Thursday, 3 June 2010

Deep Stress: My Experience's with Neptunes Pride

Neptune's pride is a very strange game. A pure game. A exhausting game.
And one I certainly wouldn't describe as a fun game. But it is a game worth playing (at least once)

Developed by Iron Helmet games a company formed by former Irrational Games employees. NP's is a web based 4x strategy game.

To quote them:
"Neptune's Pride is multiplayer game of Strategy, Intrigue and Galactic Conquest!The game is a real-time game played over several weeks. You can log in at any time of the day to check the progress of your fleets, view the results of battles and issue new orders. Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate!"
The game's rule set is very strict, cold hard numbers determine the outcome of combat with no tactical elements and nothing left to chance the game is purely strategic.

Quentin smith put it well in his excellent write up for GameSetWatch when he said:
"If I have 30 ships defending against your 45, I will lose the fight. If my empire of 20 star systems is invaded by your empire of 30 star systems, I will slowly but surely lose territory to you"

This very no nonsense combat system plus and a equally harsh and unforgiving diplomacy system provides a perfect catalyst for human drama. Both Rock Paper Shotgun and PC Gamer have produced engrossing play diary's of a UK games journo battle royal with the game. Just as no plan ever survives contact with the enemy the plaudits Neptune's Pride initially received has slowly waned as more people have got their hands on the games beta, and slowly that old cliched question 'but is it fun?' has reared its ugly head.

Well to cut a long story short, no its not. To give a longer and more relevant answer, it's not but the reason why it isn't fun is interesting in itself.

The abstract nature of Neptune's Pride game design gives the impression of a cerebral exercise in pure Machiavellian strategy, a relatively harmless game of intergalactic backstabbing. The truth is that by accident or design its a exercise is attrition and exhaustion superbly optimized for causing huge amounts of stress.
To start understanding why Neptune's Pride seems to produce this response in many people its a good idea to stop a moment and remind ourselves what exactly stress is and why it occurs.

Stress is "a mismatch between how a person perceives the demands made upon them and how they perceive their ability to cope". This mismatch can be either a genuine moment when a person realizes accurately that their capacity to deal with a situation is inaccurate, or equally it can be imagined discrepancy where a person either through bad judgment or bad information comes to a inaccurate conclusion.

As a game of NP progress's and the speed of the game increases the stakes become higher and higher and it becomes harder and harder to either correctly gauge your opponents strength or to formulate plans. The game's overt presentation of its mechanics workings presents this exponential increase in a very clear way, when once you may have had a fleet of 10 which took 24hrs to reach its target by the end game you had fleets of hundreds which could reach their target in 2-3hrs.

As a player it becomes clear to you as well that where as when the game started and you could log in once a day if you wanted to win you had to log in 4 times a day. And of course you wanted to win, you wanted to win badly, you'd invested days, weeks even in this game, the end was in sight how could you let it slip out between your fingers now. But you struggle more and more with accepting what the game wants you to do in order to do so.

Player creating their own goals within a giant fully explorable sandbox worlds in games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R Grand Theft Auto, Oblivion and Farcry 2 has been a rising trend in recent years, The classic Elite series blazed the trail for this sort of game in the 1980's but for a while it fell from ascendancy as mainstream games started to model themselves more and more on the Linear nature of movies.

In some ways the GTA series of games is where these two style meet and mix. Its story is steeped in movie & pop culture references which give a ambiance of authenticity to the game's setting of Liberty City (a thinly veiled New York ). It's many miles of virtual streets and numerous side missions and collectibles encouraged players to explore. Prominent game designer and academic Doug Church postulated that one of the strongest mechanics these game leveraged was player intent, which is
“the ability of the player to devise his own meaningful goals through his understanding of the game dynamics and to formulate meaningful plans to achieve them using the information and resources provided by the game”.
The problem Neptune's pride has is that as the game progress everything Church outlines becomes in constant flux. You can't formulate meaningful goals because the situation changes so fast, and game's mechanics although always overt becomes more and more complicated.

Even the slightest mistake in you maths could see what you thought was certain victory turn into a defeat, and as your weapons become more and more powerful the margins of defeat become more and dramatic.
Clint Hocking the Lead Designer on Far Cry 2 gave a talk at the 2009 Games development Conference where he talked about player intent and referenced Chruch's opinions on it. He also talked about the idea of a escalating cost of failure, when it become exponentially difficult to recover from a mistake. Hocking say's
“The point is that kicking the player out of the execution phase is trivially easy… but making sure he falls back into the composition phase instead of into a load screen is something else.”
and identifies this sort of result as something game design should strive to avoid.
He list Bioshock's vita chambers, and Farcry 2's buddy system as mechanics which allow players to find themselves in situations where their plans can become dust but where the formulation and implementation of a new plan is equally easy.

In some ways NP could just be defined as hard game and there is certainly a fanbase which considers this to be no bad thing and you only have to look at a game like Demon's soul to see that when executed properly this can produce a game which while not to everyone's taste is still interesting.

But I still don't think this fully explains why NP produces the reaction it does in so many gamers.

Perhaps it may be because NP may not even really be a game, or at least that the real 'game' of Neptune's pride is something very different to what it presented itself as.
In their 2003 book The Rules of Play Game theorists Salen and Zimmerman adopted the shorthand name of Magic Circle to represent that “In a very basic sense, the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins” Inside this magic circle the rules of the outside world are abandoned and the rules of the game take precedent.

Neptune's pride is interesting because it constantly requires it players to redraw the magic circle which contains the game, what they thought was the game at the start is only a small part of it by the end. Another part of the idea of the magic circle is that in game with multiple players is that it is a conceit arrived at by mutual consent. That all players realizes the rules of the game and play within it. In NP as the end game arrives the player begin to realize that other players may not be playing be the same set of rules as they are. and really this is the big question the game asks, how far are you prepared to go to win? Just how much you are prepared to redefine the borders of the game and your life.

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