Well, they're calling it "Outernauts," but it's a game in which you "master a wild, untamed universe of 30-plus planets and arenas" by "capturing, training and evolving exotic alien beasts." So basically, space Pokemon. And it's a Facebook game. OK, admittedly, for some of you that's an introductory first impression on level with walking up, kicking someone in the shin, spitting in their face, and then saying, "Oh yeah, the divorce? It was your fault." But - in spite of every fiber of your being screaming in protest like a choir of howling cats - this is one to watch. It is, after all, the first PC game from Ratchet & Clank, Spyro The Dragon, and Resistance: Fall of Man creator Insomniac. And apparently, it's being targeted at 20-something core gamers - and, whether it ends up being horribly off-the-mark or not, that'll definitely set a precedent for these things.
Right now, the game's website - which promises a summer launch and a public beta "coming soon" - is pretty vague, though assurances that it's the "biggest experience Insomniac has ever created in its 18-year history" raise a few giant, magically hovering cartoon eyebrows. An interview with IGN, meanwhile, puts some actual meat on the announcement's oddly emaciated frame. Insomniac's Rowan Belden-Clifford explained:
"The core audience we’re hoping to attract with Outernauts is myself – a 23-year-old core gamer. I see more and more of my friends playing Facebook games, when they have a few free moments and don’t have the time to commit to a lengthy session with a core game.”
"There are hundreds of beast abilities to master. Players will need to keep in mind which beasts and which abilities can counter their enemy, and approach each battle in the right way... Our goal with Outernauts is simple: Make a good game first. The fun of Outernauts comes from the thrill of the moment – through the game’s solid, fun combat.”
Unlike its obvious cartoon, card game, and, er, jet plane-inspiring inspiration, however, Outernauts' battles are 3v3 grid-based affairs. Multiplayer, meanwhile, comes in competitive and co-op dungeon-delving flavors, and - in spite of claiming to put the "social" back in "social gaming" - it's fully asynchronous, so you never actually have to talk to anybody. This, of course, paves the way for us to eventually evolve into mouthless, eight-thumbed cave creatures who'll communicate entirely via sparse text messages and meticulously distributed Facebook likes.
Even in spite of my obvious qualms with a lot of this, though, Outernauts occupies an almost imperceptibly tiny tier of Facebook games that are attempting to garner attention from folks like you and I. Between this and Ghost Recon: Commander, major developers and publishers are watching - and a few are even trying to create real games for the platform. And honestly, given the size and ubiquity of the platform, they'd be hopelessly silly not to. Obviously, though, if these sorts of Facebook games flop, there's a pretty bleak worst-case scenario: everyone declares Facebook a barren wasteland where Zyngas of the world prowl, roar, and prey on unsuspecting grandmothers, and they - out of perceived necessity - embrace that exploitative business model as well.
It's hard to be overly optimistic, too, when Overnauts and Ghost Recon seem stuck between the wants of core players (mechanics with actual depth, recognizable names/franchises) and reviled Facebook gaming tropes designed for a different audience entirely (dodgy microtransactions, gimmicky "connected" experiences with other games, entirely asynchronous multiplayer). And that's a shame, because Facebook is an immensely powerful social tool, and there's tremendous potential in it for incredibly fascinating, meaningful game experiences. I just worry that we'll never tap into it.