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Some Assembly Required: TUG interview reveals the true nature of Soylent Green

MJ Guthrie

Much ado has certainly been made lately about doing something "new and different" in games. Just take a look at all the options coming through Kickstarter lately; even more contenders have thrown their hats into the ring since our roundup last February. But in a large number of these cases, the new ideas are coming from developers within the gaming industry. So what would happen if a game were developed from outside the industry?

Enter TUG. Formally known as The Untitled Game, the game is the brainchild of Nerd Kingdom, a group hailing from the world of academia that happens to have intersected with gaming. Self-described as "a collaboration of video game developers, academic scientists, modders, and gamers," this group wants to move beyond just improving the way games are made "to show[ing] that such games can make us better as individuals and as a society."

I was able to catch up with one of the founders of Nerd Kingdom, Scientist and Researcher of Stuffs Peter Salinas, to talk about the game. We touched on everything from player design input to features (like player books and companions) to making an engine available for others to use. Oh, and of course, Soylent Green.

The Interview
Massively: Where did the idea for bringing together such an assorted, unconventional group for building a game first come from? Was there any specific event that sparked the idea? And what prompted taking it from idea to reality?

Peter Salinas, Founder: We just kinda blobbed together over time. Some of us were doing studies in games and economies, some of us were studying psychology or learning in games, some of us were writing fan fiction or making online comics... we kind of met dead center when we started to see that everything we did applied to making a game. Of course, we also happened to get people who actually worked on games too, so that helped a lot. We had people who studied human interaction, technology, competition, narrative, collaboration, learning... and not as a philosophy, but as a practice of over a thousand of years of people building on each other's work.

To us, this actually did not sound much different from making a game -- we were all huge gamers as well. This isn't to say we assumed it would be easy! And this approach has undeniably given rise to many of the more intricate systems we've planned for TUG, like the ever-popular "no guild" guild system, and we know it will ultimately make a world of difference in play for TUG.

TUG image
In the second Kickstarter update, you mention that you're "not attempting to create a scripted narrative or a pre-built world," but in update three you add that "mysterious shrines may lead you towards adventures and into more structured narrative arcs." Could you elaborate on how the narrative arcs will be structured, but not scripted? Would it be a case of triggering an event that plays out depending on player input, or do you have something different in mind?

Certainly some events may be triggered, but never anything that would take the player away from the natural flow of the world. A player may happen across a statue or shrine by day and see nothing, but in the hours of midnight, he or she may see dancing wisps moving away from the shrine and heading toward an area deep in a forest. This triggered event will not give any structured interaction or cue to follow but will lead players into discovering and interacting with things in different ways. These subtle events also will help give the players deeper insights into how the world works and show that many things can change over the course of a day, encouraging them to be more aware of their surroundings.

Some Assembly Required  TUG interview reveals the true nature of Soylent Green
You also state, "By excavating, studying, or deciphering these mysterious items, you'll be able to slowly start piecing together the backstory of the world of TUG... and all its secrets." With the focus on learning through exploration, will players have something akin to a lore book that records their personal discoveries for ease of future reference? If so, can they then record their own thoughts, impressions, and postulations in this journal as well?

Of course; players will be able to create their own books, and they can fill them with whatever they want. On an adventure server, which plays out to be a bit more friendly and non-combative, books are something personal that a player can use as a reference or a document to place in his or her own home libraries with other studies of animal or plant behaviors. But on survival server, when a player is struck down and his items are lost, it can be an untold story of another traveler by another player. This is only one form of playable tool for the players in TUG, and its applications are at the direction of the users. If we were to tell them how to use that book, it would be the end of what makes a sandbox so amazing.

TUG imageFrom comments about using the organic sounds of the world as the game "soundtrack" to not having floating quest icons and the like, you emphasize immersion within the game world. With such a focus on immersion, what type of UI elements will be on screen? Will there be any traditional UI elements that players are familiar with?

There certainly will be -- nearly all of them, actually -- but only when it's consistent with the logic of the world. We often get overwhelmed by UIs in games: maps, friend lists, crafting lists, job lists, guild chats... it goes on and on. And it all kind of just sits there floating, whether or not we use it, unless we download a bunch of UI mods that let us have more control over the interface.

In TUG, if someone wants a map, he should craft one. If someone wants a list of friends on a global chat system, she will have to create a device that will allow it. If players want a map with some kind of tracking system floating on their screen, they will need to be equipped with the gear to display the map but also a device that reads and tracks movement in the area they wanted to monitor. We want the players to really make a thoughtful decision on what elements should exist. If reading stats and damage were a tradeoff you had to make for a head slot, would that become a role for a new group member? There could be so many dynamics to groups beyond just blowing things up and healing, and this proves doubly important when the terrain itself is more than half of what needs to be conquered.

How will communication between players be conveyed -- via a chat box, only by overhead chat bubbles, or something else entirely?

We will work out more of these details with our alpha phase in July, but as we are seeing it now, chat/bubble will be first in, but only based on proximity -- definitely no global chat systems in place on the outset. But as with our other UI elements, longer range chat and communication could be handled in more creative ways. There are so many amazing stories that are told about the peril of even getting a message across enemy lines; we see this as an opportunity to make those tasks more important.

