The story, for those who don’t know it, goes like this: when Jetpack Joyride was first released, players bought it on iTunes for a few bucks, and that was that. But Halfbrick, the makers of the game, fairly quickly shifted their strategy from a single, up-front payment from players to purchase the game to multiple, optional purchasable upgrades or bonuses inside the free walls of the game.
These are called microtransactions, and they sometimes get a bad rap. Halfbrick immediately had fans complaining about the move towards this model even though they hadn’t changed anything about how the game played at all, and had made it free. Such is the distrust over microtransactions, whatever the circumstances.
But when I asked Phil Larsen of Halfbrick about Jetpack Joyride at Game Masters a few weeks ago, he said that the best thing about microtransactions was that they allowed him to keep supporting a videogame long after it was released. A steady stream of money means a videogame can become an ongoing relationship between developers and players, rather than the more traditional once-off transaction.
It’s true—Jetpack Joyride has led a fairly exceptional life after it was released, with a fairly steady series of updates, from aesthetics (new costumes) to gameplay (new gadgets and vehicles). The game simply isn’t the same as the one first released in September of 2011. In fact, the original does not exist at all except in the iPhones and iPads of those few players who have forgotten to press ‘update application’.
A few other interesting things have happened on this topic in the last few weeks. Ski Safari, a game I’ve praised here before, received its first major update since it was released earlier this year. The update again altered the game significantly for those—such as myself—for whom Ski Safari has become something of an impulse application when opening their iPhones. Like Jetpack Joyride, bonus items, costumes and ‘vehicles’ (if a Wolf can be called a vehicle) were added. But microtransactions were not.
Yet the game has been appreciably altered, and is now unavailable in its original form. As a somewhat devoted player of the original, I can’t yet say if the changes are definitively for the better or not. But one thing is certain: the original has been written over.
Perhaps the even more remarkable event was that Tiny Wings—one of the most critically successful iPhone games, and certainly one of the prettiest—gained a sequel with only a little fanfare on July 11. What’s remarkable about this event is that the sequel was only released on the iPhone in the form of an update to the original (the original was never released on the iPad).
It is not possible to have both Tiny Wings 1 and 2 on your iPhone: in fact, it is no longer possible to buy Tiny Wings 1 at all. It—like the original form of Ski Safari and the briefly existent, non-free Jetpack Joyride—has been written over. They no longer exist.
So here’s another interesting parallel to these things: Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, one of the city’s most visible venues in the performing arts scene, has been undergoing renovation for the last two years. It will reopen this week, with a series of large-scale performances marking the event.
The redesign will likely be a resounding success, but in some strange way I will miss the drab concrete and slightly gauche Hollywood-esque red-and-gold interiors of the 1982 original design. For all its datedness and its flaws, it is now only accessible through photographs, recollections and ephemera. For better or worse, the new Hamer Hall is the only ‘version’ that can be experienced.
Like Tiny Wings, Hamer Hall has been written over. The original lives on, in part, through its newer, altered form, but it will be a different beast from now on.
And at some point in the future, Tiny Wings or Jetpack Joyride or Ski Safari will probably be updated again, and we’ll again lose access to their current forms. At some point, Hamer Hall will again be redesigned, the faults of the present architects corrected, and the about-to-be-launched venue written over again.
As the digital enters an era of long-form, service-based creativity, it becomes as impermanent and unstable as the physical.