Creating the 'right' kind of player in the weird FPS Sub Rosa

We talk to Cryptic Sea's Alex Austin, about developing Sub Rosa to encourage players not to shoot each other, even though they have automatic weapons and cool suits.

In a lot of ways, Sub Rosa is a hard sell. It’s a game where, before you can even properly play it, you have to convince a stranger on the internet to let you be a part of their team.

It’s a game where, even though you need to have a gun to be an effective member of that team, you are heavily encouraged not to shoot it. And even when you do, there’s a complicated amount of finger gymnastics first to load the gun, then to unload it and reload it. Each step involves multiple stages, and it’s easy to fumble and just drop your gun. In the middle of a firefight, this isn’t the most desirable outcome.

But in a lot of other ways, Sub Rosa is as beguiling as they come. Taking inspiration from films like Heat and Reservoir Dogs, it’s about shady corporations doing even shadier deals, all while pointing their guns in the general direction of the other corporation’s team, to make sure the deal goes down without a hitch.

Originally created and released as part of the 7 Day FPS jam back in 2012, creator Alex Austin, who makes games as Cryptic Sea, has been slowly iterating on the idea and the game ever since.

While there’s certainly plenty of challenges in the actual design of Sub Rosa--from the development of systems to better facilitate the tension and anxiety of going into a deal with a potentially lethal group of other players to creating ways for them to deceive and trick one another--one of the biggest concerns has been creating a game where players don’t just shoot each other on sight.

“You look at something like DayZ, which had just come out when I started working on Sub Rosa, it was one of the inspirations and people were looking for something different.” Austin tells me. “They were tired of just team-based deathmatches, which all FPSs have. But in Day Z, you get a player’s items when you kill them, which is a very valuable thing.

"In Sub Rosa, you don’t really get anything for killing another player. You can get their ammo, but it’s pretty much worthless. There’s no real bonus or reward for killing people, unless that’s what you have to do to succeed in the mission.”

It’s no real surprise that Sub Rosa subverts a player’s expectation of what an FPS will be, as it came out of the 7DFPS, a game jam whose entire purpose was to subvert that genre. But that also means that Austin has to educate his players on how his game works, and what kind of play that’s encouraging.

Right now Sub Rosa is in a fairly small alpha, as it’s available for purchase on its site and nowhere else, with a reasonably steep price of $19.99. It means that, even on busy times like evenings and weekends, there’s rarely more than a dozen or so players on either of the game’s two servers. Each of those players is wholly bought into the concept; even going so far as to adopt the kind of language you’d expect corporations in the 80s to communicate with. Disks are packages, meetings are rendezvous, and betrayal is "funny business." These are people who represent the ideal for Austin, but once Sub Rosa moves into Steam Early Access in a month or two, that could change drastically.

“Right now when you die, 10 percent of your net worth is lost, but I want that to be a setting. So if you want a more action-heavy setting you can set it at 0 percent, so there’s no penalty, and people won’t worry about the consequences and they can just go straight for shooting. But then you can also go for super hardcore servers where you lose all of your money, which would definitely be more tense. Shooting someone would be a big deal.”

This touches on how Sub Rosa is encouraging play without limiting options. Losing a big chunk of your money doesn’t so much hurt you when you’re starting out, as you don’t have that much in the first place. But when you’re worth a few million, after investing stocks in your company and inflating that company’s worth, losing 10 percent is a big step back. Losing 100 percent would be ruining.

So players are cautious. Not only because it hurts their bottom line, but also, and this is the big thing: it’s a lot more fun. Right now Sub Rosa has a few systems in place that facilitate negotiation over violence, and even when violence does break out it’s a chaotic, clumsy, quick thing.

“One of the first things I did was make the briefcase, and make it so that you had to open it to see what’s inside. That was the first deception thing, so you could have an empty briefcase. With the latest version you can load it up with money but have hundreds covering ones, which is another layer of trickery. That’s another interface thing; there’s no games that really do that, so how do you do an interface of a stack of bills?”

On top of that each corporation gets a chunky 80s cellphone that lets them call the other corporations and negotiate deals. Making that kind of communication long-range eliminates itchy trigger fingers doing anything untoward before the deal is set, and it also forces you to engage in a non-violent way with other players. Then going on to deceive them isn’t exactly non-violent, as they’re sure to want some sort of recompense, but at the very least there’s a few layers of interaction between the two.

Even the firefights, when they do break out, aren’t conforming to expectations. You have two hands that are their own separate entities, and you require both to fire anything bigger than a pistol with any degree of accuracy. Loading a gun means putting a magazine in your left hand with your gun in your right and then hitting reload. Unloading means taking that magazine out, either dropping it on the floor or putting it in your pocket, taking out a new magazine, and loading it into the gun.

And when you’re shot, you bleed, and you bleed out if you don’t bandage or get back to base in time. The more injured you are the less able you are to run, to shoot, to do anything of worth. Cars with drivers who are bleeding out start to slosh down the road like drunks, and if you’re too badly hurt you can’t even lift your gun to fire. ‘Messy’ is an apt description.

“Part of the inspiration of Sub Rosa’s shooting is from Receiver, which David Rosen was developing right next to me at the 7DFPS jam. So I stole his ideas, with his permission. I see Sub Rosa as Receiver-Lite, because those gun mechanics make the gunfights more chaotic, and I don’t want people to be Rambo and just run in and shoot ten people. I want it to require more team-based stuff, which it does if it’s harder to reload and shoot.”

On top of that the very physics of movement are heavy and a little clumsy. If you start running you can’t immediately stop, you have momentum and that momentum can lead to you slamming into walls or crashing through windows into the street below. It’s all very much style and tone over usability, but when the primary purpose of Sub Rosa is not to be a shooter, it can get away with it.

But that doesn’t mean it will, once it opens up more to new players. I ask Austin what it’s like to develop when you need the players cooperation with the concept of the game for it to be fun.

“When you play a boardgame with your friends, you know they’re going to follow the rules. You could easily cheat in Werewolf, but you know they’re not going to do that. But with an online game of any sort, if there’s an exploit, people are going to abuse it. That makes it much more difficult to establish a style of play.”

Which makes his job as a developer that much more difficult. But then again, as we’ve seen with the wild success of games like DayZ and Rust, players are eager to try something new, and Sub Rosa is certainly trying something novel.

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