Electron Dance
23Mar/11Off

The Aspiration, 9: Sartre Was Wrong

Previous Episodes: Preview - Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6 - Part 7 - Part 8

The Story So Far

If you can't be bothered to read the previous eight weeks then, fine, here it is summarised in a three minute video:

Aftermatch Aftermath

"Looking at all these stars now almost makes me sad."

These were Starspackle's last words over the public chat after the game shut down. It wasn't just our game that had come to an end but the stars themselves. The surviving players' reward was to see their respective war machine empires reduced to a collection of inert, coloured dots. Lifeless and untouchable, like collectibles in some tedious, grindy GTA mini-game.

The passing of the game left a whopping great void. It was like coming home after being on an insane weekend adventure with your friends, except everyone took a knife with them and called you a phallus behind your back. The plan was to write an article together on Google Docs. I recall feeling a little anxious about a reunion, wondering if our relationships and goodwill towards all men and women had remained intact, but my fears were groundless.

Our online chat was the equivalent of hugs and backslapping, laughing at each other's failed plans. We were glad it was over and it was time to reminisce. There were too many laugh-out-loud moments in our online chat, but my absolute favourite is when Veret discovered I had planned to attack Switchbreak:

HM: as a swan song, i was going to run at switchbreak on a suicidal run with miles/copernicus
Kent: except that we crushed him too quickly
Veret: oh thats what all your refugee fleets were for?
HM: yes
Veret: god dammit that would have won me the game
HM: then i woke up and saw half his stars disappeared
Veret: WHY GOD

I was goaded into writing my bits in the voice of The Aspiration which was no piece of pie. Kerry wrote a hilarious description of her devious "strategy" while Laura's small contribution took most of us by surprise. We had no idea that Laura's experience had been so negative and I actually followed up with an apology just in case there was bad blood. (There wasn't.)

A few months later I wrote a small game called Neptune's Price, a "Choose Your Own Adventure" affair based on our Neptune's Pride match. But it's telling that I put the player in Laura's shoes (and Laura's crazy hat). The game was not just a measure of catharsis but an act of contrition. If you do give the game a spin, try to find the "real ending" which should be obvious for those of you who've stuck with the last eight weeks of this series.

Our joint write-up was never finished though. Getting nine independent hands to condense a four-week game into something readable proved to be a lot more difficult than herding Farmville players into a money mincer. So you might never hear of Veret’s final cunning ploy to split Starspackle and Switchbreak. You might never discover why Starspackle had a beef with Abacus Master.

But let's now look at how Neptune's Pride works as a game.

Clockwork Death

BeamSplashX: I was always beating the drums saying "War is coming!" and I got wiped in no time when it actually did. Those warning drums are pretty expensive, though.
Veret: dude, you had no ships

Neptune's Pride is numbers. Good players will spend all their time looking at route durations, optimising flight envelopes to amass fleets, and calculating the number of ships required to take down stars.

Neptune's Price is scarcity. Players are always short of cash, of ships, of speed. This makes every choice seem crucial. In the single-player space, there is much talk about invoking "permanence" to give every action more significance. In a multiplayer experience like Neptune's Pride, there is no quick load. Each action is nothing but consequences.

But Neptune's Pride is not the harmless, slow game it pretends to be. Over the duration of a match, speed upgrades gradually accelerate the game, tilting war in favour of the players willing to devote more time to it. Something significant will happen several times a day and a player who logs in just the once cannot hope to win.

For some players, this alienates them; if they can't match the callous new pace of the game, they might as well give up. Switchbreak attacked Kerry in the first week while she was at World of Love for two days. If your only crime is not being available for the game rather than being dumb as haystacks when it comes to strategy, how would that make you feel? (Disclaimer: It may be true that Kerry is dumb as haystacks when it comes to strategy, I've done no research here.)

For other players, it's femme fatale seductive. I quickly lost credibility with regards my original goal of proving "no time means auto-fail" because I didn't want to be a quitter. I gave the game regular transfusions of my life.

Compounding the speed issue was cross-time zone play. Playing with a group of friends in the same time zone keeps everyone on the same page, although evil players may decide to abuse this and wage war while their victim empires are asleep in bed with Winnie the Pooh. An international game makes every hour dangerous. Every log off is a new cliffhanger and you're never quite sure what the next session will reveal. Leaving the game for more than a few hours can be absolutely terrifying. The daytime routine falls into orbit around the game: wake up, check game, work, check game, dinner, check game. (See the comments on this RPS article for people lamenting the effect NP had on their life.)

