Posts Tagged ‘ social gaming

Neptune's Confusion

Thank merciful God, our Neptune’s Pride death-struggle has finally reached its end. I logged out for the last time yesterday afternoon, conceding my inevitable defeat to the powerhouse duo of Nick Breckon and Chris Remo. I finished a solid third in the game, and maintained my territorial integrity far longer than anyone initially thought possible.

There is so much potential in a game like this. But it goes unrealized. Problems bedevil this design, not least of which is the fact that it becomes increasingly burdensome to play. The technology progression only serves to make the game happen faster, as ships travel through space more quickly thanks to upgrades. Battles also become deadlier, because the ships are better armed. So the stakes get higher and the game moves faster, which means you have to spend even more time watching it, despite the fact that it is not appreciably more interesting.

The other problem comes from how players interact with the game. With most boardgames or email strategy games, everyone is on roughly equal footing. But with a persistent, synchronous strategy game, the game is skewed by the fact that people are trying to fit this game into everyday life. We had relatively strong players vanish from the game just because they took the weekend off. Neptune’s Pride, so dependent on shifting alliances and power-balancing, can get thrown into chaos because someone visited some friends out of town.

So here’s how my game went:

I started strong, and diplomatically isolated two of my neighbors. However, in honoring my agreements with an ally, I ended up doing the lion’s share of the fighting in a two-front war. I saw that the game rewarded being a vulture. There is no way to fight a war without getting torn to shreds, especially since the game heavily favors the defender. But a third-party joining a war late will clean up. At the end of a grueling two-front war, I had expanded my holdings only very modestly.

Here, and for the only time in the game, I made a significant mistake. I took a weekend to watch how the game developed, and did not attack my weaker neighbors.

However, the game was already being lost across the map. For some reason, nobody else seemed to realize that Remo and Breckon were collaborating. Their neighbors sat paralyzed while they were picked off one by one. Bryan Mark saw the trouble early, but none of his neighbors intervened against Remo or Breckon when he was under attack. By the time they started to realize that Remo and Breckon were a major problem, they were too weak to do anything. They waited, even though time was against them.

Then Megill seemed to lose interest in the game. As Wasteland and I formed an alliance to head off Breckon’s expansion in the north, Megill stripped his empire of ships and hurled them at Breckon. Unfortunately, this eliminated him as a balancing force. At that point, the game was over. It would go on for another week and a half, but it was over at that moment. If Megill, Wasteland, and I had held a line against Remo and Breckon, we might have stood them off. But with Megill’s collapse, Remo doubled in power. The rest of the game was a slow delaying action as I fell back to my core star systems.

So what went wrong? I say two things, neither of which could be foreseen. First, Megill giving up on the game. At the time he cashed out, he was running a solid third in the game. He was in deep trouble, sharing a border with Breckon and Remo, but he might have held out with alliances. With his departure, the entire balance of the game (which had existed from Day 1) was destroyed.

Second, Remo was never really playing to win, and I’m not sure Neptune’s Pride really works if people are not aiming for victory. Breckon and Remo were able to win because they could trust one another and collaborate on their strategy. On my half of the map, nobody could trust anybody that far. The whole game is founded on reciprocal paranoia. I think I could have trusted Justin Keverne far more than I ever did, but our border made that impossible. He was only ever a 12-hour jump away from my most crucial systems, so I had to watch him. Megill was surrounded by potential betrayers,  but was also powerful enough to crush some of his neighbors. Paralysis set in.

Remo and Breckon were freed from that system, which meant they were basically free from the game’s constraints. That gave them a huge advantage that nobody else really enjoyed, and that was ultimately what decided the game.

However, I’m not sure when they decided that Breckon would win and Remo would settle for second. Remo mentioned that he thought he could have confronted Breckon, but he was going on vacation and also did not want to deal with having to backstab a personal friend. Real-life concerns, once again, played a huge role in the game’s outcome.

Remo also argued that the game rewards second and so that is a viable goal, but I’m not really sure about that. I think the rewards for finishing second or third are consolation prizes for people who go the distance, but I suppose that is up to the player. But games like this depend on everyone sharing an understanding of what the object of the game is.

Or do they? Neptune’s Pride is an odd game. It is designed so that real-life can easily interfere with it, so perhaps Remo is correct. The “magic circle” is porous from the start, and that contributes to the game’s unpredictability. On the other hand, that does not seem like a recipe for good strategy gaming, which is about making plans and choices within a well-defined system.

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.