The role and life of the greater massive community when it comes to online games these days seems to be questioned on a daily basis. With most players opting to play solo at least some of the time, the rest of the player population becomes a series of props to some, PvP fodder to others, and to the rest, members of the guilds and groups they play with. At PAX, a game in development called Upsilon Circuit looks to do something different. Blending action RPG,a dash of MMO, and reality TV game show, along with a touch of audience participation, the greater community’s role is emphasized even more. This ambitious series of ideas caught my eye at the con and it seems like now is the right time for this potentially innovative game.
Upsilon Circuit is designed to be a game that you can only ever actively play once. With fanfare, eight players enter the game’s arena-like dungeons each day. The players come from the audience, where they gain the option to compete. This is not going to give players a sense of control, since this is entertainment for the masses. Like a gladiator pit with adventure, story, and loot, with a Max Headroom meets Ronald Reagan digital host (named Ronny Raygun), this is your chance to play a part of the larger story. Yet, unlike games that work to inflate your sense of importance as a chosen one or the only hero who could ever succeed, Upsilon Circuit dispatches with such illusions. You are a potential hero, but you’re also fodder heading into the box that will seal your fate. You’re chosen, for now, but ultimately disposable in a sense.
There is permadeath, but you’re not preserved to pass on your legacy to some kin or allowed to just go make an alt. Nope, once you’ve played, you’re done. You return to the audience once more, now a member of the group tugging at the power for those still inside at the end of each game day. When players in the game succeed and earn XP, there’s a pool of points that the audience tuning in and playing along gets to use in order to make things happen within the field. Choose players’ skills. Want to make things harder for the players inside? Vote for some sort of disadvantage to befall them. Or vote to give your favorites some kind of advantage. The audience, the community, is thus the most empowered. The community is collectively, your Dungeon Master.
One thing that this game has a potential answer to are the complaints that most games these days simply make everyone feel like a hero without anyone having to earn it. It’s completely possible for people to extend their playtime within the game by staying alive through the day’s challenges. Should someone maintain a long streak, not only does that target on his or her back get bigger, but if success continues, maybe that person (or those people) have actually earned being called a hero or “chosen”.
There are many systems in games that try to make a player feel special, including some that are things you can earn and unlock (such as Elder Scrolls Online’s Emperor system - though imperfect). Yet in Upsilon Circuit, you’re not going to be able to fudge any of it. The whole thing comes off as if someone took a gladiator contest, added a bit of Big Brother, and some of the tackier and grislier aspects of The Hunger Games and threw them all into this game concept. The build running at PAX was single player to show off the main gameplay, so I wasn’t able to get a look at audience participation. However, should the developers, husband and wife team Robot Loves Kitty, pull this one off, it is a game that places the rest of the community in the most important and most powerful role.
In accepting that your active part of playing the hero might be pretty brief, you also become part of the decision-making collective once defeated. This is the perfect time for a game like this since we’re used to, as a society, seeing “reality” TV everywhere. We’ve been through Twitch Plays Pokemon, Twitch Plays Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and other offshoots. We live in a world where game streaming is so important to the industry, Twitch was purchased for nearly a billion dollars. We’re used to watching and sharing our game time, inviting those on the other side to join us, interact, be present.