Whilst I rail against the concept of speed technology, there is a serious downside to putting a cap on ship speed. As mentioned by Kent, losing is like a car crash in slow motion. Locking the speed on slow means that the game and it's deaths would drag on for weeks. Slow-mo death becomes that much more painful.

The map can also pit player against player in an absurdly asymmetric manner. Miles had a hard time being dead centre of the galaxy; it's not an impossible situation - Kent started with five neighbours compared to Miles' six - but we all envied Veret's entrenched starting position.

However analysing the limited spectrum of game mechanics misses the point. The most important numbers of the game are these:

2 > 1

It's The People, Stupid

HM: you can be assured that The Aspiration never referred to Ankaa as "The FUCKER" during discussions with other species
Veret: owing, no doubt, to a lack of clarity as to which fucker you wished to malign. i believe it was oppenheimer who said "now, we are all sons of bitches" this was shortly after some momentous occasion. i think he had just completed the world's first game of NP.

Neptune's Pride is not about hoarding stars and building ships, it's Lord of the Flies. It's negotiation and trust. It's the prisoner's dilemma. How can you trust anyone when everyone wants to be a millionaire? Thankfully, the introduction of first, second and third ranking relieves this tension compared to the beta approach of winner takes all... although not as much as you might think.

Those of us who hadn't played before were screwed, newbies playing a game of single player: Laura, BeamSplashX, Miles and myself looked to cultivate a garden of stars and would only then ask the question "what next?" That's too late. In Soviet Galactica, stars find you.

Although I was forward looking, aware that I needed to keep expanding in step with my opponent empires, I still fell afoul of the single-player mentality. If The Aspiration had united with Veret, Facewizard or Crossheart at an early stage, it would've been a very different game as I could've traded some of the paranoia for strength. Alliances are what win the game. The superpowers in our match - Veret, Kent and Switchbreak - had played in the practice game and understood this already.

So if you don't engage in the galactic conversation, you're not playing the game. And here there is vast scope for making your own game.

The Blank Canvas

BeamSplashX: It's funny how NP is kind of like a less-intense alternative to EVE Online. A space opera just naturally forms out of the gameplay.

The bare bones Fight Club rules and focus on people opens the game up to tinkering. In particular, you can role-play your ass off.

There were two reasons I role played. One was to enhance the game for other players, which sounded like it could be fun. The other was to act as a buffer. I'd heard Neptune's Pride could affect real life relationships, where players are faced with friends using "underhand" tactics to ruin them. By wrapping myself up in role play, I hoped to firewall my emotions.

But late into the game, Kent mentioned something to me I hadn't considered: this firewall might have made me feel alienated. I was disconnected and all alone in those midnight hours, hitting the Refresh button on the interface again and again, shielded behind my alien façade.

Further, the role play became so significant an exercise that the threat of destruction became more potent and fearful, the equivalent of someone snatching the pen out of your hand while you're in the middle of writing a story. It is possible the role play made the stress worse.

But on the other hand, post-death, role play lives on. I psychologically survived Veret's murder attempt on my empire simply by deferring to role play. I wasn't really playing the game any more; I was playing The Aspiration: The Movie.

This was not an isolated case. I spoke to Veret recently about the game end, and he went through the same cycle of stress, resignation and ascension to performance art. Role play gave Veret something to play for:

Veret: I think at that point I was more attached to the idea of Zombie Jennifer Hale than winning. The actual plan was to punch a massive hole through to Pollux, and then plant my zombified ass there for the rest of the game. Idea being, that's where all your refugee ships were headed, so you clearly wanted it pretty bad and I was in full-on villain mode at that point.

HM: The thing I didn't count - which is why I should have had far less reason to be worried - is that Switchbreak wanted Veret stars too, which meant you weren't losing just stars to Starspackle's 99 but 99 + Switchbreak. There was really nothing to fear. And looking at it that way, you just wanted to say FUCK YOU I CAN HAS YOUR POLLUX.

Veret: Pretty much, yep.

And going further, it was my role play that dragged Switchbreak in to "save my day":

I still don't know whether I was writing a story or playing a game but it's clear that role play had a far more significant effect on play than an observer might have guessed.

But at the same time, you need the right people for Neptune's Pride.

