Dra­matic in­ten­tions

How Tribe Stu­dios’ Dra­m­agame seeks to re­de­fine so­cial play

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The term ‘role­play­ing game’, although tech­ni­cally ap­pli­ca­ble to almost any game in which you em­body a character, has taken on very spe­cific con­no­ta­tions. As a genre, it emerged from the cre­ative fan­tasies of table­top games and early MUDs, but while it and the sub­gen­res it has in­spired have fo­cused on com­bat, lev­el­ling, ex­plo­ration and loot, the hu­man in­ter­ac­tion be­tween those early pen-and-pa­per play­ers has been side­lined in favour of com­par­a­tively rigid sto­ry­lines. Tribe Stu­dios wants to change that, and to this end has cre­ated a plat­form called Dra­m­agame. Its am­bi­tions for the tech are grand, too, the company aim­ing for noth­ing less than in­sti­gat­ing a new genre.

“The tech plat­form is es­sen­tially the ba­sis for be­ing able to cre­ate a whole new me­dia for­mat and ex­tend­ing the sphere of games by another third,” Tribe Stu­dios co-founder Ville-Kalle Ar­po­nen tells us at Paris’s Game Con­nec­tion. “The num­ber of pos­si­bil­i­ties in this area opened by us­ing so­cial skills as a chal­lenge is im­mense.”

Dra­m­agame, then, refers to both the tech pow­er­ing Tribe Stu­dios’ games and what it sees as a new style of gaming that fo­cuses on role­play­ing in the lit­eral sense. Vel­vet Sun­down, Tribe’s first proof of con­cept, launched on Steam ear­lier this year after four years of de­vel­op­ment and drops be­tween four and 11 play­ers with dif­fer­ent goals onto a lux­ury boat in the mid­dle of the ocean. You might have to weed out a thief, per­haps, or work as a spy to re­cover vi­tal in­tel from a ri­val cor­po­ra­tion. But rather than click through mul­ti­ple-choice di­a­logue trees, you’re free to talk about, well, any­thing.

“If you look at games, they’re nor­mally in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenges like puz­zles, or they are about re­ac­tion speed and ac­cu­racy,” says Tribe co-founder Elina Ar­po­nen. “But in Vel­vet Sun­down, and in our fu­ture games, it’s a so­cial chal­lenge, where the in­ter­ac­tions and dis­cus­sions be­tween the player char­ac­ters ac­tu­ally af­fect the sto­ry­line. So it’s kind of a truly mul­ti­player non­lin­ear story.”

Of course, this kind of free­dom risks abuse from the less-com­mit­ted breed of on­line player, but this is where Tribe’s in­ter­est­ing twist on free-to-play helps: rather than pay for con­tent or mis­sions, you pay to play with other pay­ing play­ers, thereby re­duc­ing the risk of en­coun­ter­ing game-ru­in­ing trolls. But Ville-Kalle isn’t en­tirely op­posed to a lit­tle mis­chief.

“It’s funny – a cer­tain amount of trolling is, in a way, de­sir­able,” he ex­plains. “If you go in there and be a real ici­cle up oth­ers’ bums, then it prob­a­bly won’t be very fun. But if you have a sort of re­laxed, slightly trolling at­mos­phere, then it will prob­a­bly be fun and you’ll prob­a­bly be achiev­ing your goals in a fun way.”

Dur­ing one ses­sion we played, we were cast as a spy dis­guised as one of the boat’s staff. One of our per­sonal goals was to dis­creetly re­cover a red thong we’d misplaced – a tad less im­por­tant than the cor­po­rate es­pi­onage we were tasked with, but one that led to some amus­ing (and sus­pi­cious-look­ing) con­ver­sa­tions nonethe­less. Your abil­ity to charm and ne­go­ti­ate are key to suc­cess in Vel­vet Sun­down. While you have set goals, how you go about achiev­ing them, and how you de­cide to ma­nip­u­late other play­ers, is en­tirely up to you.

“It’s a so­cial chal­lenge, where the in­ter­ac­tions and dis­cus­sions ac­tu­ally af­fect the sto­ry­line”

“Es­sen­tially, our story me­chan­ics are able to cre­ate bor­ders that make ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in the game co­her­ent,” Ville-Kalle says. “Of course, play­ers can still try to break that if they want to, but even then it will re­main an en­ter­tain­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one else. Ob­vi­ously, if somebody de­cides to just chant, “One, two, three…” over and over for half an hour, as somebody did, then it’s a prob­lem. But I think that’s re­ally strange be­hav­iour, be­cause the game of­fers such a rich pos­si­bil­ity to talk about all sorts of things.”

“But this kind of prob­lem­atic be­hav­iour doesn’t hap­pen almost at all on the pre­mium side,” Elina says, “and if you find a group that isn’t good to play with, you just try again and find a bet­ter match. Prob­lem solved!”

Even in free games, the free­dom to talk about what­ever you want with other play­ers who all have their own roles is in­tox­i­cat­ing. Con­ver­sa­tions don’t ex­actly feel nat­u­ral – es­pe­cially given that play­ers’ lines are read out by ro­botic voices – but while Vel­vet Sun­down might have rough edges, it does elim­i­nate em­bar­rass­ment from the process of get­ting into character and ham­ming it up.

“We be­lieve this kind of thing will be in most games in the com­ing years,” Ville-Kalle says. “If you think of a shooter, in­stead of just merely shoot­ing peo­ple, you’d have some so­cial hi­er­ar­chies, team dy­nam­ics. So peo­ple would no longer be play­ing the game just for the shoot­ing, but im­mers­ing them­selves in the game and ac­tu­ally role­play­ing the char­ac­ters that they are play­ing inside that game. That opens up a whole new av­enue.”

Elina Ar­po­nen and Ville-Kalle Ar­po­nen, co-founders of Tribe Stu­dios

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