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"We had to figure out how to provide a natural end and emotional arc to systems that hungered for endless escalation--and once we did so, it illuminated our path for the rest of development."
Xalavier Nelson Jr.
January 27, 2022
9 Min Read
Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with a goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Billionaires are, despite outsized economic, environmental, cultural, and political influence, still fundamentally human beings. They feel sadness, and joy, and rage, and jealousy. They go to the bathroom. They scroll through too much social media (or have an assistant do it for them). They break their New Year's resolutions. They lie. They are bags of gristle and bone, driven by electrical signals and pulsing meat! Just like you! And like any false god, they can bleed.
...But I digress.
I'm Xalavier Nelson Jr., the head of a multi-project indie studio called Strange Scaffold. Our ethos is to find ways to make games better, faster, cheaper, and more sustainably than is currently thought possible. On December 7, 2021, we released our newest game, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator (SWOTS), on Xbox Game Pass and Steam. It's a sci-fi body horror market tycoon with mod support and a distinct focus on narrative. We infamously feature, among other things, full support to play the game from beginning to end using the Microsoft Kinect V2 (on PC). Game Pass doesn't share numbers publicly, but by all indications, including our sales data on other platforms, the game has been played by tens of thousands of people. It's something I continually find both surprising and immensely relieving.
Of the many things in and around the game that make me proud to have worked on it, including our all-star team, the design of the endgame scenario stands out as an encapsulation of the perspective of the entire project. If only to fit the numbers on the screen, our game could not be one of infinite accumulation. We had to figure out how to provide a natural end and emotional arc to systems that hungered for endless escalation--and once we did so, it illuminated our path for the rest of development.
It's one of my favorite things I've worked on, but with that said, first thing's first:
A WORD FROM PROGRAMMER SAM CHIET ABOUT WHY HE CHOSE TO PUT KINECT SUPPORT IN A GAME IN 2021
Because I could. And that's just not me talking tech, I mean the fact it actually shipped is a testament to Strange Scaffold's (and Xalavier's) beautifully alarming commitment to creatively enabling contributors, because nowhere else in the industry do I get away with that and still have a job. I can't even say how supportive they were. Especially after I dropped it on the team like a cartoon anvil.
The Kinect thought we were going to wave our hands in front of each other's faces to browse movies, and that wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man-ing into the coffee table could feel as cool as swinging a lightsaber. It was brutally maligned at release, very arguably dishonestly marketed, and swept into the landfill of history in 2019 when the new Xbox was announced.
I gotta be honest, that's pretty funny. The idea of reviving that is hilarious. Who would want that?
That question should have been "nobody", because it was the entire gag and (so I thought) the reason I started. But it turns out:
I do. I do so much.
I call what happened in 2019 a murder. Vin Diesel was there and could have stopped it.
The Kinect was trying something genuinely new and weird, and flat out, I fuck with that. Modern AR is covered in its fingerprints, furries in VRChat find use in its soul-boring sensor array to this day - it's not just doing things that are objectively funny, but objectively cool.
And this is why I'm still on board. I love the play of inverting this truth we've accepted about the Kinect's merit, and accidentally discovering something human to mourn. Which is to me, if we're treating the Kinect as a character, boundless, stupid optimism about the future.
There's another side of this mourning but I'm waiting until I let go of this project for good to speak on that.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR ATTENTION; BACK TO OUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED DISCUSSION OF BILLIONAIRES AND, UNRELATED, GUILLOTINES
We wanted to make an economics game for people who get exhausted by the thought of a spreadsheet. I'm one of them. I'll pull up an intriguing new 4X game, stare down the barrel of dozens of new graphs and systems I need to wrap my head around to begin enjoying the mechanics and perspective of its world, and promptly return to the safe waters of Civilization 4; where every unit is a metaphorical Matryoshka doll waiting to be combined into an existentially terrifying stack of death. So, creating an economics sim that was about action as much as it was numbers for an immediately satisfying, improvisational, lizard-brain game loop was the goal--if only so I could play my own game.
I ended up achieving this through the concept of what we called the Trading Day. The player has unlimited time to prepare. Every in-game day, you review potential cargo hold upgrades, check out (and potentially pay off) the opposing traders you'll be competing against... Maybe even dabble in the organ-based stock market. However, once you press the big red button labeled TRADE, the entire game kicks into overdrive.
