Something strange happened to my e-mail recently while I was playing Michael Brough’s headfuck game Corrypt. The Electron Dance inbox seemed to glitch out and I ended up with several mails corrupted. Amongst the wreckage of shredded headers and splintered streams, I discovered one of corrupted mails bore a new attachment, named “vesper6.odt”. At first I thought it was a fictional piece – but I now believe this is a document that has slipped across from a parallel reality.
I present it to you now with hyperlinks relevant to this reality.
I’m trying to figure out whether Michael Brouge has sold out or whether he’s tricked his audience into a giant psychological experiment. Perhaps the sad truth is all games are experiments, from the earliest methods to keep the coins flowing into the slots to the contemporary buzz around “freemium” and the like. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go back one year.
Michael Brouge created the game VESPER.5 for a Super Friendship Club game jam with the theme of “ritual” and it picked up plenty of attention, even becoming nominated in the IGF awards this year. The surprise of VESPER.5 is its simplicity. It's an explorer game with a twist. The player takes control of a monk who is allowed to explore the game’s pocket world and there is no apparent goal beyond that. The twist is the player is only afforded one move per day, between which the monk meditates. Completing the game can take months.
I didn’t really grasp the importance of the ritual but kept it up because I intended to see it through. I never expected to write about it because I didn’t extract anything meaningful from the game. I was taken by the idea that Brouge could force players into a slow, long-form experience but what that could mean eluded me. I was silly enough to assume I would be impervious to its effects; I was wrong.
The game became annoying. Every day, I had to wait for the monk to retrace his steps and that process became longer the deeper I got. Eventually I ran out of patience and just wanted it to end already. That day finally came and then: crap. From Twitter:
It is almost two weeks since I whittled VESPER.5 down to one final move. I still have one move left.
I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. It took a while, but I did find the strength eventually:
Tired and disaffected with the PC. So it was the perfect time to take the final step of VESPER.5. It is done. And now it is time to sleep.
Even today, there’s still plenty of talk about VESPER.5 and Polygon wrote about it in March. The game still has legs. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when Brouge confessed to me that a sequel had been in development since attending GDC this year.
“I guess it all hit me at GDC,” he told me at Bit of Awwight, a game design conference held in London last month. “My games don't make much money and after working on Vertex Dispenser for something like six years, it just didn't find an audience. We all need to pay our bills. I started to see those free-to-play presentations in a different light. In a light of 'I need to eat'. This was the birth of VESPER.6.”
Without saying a word, he set me up with a work-in-progress copy on my smartphone (the new game will only support mobile devices). On the surface, it looked identical to VESPER.5. A pixellated monk wearing a purple robe stood amidst a garishly-coloured hall as a butterfly flapped around. Brouge’s procedurally-generated music went through its familiar motions.
“You won't notice any difference straight away,” assured Brouge. “Come back to me in a couple of weeks.”
So I did. I gave it a couple of weeks, in a weary retread of my time with VESPER.5. The first thing I realised is that while VESPER.5 was about “following the path”, VESPER.6 is an open world. Which direction you are meant to go is unclear. The other thing, that frankly was a little shocking when I saw it, was a goddamn ladder.
Over Skype, Brouge asked, “What did you think?”
I told him I found it overwhelming. I told him I struggled to find direction, to decide what I should be doing. Such questions. How long would it take me to find the length and breadth of the world? Where is the goal?
“Yes,” he said, chuckling. “That's precisely the reaction I expected. And that's what I hope the hook is, you see, how long will it take you to discover the secrets of VESPER.6 if you only have one move per day?”
I ask him how long he thinks an average player would take to “complete the game”. It's a cliché, but my jaw dropped when he told me. “I'm still figuring out all the details,” he said, “but it's somewhere between five and ten years. On the longer end if you want to uncover every secret.”
I wonder if anyone will bother finishing it and he explains: “Only time will tell but Peter Molydeux's Curiosity proves it can be done. The key is something collaborative, where players work together to solve an unknown goal.”
While I could certainly see players contributing to community map of VESPER.6, I still don't see how that's going to keep players going for up to ten years.
“Every free game can make money for a developer, the problem is working out where the free-to-play angle is. Do you wall off content? Do you sell virtual goods that don't affect the game? Do you create... a market? One of the goads of free-to-play is impatience. Players are impatient and, given the option to pay to accelerate, some of them will.”
The penny dropped. “You're going to sell moves to players?”
“No, no, no. It has to be collaborative, remember. I give you the option to sell your daily move to other players. There's a small fee that goes to me for enabling that market, but the rest of the money goes to the seller. Some players aren't going to be playing at all, just donating their move every day for a small fee, using the app as a moneyspinner.”
I didn't know whether to sound shocked or impressed. “You're monetizing curiosity?”
“I think that's a bit harsh. The ritual of VESPER.5 is like a streamlined energy mechanic from Farmville, the only difference is I never gave the player the option to buy more energy. In fact, I'm still not selling energy in VESPER.6, I'm just allowing players to trade it. I've not decided whether to fix the price or allow an open market.”
He goes on to explain how the “harvesters” and “explorers” might interact and is also considering other mechanisms like awarding bonus moves to random players and having players make an active choice to “harvest” their move, ensuring they still need to log on to the game every day. “I'm interested in seeing high-value bundles, like players being offered packages of 20 moves at a time.”
We concluded our conversation and I was left to reflect on the soul, for want of a better word, of VESPER.5 being monetized in this way. The original experience required players to give of themselves and let the game into their lives. Some players, like myself, developed the compulsion to move every single day – and missing that ritual felt like a failing, a flaw in oneself. A gamified existence, but not for profit or education. The new monetized, speedscape of VESPER.6 bears no resemblance to the game I recall.
But maybe Brouge is on to something despite my reservations. It rides a fine, cynical line yet remains an interesting long-form game project – few games span years in this way. It may offer an alternative spiritual core, a shared ritual, where players try to figure out together where the end of the game is. Unlike Curiosity which had a goal which was supposed to be “life-changing”, Brouge has a real journey instead of a virtual cube to grind through.
I'm sure Brouge still has a few secrets up his sleeve. Perhaps the game does not even have an end and players will be robbed of closure, having whizzed around the world like corrupt monks driving expensive Ferraris. Perhaps only those ascetic players who persevered with their one move every day will be the ones to discover the real truth, transformed by a game that will have woven itself into their lives for a decade. The journey, not the destination, was always the most important aspect of VESPER.5.
Only time will tell.
Alright, I admit it, this is a work of fiction. Apologies to Michael “I was profiled in Wired once” Brough who would never do such a thing. I think.