"I’m also exhausted, really exhausted. It’s so stressful, I think because of the amount of time Neptune plays out over it feels like a total investment into the game. I remember I was out all day at a meeting and I was fretting because I just entered my war with Poseidon. I was on a motorway and worrying about Neptune's Pride."
Last year, Neptune’s Pride developer Jay Kyburz asked me: “Do you think because the game has basically no story, no flavor and no graphics it allows players to pour themselves into it more?”
Although the minimalism of Neptune’s Pride plays a large part in bringing the crowds through the door, I doubt that’s why players get so invested in the game. It’s probably more to do with the action of cultivating an empire of coloured dots over days or weeks and having to defend that digital sandcastle on a beach full of bullies.
The long-term investment of time and energy engenders a strong emotional attachment to the player's empire and losing an equivalent short-form game wouldn’t sting as much.
But there’s another implicit assumption in the question that bothers me. And this is the point where I should talk about mutual funds.
Mutual funds, where an “expert” manages a pool of money on the fund investors’ behalf, come in two spicy flavours.
Passive funds track some market index but really they’re just following the market around like a little lapdog. They are belittled as boring and don’t get invites to the cool kids’ parties. Substantially more expensive active funds, however, are the sexy beasts of the investment industry. Behind every active fund is a manager actively working the cash, moving it around to make the most money. These stocks here, those bonds there, that derivative smoking behind the bike sheds over there. The fund manager sweats for the investors, trying to outperform the market.
Now the active fund industry often puts forward heroic statistics to convince you that the average investor who puts cash into active funds will get superior returns.
But don’t blink otherwise you'll miss the sleight of hand. Dead funds are not included in these statistics. Why is this important? Well, a company will axe a fund that wades into negative waters for too long and force the investors to shift their money into an alternative fund. Each of these investors will have realised a loss but, because the fund is dead, this loss will not show up in the statistics. The figures presented paint a more attractive financial picture of the funds than is actually the case.
This is known as survivorship bias.
"I explain this to my wife as I sit at the computer cackling evilly, and she looks at me with sadness in her eyes."
The Forgotten Victims
ShaunCG of Arcadian Rhythms once complained that free games of Neptune's Pride with strangers were a “dispiriting and hollow experience”. In the game I played as The Aspiration, Second Person Shooter’s Laura Michet dropped out early because the stress was distracting her from her job. And Littleloud’s Kerry Turner died fast because she had no online presence for two days.
These are failures. Failures make for dull stories. No one wants to read them. They are not deserving of your attention. Boo hoo for them.
The success of any multiplayer game hinges on the commitment of the players. In Neptune’s Pride, this commitment is serious: the game will eventually demand around-the-clock attention for those who are playing to win. The probability of a player failing to go the distance – or even the game itself falling apart – is significant. But we're fascinated by the juicy game diaries that emerge from successful games.
When writing The Aspiration I wanted to convey the psychological hell the game plunges its players into but ended up encouraging readers to have a go. “That sounds like a fucking blast, old man,” they cackled as they went off to play a game of Blight of the Immortals.
We’re witnessing a case of survivorship bias. It is the epic game diaries that have sold Neptune’s Pride to the public. Sometimes fragments of aborted stories from the game’s forgotten victims will bleed through but engaged, committed players are the ones who write the meat of these diaries. So it is important to take a moment to examine Kerry’s Story and Laura’s Story, and learn something from their failures.
Laura suggests that Neptune’s Pride has the “soul of Farmville” and criticises Neptune’s Pride for what it does to its players. Now I am well aware of what it can do to people. Should I conclude that Neptune's Pride is a malicious game that has no respect for its players' lives beyond the galactic map?
"Kieron logs off, and a cold weight drops from my ribcage, slides down my legs and into my feet. It might be the small chunk of black coal that sits where my heart should be. I feel fucking terrible, just unspeakably guilty."
Meanwhile, Forty Years Earlier
In 1972, a decade before he would take on his crucial role defining Lucasfilm Games, Peter Langston created a 4X computer game called Empire for the PDP 11/45 Mainframe computer. It offered a hybrid mix of turn-based structure and real-time events.
Empire has had its share of popularity and continues to exist today, an open source project that has evolved over forty years. Wolfpack Empire keeps the torch burning and describes the game as follows:
The game is up (usually) 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Action can happen at any time.
Empire is a very addicting game. Marriages have been lost over playing empire. People have flunked out of school due to playing empire. Many, many, many a night's sleep has been lost due to empire.
Scared yet? If not, and the idea of setting your alarm clock for 3:00 am updates doesn't bother you when you have to get up and go to work at 5:30, or if sitting at your computer for days typing your fingers to nubs playing 24 hour blitzes appeals to you, then read on.
Does this sound like any game you know?
The same camaraderie that accompanied our Neptune’s Pride game is also in evidence in Empire games:
> Telegram from Rivendell, (#6) dated Thu Sep 25 00:58:07 2003
Well just to let you know that I do not feel bound by a proposed agreement. Your somewhat arrogant attitude and what's in it for me attitude have not done much to ease the feeling that I will be next in a long line of conquests.
I always try to be a good neighbor and ally first and a deadly enemy if I must.
Even if I stood by and did not attack you, would you allow me to live long after you won?
Markus Armbruster, one of the current Empire developers, tells me: “The learning curve is steep. It’s a complex game. There’s loads of what I call ‘good complexity’: deep questions without obvious answers.
“Unlike many other real-time ‘strategy’ games, Empire isn’t just tactics. It’s diplomacy, grand strategy, military strategy, operations and logistics – with a bit of tactics thrown in.”
He confirms Empire games are stressful and players can drop out, “often when something unexpected happens that forces them to reduce their level of engagement.” But Empire offers a workaround. “Instead of dropping out,” Armbruster says, “players sometimes take on a co-ruler.”
Now I’m not touching Empire with a barge pole, as it sounds like Neptune’s Pride on steroids. But the stressful, demanding nature of the game attracts people like Armbruster. Empire offers the same recipe as Neptune’s Pride: long-form strategy in real-time.
If Neptune’s Pride is abusive of its players, then surely so is Empire. But could a truly “abusive” game survive for four decades?
For The Athletes
Langston has reportedly said of Empire:
There are many amusing stories of people that took the game too seriously; one tells of a corporate Vice President who walked into the computer room and flipped the main circuit breaker in order to stop an attack on his country; another tells of the Harvard student that refused to go to bed until everyone logged out of Empire and of the other players who took turns staying up late…
While many players take Empire very seriously, an equal number of players use it as a safe environment in which they can act out their fantasies.
Empire players consider the pressure of the game to be a badge of honour and not a failing of design. Surviving Empire demonstrates more personal character than the scripted puppet show of an FPS like Modern Warfare. Perhaps it even builds character.
Empire, Neptune’s Pride and their ilk are better approached as mental endurance sports which are not suited to casual, aloof play. They are designed – intentionally or otherwise – for a particular kind of player athlete. We can all dabble once, but it is the athletes that will come back again and again.
So while I know I’ll never play Neptune’s Pride again, I understand those that do.
And I wish them luck in their stories.
The Wolfpack Empire community is always looking for new players and they usually run 3-4 big games a year. If you're interested, get in touch via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Announcements are also made on the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.empire.
This was the final broadcast of The Xmaspiration.
The full list of broadcasts can be found under Broadcast Prime.
Electron Dance awarded The Remnant of The Aspiration to the winner of Todd's game referred to in the comments.