What if an adventure game was multiplayer?
The developers at Tribe Games have spent four years building a platform that can answer that question. They call it Dramagame
, a 3D multiplayer game engine with an integrated text-to-speech synthesizer that the studio uses to build social situation simulators, corporate training programs -- and drama games like Velvet Sundown
“We want to expand what games are, and what they can be,” says Tribe cofounder Elina Arponen, speaking to me from Finland via Skype. “We want to be able to tell all kinds of stories, and make them interactive. I hope we can grow this kind of ‘drama game’ genre, if you will.”
Arponen used to make games at Digital Chocolate, but she left the company to found Tribe in 2010 alongside a handful of developers from the Finnish racing game studio Bugbear Entertainment. They wanted to run their own studio; they dreamed of making story-driven games that were social and graphically impressive, with the brevity of a good TV drama.
“Enjoying the game with a full story in the time it takes to watch an episode of a TV show, that was very compelling for us,” says Arponen, who has two young children. “A lot of long story games, I’m too busy to play them; I might start a game, then take a break and by the time I come back to it I have no idea what’s going on.”
As the industry matures, more and more of us are going to face similar challenges. For developers, it's worth examining how Tribe has tried to tackle them in its first commercial game: Velvet Sundown
Setting the stage for multiplayer storytellingVelvet Sundown
is a multiplayer-only affair. At the start of every game, each player assumes control of one of the eleven passengers and crew aboard a luxury yacht in the Caribbean. The game is still in beta and so, for the moment, opportunities to interact with the environment are limited: players mostly just explore the ship and communicate with each other via text-to-speech synthesis.
They can also exchange items or pieces of information to satisfy objectives, but the best exchanges come courtesy of that text-to-speech tool. The module is licensed from the
"There’s no murder and no crime; it’s about finding out stories and relationships and having a party at the same time."
European TTS company Acapela, and it synthesizes everything a player types into a hollow, oddly-accented sentence spoken by their character.
It’s a big part of what makes Velvet Sundown
so iconic, and Tribe found it almost by accident.
“Our CTO sometimes experiments with things, and he found this [speech synthesizer] and decided to just plug it into the game to see how it works,” says Arponen, with a laugh. “The first game we played with it, we were all laughing very hard and we thought ‘yes, this is something we have to have in here.’ It’s a very critical part of it, now.”
It's critical because it adds flavor to Velvet Sundown
's central mechanic: conversation. Everyone starts with an objective, and the game also randomly assigns quests, the lion's share of which can only be completed through chatting with other players.
One mode allows players to “win” by completing their objective, while another is meant to simply give them a virtual space in which to roleplay their own games. There’s no violence, though some players start with tasers in their inventory that they can use to stun others.
“In the current scenarios, there’s no murder and no crime; it’s about finding out stories and relationships and having a party at the same time,” says Arponen.
Like many developers, Tribe was concerned about being typecast by its first game; Arponen says the team recognizes that murder mysteries are a perfect fit for the Dramagame engine, and they took pains to make Velvet Sundown
a more nebulous, open-ended scenario in an effort to keep the engine from being pigeonholed as a platform for whodunit games.
The Dramagame engine itself is built on a custom C++ codebase with three primary components: the graphics engine, the networking code and the story engine, which is designed to (among other things) programmatically assign players personas and objectives at the start of a game that will push them into interacting with each other.
The storytelling engine is unique; Tribe still has a patent pending for the technology. On a high level, it’s responsible for generating random quests during a game session and moderating how players interact within the game. One player might use a petition in their inventory during a conversation with another to ask them to sign it, for example; the engine then offers the petitionee a list of responses that boil down to “yes/no/sign as someone else” and forces them to choose one within a time limit.
Arponen says the system was troublesome, hard to design and hard to playtest, which drove Tribe near to madness during QA. Eventually, they developed an automated testing tool that could run through a scenario and verify every possible interaction.
“We didn’t realize how difficult it would be to build at the start, and I’m kind of glad we didn’t,” says Arponen. “It would have been too discouraging otherwise,” and they probably would have tried something else.
Troubleshooting in public on Steam Early Access
But they did try to build a multiplayer adventure game, and after some closed beta tests they've put it out on Steam's Early Access service for free. Tribe monetizes it by selling monthly memberships which afford subscribers access to premium features, including the use of the game's speech
"We want to be able to tell all kinds of stories, and make them interactive. I hope we can grow this kind of ‘drama game’ genre."
Moving one of the game's most iconic features behind a paywall was done relatively recently, and reluctantly, after an influx of players started bogging down the synthesizer's servers in the wake of Velvet Sundown
's Steam launch.
That's because the game's synthesizer tech doesn't run locally on a player's PC; instead, Acapela's tech uses a remote server to synthesize every line of dialogue a player types.
Arponen says Tribe didn't anticipate the problem of too many users clogging up the synthesizer, and now they're working out how to modify the text-to-speech tech so that all players can access it.
If they can bring the game out of beta and operate it successfully, Arponen says she hopes that the Dramagame platform can be built out to support developers of a broader variety of games -- that it can foster, as she said, a new breed of 'drama games.'
Of course, many developers are creating new ways to tell stories in games, and Arponen is quick to acknowledge work being done by other developers in the space. She namedrops Chris Crawford's Storytron tool and Emily Short's Versu engine early in our conversation, and goes on to say that Tribe's ambitions for the Dramagame platform extend beyond games. They're already using it to build corporate training games (customer service simulators and the like) -- one day, they dream of partnering with film or television companies to make licensed companion games.
"I think a lot of people still have a very narrow idea of what a game can do," says Arponen. "If you have a TV series or a movie that is about fighting, it’s quite easy to make that into a game; you have the mechanics already in place."
But if you have something like Downton Abbey, a narrative experience that’s built solely on the relationships between characters, it’s a bit more challenging to design a complementary game. But that's what Arponen hopes more developers will do, by embracing the "drama game" genre and figuring out how to design systems and mechanics that challenge and reward our natural desire to tell stories.