Humanity Is Doomed: Steam's Most Depressing Game
Posted on Thursday, August 4 @ 19:13:30 PST by Sebastian_MossThe end is nigh: It's becoming increasingly hard to deny that fuel resources are running low, global temperatures are rising, and population growth is spiraling out of control, and little is being done to stop our slow march to oblivion. But can a game educate people about the dangers of rapid climate change? Can it help predict what will happen over the next 200 years? And most importantly, can it still be fun?
Fate of the World tries to do all that, and while the game's long-term side effects still remain to be seen, it sure is a fun title - albeit a sobering one. To learn about the game, its scientific basis, plans for an upcoming iPad version and of course, the end of the world, we talked to Ian Roberts, the creative director at Red Redemption at the Develop Conference.
I am Ian Roberts creative director at Red Redemption. We are an indie games company based in Oxford. We’ve recently released our first PC title called Fate of the World. It’s a game about climate change, sustainability, fuel resources, and the future of our civilization.
So, the game is aimed at the core market then?
Yeah, it’s aimed at core strategy players and it really appeals to players who like an intellectual challenge, who like a difficult strategy game. It’s designed to encapsulate the difficulty of the global political scene, to do with climate change and the economy. So, it’s really aimed at the adult market.
How much freedom of choice are you given?
There is quite a lot of choice, it’s mostly mission-based, so depending on which mission you choose, you’ll be judged on the outcome. There is an overt destroy-the-world scenario called Dr. Apocalypse, but of course there [are] more save-the-world scenarios. But as you soon find out, saving the world is not a black-and-white, you-do-or-don’t situation. It’s like you sort of save the world, or you save the world after 50 years of absolute hell, or at the cost of this, that or the other. So, it’s a sandbox-y open game where the idea is to explore a strategy: "I think, if I focus on this it could give me a good outcome, and so on."
Is there a randomized luck element like in reality?
There is a little bit of luck, the climate system has a little bit of a chaotic element about it. But what we’ve done is that the temperature change in the game is based off of a peer-reviewed climate model that scientists contributed to the game. We feel that the results of our missions are as close as we’d expect them to be based on current research, we think that the growth of consumption is what economists expect the economy to do, how China is going to become a big global power and all of these things.
But what will happen is that every time you play a card you are changing how things go, and with that change there is an increase or a decrease in risk, and that will change the probabilities and load the deck in different ways. So, you can try and avoid what would be likely outcomes, like an economic collapse when we run out of oil, or an environmental collapse. So, there is part luck and partly just forcing an outcome of the game. The game is designed to be played many times, and for you to go back many times and revise the strategy to lead the ship away from the iceberg.
How important do you think it is to be politically and scientifically accurate?
I felt that it was vital to what we were doing, as we weren’t just making a fantasy game. We were making something that gave you an idea of the complexity, and we wanted it to have a foundation of accuracy based on as much factual data as we could get our hands on. Now what we discovered during the development of our game was that that made our game very difficult, and that’s because the problem is very difficult, so we just ran with that.
The problem is really pernicious, it has all this complexity, so we made the interface into very simple, card-based choices—you can understand the difference between picking a card that switches the country over to electric-based transport, or choosing a completely different card. But the combination of doing that here, and another combination in another region and so on, and so on, that’s where the depth comes through. We wanted the choices to be like the things that people are talking about, and we found that players are responding very, very strongly to that: Players [come] in interested in a strategy game, but [soon] they are talking on the forums about how to beat the game. They say stuff like "I can’t ban oil until I find a synthetic feed stock to run my agriculture off when I do it" and that’s a gameplay thing, but it’s actually a real thing in this world—we can’t stop using oil cause we need it for agricultural yield.
