Imagine a game where a few players, chosen at random, were thrust into an arena together – an arena that was trying to kill them. Now imagine that in this great Game, once a player dies, he or she is gone forever from the world. Also imagine that there is an audience, watching your struggle to survive; this audience can send gifts to help you or monsters to thwart you as tickles their fancies.
What would you do? How would you act to survive?
If you think this is an introduction to Suzanne Collin’s wildly popular Hunger Games series, you are partially right. Upsilon Circuit, an upcoming game by husband and wife game studio Robot Loves Kitty is part online multiplayer, part Hunger Games, and part sociology experiment. I’ll leave the different distinctions up to you.
One of the game’s unique – and certainly most talked about – feature is what has been called a “perma-permadeath” system, in which a player is given only one life: once the player dies in the game, he or she may never play the game again, even with a new character, if the development team is to be believed.
So, in a game that Robot Loves Kitty is making because “[they] want to watch it,” where is the draw?
Upsilon Circuit’s bread-and-butter is going to be its (hopefully) wide audience base. This game, which will only host eight players at a time, revolves around audience participation. Remember how we talked about the Hunger Games? Well, here’s where things start to get a little… Panem.
This minimally-multiplayer online game is angling to be the first true video game gameshow, which will only play two to three hours per day at a designated time, like a television program. This is, presumably, to foster a permanent and participatory audience base. The audience, as mentioned, has a paramount role in the game. Using real money to buy in-game currency, audience members may purchase helpful gifts for players they wish to succeed, or may instead buy a monster or two to send after a player they would like to see fail.
Once a player dies, the next player to join the game will be reaped – I mean, chosen – from the audience, based on their participation and engagement with the game.
This is a tempting place to sarcastically ask, “What could possibly go wrong?” but the developers already answered that question in an interview with Polygon.com, stating that the “concept is that we’re monetizing trolling.”
“What Could Happen?”
Unlike most video games, Upsilon Circuit does not aim to be a fun game to play. Rather, it is being designed to be fun to watch, instead. In an interview with PC Gamer at PAX in 2015, Calvin Goble (the “Robot” in Robot Loves Kitty) stated that they were “making this [game] ‘cause we want to watch it,” specifically to see how people/characters will react to being put in a situation where they their (virtual) lives are at stake. He sees this game specifically as a “social experiment – what will they do [with their one life]?”
This, on the heels of a comment like “we’re monetizing trolling,” leads me to believe that the developers already have an idea of what is going to happen.
It would be nice to pose that a game like this would foster teamwork and a sense of fairness among the players, since they are all in this unforgiving world together and social learning is a much better strategy for survival than individual trial-and-error learning. Unfortunately, in the gameplay footage available so far, few, if any, of these types of interactions existed. While this may happen every once in a while, just like in the Hunger Games the players will be looking to save their own lives from the monsters and the audience members, not attempting to save someone else’s life.
And so Robot Loves Kitty seems to be developing a game that is only fun for the audience, where the audience can decide who lives and dies based on their support or terrorization, and constantly taps into the players’ survival instincts. Like in the Hunger Games, prowess or achieving higher-level abilities will mean nothing when the people watching you can drop in to literally throw you off (or out of) your game.
Do It for the Story, Do It for the Fame
One draw to play the game is the serious and deep story that the developer promises, telling Polygon that “it’s an engaging story that we will only tell once.” So far, the only released details are that the game takes place in a world where Manhattan disappeared in the 1980s, and violent game shows with fantastic prizes have risen in popularity, as if 1992’s Flashback had a big brother.
And with great risk – if you survive – comes great celebrity. The biggest benefit for the players according to Goble is that the players will become in-game celebrities. This will in turn earn the game, and therefore the developers, more money.
Wait – what?
While Goble does comment that they are talking about ways for the in-game celebrity to translate into real-life celebrity, no information has yet been released regarding a player’s ability to show video footages on a personal YouTube channel, or whether he/she can otherwise use their prowess at Upsilon Circuit as a benefit to themselves.
But Goble’s interests clearly still align with the psychological experiment aspects of the game, rather than the benefit to the players: “What kind of personality will hold people’s sympathy?”
A Second Chance at a First Impression
With the popularity of live game streaming and Let’s Plays, the next logical step for games would seem to be toward audience participation. From that perspective, Upsilon Circuit is innovative and fresh. It will only be online for about a year after launch, after which the developer will take it down – presumably having enough data for whatever informal experiment they were running.
To that end, it will be an interesting experiment, but if this “experiment” is to be used as anything other than a way to sate a developer’s curiosity, it’s lacking some important details. Will the game reward cooperation? Treachery? Will more points be given for teaming up with another player? Or will this simply be a MMORPG with added audience involvement? If it’s the latter, then much data already exists as to “what people will do.”
Maybe it’s an experiment on the popularity of game-show type gaming. Or maybe it’s exploring the temperaments of audience members. Until the game is released, we can only speculate what the developers are really trying to glean, other than entertainment for themselves.
On Upsilon Circuit’s website, Polygon, Kotaku, and PC Gamer are all quoted as having positive reviews of the game. These sound bites come from much longer articles, two of which are mildly optimistic at best, and one which provides even more caution than that (and Polygon’s quote is taken so far out of context as to sound like an endorsement, when the original quote is far less flattering).
For a while this discussion may have been a moot point, as Upsilon Circuit had produced underwhelming funds on the developer’s Patreon site, but recently Execution Labs, a company that invests in newer independent developers, has teamed up with Robot Loves Kitty to bring this game to fruition. So, while it may still have some explaining to do, Upsilon Circuit continues to be a game to watch in the coming months.
Would you be interested in playing a game like Upsilon Circuit? Do you think it’s concerning that the developers seem to be purposefully designing a game to troll players with? What might that say about us as a culture, gaming or otherwise? Let me know in the comments!
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