It's not a textbook elevator pitch by any means, but Xalavier Nelson, Jr. nevertheless has a strong origin story for his latest project.
"Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator is a sci-fi body horror market tycoon game that originates from a fascination about the human body, partially inspired by a strange man walking up to me in a hospital -- not dressed up in hospital garb -- asking me if I would like to see my insides," Nelson tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"I said yes, because I thought there would be a good story out of it, and I took the bet that it would not be the story of my murder."
Nelson would win that bet, as the strange man turned out to be a nurse practitioner who needed more experience with the ultrasound machine. So he got his experience, and Nelson got to see his heart, kidneys, and intestines doing what they do to keep him alive.
"The visceral tangibility of that experience -- being introduced to something always working away inside of you, that everyone has and needs but we spend as little time thinking about as possible -- stuck with me for years," Nelson says. "Me making a game about organs was inevitable; it was just a question of what form that would take."
As could be inferred from Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator's title, that form would be a tycoon game. Nelson felt the genre fit well because organs worked for tycoon gameplay purposes. As he explains, organs are meaningful, easily categorizable, and "inherently absurd."
Beyond that, he took it as an opportunity to examine markets, both how they operate and how they impact the people within them.
"Once you turn a heart or a spleen into a trade good, there's this domino effect of capitalistic consequences that are really jarring, especially when you see it within the context of a human body," Nelson says, adding, "It takes less than five minutes for you to see a fundamental piece of the human body as nothing more than a rare shoe you sell on eBay. Effectively, a human soul is just a PS5 waiting for the currency conversion."
As Nelson says, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator is the kind of game where someone can ask why this or that event took place and the answer can be "Oh, well the price of hearts went up."
"It takes less than five minutes for you to see a fundamental piece of the human body as nothing more than a rare shoe you sell on eBay"
"It isn't until you listen to what you're saying that you realize how fundamentally messed up that is," Nelson says. "But that's something we're doing every single day -- with water, with clothing and with shelter -- in ways that are increasingly abstract and absurd. Because that's what economics represent: an opportunity to make something that should be logical into something that suits a financial economic environment. And those are not the same things."
Take, for example, the recent GameStop stock surge. The Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator team had already been deep into the development of a game specifically about economic markets, but watching the explosive growth of share price for a brick-and-mortar retailer in an increasingly digital industry during an ongoing pandemic forced them to revisit some prior assumptions.
"We had put so much time into thinking logically about how financial systems and economic factors logically come together to explain the dynamics of supply and demand for a fundamental sentient need... I had completely missed the concept of value being based on what people want it to be," Nelson says.
He mentions diamonds as a real-world precedent, with the gems not being tremendously valuable or coveted until a marketing campaign tied them to the concept of marriage.
"Of course, it makes sense in hindsight that value is also based on whatever people want it to be at a given moment, but seeing it all come together in a ritualistic, absurdist money spree has been kind of deeply eye-opening and existentially terrifying."
The GameStop saga recalibrated the developers' understanding of the markets and prompted some changes to the game. While Nelson says much of the underlying irrationality of markets was already reflected in Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, the team decided to lean into it more. They put a greater focus on runs and rushes, and the importance of consumer and trader belief. They added explicit market manipulation tactics, as well as the possibility that other factions in the game will spot player shenanigans and change their own behavior in response.
They also added cryptocurrencies, although Nelson says that was something they initially did by accident.
As he explains it, there was a quest intended to be the equivalent of somebody dropping off a baby at your door with a note asking you to take care of it, but instead of a baby it's a beating heart called "Little Joey's Heart." Once the player accepts responsibility for Little Joey's Heart, it's added to their inventory and it becomes something you can sell or trade, just like any other organ in the game. That addition of a finite resource had unforeseen consequences.
"Once you see it for one thing, you see it for everything, and you resign yourself to the fact that everything and nothing makes sense, forever"
"Because we didn't have an exception at the time for hiding something from the wider eye of the market, once Little Joey's Heart had been made and turned into a commodity, it was automatically added to the stock market as a whole even though there's only one in the universe."
Nelson notes that the game creates Little Joey's Heart at the outset, even if players don't actually encounter the storyline until weeks or months have passed in the game.
"The implications of that event are that some stock broker, upon the birth [of Joey] or the creation of this heart, looked at it and said, 'That's really cute. It should be a tracked commodity on the stock market,'" Nelson says. "And it becomes a cryptocurrency! There are savvy financial traders whose net worth goes up and down based upon the relative market confidence in Little Joey's Heart specifically. That's just how that actually works! Once you see it for one thing, you see it for everything, and you resign yourself to the fact that everything and nothing makes sense, forever."
Nelson describes it as a "happy accident" that the system turned unique quest items into pseudo cryptocurrencies, and while they've changed the system to ensure some things don't get the cryptocurrency treatment, they're definitely having cryptocurrencies as well. Nelson is interested in players having to decide whether it's worth using their limited cargo capacity to hold on to genuinely unique things or if it would be better put to use trading in more traditional organ markets.
"It's the type of question that seems absurd until you take that little sidestep into that world," Nelson says. "The scary thing isn't the sidestep or even that it makes sense; the scary thing is how small the sidestep needs to be for you to see that perspective at all."
One of Nelson's big takeaways from working on Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator is just how much emotion -- belief, feeling, even spite -- are tied up in people's sense of how much something is worth. It's a takeaway that no doubt has shaped the decision about what price the game should be.
"It's incredibly important to price your games off research, market comparisons, and relative analytics," Nelson says. "But it's also equally crucial to realize that with the value of a thing being arbitrary, you are determining your project's value and worth at every stage of development, including setting the price of it."
Nelson believes there are broadly three types of game purchasers: those who buy the game when they discover it or at launch because they have the disposable income and are interested, those who put a specific price point on games they're interested in and buy it once it hits that price, and those who refuse to buy any game unless it's on sale.
"What you observe knowing those three consumer types is the people who will always buy on sale, it doesn't particularly matter what the price point is before and after the sale," Nelson says. "What matters is the fact there's a sale going on of a given percentage. And the people who will buy at full price... if they care about the game and discover it, they were going to buy it anyway.
"So what do you lose pricing your game at $20 instead of $15 if you're making a robust entertainment product with other developers and investing years of your life into it to bring something compelling to the market? The only [difference] is another $5 you could have made, $5 you're compensating your players through with the inherent value that's already inside of it."
There's an element of self-interest in Nelson advocating that developers price their games higher, but it's something he also wants to see as a customer of games.
"If that game is priced higher, my threshold for being able to give the developer more money is inherently higher," Nelson says, adding, "Having the people who make the things that make life more bearable in a more comfortable, stable position in life, just means we get more and better art."