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Bad Link Clicking Games
Browser-based link clicking games have been around since the early 00s. Most of the early ones were badly designed when it came to attracting new players. For years, friends would inundate me with cryptic links that they wanted me to click. It would help them build their cities, or raise their armies, or get more power, they said - the more people they could get to click these links that looked remarkably like spam, the more it would help them in their game.
Sometimes I would click one. It would take me to a signup page with an unmentioned number of steps for making a character or somesuch, with no indication whether my original click actually helped my friend. Sometimes it didn't unless I signed up to play too. And often there was no way to find out anything about the game (such as whether I'd like it) without signing up first.
Needless to say, I was not a fan of these games.
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Dragon Cave: A Good Link Clicking Game
Dragon Cave is also a link clicking game, but it's nothing like that. Made by T.J. Lipscomb, it's a free online virtual pets game with the complete opposite approach - it doesn't pressure anyone into signing up, and nothing is hidden about how it works. The links are cute pictures of eggs and dragon hatchlings which change as the eggs develop and the hatchlings grow - something that non-players can watch without extra effort on their part, allowing them to participate and see firsthand why they should care about your game.
As a non-player, you probably first learn of the game by seeing other people's eggs and hatchlings on their blogs or forum signatures. If you click one to find out what they're about, you land on a page that tells you what you want to know - about the dragon you've clicked on. Then, at the bottom, in case you want to play too, there's a link marked "get your own."
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Basic Gameplay: Getting Eggs to Hatch
The basic idea is fairly simple. You grab a dragon egg from the cave entrance, then paste it on websites, blogs, and forum signatures. People can click on them or not - simply having it displayed will help it grow (but they grow faster with clicks). The egg develops cracks that get bigger and turn into holes. Then it hatches into a baby dragon. The hatchling develops wings (or gets bigger, or some other maturing change) and then grows up. There are hundreds of different kinds of eggs to collect, and new ones are introduced every few months.
Of course, getting them to hatch is more complex than just that. There's such a thing as both too few views and too many views, getting views too fast, and getting more clicks than views (usually due to linking them wrong) - all of which can kill the dragon egg (or hatchling). On average, you need somewhere between 300-600 unique views (different people from different locations) over the course of two weeks to take care of raising the dragon successfully - depending on how many people also click through, what kind of dragon it is, and other details. Keeping track of all this is remarkably addictive once you've worked out the basics.
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Advanced Gameplay: Breeding
Once you have adult dragons, new play possibilities open up in the form of breeding. Now you can make your own eggs rather than just stealing them from the cave entrance. Now you can also try to get dragon types that are only possible by breeding for them.
But, once again, it's more complex than just matching two dragons to each other and getting an egg - because Dragon Cave dragons have temperaments. Sometimes the dragons don't like each other. Sometimes they like each other but still don't make any eggs, or only the kinds you don't want. Keeping track of which ones will mate successfully, and what they produce, is even more addictive than working out how to get dragon eggs to hatch.
Aside from collecting all the different kinds of dragons, many players enjoy developing elaborate dragon lineages - many of them highly prized in trade with other players. There are even clans centered around these lineages (the Dorkface clan being one of the more notable examples - all dragons in it have gold dragon Midas Dorkface as one of their root ancestors).
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Additional Gameplay: Creative Writing
In the official game forum, many players enjoy roleplaying with their dragons and writing stories about them - their lives, adventures, their ancestors and descendants in their lineages. There's also a place for writing your own dragon descriptions that will show on its page, alongside the generic descriptions. However, it comes with a quality check for spelling, grammar, and offensiveness, which can take a few days and therefore some patience - don't expect the instant gratification of seeing your description the moment you finish writing it. You can also rate other people's descriptions to help the approvers decide - but on the whole, this aspect of the game seems more frustration-inducing and less well-developed than other parts.
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User Interface and Site Navigation
Navigation of the Dragcave website is simple, straightforward, and painless. As with all websites, I prefer navigation designs that are no frills, no clutter, and highly functional, where everything is easy to find and easy to reach, and I never have to hit the back button. For game websites, I want the navigability to stay out of the way of gameplay. From that perspective, Dragon Cave nails it.
Everything about the user interface is designed to make you feel like you're in a cave, looking at dragons. Signup and login are described in terms of picking up and putting down scrolls on the cave floor. There are no extraneous elements for things going on outside of the game (events in the forum, other members also signed on, available merchandise, etc.) - those are elsewhere. Details and stats about individual dragons are presented cleanly as straight text, and make sense right away without knowing anything about the game. There's one ad banner, but it's along the bottom.
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User Interface and Site Navigation (cont.)
I spend most of my time looking at either my scroll, the cave entrance, or an individual dragon page. The first two are in the header with all the other important links, which appear on every page of the site. Each dragon's individual page is easily accessible through links from its picture on the scrolls and lineage pages.
Of course, the other half of gameplay happens on websites, forums, and blogs where the dragon eggs and hatchlings are posted. Those are largely out of Dragon Cave's control, but the important factor is speed of loading the individual dragon pages. Since each page is fairly lightweight (mostly straight text and small-filesize images, nothing fancy), they load quickly - and it's possible to click rapidly on many eggs and hatchlings. The site handles its traffic load quite well most of the time.
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Dragon Cave Artwork
All hatchling and adult dragon images were made by volunteers - players who love the game and are also talented artists. The individual styles vary somewhat - some are cartoony and whimsical, others are elegant and stately. All fit well with the feel of the game, and look appealing on a variety of backgrounds (the scrolls, other sites where they might be posted).
Artwork for new dragons comes after lengthy discussion and workshopping in the official forum. Here again is yet another avenue for creativity in the game - dragon art. Quality control is fairly high. Unlike the description writing aspect of the game where users often want instant gratification, however, patience is expected, and turnaround time fits well with the pace at which new dragons are released.
(The artwork shown on the screenshots in this review were made by either Dovealove or Marrionetta. Not all of the artists allow use of their work outside of the game, and many consider it theft.)
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The game has a well-moderated official forum and many unofficial forums and social sites, which support a strong community of players with strong opinions on all aspects of the game - how it should be played, how features should work, etc. The game creator and admin (T.J. Lipscomb) is an active participant of the official forum, who takes everyone's thoughts into consideration when making decisions, including polls on the main site for those who don't often visit the forum. Usually he goes along with the majority opinion.
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Other Free Online Virtual Pets Games and Modern Link Clicking Games
Dragon Cave isn't the only virtual computer pets game online. Neopets has been around for longer and is still very popular, and there are a number of other online virtual pets games similar to Dragon Cave, such as Valenth (pets are themed on mad science and fantasy), Dragonadopters (dragons with animated graphics), Squiby, Unicreatures, and Global PokédeX Plus (Pokémon). In my opinion, however, the combination of high appeal artwork, simple web design, endless replay and creative possibilities, caring game admin and strong community makes Dragon Cave the best of the bunch.
Other link clicking games are still around as well. These days, people largely think of them as Facebook and Myspace games (Mafia Wars, Hammerfall RPG, Castle Age, etc.). They work much better on social sites where, instead of cute eggs to replace the cryptic links, they can use automated wall posts that try to entice other players into the game.