ridden 'mice', they'd bid them good riddance and enter a whole new world.

But if social games were shown the door in the teens, then Super Thermal is in the vanguard of their return back through the doors, windows, basements, and chimneys of the gaming world. This is no epic RPG like Casablanca or Ben Hur; it's no Singing in the Rain where you learn some neat dance steps. It's the return of pure, unadulterated gaming.

On the face of it, Super Thermal has little in common with the earlier generation of social games. Players hover above a beautiful cross-section of a planet showing every layer in exquisite artistic detail, from the atmosphere and crust all the way to the core. With the wave of a finger, they can stir fresh convection currents in the mantle or sweep across tectonic plates, summoning volcanoes and crumpling mountain ranges in seconds.

Don't let Super Thermal fool you, though: it is not remotely educational (although in fairness, it never claims to be). Instead, your goal is to control the geologic and atmospheric processes of your planet so as to encourage the development of civilisations in a kind of accelerated evolution. If you help the 'good' civilisations’ by maintaining a temperate environment for them, and wipe out the 'bad' civilisations with volcanoes and earthquakes, then you can guide them down a path where they will develop advanced technology. Most of the time, your planet's civilisations will wipe themselves out through climate change or warfare, but very occasionally they will reach some kind of mystical 'singularity' whereupon they all disappear (ascending into heaven, no doubt).

If that was all there is to Super Thermal, it could easily be dismissed as an idle time-waster, a cartoon version of Tianxia. But there are some innovations: when a civilisation collapses, it leaves behind buried records and satellites that will pass on useful information to future civilisations. Skilled — or more likely, persistent — players will host progressively more advanced civilisations on their planet by ensuring that these records are discovered at opportune moments, along with useful metals and elements. And players can send probes and comets on millennia-long journeys to their friends and enemies; naturally, this has led to a bustling network of interstellar commerce and war.

Super Thermal also makes use of augmented reality in an impressively original way. Eating at a restaurant? Super Thermal will overlay a special view of your planet onto your dish, letting you stir things up. See a sparrow drone out delivering medicine? There's Super Thermal, converting it into a space probe that you can capture into orbit. It's cute — and insidious. You begin to see Super Thermal literally everywhere you look. Which means you play it literally all the time.

Because Super Thermal doesn't share any neurodata with the developers, most privacy and addiction advocates have ignored it. In practice, though, its local use of neuro is more than enough to tailor the gaming experience in subtle but powerful ways, such as tweaking its appearance, soundtrack, compulsion loops, difficulty, and reality shifting such that you lose track of time and space — not unlike the slot machine gamblers in casinos of the past. At least it has a modicum of fun, after a fashion.

And then there is the mystery behind Super Thermal. Despite its hundreds of millions of players, no-one knows if the game actually makes any money. Around 5 percent of active players pay a little money, and 0.1 percent pay huge amounts — tens or hundreds of times basic minimum income. Most of that money doesn't go to the developers — it is paid to the 95 percent of 'free' players as an incentive for them to make the game more novel and personalised for the 5 percent of players who pay, and the 0.1 percent 'whales'. Some people think that Super Thermal is actually an undercover wealth transfer scheme from the rich to the poor; being on basic minimum income isn't fun, and there are worse things than getting paid to play a game.

The conspiracy theories don't end there. The extra attention and resources applied to the 'whales' — new kinds of planets, tailored solar systems, personalised civilisations — means that they spend massive amounts of time playing the game. Could Super Thermal actually be trying to harm or control these players? I don't see it myself, but there's a reason why the AU has revived talks about getting the Samyn-Harvey gaming addiction legislation passed.

Incidentally, I'm not so sure that Samyn-Harvey would work in practice. There are always ways of getting around hard-coded limits on gameplay time, whether by using different accounts on multiple Retinal units or through unregulated hardware. And frankly, I don't know whether Super Thermal is even a bad thing, despite its hyper-addictive nature. For some reason, most players stop playing the game of their own accord three or four months after starting. They don't get fed up with it — they just say they're 'satisfied'.

That's raised some eyebrows, to say the least. A couple of early studies by researchers at the University of California at San Diego looking into the so-called Super Thermal effect indicate that something is really going on here; that players do end up becoming happier and more creative as a result of the game, perhaps due to some kind of long-term memory formation or conditioning process.

There's so much that is strange about Super Thermal: its revenue model, its unknown creators, its agenda. It doesn't seem to be actively harmful — but of course, that doesn't mean that it's a force for good, either.