Turning of the Screw

Veret: i think i ended up grabbing [pollux] towards the end
BeamSplashX: That was one nice star...
HM: for about 10 MINUTES DUDE, 10 MINUTES I TOOK SCREENSHOTS
Veret: IT WAS TOTALLY WORTH IT

Playing with "internet randoms" as ShaunCG of Arcadian Rhythms put it last week runs some risks. People may just give up, whether through frustration that the game needs too much time or rejecting the notion they have to live out their slow-mo car crash end. Surviving players expect those dying to play out their death and this is a big ask, clicking out their days for the benefit of others.

Also, anonymous internet people are easier to hate in an emotive game like Neptune's Pride and I'm not sure that's altogether healthy.

Here's a revealing quote from Douglas Wilson's academic paper on intentionally broken games:

It is the 2010 Nordic Game Conference, and we are at a club in Malmö, Sweden for the conference party. With some apprehension I am watching my friend Nicklas play B.U.T.T.O.N. Most people at the club are very drunk, and Nicklas’ three opponents prove no exception. Nicklas is an experienced player, but his slender build and mild-mannered personality make him an awkward match-up for three belligerent drunks. The round begins, and one of the drunks gets a little too excited, tackling poor Nicklas down to the floor. Somehow, this is no longer the same game that Nicklas remembers playing with our own group of less aggressive friends.

A social compact between like-minded friends can ensure all the players work together to make the game a positive experience - even though Neptune's Pride resists such attempts through the tacit approval of deception and betrayal.

The game's lack of concern for player well-being means you need people with lives that can cope with its burden. Truth is, I couldn't. I let it steam-roll over my life because I just couldn't quit you. But Laura could and did quit.

I recently asked Laura if she felt any social responsibility to stay in rather than leave. While admitting she felt bad about "leaving everyone high and dry", she had a new job to take care of in real life and didn't think ducking out of the game would have caused much upset. It is this battle between real and virtual life that is the foundation of the mental strain the players are put under.

Over on Second Person Shooter, Laura posted about LARP Humans Vs Zombies (HVZ) and what struck me was how similar the experience was to Neptune's Pride. Both are games which leak into real life; in HVZ, you need to think about whether you'll be ambushed on your way to lectures. In Neptune's Pride, you are constantly plotting potential scenarios like the WOPR from WarGames.

More interesting was Laura's second post, which exposed player frustrations and disenchantment as the experience became all-consuming. Players quit HVZ like they do Neptune's Pride simply because it's too intense. I'd argue that Neptune's Pride is of a different ilk. HVZ integrates itself into your environment and is pervasive, existing within real-life spaces. Neptune's Pride demands you forgo real-life in favour of its universe. I'm not sure which one you could call the more stressful and punishing but I imagine the players of HVZ went to bed on time every night. With Winnie the Pooh.

There's something else quite interesting about the game, though. Reading through the notes of the game's early days, at times I can't ascertain who I considered an enemy or an ally. It's contradictory, schizoid. Veret explained this unreliable narrative quality as follows: "I think everyone got in the habit of telling people what they wanted to hear then decided later whether or not they were lying about it."

And so there's an element of Rashomon here; after eight weeks, is my story the truth? Or a fiction interpolated to fit the broken words I put down at the time? Veret and Kent think a specific encounter at a star called Taygeta is the point at which my game was lost, while this barely features in my record.

For my final point, I go back to something Kent told me. He commented that he could have been backstabbed by Switchbreak at any time, but had to trust him. I don't think anybody wanted to play much more and Switchbreak had no interest prolonging the match. (See the RPS Neptune's Pride AAR for an example of player self-destruction through endless cycles of betrayal.)

In other words, exhaustion was how the game was won.

Coda

Neptune's Pride is a marvellous theatre in which such grand, beautiful stories are told but by God it will make you pay for them. And so while I am glad I participated in Kent's game, I have no interest in a rematch.

The truth is Neptune's Pride was one of the most profound gaming experiences of my life. It is the first time I have ever played a computer game that was literally unhealthy for me yet the memories I take from it are amongst the greatest gaming memories I possess.

Thanks to everyone who waded through this wordy and deserving-of-some-serious-downsizing series.

Take care and don't have nightmares.

UPDATE! The Aspiration returned Christmas 2011 for another mini-series "The Xmaspiration" which explored some of the lost stories of our Neptune's Pride game.