So, just by learning how to beat the game, they get a literacy of the subject, and we see that they start linking to news articles in the forum, things that they would never look at before—there’s been a spoiling of the water table in Alaska because they are digging for tar sands. So, it’s like I’d have never considered this a problem, but I know that when it happens in the game, it’s a signifier of worse things to come. It’s been really good at just getting people interested in the subject, and we thought it was a very meaty subject for strategy, and we think that gamers are very good at solving intellectual problems. We give them a very hard challenge and they dive at it and discuss good strategies, they have their opinions about what works and what doesn’t, and it’s pretty satisfying.
Was teaching people about environmental issues your aim, or a welcome side effect?
It’s intentional in a sense. We didn’t want to be preachy about it. We also didn’t want to have it implicit in our design, to have any strategies that would always win. We didn’t think that was appropriate or realistic—we just wanted to make a very in-depth, intellectual strategy game. It just happens that the learning you get in the game is something that you can take away. Our company is built on the idea that you can make games that will have something in them that after playing them will have some relevance to your life.
It doesn’t have to be climate change, or about sustainability. The next game we make could be a game that’s actually about—I don’t know—mental health, or about social class, or racism, something that ultimately, as a result of playing a really good game, it may be an RPG, a point-and-click game or a puzzler, but it’s about the experience telling you something about what’s going on in the world, rather than a re-skinning of The Sims to be My Eco Sims or something like that.
Are there any plans to support more languages?
We’re going to be doing some proper paid-for localization of the game, but our players are actually translating the game. I think the interesting thing is how different people from different countries are actually playing the game. We’ve had our game being used as supplementary material to teaching in Singapore, with them using, alongside, sustainability and climate change models. We didn’t really design it for schools—it doesn’t fit into a lesson plan in 25 minutes—but it is a very good representation of the problem and can be used as educational material.
Are you finding that a lot of the players are nationalistic?
Well, what they find is that they’ll naturally choose things that have a bias to what they know and understand. What we find is that players are actually shocked when they think back over the choices that they made, because in the game you spend your time and your money wherever you prefer, and players will prefer to do things in certain areas, and it’s the things that they don’t do that are quite revealing. People can be quite happy to put a lot of money to ensure that North America’s and Europe’s economies are stable, but are not willing to spend the same amount or less money on stability in North Africa or welfare programs in India—and it makes them think: "Am I doing this right?" So it, accidentally, challenges their assumptions just because of how you reflect on the game and how it promotes a discussion of how you did. You start thinking about other points of view on the subject.
There are some darker moves you can do in the game. Were there any internal discussions about how far you could go?
We wanted to give the players access to things that are doable but not necessarily things that you’d be able to do easily or that you’d naturally want to do. We wanted to give covert strategies and things that are actually just evil, partly because we wanted to have players explore the idea that "If I did not value certain parts of the world and they were causing me problems, what would I do considering I don’t value them?" And that might be doing sterilization projects or doing gene plagues, doing terrible things in order to serve your own ends. We wanted that as an option, the game is a ‘What if?’ game and everything is connected.
Was there a worry, though, that there might be some controversy? Fox News or the Daily Mail spinning it into a sterilization-based video game?
Oh, well, yeah… effectively, there’s always going to be people who respond to a game negatively. Any time we get promotion or any advertising, we get people on the forums saying this is all rubbish, this is all pseudo-science or that it’s all fake. But we are like, "Look, it’s all based on peer-reviewed science, it is what it is. If you don’t believe in climate change, then you can go off and do your thing." Our proposition is that if it is happening (which scientists have said is very likely), then our game is based on that.
But we do have alternate reality missions where you get to change things you don’t believe in. In one mission you can choose not to believe in anthropogenic global warming, and we turn off the connection between carbon in the atmosphere and temperature change, so in that mission, there won’t be any global warming. But there will still be a shortage of fossil fuels and the game is still not easy, cause you have to cope with those things. The other side is a mission where you have abundant fossil fuels, but you still have climate change. So we turn off one of the issues, but we don’t let you say that both are lies at the same time. But you can play the game with either of those missions, one’s called Cornucopia and the other’s called Denial, and it’s still not easy.
