Where the Fun Never Stops

Last week, I joined some fellow bloggers and writers for a game of Neptune’s Pride. This was an impulsive decision on my part, and one whose ramifications I did not immediately understand. Now it’s several days later, and I find myself thinking about this game with almost every spare moment. God forbid I actually get involved with another game, a book, or talking to people, because I will be kicking myself when I realize I’ve neglected our game for almost two hours.

Whoops, I just checked on it again. I should close that tab.

Neptune’s Pride is a browser-based, continuous-time strategy game that uses very stripped-down 4X mechanics. The game I’m playing involves eleven other people across several time zones. Like Diplomacy, nothing is randomized. The strategy is all in the planning, the maneuvering, and the interactions with other players. You research new technologies that let your ships move faster, jump farther, see farther, and hit harder. But for the most part, you negotiate with other players and try to give yourself guarantees while preying on others and preparing to one day betray your erstwhile friends. Bear in mind, they are all doing the same thing.

I’ve been enjoying myself immensely, not least because if gives me a chance to play a game with friends I know from other sites and comment threads. Besides which, it’s actually a lot of fun hammering out defense agreements, building in escape-clauses, and cutting trade deals. But it does very little to assuage my misgivings about social gaming. In fact, it has kind of confirmed a lot of my fears.

The problem comes down to this: one of Neptune’s Pride’s best and worst elements is its synchronicity. Much of the tension and excitement in the game comes from the fact that something is always happening. There are no turns; instead, everything unfolds slowly over several hours. Even a short-range jump from one star system to another can take three or four hours. A larger movement across your empire might take two days.  Chris Remo described it as, “heart-pounding intensity in extreme slow motion. Fleets end up on accidental but inexorable courses for war–in 23 hours.”

The downside is that if you are really invested in trying to win, you are always playing it. Once things begin to happen (and your ships get faster as the game progresses, increasing the tempo), you start having to monitor more and more areas. A battle might be happening at 7 in the morning, and another fleet is arriving at a destination at 9:15, and you need to figure out what to do with it next, because time is usually crucial. At various points throughout the day, you have to confer with rivals and allies. An enemy fleet might appear on the edge of sensor range, newly arrived at an enemy world. From 10:15 to 10:45, you are watcing it to see where it goes. You can’t be sure until it actually enters a jump, at which point it can’t change its destination.

Around noon, you get your funds and a flurry of deal-making and investment takes place. Then it’s time for more order, and a new world will fall into your hands at 2 PM. On and on it goes, an entire day full of events to track and unending guesswork.

Like I said, I’m having a great time, but I can’t imagine playing this again for awhile. More accurately, I would love to play another game soon, but I can’t afford to have this game in my life that much. I could always put less time and attention into it, but time and attention are how you get a competitive edge in this game. That makes for a compelling and even mesmerizing experience, but not a healthy one.

  1. Oh man, I wish I had the willpower to play a game like that. This type of “social gaming” is interesting, especially in a 4x setting. But what about sleeping hours? People always forget sleeping hours. And with a game system that one needs to constantly monitor, even when there are long stretches of not actually doing anything, those nighttime hours really start to become a drag where you know you should be doing something, but you’re not. I’m almost wishing something like this would come out on the iPhone or iPad. I’ve been playing Chess with Friends, move by move with push notices. Non obtrusive, very play at your pace. I imagine a gaming system such as the one you describe Rob would work well in that setting. Notifications when your fleet reach places, for research, etc. All toggleable, of course, but never the less, having 10 minutes while waiting in line to check on your fleets would be a game I would relish.

    • The problem is that notifications wouldn’t really alleviate anything, because you need to know too much. Where are the other guys’ ships headed? What has everyone upgraded? Plus, since timing matters, you still have to babysit it. It’s not enough to know what happened. Sometimes you need to know immediately. The game creates way too many pressures. I like it, but I look forward to when it’s over. Like a huge boardgame, it’s something you can only play once in a great while, when you and a bunch of friends are ready to really commit to it.

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