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The anti-Brexit game turning controversy into opportunity

Teams behind dystopian adventure Not Tonight on building a community around an already hated game, and preparing for an impossible launch

"Finally, a game made by limp-wristed slackjaws who passionately hate democracy."

YouTube commenters can be cruel and although this is among the more tepid responses littering the comment section below an announcement trailer for Not Tonight, it's a perfect illustration of the uphill battle faced by developer Panic Barn and publisher No More Robots.

Perhaps most easily defined as post-Brexit Britain Papers Please, Not Tonight is already a hugely divisive game despite still being months away from launch.

Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at EGX Rezzed, No More Robots company director Mike Rose explored some of the challenges facing Not Tonight, how his publishing label intends to overcome them, and even use them to his advantage.

"Not Tonight is going to be a super interesting one because it's going to look like on launch day that people have shit on us," says Rose. "We already know how bad the reviews are going to be."

Brexit has yet to be explored like this in a game before, and while creative director Tim Constant notes that the game-playing public of Britain is typically younger and therefore less likely to have voted Leave in the referendum, he still concedes it's a risk.

"Is it divisive? Yeah, absolutely but we're not scared of that," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "Hopefully we can use that to our advantage."

Rose is confident that Not Tonight is going to face a flurry of negative reviews on day-one, but he also knows his ability to stop that is essentially non-existent. The mob is the mob, after all, but controversy isn't necessarily a bad thing if you can get the right people outraged.

"I wanna try and get it in front of the Daily Mail because as much as they are going to fucking hate it, it will get in front of more eyeballs basically," he says. "The day we get the headline like 'Disgusting anti-Brexit game', you can imagine me sat in front of my computer cheering, because that will also lead to people buying the game just to piss off the Daily Mail."

Even with Rose's gleeful attitude, he's aware that launch day could be rough.

"The Brexit factor is an unknown to me," he says. "I have no idea how that's going to affect sales. I imagine the day it launches we're going to get lots of negative reviews because people are going to buy it just to write some shit then refund it."

"It's going to look like on launch day that people have shit on us. We already know how bad the reviews are going to be"

Mike Rose, No More Robots

However, Rose has a plan to offset the trolls, and one that's proven to be effective in the past. During EGX Rezzed he gave a talk about using chat service Discord to make a success of Descenders, his publishing label's first game.

With 90 million downloads worldwide, Discord is an international smash hit among gamers and, as Rose found, the perfect platform for community building between a game's announcement and eventual launch.

By the time Descenders released, the Discord server Rose setup had over 6,000 users with a much higher engagement rate in the game than any number of trailers or articles could hope to achieve.

"This is one of the main reasons, especially for smaller developers, why maybe their games don't do as well as they're hoping because they might have a massive announcement and get quarter of a million views, and then the majority of the people who saw that trailer will never remember it again," says Rose.

By building a basic text meta game in the Discord server, giving people teams to join and get invested in, and by offering beta access, Descenders hit a 91 per cent user review score on launch day, not to mention a few thousand instant sales.

"Within minutes of joining the server, people already feel like they are part of something," says Rose. "They've been given extra things they can do, they've been given this special channel they can join, and a team colour as well.

"This might all sound incredibly superficial, and it is. That's literally all that it does, it just makes your name go a different colour, but it makes this tribe mentality happen where these three teams are just trash talking each other. This was before the game came out, they had no idea what being on these three teams even meant but they were already having a go at each other in an amicable way.

"When we first launched the server, we had people doing fan art every single day showing their own team trashing the other teams. It meant when the game came out, they already had their heart in the game."

"Is it divisive? Yeah, absolutely but we're not scared of that. Hopefully we can use that to our advantage"

Tim Constant, Panic Barn

Meanwhile, Not Tonight's Discord server has attracted over 10,000 members in the month since it launched and Rose is once again keeping his community invested in the game through a simple text-based meta game for members to take part in.

After picking a geographic region to align themselves with -- North, Midlands, South -- players then begin working for money towards becoming a landlord of one of the nine available pubs. They can then compete against each other to make their pub of choice the best in town, all through chat commands in Discord. There is even an election underway at the moment with community members running against each other to be prime minister of the UK, complete with lengthy manifestos and campaign poster fan art. There's a lot on offer, and the chat rooms are busy to say the least.

Most importantly though, by also offering beta access users not only have a reason to try out the game, but the developer and publisher will get a raft of telemetry data which will prove vital in the final months of development.

While the use of Discord to build autonomous communities of enthusiasts for games in the No More Robots portfolio has potentially tremendous pulling power when Not Tonight launches, both Rose and Constant are aware of the public kicking that could lie ahead.

"We already know exactly what's going to happen," says Rose. "We're not going to be surprised on launch day but I am going to keep selling it like I would sell any other game because I am god damn proud of what Tim has done and the fact of the matter is that I am in a privileged position.

"No other publisher could touch this if we're honest... I'm new and I've already made the money with Descenders. My publisher is not going to die. I am going to be fine for years, unfortunately for anyone who is angry about this Brexit game.

"I am in a privileged position where I can now do this. There will be ramifications, of course there will. But if I can't support a cause like this, then what's the fucking point in starting my own thing? Really what is the point if you're just going to be safe and sign a bunch of safe games? There was never a moment where I questioned whether I should be signing this."

Constant says he's approached the game with a typically British gallows humour, but he wants to make the point how ridiculous he feels it is to treat someone different just because of where they are from.

"The overall vision is to want to try and make people be nice to each other, and I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but you are rewarded in game for following that path," he says. "If some people play it and realise how absurd it is to treat someone on their doorstep differently, then that's great... It's a fine line to balance."

Not Tonight has already been accused of being propaganda by enraged Brexiteers, but by fostering highly engaged community and turning the furious controversy against itself, Rose and Constant have something resembling a map of how to survive this new, uncharted frontier of politically charged satirical games.

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