BLOODSPORT: Part 1—The Rebellion

For the past week or so, I’ve been running a game called BLOODSPORT that I designed and wrote. In this game, twenty-two men and women are abducted from their beds and dropped into a sandy alien coliseum, where they’re forced to fight to the death for the pleasure of their alien captors. Players spend most of the game training in a chamber deep underground, and directly or indirectly voting one another into the arena. It’s an email-based elimination game and there are now nine players left. Combat, scheming, and permadeath are at the core of the experience. Twenty-two people play but only one person gets to the end. BLOODSPORT has by turns been exhilarating and exhausting, for me and (I gather) for some of the people playing it.

Here’s my biggest mistake—I did a bad job of preparing my players for the time commitment that the game might entail. As such, some of them had trouble keeping up with all of the emails and flavor text. One person became so overwhelmed that they decided to quit.

So I gleefully penned a depressing story about how their character killed himself, here reproduced in full:

“Brian Sachs was sleeping in his bunk. That’s all he’d been doing for the past few days. Everyone else was traipsing around this god-forsaken cave like idiots. Shit, he didn’t want to be here. He’d said it from the first day: he wants to go home. He approached an alien guard and asked him to spear him in the stomach. Brian Sachs has been killed. He will no longer be playing with us.”

I sent this story to everyone playing as a diegetic explanation for Brian dropping out of the game. It was flavor text. Now, I thought that this story was funny for a few reasons. For one, the first thing that I asked each player to do was to send in a name and a catch phrase for their character. Brian Sachs chose “I want to go home” as his catch phrase, and it now seemed all to appropriate. Second, while all of the other players had been doing their training actions each day, the person playing Brian had been too busy to participate, and as such Brian hadn’t done any training. Once this player (understandably) decided to quit, I was left with the image of a sad man who wouldn’t leave the barracks and couldn’t find the strength to go on. And so I had him kill himself!

Immediately, I got a few responses from a few of the other players, saying something to the effect of “hahahahhaha that was great.” But when the player who was playing Brian responded to me, he told me that he was sad that Brian would never make it home to see his wife and kids.

This got me thinking. My friends and I have designed a few other games like this, but none of them have encouraged roleplaying as much as mine has. In those games, we were pretty much playing as ourselves. That, in my opinion, made it too easy to get offended; there was no layer between the player and the player’s persona. So in my game everyone is playing a character, and no one knows who is pulling the strings.

The roleplaying also allowed me to write lots of meaty flavor text that I hoped would make my players move invested in the world and characters that we were creating. In past games, there has been little sadness about being voted out because there was no in-game parallel. Maybe you would cease to be in the game, but it wasn’t like your character was speared in the belly by an alien guard or chopped in half by someone you considered a friend.

In most games, you will eventually win. Sure, you’ll encounter adversity and opponents, but even if you die you’ll just reload and keep going until eventually you become the hero who saves the world, just like you always knew you would be. Even in permadeath games like Nethack or Spelunky, death is only a hurdle before your next iteration of the game. Who hasn’t died hundreds of times in Spelunky?

In BLOODSPORT, there are no save games and there is no new game button. It’s run live over two weeks or so, and 96% of players will die. Half of the players won’t even see the second half of the game. This is a very unfamiliar gaming experience for many. It’s like Survivor or Neptune’s Pride. The players become invested in their character’s life because it’s the only one they have. The victor can feel a true sense of pride because she or he has outsmarted, outplayed, outschemed, or out-RNGed their competitors. It’s not a game for everyone, but it’s certainly a game for some.

When the person playing Brian Sachs quit, though, I was feeling bad that I had misled people into thinking that the game would take less time than it did. I worried that there were people playing who didn’t want to be—who were overwhelmed by the number of emails and the sometimes complicated rule-sets. Quitting was always an option, but I wanted to present an easy in-game out that would let people quit guiltlessly and without just abandoning their characters. My first thought was to give them an easy way to go home, but I thought better of this because all of the characters would probably want to go home. If I offered them the option, they’d have to step out of character to reject it. So I came up with the Rebellion. This email went out to all of the players:

“You’ve heard rumors of an uprising against your alien overlords. Your friend said to you, “I don’t think that it will work, but I sure as hell don’t want to give the aliens the pleasure of seeing me die in the arena. If I’m going down, I’m taking some of those alien bastards down with me…”

I gave each of my twenty remaining players the option to join the rebellion and I made it clear that doing so would result in fun flavor text and the end of their role in BLOODSPORT.

I expected a few people to drop out. Instead I got nineteen encouraging responses. “I’ll take my chances in the arena.” “Screw rebellions.” “No rebellion for me.” “I will not be participating in the rebellion. I will, however, totally sell out the rebels if I can get a reward for my unscrupulous conduct.” All but one player responded to tell me that they wanted to continue playing. Several added that they were having a great time. The final player was simply very busy with work and wasn’t able to keep up with the social game. So I sent out my email on the rebellion (Derrick was one of the game’s NPCs—a paranoid ex-military boot camp instructor who has been trapped deep in the ground for far too long):

“The time is now, ladies and gentlemen,” screams Derrick, a crazy look in his eyes. “Who’s with me?? Viva la revolution!” He draws a beautiful diamond sword and raises it above his head.

“I’m with you!” shouts Roly Poly, and then the room is heavy with silence.

“No one else? Only one will join the revolution?” No response. “Ah, to hell with all of you. We’re dead either way. Come Roly, we have guards to slay!” Roly Poly and Derrick charge off into the black of the cave and they are never seen again.

Roly Poly has died.

A permadeath, long-form game centered around trust and betrayal will never appeal to everyone, especially when it requires a lot of time. But I’m glad that most of the people who are playing are enjoying the ride. Designing and running BLOODSPORT has been a hell of a lot of work, but I suspect that I’m having even more fun than my players.

