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Cloud Chamber: The TV show you play on Steam Exclusive

April 23, 2014 | By Mike Rose

April 23, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, Video

How the heck do you describe Cloud Chamber? Imagine following along with your favorite TV series, and after each episode you're able to jump online, dig deeper into what you watched, and discuss the twists and turns with fellow viewers.

Now imagine that's all wrapped up in video game clothing, with the content sprawled out across World of Warcraft-like landscapes and Reddit-inspired forums.

Indeed, Cloud Chamber isn't exactly your typical game experience -- rather, it's a sort of TV show/social media/investigation mash-up that already has plenty of people talking, including the team at Valve.

Players watch professionally-shot video clips, take in all the information from the story, and are then asked questions about what they've witnessed. They can then participate in Reddit-style conversations about what happened, and can upvote or downvote opinions on where the story is going.

So how exactly does the Cloud Chamber team describe the game -- and do they even call it a game? I put the question to Investigate North CEO Christian Fonnesbech, a director who has been trying to tie movies, games and social media together for many years now.

"We actually changed our minds on that," he tells me. "We used to not call it a game, and then we did the test-launch in Denmark in fall 2013... We thought the people who were going to like this would be non-gamers - people who like advanced TV series with deep characters, and who are on Facebook and are looking for something new."

But, he notes, "it just became incredibly clear that the only people who liked it were gamers." Indeed, the people who were engaging with the Cloud Chamber beta most were those people who played lots of traditional games on both Steam and console.

"So we're actually making it more of a game by taking out gameplay. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
"It really surprised us," adds Fonnesbech, "but it turned out that gamers are the only ones who are schooled in mastering a system. Nobody else does that. For everybody else, that's work. For gamers, that's pleasure. Going into something like this, and putting in the hours and the effort to peel back the mystery and figure out, with others, what's going on... It's all a very gamey way to discuss things, and people who like literature and film, yes they like to discuss their books and films, but they don't go that deep."

This throws up another question then -- at the point when the Cloud Chamber team realized that what they had put together was more appealing to traditional players than social media users, wasn't it tempting to push the experience more in a casual direction, to attract a wider audience? Or was the team happy with its traditional player audience?

"For me, it was actually a bit of a relief," he answers. "It was like 'finally, we can own up to the fact that we're gamers, finally we can just bring up the gaming stuff.'"

"If games like Dear Esther and Gone Home hadn't been happening while we were building this, I think it would have been a different decision," he continues. "Seeing that kind of openness, and the way that actually putting the story together is a game - because that's what those two games do, right? The only gameplay is figuring out the stories, and that's what we have."

In fact, the team made what appears to be a rather strange decision at this point. The beta had numerous "gamey" parts to it, including points systems, rhythmic clicking sections, and buffs that players could use to enhance their play. Upon realizing that more traditional gamers were enjoying Cloud Chamber, the team decided that all these bits had to go.

"What we're doing now is removing all that, and make it more open," Fonnesbech says. "That was partly looking at Dear Esther. I was thinking that the main pleasure was the story, and figuring out the story, and interacting with other players. Anything that gets in the way of that is really a barrier. Seeing Gone Home and Dear Esther work gave us the confidence to do it."

"So we're actually making it more of a game by taking out gameplay," he laughs. "Put that in your pipe and smoke it."

Valve clearly sees something special in the concept too. Investigate North spent several months knocking on the Steam door, trying to secure Cloud Chamber a spot on the PC games platform, and eventually managed to break through.

"If games like Dear Esther and Gone Home hadn't been happening while we were building this, I think it would have been a different decision."
"We didn't want to start a Greenlight campaign, because we were afraid that would prevent us from getting in any other way," notes Fonnesbech. "There are so many myths and rumors, it's a whole adventure game in itself. Finally we had this contact just before GDC, and he wrote to us saying 'Sorry, I can't meet anybody who's not already on Steam.'"

"It's silly - you can't come in the door if you want to get in the door," adds the director. "But he did say 'You can send me a trailer, and I'll take a look at it.' So we sent him the trailer, and the next morning there was an invitation to lunch. Three days later we were in. So I think Steam is quite interested in seeing what something like this could do."

From Fonnesbech's perspective, the big selling point of Cloud Chamber is that it's one of the first ever online multiplayer story games, where the main gameplay mechanic is not combat -- it's discussion.

"In this internet age, this is an idea whose time has come," he reasons. "We're getting ready to launch on Steam, and I'm beginning to plan the next one, and one of my ambitions is to create an endless multiplayer story. That's the goal."

"I think we're going to have fictional worlds where the mythology is so deep and so multilayered, and the characters have so many secrets and stories inside them, that discussing them and exploring them is going to be a story that goes on for years," Fonnesbech adds. "It's going to be a collective story where everybody is searching for something hidden, and it's going to be an individual story for you, where you're building your own knowledge of the world. And it's also going to be a great spectator sport, because it's going to be just as interesting to hear about."

Cloud Chamber is due to launch on Steam this summer.

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