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Comments (23) Trackbacks (0)
  1. If Laura, or yourself, are interested in film-but-almost-documentary, then you should watch ‘The Wild Hunt’ a Montreal film about LARPers.

    It is well balanced in terms of making it feel very real.

  2. These diaries have led to a highly unexpected feeling.

    “I hereby forgive The Aspiration for crushing my dreams of stellar conquest.”
    -Crossheart

  3. Fantastic wrap up, HM!

    I do think its interesting how this game intentionally removes almost any chance of outplaying a more powerful force. By stripping out all but the simplest math and reducing the whole problem down to, as you say, 2 > 1, it is able to produce drama far beyond more complicated games. Like Abacus Master pointed out in his last words, there is no blue shell. The only way to win is to play the other players.

  4. Beautiful write up.

    A shame the Google Doc never really got off the ground – I’d have loved to have heard everyone’s take on the game in this kind of detail.

    Does the fact that this sort of (sort of) makes me want to play again mean there’s something wrong with me?

  5. I wish the Google doc had taken off as well, but at least I had something for my own blog. I wish I could say it was the world’s first exposure to our game of NP, but I think only HM reads my blog. Perhaps hipster internet archaeologists will hold up my single post, less-dramatic entry as the superior original, but let’s ignore that dark future for now.

    Ahh, the warm glow of tangential comments on Electron Dance!

  6. @BC: Never heard of that before. Noting down for my future self.

    @Kerry: I don’t think it makes you weird, I think it just makes my writing sound awesome (although I feel like I needed another couple of weeks to put the perfect polish on this final part, but deadlines are deadlines…). Truth is your game wasn’t all that long or involved so I imagine you might be hungry for a bit more space opera than you got.

    @Switchbreak: Yes an alliance will always trounce a lone empire and the trick is to find ways of splitting an alliance up. If I were to play again, I’d play in a completely different fashion, looking for solid partners from day one and doing my best to tear down every alliance on the map.

    @BeamSplashX: If you want tangential comments I could talk about my driving instructor again. But did you really have dreams of stellar conquest? Tell all.

    Thanks for all the tweet love and I’m really happy that people out there have enjoyed this. It makes the ordeal of playing the game and writing the whole thing up worth it.

    (No one mentioned the video. Do you know how many hours it took me to ALIGN THOSE SCREENSHOTS? Take whatever guess you have in your head and double it. And then add eggs and flour.)

  7. *Random Fact Time* For most of the game, I believed Veret lived in Australia. You don’t how much that fucked up my planning.

  8. Just finished reading these HM. Really, one of the more engaging and highly entertaining things I’ve read on the internet in a while.

    You have an amazing skill and talent for writing, and I honestly mean it when I say I hope to one day match your ability and wit. Great, great job!

    Now, who wants to play a game of NP with me? ;)

  9. *blush*

    I think I was pretty lucky to have a game as interesting as I did. It played out like a well-plotted novel: everything going disastrously for our “hero” in the middle of the story, with an exciting climax and happy ending. I was also blessed with an opponent like Veret who could devise the sordid twist of Zombie Jennifer Hale.

  10. I really enjoyed each and every one of these posts HM, thanks for taking the time to tell the story of our little nine-color galaxy. Neptune’s Pride is a deeply flawed and mind-devouring game which I hope to never play again, but it is undeniably a great platform for collaborative storytelling. I’m glad a deft hand like yourself was around to capture the spirit of the narrative we built and condense it down into a format that could be shared with others.

  11. Addendum to Random Fact Time: I’m not sure whether to give a properly villainous laugh or just giggle like a little girl, but that is hilarious. No worries, eh mate?

    I don’t blame Switchbreak for siding against me, but I was very annoyed that he spoiled my fun at Pollux. At least he had a good reason for it!

    It was great playing with all of you, and HM, your roleplaying added a delightful flavor to the whole game. Definitely an excellent writeup; I’m glad you did it justice. I think this is the point where, if we were all on the same continent, everyone would go out for a beer.

    And I would find some way to leave you with the tab.

  12. @Prettiest Boy: Thanks! Incidentally, I wanted to mention something about your three month long Neptune’s Pride game, but didn’t have the screenshots. What you showed us was seriously mindblowing.

    @Veret: I got confused with you commenting over at Miles’ site (or was it vice versa?), thought you were both Australians who called gals Sheila. This is in addition to thinking Miles had an alter-ego called Jack McNamee who he wrote as on the same site. I was full of delusions. Anyway, as a result, I got the perception that you were operating the game 24 hours a day, which made you more evil.