Some Assembly Required  TUG interview reveals the true nature of Soylent Green
When discussing inventory limitations, you make the statement, "In TUG, the design philosophy is to keep game logic as close to real life logic as possible." Does this extend to real life things such as eating, keeping hydrated, and resting? Will players be required to consume nourishment and rest else face consequences?

We certainly do not want to take away from the fun of it, and this is also another opportunity for us to work with our community to balance things out. We certainly want the survival aspect/servers to be very challenging and equally rewarding, but we also don't want to sacrifice fun for fidelity either. But this is why we are stepping out from behind the curtain so early. We don't want to guess at this; we want to get people involved and help us find out what really does work and find ways to segment and push at the same time.

The idea that companions remain active in the game (instead of magically stuffed in your pocket or pack) is a welcome idea for those who prefer a more logical realism, even if it interferes with convenience. But if companions can be off attending to some other tasks or guarding property, can another player who comes across a companion charm it to switch sides and join him or her instead?

For survival games, absolutely! But this is why relationships really matter in TUG and why we want people to think about what they do and why they do things. Were you a jerk to your neighbor? Well, he can be a jerk back. Is your home out in the open by a river? Maybe you should have built underground? Or maybe you should have done better to develop your relationship with your companion and she may have not been so easily charmed.

Some Assembly Required  TUG interview reveals the true nature of Soylent Green
In numerous places you mention that your design will be influenced by the input of players, including what order features are introduced into the different stages of the game. Adding new reward tiers is one form of this, but can you elaborate on any design features of the game that have been redefined, changed, or influenced by player input already?

The servers themselves are already being segmented based on discussions we have been having with the community. It was the initial intent for us to just go pure survival, but more and more people are not as open to that idea but still love the world we have created so far. So we found a compromise and a mutual opportunity. We will have the adventure servers for those who are not as comfortable with survival, and we can get a great comparison of what happens in those worlds with rules and without. That has actually become an incredibly exciting opportunity in itself.

Have you decided on a launch payment model? And what platforms will it be available on -- PC, consoles, mobile, or a mixture?

We have not talked about it too much yet, but if the players like what we are doing and want us to keep building more content, we may introduce some form of microtransactions. But if we do, we have already made some rules for ourselves to adhere to; some of us are big MMOers (myself included) and know what we don't like as players (not business people).

TUG imageItems sold will be aesthetic, or variation items, but never power items. We will never sell you keys to have you unlock boxes or items you have earned in-game from play. No items will be exclusive to microtransactions; we will make all purchasable items also available to be found or crafted in-game in one form or another. And the introduction of these elements would be seamlessly integrated with the lore and mythology of the world.

But most importantly, a portion of proceeds from each microtransaction will be donated to a charitable organization for a related real-world cause. For example, proceeds from sales of virtual pets will go toward humane organizations and animal rescues, while proceeds from in-game food items or ingredients would go towards organizations dedicated to feeding the impoverished. And purchasing virtual building materials may help build someone a real home. We want to be socially responsible about this stuff, and we want to help show that games can do a great deal of good for the world as well, beyond just positive impacts in families, learning, and society.

What happens if TUG doesn't reach its Kickstarter goal? Are there outside investors in the wings to keep the project going forward, or will it be tabled temporarily? Or will it be scrapped altogether?

Well, there certainly are investors in the wings, but we would like to avoid going that route. Science and data and behavior used for the wrong reasons makes for bad experiences; we certainly are not a "social" game in that way. We want to share our research with other developers, modders, and society as a whole -- not something that will likely be allowed if control goes out the window.

We certainly can still keep building; a point that a lot of people have missed with the campaign is that we wanted the support to be able to build all the modding tools and extend the development to the community earlier on. We also needed some artists' support to get assets to plug into many of the systems that we have already created. Either way, the game is getting done... we are far too stubborn to give up. Besides, as artists and academics, we are accustomed to living off of Cup o' Noodle anyway.

Some Assembly Required  TUG interview reveals the true nature of Soylent Green
What has surprised you most since revealing this project to the community? What are they not getting that you expected them to get, and what have they glommed onto that you didn't expect?

The most interesting thing we have seen is how much people take Kickstarter as a pre-order system, as opposed to a way to kickstart things. We are in an interesting state with TUG's current technology. Its systems with physics, dynamic shadows, and lighting are pretty exceptional if you keep in mind that this is a voxel engine built entirely in-house, created from the ground up with data and modularity in mind.

It's not commonly "sexy" to talk about, but this means that we can release this tech to the world and they can do all kinds of awesome with it -- not just play what we make but play whatever they want to make as well. And honestly, we really just did not expect the kind of support and enthusiasm we got. So many people who see these systems and mechanics as ambitious and crazy still root for us just on the fact that we are trying to do something different. Yet for all its intricacies, TUG is really just the game that we, the creators, have always wanted to play.

What IS Soylent Green?
Do you have any additional thoughts you'd like to share (or perhaps some super secret tidbit to reveal) to our readers?

SOYLENT GREEN IS MADE OUT OF PEOPLE! Really, TUG is about trying to show that real interactions with and response to a community can make something amazing. We aren't trying to be the "next Minecraft" or "next WoW"; we just want to be the group of gamers with extremely different backgrounds who made something cool and showed the value in everyone's perspective in creating a world.

We certainly appreciate and thank you for your time!

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

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