The global situation is very difficult, we’re growing at a massive rate and many regions need to improve their standard of living, and that has consequences. There is different ways of dealing with that, so we knew there would be an implicit amount of controversy to that, but we ultimately wanted to be quite open to our approach about it, and also allow people to see it as a sandbox. There are plenty of games based around fantasy scenarios, so if you really don’t believe it, you can see it as another fantasy game.
Are you planning any more modes via DLC?
Yeah, at the moment one of the factors that we’re missing is migration, so we’re currently working on DLC that has migration and cards and mechanics that show that the outcome of climate change will not just cause agricultural loss and sickness and things like that, but also displacement of people. We think that will bring an interesting component to the gameplau—if you have a very isolationist strategy where you’re doing things like having North America and Europe being very rich and wealthy and given all the technologies, then you’ll have all kinds of problems from populations flooding in from North Africa, etc. So that’s what we’re working on right now, and we’re hoping to release that next month.
Was your launch successful?
Yeah, we’ve done pretty well, we’ve got a lot of players that really like the game. We’ve gained pretty good visibility in both the traditional press and on Steam. We think it can go a bit further, so what we’re doing is bringing it to the Mac, we think that’s a good fit. We’re also hoping to get an iPad app out eventually, so we’re going to try to see if we can take this to more players. Every time people find out a little bit about the game, we do see clear increases in sales and good responses from the players who bought it, and there’s a lot of gratitude for us having tried something different. I think PC gaming in particular has space for all kinds of games, all kinds of subjects and gamers are willing to try things that intellectually challenge them and just want to be part of that.
When you look at iPad versions of Civilization and Sim City, they are dumbed down for a broader audience. Where does this leave the Fate of the World iPad edition?
They are very dumbed down. I think we will definitely have to think about what that would mean for our game with it being so in-depth. But what I find is that what could work is that our game operates quite heavily on the fact that you can play it for a bit and then go and have a think about what to do next. In a sense, it’s an organic puzzle game in which you have made some choices, and you’ll think, "If I do this here and this there, will it work?" So, you’re solving the game while you’re away from it, and I think that would work really well for mobile platforms like the iPad. I don’t necessarily want to dumb it down, but I know the market is very attention-deficit-disorder kind of gaming, but doesn’t mean there can’t be more thoughtful games, and something that has a more intellectual challenge about it. That’s a design thing we have to address.
And when you look at the user reviews of the games, there are a lot of complaints about how they have been dumbed down.
That’s right, and ultimately we have a great deal of respect for players of our games and we feel that they like being respected. We did a beta of the game that was on Steam and what we found was that when we gave a little bit of information about the game, players were asking for more and more to try and understand how things connect. So we showed them, and now allow people to really dig down into the data to see what’s going on, and they really responded well to that.
That’s partly because they are hardcore gamers and partly because they want to get good at it. Knowledge is power in the game and knowledge allows you to refine your strategies. You can look at graphs and see which attempts and strategies worked, and which didn’t. And it’s not to say that people who have iPads are dumb—where does that come from? In fact, people who have iPads are likely to be well-educated media professionals, and they’re up for a challenge as much as anybody else. So let’s see if it works.
You’re not interested in targeting ‘Mum gamers' then?
Not necessarily the mums yet, partly because we don’t want to misrepresent the subject. There are plenty of games that target the mums.
No casual Facebook game then?
Something like that, that’s more social, would have to have a social component implicit in the gameplay. I think that would be a different sort of game, but you can definitely see how you would do social elements to a game about sustainability, about ecological awareness. But I don’t think it’s this game, it would have to be a game that was based on the knowledge that we’ve gained, but built with social in mind, effectively making the game a little bit more multiplayer
It’d be interesting if all you could do was affect China, and someone else could only affect Latin America, and you may or may not be happy with the results with one of your friend’s doings. So you could imagine a game where players are playing off of each other and are helping each other with technological sharing, with foreign aid and things like that. You could imagine a social game like that, but it’s not the game that we built, it would need a re-design.
Have you thought about your pricing plans for iPad – everyone is going freemium, with players having to pay to get more?
