Discussion of games-with-meaning is often limited by lack of basis for relevant comparison. We're stuck with either apples-to-oranges comparisons between games with vastly different purposes or offering best attempts at interpretation without a practical way to further inspect those ideas. Tech Savvy
produced Property Savvy
in 2007 as an interpretation of Mansion Impossible
, creating, inadvertently, a relevant basis for comparison.
To borrow Ian Bogost's description of Mansion: Impossible
from Persuasive Games
"Mansion Impossible is a web-based videogame about real-estate investment... Houses pop out of the empty ground to go on the market, and disappear back into the ground when they sell. The price is inscribed on the house, and each house experiences a single gain-loss cycle before stabilizing. The player starts out with $100K, and the goal of the game is to build enough capital to buy the $10 million mansion on the edge of the screen. The player clicks on houses to buy or sell, taking care to time a sale for maximum profit. The town is divided into lower- and higher-cost housing areas, with the top right near the mansion offering the most exclusive and most expensive digs... A great amount of detail is abstracted from Mansion Impossible."
Above, Mansion: Impossible.
Below, Property Savvy.
Mechanically, both games are nearly identical in their simplified abstraction of real-estate investment - that is of course not by coincidence, as Property Savvy was modeled after Mansion: Impossible. In both:
- The goal is the same. The player spends 14-25+ years of in-game time buying houses while their prices rise, then selling those houses as soon as their price begin to drop, culminating with the purchase of a $10 million mansion.
- The same information is depicted. The interface shows the amount of time taken, the amount of cash currently available for investment, and houses laid out graphically in a gradient from cheapest (farthest from the mansion) to most expensive (closest to the mansion).
- Gameplay tuning is similar. Informally playing each makes readily apparent the commonality in how long houses stay on screen, how quickly progress is made, and what strategies are optimal.
- Real-Estate is presented as a coherent, winnable system. Real-world loss risks such as natural disaster, economic collapse, and shifts in criminal/regulatory patterns are non-existent within these games, trimming the activity of real-estate investment down to a bare, easily understood, idealized form.
However, these two games are not identical. There are five primary differences. The first three are relatively minor variations - they are covered here to avoid uncertainty over whether such differences were overlooked, rather than inspected and deemed unimportant. The last two differences - which are closely related - turn out to have a significant effect on the meaning represented.
1st Difference: Suburbs vs. City
Mansion: Impossible takes place within what appears to be a middle-high income neighborhood in a suburb - complete with clean ponds, healthy trees, and space between the houses. Property Savvy, both in its background image (city skyline) and in the shapes of houses (shared wall on both sides, for cheaper units) suggests downtown city properties. This difference in skinning might affect demographic match, making one title or the other more relatable to any given player; however, it does not seem to produce a more general change to the overall meaning or experience.
2nd Difference: Feedback on Invalid Input
Clicking on a property in Mansion: Impossible beyond the player's current financial means produces a cacophonic error sound, while popping up a red error message that reads: "Too Much." Making the same error in Property Savvy produces no feedback, possibly leaving a confused or beginning player uncertain as to why the attempted purchase could not be executed. This distinction seems to be one of interface design best practices, in which Mansion: Impossible handles the user error correctly whereas Property Savvy fails to handle the user error. This difference does not appear to change the conveyed message.
3rd Difference: Indication of Net Worth
Property Savvy provides 2 indicators representing Net Worth (that being the sum of Cash available plus value of currently held properties) - a numerical reading, plus a thermometer diagram growing vertically toward the player's goal. Once the player's net worth exceeds the amount needed to acquire the $10 million mansion, the Net Worth thermometer changes colors from red to green, indicating that the player is able to cash out and win. In Mansion: Impossible, no such visual or numerical aid is provided, leaving it up to the player to realize when net worth has exceeded the target amount. This seems like a minor usability nicety for Property Savvy, requiring a slightly higher cognitive load in Mansion: Impossible as the net worth approaches $10 million, but this difference, too, seems like a comparatively insignificant one.
On the left, in Mansion: Impossible, does not directly communicate that selling the property worth $7,563K, combined with the $5,373 cash, would total enough to purchase the $10,979K mansion. On the right, in Property Savvy makes explicit that if all owned properties were immediately sold, only $5007 in total cash would be held, which due to being less than the goal of $9,800K means the thermometer graphic is red instead of green. Clarifying note: play does not end automatically when enough money is earned, but only when the player purchases the goal mansion.
4th Difference: Production Values
Upon first glance, Property Savvy appears merely to be a lower-budget Mansion: Impossible, displaying an undesirable loss in quality due to differences in developer resource constraints.
It's anyone's guess whether Mansion: Impossible is so charming in its presentation that someone's main memory of it might be, "it was cute," or whether Property Savvy is so straightforward in its presentation that someone might be distracted by, "it's rough." The two exist on a quality continuum. In either direction, it's easy to imagine cases where cuteness would distract from the message or, conversely, unpolished utilitarian presentation could likewise get in the way of the experience (or even playing long enough to grasp it).
