Imagine a game where players, chosen at random, were thrust into an arena together — a deadly arena that was trying to kill them. Now imagine that in this great game, once a player dies, they are gone forever from that world. And then imagine that there is an audience watching your struggle to survive; this audience can send gifts to help you, or monsters to thwart you as tickles their fancies.
What would you do? How would you act to survive?
If you think this is an introduction to Suzanne Collins' wildly popular Hunger Games series, you're almost right. Upsilon Circuit is an upcoming online multiplayer game in which once your character dies, you can never play it again — and your account is deleted, turning that game into a reality show of sorts.
Upsilon Circuit was created by husband-and-wife game studio Robot Loves Kitty and is part Hunger Games, part sociology experiment. I’ll leave the different distinctions up to you.
One of the game’s unique features is what has been dubbed a perma-permadeath system, in which a player is given only one life. Once the player dies in the game, he or she may never play the game again, even with a new character. That is, if the developers Alix Stolzer and Calvin Goble are to be believed.
So in a game that you theoretically only get to play once, what is the draw?
Upsilon Circuit’s bread and butter is going to be its hopefully wide viewership. This game, which will only host eight players at a time, revolves around audience participation. Remember how we talked about The Hunger Games? Well, here’s where things start to get a little… Panem.
This minimally multiplayer online game is angling to be the first true video game game show, which will only air two to three hours per day at a designated time, as a television program would. This is, presumably, to foster a predictable, permanent, participatory audience base. The audience has a paramount role in the game. Using real money to buy in-game currency, audience members may purchase helpful gifts for players they wish to succeed, or may instead buy a monster to send for a player they would like to see fail.
Once a player dies, the next player to join the game will be reaped — I mean, chosen — from the audience, based on their participation and engagement with the game.
This is a tempting place to sarcastically ask, "What could possibly go wrong?" But the developers already answered that question in an interview with Polygon, stating that "the concept is that we're monetizing trolling."
So, What Could Happen?
Unlike most video games, Upsilon Circuit does not aim to be a fun game to play. Rather, it is being designed to be fun to watch. In an interview with PC Gamer at PAX in 2015, Goble stated that they were "making this [game] 'cause we want to watch it," specifically to see how people/characters will react to being put in a situation where their (virtual) lives are at stake. He sees this game specifically as a "social experiment – what will they do [with their one life]?"
This, on the heels of a comment monetizing trolling, leads me to believe that the developers already have an idea of what is going to happen.
It would be nice to pose that a game like this would foster teamwork and a sense of fairness among the players, since they are all in this unforgiving world together. Social learning is, after all, a much better survival strategy than individual trial-and-error learning. Unfortunately, in the gameplay footage available so far, few, if any, of these types of interactions exist. While this type of camaraderie may happen every once in a while, just like in The Hunger Games, players will be trying to save their own lives from the monsters and the audience members, not attempting to save someone else’s life.
So let's recap: Robot Loves Kitty seems to be developing a game that is only fun for the audience, where the audience can decide who lives and dies based on their support or terrorization, and a game that constantly taps into the players’ survival instincts. Like in The Hunger Games, prowess or achieving higher-level abilities will mean nothing when the people watching you can drop in to literally throw you off (or out of) your game.
Again we ask: Why play?
Do It For The Story, Do It For The Fame
One draw to playing this game is the serious and deep story that the developer promises, So far, the only released details are that the game takes place in a world where Manhattan disappeared in the 1980s, and violent game shows with fantastic prizes have risen in popularity, as if 1992’s Flashback had a big brother on Earth.
But it's all worth it, because with great risk — that is, if you survive — comes great celebrity. The biggest benefit for the players, according to Goble, is that the players will become in-game stars. This will in turn earn the game, and therefore the developers, more money.
While Goble does comment that they are talking about ways for the in-game celebrity to translate into real-life celebrity, no information has yet been released regarding a player’s ability to show video footage on a personal YouTube channel. Whether the player can otherwise use their prowess in Upsilon Circuit as a benefit to themselves, rather than being a means for the developers to make money, remains to be seen.
But Goble’s interests clearly align with the psychological and entertainment aspects of the game, rather than the benefit to the players: “What kind of personality will hold people’s sympathy?”
A Second Chance At A First Impression
With the popularity of live game streaming and Let’s Plays, the next logical step for games would seem to be toward audience participation. From that perspective, Upsilon Circuit is innovative and fresh. It will only be online for about a year after launch, after which the developer will take it down, much like a television reality show has a definite ending.
To that end, it could be an interesting examination of player and audience psychology, but if this experiment is to be used as anything other than a way to sate a developer’s curiosity, I'd be interested in the answers to a few more questions:
- Will the game reward cooperation?
- Reward treachery?
- Not offer any feedback for player responses at all?
The different social rules reinforced by the game would greatly impact how the players interact with one another in a great exploitation of a social dynamic experiment, just as in a series like The Hunger Games or a sci-fi survival story like William Sleator's House of Stairs.
Maybe it’s an experiment on the popularity of game-show-type gaming. Or maybe it’s exploring the temperaments of audience members. Until the game is released, we can only speculate what the developers are really trying to glean, other than entertainment for themselves. As a research experiment, it's designed weakly, but as entertainment, it's clear the developers are putting in plenty of reasons for people to watch.
The Reviews Have Kinda Sorta Been Positive
On Upsilon Circuit's website, Polygon, Kotaku and PC Gamer are all quoted as having positive reviews of the game. These sound bites come from much longer articles, two of which are mildly optimistic at best, and one which provides even more caution than that (and Polygon’s quote is taken so far out of context as to sound like an endorsement, when the original quote is far less flattering). But all three sources agree that Upsilon Circuit promises a very unique and unexplored aspect of gaming.
For a while this discussion may have been a moot point, as Upsilon Circuit had produced underwhelming funds on the developer’s Patreon site, but recently Execution Labs, a company that invests in newer independent developers, has teamed up with Robot Loves Kitty to bring this game to fruition. So, while it may still have some explaining to do, Upsilon Circuit continues to be a game to watch in the coming months.
Would you be interested in playing a game like Upsilon Circuit? Do you think it’s concerning that the developers seem to be purposefully designing a game with which to troll players and study social behaviors? What might that say about us as a culture (gaming or otherwise)? Let me know in the comments!