For two and a half minutes, all preparatory elements are shunted from the screen, the organ market opens, and it's filled with opposing traders who want the same meat that you do. Meanwhile, clients who want specific organs for specific needs (dubious and not) are pinging you with requests. Fulfilling requests gives you reputation, our equivalent of XP, and the more reputation you have, the wider your game experience grows. You can hold more requests at a single time, new organs unlock in the market (some of which have unique impacts on other organs while stored in your hull), and the range of clients expands to show you an increasing range of how rampant alien capitalism affects beings of every class and creed--usually for the worst. Semi-randomized events can strike during a trading day, wildly altering market conditions or confronting you with consequences of decisions you made earlier in the game.
And then, as quickly as it begins, it ends. The trading day is over, lost in a haze of profit and jobs (hopefully) well done. Time advances, you lick your wounds and/or celebrate your victories, and the cycle begins anew.
The core loop was solid. Reputation tiers allowed us to gate both progress and the unfolding narrative. We added bespoke plotlines players could pursue amidst the randomized systems-heavy requests to collect endings, giving the game needed meta-structure and drive for players seeking a goal in the wider systemic pool. The problem is: we still didn't have an endgame. Despite the absurdist thrust, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator was a set of mechanics and stories that did not work together to make a distinct point, and that absence was keenly felt.
Giving the player a karmic fall might have been fun to write, but I decided it wouldn't be a satisfying experience to play through. We were making a dystopian economics game. Pulling out the guillotine would be enjoyable as a developer, but it didn't acknowledge the truth of gaining overwhelming economic power in either our fictional reality, or our real one. Being rich is a superpower. It is the ability to directly reshape the world around you--or build one you find convenient, in the absence of ability to do the former. I was designing around a player state where, narratively and numerically, they would likely be so powerful as to make most mechanical penalties either negligible or inauthentic. So, how do we make anything matter?
The answer revealed itself in a series of conversations with the team, when we reached the same realization mentioned at the beginning of this article. Billionaires are just like us--and that's fucked, actually.
It's like giving a category 5 hurricane a handgun. The fact that people who have gained (or been given) overwhelming economic power could rightly be called a force of nature, enacting sweeping global domino effects at a moment's notice, while still being subject to the same personal pettiness, vulnerabilities, and downright ugliness found in any other human being, is a terrifying distortion of scale. I think this is part of the reason our culture idolizes these figures. We have to see them as inherently harder working, smarter, superior beings--because if that wasn't the case, how do you handle the cognitive dissonance? Knowing your own frailty, do you want to serve a king who is actually just like you?
Having barred myself from impacting the player either mechanically or narratively, I targeted their feelings.
In the final stage of the game, a previously indifferent universe suddenly can't stop talking about you. Event after event triggers, featuring criticism of your business practices, environmental and economic impact... Previous missteps are held before the light and mocked. Former business partners give tell-all interviews about the type of person you supposedly are. You are made to tangibly feel that, despite any accolades you might receive in other sectors of the galaxy, there is a significant, vocal portion of people who consider your very existence heinous.
We let this go on for several days.
And then, some fellow billionaires slide into your DMs. They have an idea for a new type of business model: organ subscriptions. Crafted for maximum compulsion to create a new kind of organ market, all your own. And, looking at a universe of ingrates, your player character pursues the quest gladly.
I don't want to spoil it, but to make a long story short, the curtain closes as your player character succeeds. You enter an incalculable new era of wealth and influence alongside your compatriots, to join the power you've already gained. Fuck the haters. They couldn't stop you before, and now, they never will.
The message is clear: no matter how much money you make, or power you manage to accrue, you wield it as an ordinary person, driven by the same passions and prejudices as your fellow man.
And that's the most terrifying thing of all.
About the Author(s)
Xalavier Nelson Jr. is a BAFTA-nominated studio head, narrative director, and writer, with dozens of titles under his belt including Reigns: Beyond, Hypnospace Outlaw, An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, and El Paso, Elsewhere. He also makes strides in a burgeoning storytelling career outside of games, with releases such as the cult hit comic Sherlock Holmes Hunts the Moth Man.
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