    Man, I need a serious break. I’m going to write ten word articles for the next month. Honest.

  13. Oh I should also come clean. The video misses three days: Day 2, Day 4 and Day 16. I just forgot to take a screenshot on those days, which is why Kerry seems to get killed off pretty damn quick in the video.

  14. Splendid summary. Like many others, following the tale of galactic woe and exodus that is the story of the Aspiration has made me want to give Neptune’s Pride another go. If only I didn’t have all of these goddamn zombies – sorry, immortals – to take care of…

  15. Thanks Shaun! When I started the series I was aiming at a conclusion of “And don’t play this game kids, it’s not healthy” but after travelling through the experience a second time, realised I couldn’t bring myself to say that. NP is not all bad: like other deeply immersive experiences, you can take away something memorable from the game that will stay with you for years.

    So I decided to let the reader make up his/her own mind. But already it looks like I’ve encouraged legions of NP virgins to give it a go =)

    Good luck with your Blight of the Immortals game…

  16. Sweet I’m going to try the role play thing in the next game. How about a refugee warrior nation chased out of its origninal galaxy? oh this should be fun.

  17. @NerfCrafter: Good luck! I’m sure The Aspiration, wherever they are, would wish you successful peaceful cultural exchanges with their very unique weaponized love.

  18. Very late to the party, as usual, perhaps I just like the peace and quiet afterwards? Incredible series Master Goodwin and one that deserves as much attention as it can get. How you logged all this and condensed it into an epic saga is beyond me. I started logging a Blight game that me, Steerpike and Armand are involved in and that in itself became a task and a half. It didn’t last long!

    One of my favourite lines is “I was fruity violence incarnate.” And I’d totally forgotten about Kitchen Gun. Very, very well done Joel, I salute you.

  19. Gregg, I’ll be honest, I’m actually agog and in shock being on the other side of this write-up. Trying to distill the notes down into a workable “narrative” that people would want to read was not easy and I don’t think the right balance was struck in the beginning although it definitely improved as it progressed. Thank that train journey I had to Plymouth in January. It was on that long journey that I sorted the “plot” out, me and my trusty 6-year old Fujitsu Lifebook.

    Thanks for plugging through all these words, it must be around 15,000-20,000! Kitchen Gun is, indeed, the best.

  20. This is a great read. I myself survived a multiple-month long game of NP and I doubt I could ever play it again, but I like to see that there are other people that have experienced it and been through the same ordeal as me.

    My game in brief: by the end I had wiped out one species and contributed to the genocides of several others in our 12 player game. I made peace with the purples, my oldest enemies after it became clear it was mutually assured destruction, and waged war on the oranges who had conquered half of the galaxy.

    As I approached victory, suddenly all surviving races turned on me, even the greens who I had protected from the start, launching their fleets into my undefended stars. I realised it would take me another month to slowly fight them off if it was possible at all, so instead I plotted an insane kamikaze raid to grab the last 30 stars I needed for the 120 win condition. I made this plan in about 4 hours and then captured all 30 overnight. No chance I could have held them, but the violence apparently assured my ascension.

    http://img29.imageshack.us/img29/8046/fuckingtactics.jpg

  21. Jake, thanks for dropping by. With such a long game, you must have had the game tweaked – I guess a speed cap or something similar. Prettiest Boy (Abacus Master) shared some pictures some time back of a three-month game he played parallel with our one and the fleet numbers were just mad. I don’t think I could have made it through such a long endeavour.

    If The Aspiration had access to some cool high risk option to go out and capture the galaxy like you did, I would have taken it in a heartbeat. But, then again, my tale of woe was plenty interesting just as it was.

  22. There was no speed cap but actually it was only a month, I went and checked the dates – it just felt longer.

    Did you try Blight of the Immortals? We had a good game of that as well, but unfortunately most of the game is played versus the AI, and it was at an early stage in beta so the goblins were overpowered. I’m waiting for the game to sound a bit more finished, but will definitely roleplay my next game, you inspired me.

  23. Didn’t play Blight because my NP experience told me it was not a good idea. I know some of the crew from Tap and BnB are playing a couple of Blight games at the moment and having fun. I declined to join.

    ShaunCG did tell me that it’s not as demanding as NP but I don’t know. It’s still a daily requirement.


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