How Tribe Studios’ Dramagame seeks to redefine social play
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