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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Enduring Oblivion

When I was a little kid, every trip to the mall was a potential trip to the arcade.  A five-dollar bill clutched tightly in hand, my brother and I would rush into that flashing cavern, fidgeting in anticipation while twenty quarters clattered into the coin-machine dish.  My favorite games were Tekken, Time Crisis, and The Simpsons, but I rarely chose to play those games.  Instead I would thumb my quarters into skee-ball machines and sport simulators, not because I liked these games, but because these games gave me tickets.  The tickets were key.  You could exchange them for prizes.  Maybe my brother had more fun when we were there, blowing all of his quarters on Time Crisis, but I was the one with the brand new Chinese Finger Trap, and wasn’t that the important thing?

I’m on my third character in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  I promised myself that this time I would just have fun, but it was a promise that I couldn’t keep.  As I write these words there is a rubber band strapped to my Xbox controller, forcing my character to swim into a stone wall, endlessly pumping his arms but never going anywhere.  Once an hour a message flashes across the screen: “Your Athletics Skill has increased.”  I’m a hundred hours into the game and I’ve barely played it at all.

When you start out in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind you’re a shadow of what you will one day become.  The path from the poor harbor of Seyda Neen to the bustling city of Balmora is grueling and dangerous; you’re so weak that any battle could end in death.  I remember getting lost in the hills with no idea where I was going – just somewhere, anywhere.  I staggered from fight to fight, growing in confidence and skill.  By the end of the game I was slicing up enemies like loaves of bread.  Morrowind made me feel like a hero, but Oblivion makes me feel like a muscular man who never leaves the gym.

Or a metaphor: Oblivion is a creepy man who wants to hold my hand. The game begins with a tutorial in a cave.  “Here’s how to stab things.  Here’s how to shoot a bow.  Isn’t it cool how when you shoot that bucket it reacts realistically?” asks Oblivion, pulling me along, gripping my hand a little too tightly.  “Now,” he says, bending onto a knee.  “Now it’s time to pick what you want to be good at!  How about sneaking?  We had fun practicing sneaking, didn’t we?”  I fall for his ruse, picking a bunch of useful skills as my majors.  Thirty hours in, I die in the same necromancer-infested cave a dozen times over before I quit the game in confused frustration.

 

It turns out that the enemies in Oblivion, unlike those in Morrowind, level up with you.  If you don’t carefully pick your major skills and plan out each level efficiently, even relatively weak enemies can quickly overwhelm you, and there is nothing that you can do to fix it short of cranking down the game’s difficulty.  If you select major skills that you actually plan to use, you will accumulate meager attribute bonuses and become weaker relative to all of the enemies in the game.  The Oblivion wiki suggests that you should only pick major skills that you don’t intend to use, and then intentionally grind those skills when you actually decide to level.  In short, Oblivion tricks you into making stupid decisions and then it punishes you for them.

My second character is an exercise in misery.  Grinding is boring and my first character just finished these quests.  I sink hours into endlessly, pointlessly tapping the same button on my keyboard, before finally giving up.  The game just isn’t fun anymore, and other games are calling my name.

Two years later, after buying an Xbox360, I find a copy of Oblivion for ten bucks.  I remember that I never finished it and, on a whim, take it home to start a new character.  “This time,” I tell myself, “this time I’ll just have fun.  I won’t worry about my Endurance level, and if worst comes to worst I can always lower the difficulty.”  As I make my way through the tutorial cave for the third time, though, I remember what it was like to fail.  I hate the private humiliation of being beaten by a game.  I’ve never played on easy, and goddamn it I’m not going to start now.  I skewer a final squealing rat and once more it’s time to choose my major skills.  I sigh as I select Speechcraft, Security, Hand-to-Hand, becoming a master of all things useless.

“Well,” I think, “if I’m going to do this again I might as well go all the way.”  I grab an empty notebook and write “1)” in the top left-hand corner to indicate my character’s level.  I fill it with my skill and attribute values, and I mark each marginal upgrade with a tally.  The skills that I actually plan to use – Blade, Heavy Armor, Block, Destruction, etc. – are pitifully underdeveloped, so I decide to just grind those for a little while before I start the actual game.  Twenty-four levels later my book is filled with scrawled pages of numbers, tallies and skill names.  I’ve used my pen nearly as much as my controller.

Maybe playing the game isn’t just about trudging through dungeons and saving the world; maybe it’s also a process of discovering the rules of the system and outsmarting them.  It has become that way for me, but I can’t help feeling like I’ve opened a door that I wasn’t supposed to know about and now I’m tinkering behind the scenes.  Back here the bandits and minotaurs are just sad cardboard cutouts, and I realize that they aren’t my enemies at all.  I’m playing against the developers.  Isn’t this a step away from being a role-playing game?  Scribbling on stat sheets and keeping track of skill levels hardly makes me feel like a battlemage.

The odd thing is that for some reason I’m still actually enjoying myself.  I didn’t think that trailing rats through the Imperial sewers in order to level my Heavy Armor skill was my idea of fun.  There’s something about the grind that keeps me coming back for more, and game designers know it.  World of Warcraft, one of the most successful video games ever made, is practically nothing but grinding.  Almost every JRPG that I’ve played requires me to perform the same repetitive, mindless tasks for hours, just so that I can move into the next area or kill the next boss.  And yet these are the games that I love.

For whatever reason, Oblivion takes the monotony to a whole new level.  Here’s a glimpse of how I’ve spent my 100+ hours of game time.  For a while I just summoned the same skeleton over and over again, killing him each time with a rusty dagger.  That was leveling my Blade skill.  Before that I literally pressed the right bumper over 3000 times, while jumping up and down.  That was leveling my Restoration and Acrobatics skills simultaneously, because hey, I wouldn’t want to waste time.

One of the biggest accusations thrown at gaming is that it’s a waste of time. We’re taught from a young age (at least I was) that time is our most valuable possession, and how you choose to “spend” your time is one of the most important decisions that you can make.  Time is to actions as money is to merchandise: you can convert it into anything.  Gaming is a double evil because it consumes your money and your time.  At least that’s the common assumption.  As a result, games have to prove to us that they’re worth our time by making us feel productive.  I think that this is one of the key reasons for the success and proliferation of grinding.  Every time a skill level flashes on the screen it reminds us that we’re achieving something.  It makes us feel good about what we’re doing.  Dozens of tiny rewards keep us interested, and the big rewards on the horizon keep us going.

Oblivion is a skee-ball machine.  I don’t play it for the experience of playing it.  I play it for the tickets.