~

This is the first in a series of articles about BLOODSPORT. In my next one I’ll go into more detail about how the game worked, and what I’ve learned about designing and implementing new mechanics.

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Expertise

I have just played my best game of Nethack. My best game of all time. I got to level ten and did almost all of the Gnomish Mines but, while backing up to find the Sobokan, I got trapped between a wolf, a cockatrice, and a giant housecat and was ripped to shreds by them all before I could figure out a way to escape.

Now that I reflect on it, I realize that I had ways to survive. I could have used my pickaxe to dig a hole in the wall and hide inside it, thus limiting the attacks to a single front. Or I could have started zapping all my unidentified wands. Or I could have quaffed that one golden potion I’d found—there’s a chance it might have been a healing potion or a teleport potion. I could have thrown it at an enemy. It might have exploded and killed them (and me?) or paralyzed or confused them. I could have done a number of things. I was so close, really—eminently ‘ascendable’, as NetHack players say. My female dwarven cavewomen could have eventually won the game if I hadn’t screwed up there. A real Nethack expert would have known what to do.

I’m always telling myself that real Nethack experts exist. I honestly believe that there are actual people living in this world—in secrecy, of course, hidden among us under disguise—who have a godly understanding of Nethack and who can actually play it without feeling like a bumbling idiot. I have no evidence for this, but somebody had to write the Nethack Wiki. Those people have to be the geniuses I’m talking about. I mean, they’ve probably actually beaten the game.

You beat the game by ‘ascending’ the character: by travelling to the lowest level of the dungeon and taking the Amulet of Yendor from the High Priest of Moloch. You must then travel to the Astral Plane and offer it to your god, who will grant you immortality, ‘ascending’ you to demigodhood. In order to do this, however, you have to play the game for practically an entire lifetime, learn all the tricks and gambits, master a class and a playstyle, figure out the cost/benefit ratios of practically every risk you could take in the entire game (basically, of every action, since doing almost anything in Nethack could potentially get you killed).

In a way, it reminds me of The Arhkam Horror, a fantastic board-game based on HP Lovecraft’s writings: newbies at Arkham Horror will do everything, and they’ll have a blast. Experienced players will turn almost every risk down—even the ones likely to result in a benefit. They know something us new players don’t. They’re jaded. When they play, it looks like they’re not having any fun, because they’re practically not playing the game. But then they win it, so we all nod sagely and wonder aloud how they got so good.

It also reminds me of people who are really, really good at Civilization IV. They play absurd societies—societies where half the entire culture track gets invented before bronzeworking, societies which leap absurdly from power to power, which manipulate wonders and resources until they’re scarcely similar to real-world civilizations at all. Everything narrows down to the exactness of turns and production-times. The illusion of the game falls apart, and we’re dealing with mister Sid Meyer’s architecture. And it’s fun: that’s what the game is for. You’re supposed to get right on in there with the math and the loopholes and the broken mechanics. It’s satisfying to have that kind of expertise.

There isn’t a way to be an expert at something without surrendering a bit of wonder—without leaving the game-world behind. Not all of it, of course, mind you—just a bit. Enough so that we can peel back the story and get our hands on the numbers that make the game work the way it does. For Pokemon, there’s EV training; for Oblivion, there’s strategic leveling; for other games, like Halo, there’s the ethic behind the whole e-sports scene—three shots to the body, one to the head. Do people really die that way? Of course not, but there has to be some kind of death-math in order for us to master death in Halo, right? For Nethack, it’s the encyclopedic understanding of all game systems: people who can ascend probably know the exact probability that sipping from a fountain will release a water demon, and if they defeat the demon and it grants them a wish, they know they should ask for silver or grey blessed greased +2 dragon scale mail. They know that you can guess the identity of an unknown potion by dropping it in a store to see what the shopkeeper offers them—because they’ve memorized the prices of everything already, and they know what they’re looking for.

I don’t know if this is the way we played games for expertise back in the day, before everything had its own online fan community and its own wiki, complete with number-crunched tables. But it’s kind of the way we play now: collaborating across the internet to rip the clothes off the game and get a look at its inner framework. It’s not bad; it’s just the way expertise works, I think. Being ‘good’ at a game means, most of the time, being an expert at the numbers, not being an expert at ‘enjoying the atmosphere,’ or ‘liking the plot.’ But it’s not like we’re killing the magic: we’re just swapping one kind for another. There’s something incredibly special about the x-ray vision we develop once we begin to look past the outer surface of a game and focus on its inner mathematics. When we learn to do that, we begin to feel powerful and wise. We enter into a kind of secret compact with the developers: we know the neurotically complex work that went into their game—particularly one as complex as Nethack—and we begin to understand it. We understand the game in a new mental language, almost. At any rate, it’s special.

It’s a kind of specialness I rarely feel, though. I’m not the kind of person who gets really really good at games—any games. I think the only one I’ve done this to is Dwarf Fortress, really. I find the process intimidating, and I’m always unwilling to take that mental step out of the gameworld and into the world of the game’s math. Perhaps this is why I run with such an awfully-balanced Dragon Age team, why it took me a whole week to figure out how to beat the Elite Four for the first time, and why the numbers-game focus of raid-level WoW often strikes me as heartless, even though I know that such players regard it as the point of the game. Expertise is the one kind of game-magic I haven’t yet learned to properly appreciate.

Here’s hoping I may, in time. Or I’m never getting anywhere with Nethack.

A bit of argument-killing on my own part, though: this binary is pretty much only the way I see things. People like the Magnasanti guy clearly can see both sides of the coin at once.