I've personally wondered for a while now how social media could be better integrated into video game experiences. Inviting friends and tracking online high scores is all well and good, but it seems like there's a whole world of social opportunities that haven't yet been fully explored.
As it turns out, one of the potential answers is to simply make your entire game based around social media, and explore just how silly it actually is when you take a step back.
is a sci-fi (as you might have guessed) take on social networking. How would Star Trek
have played out if everyone on the Starship Enterprise had access to a Facebook-like social media system?
Hilariously, as it turns out.
Players start as an unknown on a spacestation, but slowly work their way up the ranks by befriending people on 'Spacebook', "liking" statuses from their boss, and attending Spacebook events, all in a turn-based setting. Although your real-world skills matter here and there, your online presence is the really important factor, and inevitably determines whether you end up dead or not.
Mitu Khandaker, the sole developer behind the upcoming game, says that focusing on social media as a concept for a video game has been something she's wanted to do for ages.
"I've always thought that social simulations are such an under-explored area in games," she tells me. "I've always had a massive soft spot for The Sims
, so it was this existing, long-standing interest I'd had anyway."
She continues, "I suppose the idea of simulating a social network must have come to me at some point during all those many, many hours I've probably spent on Facebook over the last seven years, and all the usual reflection that comes with it about how those things have affected how we relate to one another."
Khandaker notes that social media has not only proved the catalyst for a number of her own personal dramas over the years, but actually ended up causing some of them. She even met her fiance via social media, so it's very much embedded firmly in her life.
"What really solidified the idea, I suppose, was that prior to working on Redshirt
, I worked for almost a year on a startup which was originally a location-based game," she says, "which then eventually morphed into a purely-social media thing, akin to stuff like Foursquare. But possibly worse in terms of really gross, extrinsic motivation-type stuff."
This led to Khandaker floating through the world of gamification and tech start-ups before finally getting out, and realising that games were what she really wanted to work on. But her previous experiences led her to consider what would happen if she created a social networking sim.
"It wasn't until I started talking to Cliff Harris [Gratuitous Space Battles
dev who is publishing Redshirt
] that the idea of the sci-fi theme really came into being," she says of the game's other big selling point.
"I've always been kind of a sci-fi and space nerd, and, coincidentally, around the same time, I was lucky enough to be invited to a NASA 'Tweetup' to watch the final ever space shuttle launch (again, thanks to social media!)"
This life-defining moment, and reflections on the future of space travel, led Khandaker to think: "Even if we do
get ourselves together and humans have become this amazing, spacefaring civilization in 300 years, people are still going to be people; there'll always be people who are ever-so-slightly self-obsessed, share pictures of their food, and want to talk about every mundane detail of their life. But you know, that's most people, and that's okay!"
What's really interesting about Redshirt
is how it starts off as an obvious parody of social networking... and yet an hour into play, I suddenly found myself treating the gameplay in the very same, very serious manner that I treat my daily social media trawling.
The joke was all of a sudden well and truly on me.
"That's certainly by design!" laughs Khandaker. "I think social media, and the way that people engage with it, can become a parody of itself, so I'm not sure that I needed to do much beyond model the kind of mechanics by which people use social media -- adding friends, updating statuses, liking other things, etc."
She continues, "I suppose the main goal with representing social media in the game was to represent its inherent two-fold nature. Sure, you can be earnest in your use of it, and I really like to think that most people are. But for some, it can also be this very cynical thing where you're almost treating people as commodities; and, to be fair, looking at the way Facebook is designed around showing friend numbers, number of likes on statuses, and stuff, that's kind of inherent to its design."
You only have to look at all the marketing guides online that teach you how to "increase your follower count" and "build a personal brand" to see this in action, she notes.
"So yes, you can enact this very cynical climb up the career and social ladders. Or maybe you just enjoy interacting with other characters in the game in and of itself. Either is totally fine."
AI AI O
Most notably, while playing Redshirt
it became very apparent that this was a game unlike a good portion of others that I usually play, in that the world most definitely was not revolving around me.
"I'm so glad you got that feeling!" says Khandaker. "After all, that's what being on social media feels like; there's a lot going on. I think creating a game about social media which revolved around the player would kind of be missing the point. And, especially when that's a game about specifically being a red shirt, an expendable, insignificant person."
Each of the NPCs that you find on Spacebook, at work, at events and on space missions, have their own little worlds that they're wrapped up in. They pursue friendships, romantic relationships and more, and their paths throughout the game are chosen regardless of how you act.
"You're just trying to carve out your own part of that world," notes Khandaker. "I have to credit the AI consultant on the game, Luke Dicken, with helping set up the systems to get the AI working in a believable kind of way, and writer Lucy Hounsham, who helped write many, many of the possible status updates for the NPCs."
Khandaker has been working on that game for over two years now, which led me to question whether or not social media has evolved during that time, to such an extent that she's had to alter the layout of her game to match real-life.
"It's definitely something I've worried about before," she answers, adding that the time frame has "occasionally made me worry a bit about relevance -- especially since products like Facebook are so infamous for suddenly changing its interface."
However, she notes that "ultimately, the game represents a very stripped down/abstracted version of a Facebook-inspired interface, which really, has the same kind of mechanics as a stripped-down Twitter-ish sort of thing, too."
Even with the most recent social media focuses on photo and video sharing, for example, the main principles of social networking have remained the same -- sharing, seeking approval from peers, etc. If anything, she reasons, social networks have all simply tried to copy each other. Just look at how Facebook recently added Twitter-like hashtags, while Instagram launched its own Vine.
Going all the way back to my original musing -- that social media is only really used in superficial ways in video games to date -- Khandaker agrees, but isn't sure exactly how networking elements could be implemented in a more exciting way in games.
"I'm not sure what a great alternative solution would be," she says. "Maybe the very idea of integrating games with real social media is kind of at odds with each other? I mean, my favourite example was the Twitter integration in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
, because it was these intriguing bits of text from the game, rather than high scores etc."
"But it's still not perfect," she adds. "A few people have suggested integrating Redshirt
with real social media to see what would happen - I think that might be a step too meta for me! Of course, a small number of people have suggested that the 'action points' in the game, which parody limited-energy in Facebook games, should be bought using real microtransactions -- which is even more horrifying an idea!"
"But no, I'm not sure what the answer would be. Maybe make a great game so people naturally want to talk about it to their friends on social media, like actual humans?"
is due to launch "soon" for PC, Mac and Linux, with an iPad version following shortly after. Pre-orders will be available in the coming weeks, which will also grant beta access.