PAX East 2014: Upsilon Circuit is an MMO like no other

This is the first time that a rough pre-alpha build has excited me so deeply.

A lot of what I see in the MMO industry is fairly predictable. That's not an insult; it's just that most of the new games you see are either a result of elegant mechanics solving a problem that's always been there or a new take on an old system, and that's OK. There's nothing wrong with taking old favorites and refining them. But then I see something like Upsilon Circuit and I wind up being completely blown away because the very idea is a fundamental rewriting of how we understand MMOs.

Upsilon Circuit is a new game currently in very early development from indie studio Robot Loves Kitty (of Legend of Dungeon fame), and when I say early, I do mean early. The animations are rough, the build is very much in a proof-of-concept stage rather than a fully playable state, and none of that matters. The game is the love child of Twitch Plays Pokémon, the Hunger Games, and Diablo III, a game that not only encourages streaming but demands it while interacting with the audience

Introducing REAGON.

Here's the concept in a nutshell: Upsilon Circuit itself is a sort of game show, with contestants running through a maze full of deadly monsters, traps, and so forth. (The whole thing is overseen by a digital headshot somewhere between Max Headroom and Ronald Reagan, which seems oddly apropos.) It plays somewhat akin to a roguelike, with players all moving through the same dungeon and trying to acquire more treasure than anyone else. Standard stuff, really.

The player capacity is... eight. Not eight people per server, but eight people, period. This doesn't sound like much of an MMO until you realize that taking part in the act of running the dungeon is only half of the game experience.

See, while you're running the dungeon, everything you do is being automatically streamed. Always. And you need the audience to keep watching and discussing what you're doing because a player's only control is over what he does, where he moves, what he attacks, and so forth. There's no interface to learn new skills and no way to equip items. All of that is in the hands of the audience.

Audience members won't be taking part in the actual running, but they will be the ones in charge of spending skill points and assigning equipment. This will mean a necessary back-and-forth between the player and the audience members, as both groups have to work together for any advancement. A player can't make use of new skills she doesn't know she has, and the audience can't make the player do anything without chatting. Everything becomes a collaborative effort between player and spectator, two sides working together to try to clear the dungeon and emerge victorious.

The result is a game that doesn't just embrace the idea of permadeath but requires it. When players finally drop, they're gone for good, and that doesn't just mean that the character is gone: That particular player will need to take a seat as an audience member from that point on, while a random member of the audience will be pulled in to start playing in his stead. It's as permanent as death in a video game can possibly be.

Obviously, a game like this requires a free-to-play business model; after all, it's very possible to take part in the whole thing without ever actually playing the game. Audience members will be encouraged to invest a bit more by purchasing boost items for their favorite participants -- or, if they'd prefer, purchasing traps and pitfalls. You could help support your favorite runner with a healing potion, then drop a spike trap in front of your least favorite participant to put him in just a little more danger.

Perhaps you can find what you're looking for on the other side of the desert of the real.

The proof-of-concept build that I briefly played was obviously very rough, but it still controlled nicely and crisply. It also showed a little bit of the monster AI, which is robust. Wounded monsters will attempt to flee, and those who do so successfully may seek revenge later. Some creatures are skittish when alone but aggressive in groups, while others are aggressive toward other monsters, not just toward the players. That's all meant to help foster strategy. Maybe one player will train a group of monsters onto another player, maybe they'll work together, or maybe a player can just take advantage of inter-monster enmity to avoid having to fight something that's just too powerful to face.

Right now, the idea is to have the game running for limited times during the day with an overall limited engagement. The whole project might run for a year or so, with more of the game's story and setting revealed as the months wear on. Once it's over, well, it's over. This is always going to be an experience that's about a limited thing, not a game that you can just pop in and play at any moment.

It's coming out at the perfect time, too. We're seeing an escalating sense of interaction between players and spectators with game experiences like Twitch Plays Pokémon achieving mass popularity. (The Robot Loves Kitty devs weren't inspired by that particular spectacle; Upsilon Circuit was already in development at that point.) It serves as an interesting statement on the popularity of streaming games, on the nature of audience participation, and on the definition of what it means to play a game.

Perhaps most importantly, it stretches the definition of what an MMO can be. MMOs are almost by nature symmetrical experiences for all players, but here we have a game in which one group of players is responsible for all the actual play and the other is entirely responsible for facilitating that. Neither group has full control. Doing anything requires the cooperation on both sides in a way that no game before this has tried.

Will it all work perfectly? We don't know yet. But just the idea is an amazing one.

Massively was on the ground in Boston during the weekend of April 11th to 13th, bringing you all the best news from PAX East 2014. Whether you're dying to know more about WildStar, Landmark, or any MMO in between, we had it covered!