We’re not sure with that, we’re still in early scoping for the iPad. What we’re hoping is to get a relationship with a publisher who’d be better able to inform us and perhaps become part of sets of other games that are doing things in this space. If we were to do freemium, it could be done in terms of unlocking additional missions, unlocking additional decks—you could see how it could work. But we’re still in the early days of trying to work out the best positioning for our product—but, I guess, so is the industry.
So is the iPad version a couple of years off then?
We think that we could get it out next year with what we know and what we can do, and what we want is that to be a project that we work on while we do spec-ing and scoping work for our next PC title.
Can you talk about your PC title?
I can’t talk about it much now, but I can say we’re not just interested in strategy games, we’re not just interested in climate change. We’re just interested in good gameplay that has something you can take away with it. We also want to do more with the audience that has been so accepting of us, which is the indie Steam audience, and we feel we understand that audience quite well. So there’s a lot we can do to make a game for them but that also has this reward after play. We feel there’s room for that, so it will likely be in that space.
How long did you spend developing the original game?
It was a 2-year project. A lot of that time was spent on the research and on building the models and refining and finding the gameplay. It’s a really non-obvious problem in how you would attack it in terms of we’re not really copying anything else, sure there were mechanics that we were influenced by, but in terms of the underlying system of how things relate and react, there isn’t really anything like this. We built a game on top of a crystal ball, so it took a long time to understand how that would fully operate and how that would be worked into good gameplay. So it was a pretty tight 2-year project for something that innovative. And we’re happy with what we’ve got.
There are some companies trying to develop super computers to do a similar, but more complicated, version of world simulation. Have you been looking into that sort of thing?
We looked into those; what we ultimately wanted to do was pick a simulation that some scientists or economists had already done and use it as the backbone of our game. But what we found was that the models were either too specifically focused, or they just didn’t have enough of the relationships that we needed. So you’d have something that was just about the climate, just about economics, or just about resources, but in our game, everything has to connect to everything else. If you have a crashing economy, what effect does that have on birth rate? And then the number of people around in future generations will also have a significant effect on everything else that is going on, in terms of how much food you need, etc.
So we had to build a lot of things ourselves, and we were worried that we would be making assumptions that were too dumbed down. But when we talked to a lot of places, they had made very similar assumptions, and it’s not that different to what other people are doing. In terms of the super-computer stuff, the reason you have super-computers trying to solve these things is that they are doing things like agent-based modeling, and they’re just trying to brute-force things.
We don’t need that at all, we’ve got the best agent-based modeling there is— we’ve got players, and they brake shit, and they find the exploits, they see what is good and what is bad. In a sense, I wish more things were discovered with gaming because players are really good at working this stuff out. I think our game is a real eye-opener if any policy maker were to dive into it, or even talk to one of our players—they would be able to have a big argument over whether they were right or wrong about the choices that they are making. They get an understanding of the system and they exploit that, that’s what gamers do.
Did you find the research a bit depressing?
Yeah, it is a bit depressing. We make it a little harder for the player as we start in 2020, but unfortunately, every time we look at where things are going, our beginnings in 2020 look like what’s going to happen. We start with the assumption that we [humanity] don’t really do anything about climate change in the next decade, and unfortunately that’s the way things are going. The game being really hard is eye-opening, because that means world leaders are going to have a really hard time with it.
One of the things we found recently that made things a bit more depressing was that the IEA published some new data—and we use a lot of their data to make the starting situation and do the projections. And as an experiment we decided to put the new numbers in, and unfortunately, our game—which is very difficult—is optimistic by about 7% in terms of emissions and of course 7% more resources being used. That was pretty grim. In terms of our game that’s seeing a fossil fuel crash either 5 or 10 years earlier, or another half a degree of warming in the mid-to-late game, and that’s actually significant in terms of the balance of the game. When I say "the balance of the game", I mean in terms of the implications that has on our future, so it’s very sobering.