But hiding behind the immediate, visceral reaction is a difference in degree of abstraction and in relative association with videogame graphical conventions. By presenting an isometric, pseudo-3D view of its buildings, Mansion: Impossible presents a more realistic, literal depiction of its world and properties than Property Savvy does with its minimalist 2D illustrations.
The bright and colorful overhead representation invites association with well-known videogames such as The Sims, Sim City, Animal Crossing, even SNES/GBA Zelda titles. This association with "gameyness" likely brings with it certain player expectations and conventions - it doesn't feel serious, at all.
By comparison, Property Savvy's darker, simpler look - a visual effect that includes its animations, which feels rigid and mechanical relative to Mansion: Impossible's smoother numerical shifts and leaping houses - does not immediately evoke those same associations. It doesn't look like a serious broker's interface, but it also looks and feels substantially less like a toy.
An audience that regards itself as "not into games" might be more open to trying Property Savvy, on the grounds that it looks less like a game; an audience with a prior background in games might begin Property Savvy with fewer assumptions about its operation or purpose. The effect of graphical association in matters of communicative media cannot be ignored - presentation and framing play important roles in guiding audience self-selection, expectation, and reception.
5th Difference: Conceptual versus Spatial
In Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost noted of Mansion: Impossible:
"But the most striking unit operation in Mansion: Impossible models geographic proximity. Even though the player's only control is through single mouse clicks, the game is quite fast paced, with properties constantly appearing and disappearing from the market all over the map... The most practical strategy for managing current and future investments is to focus on one area of the board. Even though higher-valued properties in another region might appreciate faster, the attentional cost of investing in two remote regions makes it much easier to suffer losses. This gameplay mechanic is a unit operation for a much more complex and conceptually abstract principle in real-estate investment: investors should buy in areas they already know, and should make acquisitions in neighborhoods that are convenient to them (near work, near home, on the way to work, etc.)."
Mansion: Impossible, with its isometric presentation complete with roads and decorative trees, suggests geographic proximity. Here, clicking on houses that are near one another spatially is an optimal strategy. One might also read from this layout that the market value of a home is proportional to its distance from the area's most expensive home - or alternatively, the further a home is from the cheapest properties, the more that property is valued.
Here lies the least superficial or arbitrary difference between Property Savvy and Mansion: Impossible - Property Savvy does not show its properties within a geographic space, whereas Mansion: Impossible does. Floating in front of a city skyline photo, stacked vertically into rows from least to most expensive, nothing about this investors-switchboard suggests that the houses are necessarily laid out in real space according to this arrangement. The homes in the $2-3 million range might be scattered all over the city, or conceivably all over the globe. Some of the properties in the $50,000-$80,000 range could be in the shadow of the $10 million property. Property Savvy does not explicitly make these claims - but unlike Mansion: Impossible, it does not say anything about such claims either way.
In Property Savvy, it is equally true that: "The most practical strategy for managing current and future investments is to focus on one area of the board." However, in Property Savvy one area of the board does not correlate to one area of town, but instead to one financial tier: Units, Townhouses, or Normal Houses. By the time a person is financially positioned to invest in Normal Houses, investment in Units or Townhouses ceases to be justifiable, since selling a Normal House even a second or two too late can lose an order of magnitude more money than can be gained by investing attention and money into a Townhouse.
That financial clustering and opportunity cost - the same reason Warren Buffet probably doesn't keep a very large percentage of his money in a personal savings account - is equally at work within Mansion: Impossible. Both games cluster homes on the game board by market value order of magnitude, however only Mansion: Impossible presents that game board as though it were a navigable, continuous space. This presentation decision plays a central role in the message about geographic proximity, which seems to eclipse the financial clustering message which, though present in both, is most apparent in Property Savvy's relative nakedness.
Mansion: Impossible's gameplay interactions and game board layout incorporate exactly the same investment opportunity cost idea as Property Savvy, but dressed in geographic representation the message reads differently.
Why does Property Savvy preserve game board proximity, when there's no spatial proximity to justify forcing this an arrangement? Grouping by prices makes the game easier to play. It also creates a sensation of progress, letting players buy ever closer to the mansion as more wealth is accumulated. Lastly, grouping by price narrows attentional search to a known area as play advances from the cheapest to most expensive properties; were home prices scattered randomly around the game board, rather than carved into discrete, gradated bands, playing it would be as much about constant visual search as financial decisions. In the organized arrangement, when a home in the 1,000K+ range is desired, it's possible to focus narrowly on a known area in anticipation of that price, rather than scanning the entire map frantically for that price to appear. All of this is equally true in both games, but only the more literal representation of space from Mansion: Impossible connects these ideas to geographic proximity.
Differences in fiction, usability, and interface between two otherwise similar games can have surprisingly trivial impact on the meaning experientially conveyed by the system; meanwhile, differences in representation, though first appearing to be a mere distinction in quality of production values, can introduce non-trivial artifacts and additional factors into the meaning read from an otherwise identical underlying gameplay logic.