There's no shortage of companies trying to take competitive games and turn them into televised sports like the NFL or NBA. But it's less common to find a developer trying to take its competitive game and turn it into televised spectacles like American Idol or Big Brother.
That's the premise for Outpost Games as it works simultaneously on the Early Access competitive survival game SOS and the Hero audience interaction technology at its heart. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Outpost CEO Wright Bagwell said he was inspired to take this approach by the impact YouTube and Twitch have had on the traditional gaming experience.
"It's pretty clear to us the future of games is one where players aren't thought of as consumers of content but rather, they're creators of content, and your game is their stage," Bagwell said. "So we thought if games are looking a little bit more like a stage on which people create content, then how do we build a stadium?"
The answer they came up with was SOS and Hero. SOS is a game where 16 players are dropped on a remote island inhabited by monsters. In the course of each match, alliances are formed and broken as players try to obtain a relic, signal a rescue helicopter to pick them up, and then determine through means peaceful or otherwise who will get one of the three available seats on the chopper.
Its counterpart, Hero, is a backend technology designed to let an audience watching livestreams of those matches have an impact on the action. Right now the interactions are fairly limited. An audience on Hero.tv can click various emoticons to tell performers whether they find the current events shocking, amusing, worthy of applause, or aggravating. Players can also conduct informal polls asking the audience which course of action they should take, and in one application specific to SOS, the audience can vote on a Hunger Games-style equipment drop for a contestant.
"We started experimenting with it early on and realized that people's behavior radically changes when they get real-time feedback," Bagwell said, adding, "Instead of just trying to win, people optimize their behavior for entertaining the audience. And we realized that the game we were building started to feel a lot more like a reality TV show than a typical survival game because people were reacting to the presence of an audience."
"Instead of thinking about matchmaking as a way to put skilled players together, we want to think about how we optimize games to best create an entertainment experience"
SOS leans into that reality TV show comparison. At the beginning of every match, there's a segment where the players are given a chance to introduce themselves to the audience using the game's mandatory voice chat, along with the game's assessment of their playstyle (for instance, a player drawing lots of "amusing" clicks from the audience may be designated a "class clown").
"We can start to build a profile of each player based not just on what they do but how audiences react to them," Bagwell said. "So over time, we want to use that data to help us better understand our players and get better at matchmaking. We want to use our feedback system to help identify what interesting casts of characters are. Instead of thinking about matchmaking as a way to put skilled players together, we want to think about how we optimize games to best create an entertainment experience."
To encourage players to value entertainment over competition, Outpost runs two separate SOS leaderboards, one for how successful players are in escaping the island, and one based around "fame." The result is that unlike most competitive games, different players will come into SOS matches with different goals.
"Players will start to figure out, 'Hey I'm not the best at this game. I probably shouldn't be the one to escape. I'll just be the person who's trying to help others escape,'" Bagwell said. "Because they love getting the screen time and putting on a show for the audience, and they'll totally ham it up for them in a way you never see in other games."
Of course, a game doesn't need a Fame leaderboard to have people playing for reasons other than victory. Toxic players have long found their entertainment by ruining the fun for other people, and Bagwell admits they're familiar to the SOS community.
"We've seen that too," Bagwell said. "And we know that anytime you give people a stage and a voice on the internet, you're going to get people who do that. So we've invested in a lot of moderation tools."
"It's admittedly tough to describe to some people that don't understand where the line is between playing a villain and just being an asshole..."
SOS has video capture built into it, and players can submit a moderation ticket from within the game, so at any point a player sees undesirable behavior, they can push a button and have the last segment of gameplay uploaded for Outpost's mod team to review.
"Long term, what we believe is that it's always work to try to deal with trolls," Bagwell said. "But we want to see if this experiment works because we believe that not only do people optimize their behavior to entertain audiences, but we've seen a lot of psychological studies that show when people think they're being watched, people generally tend to be on better behavior."
Psychological studies aside, it doesn't take much reality TV viewing to recognize that format doesn't exactly encourage people to be on better behavior. Bagwell concedes the point, but draws a distinction between reality TV behavior and undesirable behavior.
"We want to incite character drama, because we believe that character drama is entertaining to watch," Bagwell said. "We're trying to figure out how to make games as fun to watch as they are to play. When we say we want people to be their better selves, we don't mean everybody's going to sit down and sing 'Kum ba yah.' What we mean is we want people to put on a good show, and we want people to be an interesting cast of characters. That means you need a villain. And you need people who fill out a cast of characters that create interesting tension and interesting drama.
"It's admittedly tough to describe to some people that don't understand where the line is between playing a villain and just being an asshole, but we feel like it's still worth giving it a shot to see how this works. If we can get it right, create the conditions, the right incentives, and moderate it well, it feels like this is the future of how entertainment is going to be produced. And it's not just applying to things like esports; it could apply to the way reality TV shows are produced."