I think the value of what we’ve done is that it changes the conversation from regional issues or short-term-ist debates and you get to see the long-term global perspective of things: How this thing over here doesn’t matter, and this thing really does. We find our players end up talking about our game at a pretty high level, they elevate the subject and hopefully that will have a knock-on effect, so it might influence change. Who knows?
Because there might no longer be humanity after 2200 and the fact that the further you get away from now, the harder it is to predict, where does that leave you for sequels?
I think if we were going to a follow-up to Fate of the World, then I think we would look at either... it’s difficult to visualize, but if you think about Civilization, it’s been a refinement of frankly the same game over 5 versions, with how they tell the story and with the gameplay. We’d want our game to along the same lines, to give you better access and control and means to make changes in ways in addition to card-based gameplay, and possible refinements on the models and things. It would have to cover the same period because that’s what is interesting—the fact that we’re not doing Alpha Centuri, we’re not doing a Sci Fi game, we’re doing a game about possible outcomes.
We might bring predictions of when we’ll get smart grids or better turbines or nano-medicines or whatever, and that would change the gameplay hugely. I can see a lot of scope there for just a better understanding of what’s going on, I think we’ve just scratched the surface of what we can do.
You said your next game is different but appeals to the same fans. What do you mean?
It’ll appeal to this growing support of the indie scene. I see us as a curious, different part of the PC indie gaming crowd, but one that’s seeing the player base as being able to be intelligent about their choices not just in game, but in the games they choose. I think some of our games would work very well in this space, so while it’s not necessarily a strategy game, it would really be about doing what’s best about indie game development, which is doing something different.
There are a lot of indie games out there that are either a refinement of an existing genre, or they’re experimenting with a particular mechanic. With us, it’s about broadening the genres that exist to include things that give relevance and meaning. So what we’ve done with this game is to broaden strategy games with something about the current day world. We might do a similar kind of broadening to the survival horror genre, or a broadening of a tower defense game, or something to have the gameplay bring out something which is meaningful. That’s kind of what we want to do as a studio, to do that broadening of what we understand games to do.
So rather than bringing in brand new mechanics and innovations in puzzles—something about a puzzle that works entirely backwards and you have to unpuzzle it, or whatever—it’s not about that, it’s about seeing if we can do more with the genre and having a bit more respect for the player’s intelligence.
And finally, which is your favorite play style?
It’s actually to crash economies early—it’s not the same play style as some of my co-workers do, but I like the fossil fuels we have at the moment to last longer. And the way I do that is by causing small economic crashes throughout the beginning and the middle of this century, so that by the time that we have better renewable technologies, better solutions to fossil fuels that we depend on, it makes the transition easier. So, moving everything becomes easier, moving transport off of oil, moving energy production away from coal and gas all becomes easier. And that happens because we haven’t gone and consumed everything, we’ve just hurt ourselves a little bit – and it doesn’t take much damage in the developed world to make a big difference.
That’s the strategy I play, and it means that we don’t have as many problems with agricultural yield because we’re running out of oil, or industrial production because we’re running out of coal, because we’ve had the time to safely transition away, rather than letting the world crazily consume everything as if it’s their last meal. That’s my particular approach, but it’s a pretty horrible 50–60 first years of the game, so I don’t really want the world to actually go like that, because that would be quite grim. But the other approaches are also very risky, like a long-term technological play—they all have different risks. There is no easy win in the game.
Do you have any data as to how many people win the game?
We do. Largely, we have our players fall into a couple of categories: There are players who do or players who don’t beat our fuel crisis mission. Our fuel crisis mission is our kind of middle mission where you’ve just got to get into the next century. It’s very difficult because you’ve got the fuel shortage part of the problem, and that’s really, really hard to deal with. Once players get over that, they will start dealing with the long-term ecological problems in the longer games. So our players largely fall into those who find the century coming up to be too difficult, or those who find the century that follows to be too difficult. But we do find that the players who do win are still seeking better win strategies that make things get better results for them.
Be sure to check out Fate of the World on Steam!
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