Sunday 23 May 2010

Free Online 4x: Neptune's Pride & Storytelling w/o Writing

Neptune's Pride is a free, web-based 4x game from Iron Helmet Games, a new startup from ex-Irrational man, Jay Kyburz. It plays like a simplified GalCiv, combined with Planetarion's MMO structure, and while it's not the most groundbreaking game, nor perhaps immediately apparent why it's appearing on a narrative-focused blog, it's certainly scratching an itch for me.

I've been waiting for a realtime diplomacy game that I can stretch out over weeks or months for ages. Chances are a hundred of you (okay, three of you) will be only too happy to point to something that's been around for ages that I've missed - and please do so, I'll be interested to check them out - but for me this is the game I hoped Defcon's office mode would be.

I like the idea of making one or two key decisions per day. I like the idea of waking up to find my fleet has arrived after a two day journey. On top of nailing my general need (and preference) for low time sink games, that focus on realtime really helps me to commit to the gameworld. Whenever a game forces me to sit through something it could quite easily have automated, I feel more as if I'm taking part in something real, something larger than myself. In Neptune's Pride I quite literally am. Eight teams battle it out, with the emphasis being on trade and underhand tactics, played out via the in-game messaging system.

The reason I'm bringing the game to your attention at all (apart from, you know, it's decent and free) is the way that diplomacy versus other players affects your personal story. I find procedural and co-op narrative experiences fascinating, but most of the games I've talked about or worked on so far are very traditional, scripted affairs. A game like Neptune's Pride manages to do away with linear story telling, and leaves the writing up to its players.

As you can see from the screen above, I'm currently pretending to be a newbie player and trying to pit the major powers against one another, while trading (carefully controlled) tech with both of them. Because I'm a git, but also because that's kinda the implicit goal of the game. Given that it's real people on the other end, I'm actually feeling a little guilty, and that's interesting. As narrative and/or game designers, by replacing AI with human beings we:

1. Render decision making 100% real because the player's treatment of other players can have any plausible consequence, within the game's internal logic
2. Integrate an additional seam of consequence: real-world impact on those other players

This reflects on previous discussion regarding decision making in games, but it's something Jason Rohrer beat us all to with the release of Sleep is Death last month (which, incidentally, is another whole blog post, but for now it's pay-what-you-like, so go get it). By replacing NPCs with real people, story tellers with other players and game designers with friends, Jason's pursuing a fascinating thread in narrative design that may yet put a lot of writers out of work.


  1. Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a multi-person diary narrative of a Neptune's Pride game.

    I love the realtime aspect, but the descent into the old Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia problem in the endgame put me off.

    Most 4X games boil down to "And my production was 0.1% more efficient, so I won! Eventually!", so at least it avoids that.

  2. Ah, thanks for the link. Not entirely sure I've got the time for 20,000 words' worth, but part one was an interesting read.

  3. Tom - playing Neptune's Pride at the moment and I don't feel like it's a low time sink game. Once everyone starts getting speed upgrades, then logins have to be more frequent and stuff can happen halfway around the world when you're asleep.

    I also feel generally guilty in the sense that I feel like I'm not 100% honest with anyone in the game, and that feels underhand. Probably will be my undoing too =)