It's been nearly a year since husband and wife development team RobotLovesKitty first rolled out its high-concept perma-perma-death, audience-participation action troll game: Upsilon Circuit. And if anything, the game has only gotten more willing to fuck with everyone's notions of what it means to be a gamer and a game.
At PAX East 2014, Alix Stolzer and Calvin Goble described Upsilon Circuit as an 8-player isometric action title which has only one worldwide server. When a player dies they can never play the game again. Players will be randomly selected from a global audience which can watch the gameplay live on streams, and can help upgrade the characters equipment.
At this year's PAX East 2015, much of those ideas remain, though they've been expanded upon in interesting ways.
For instance, the audience can now also spend real money to purchase items for those players in the game or to drop enemies on top of them as they play.
The current plan is for the game to be streamed on multiple services, like Twitch, and for audience interaction with the game to run through the title's website, Goble says.
"The audience can purchase monsters to go after players," he says. "They can purchase potions or buffs to send into the game to help as well as to hinder. No one has done this particular game before, so we have a lot of theories of what might happen. Our next phase is to run some tests to see what a large group of people do. Once we know, we can scale the price so there are not too many things being dropped. All of this will be coming from in-game currency you can buy with real money.
"The concept is that we're monetizing trolling."
It sounds like there are a lot of moving parts involved in the design of the game, but it is fairly easy to grasp how you play. Initially, I tried my hand at controlling one of the eight in-game characters. The gameplay feels a little bit like Bastion meets Gauntlet. There's a lot of button smashing and a seemingly endless supply of enemies, all taking place in a floating, sort of future-meets-past city scape. Occasionally, I would run into a fellow contestant and we would work to take down the eclectic mix of enemies from fairies to giant robots. But that cooperation, at least during my time, felt almost accidental.
My play sessions were both brutally short as I struggled to master the controls and get a sense for the damage I was dealing and receiving, all within the whirlwind of battle.
Next I tried my hand at watching. There were several tablets at the booth that allowed audience members to pay for and drop in enemies. Currently, the only control an audience member has over the drops is what and how many occur. But Goble says in the future, audience members will be able to drag and drop their help or hinder purchases right onto the map.
With a game that has permadeath and no chance of ever playing again (unless you go through the rigmarole of creating a new account with new information), I asked Goble how they're going to be sure that people last more than a few minutes. Will there be a way to practice before your fighting for your digital life?
The short answer is no, you can't practice and the fact that you may die instantly or within seconds is part of both the entertainment of watching and the hoped-for built-in sense of suspense.
Some of that decision is also tied to the fiction of the game, which Goble says is quite deep.
"We knew for this we needed real serious story stuff," he tells me.
The story, which was written by Don Thacker from the Starr Mazer team, is meant to run about a year and then the game will end of its own accord.
"It's an engaging story that we will only tell once," Goble says.
All he will tell me now is that the game takes place in world where Manhattan disappeared in the '80s and that a game show, where you can risk your life for fabulous prizes, has risen in popularity.
The host of that game show is the floating, digitized head of Ronald Reagan, known as Ronnie Raygon in the game. He looks and is meant to act a lot like the disembodied head of Reagan from the '80s Cafe in Back to the Future 2.
He runs the game like a game show host, popping into the live stream to crack jokes, give play-by-play and keep things entertaining.
When I ask if he's run by a real person or an AI, Goble will only say that they're keeping that in the "realm of magic."
Whichever it is, he wasn't functioning when I was at the booth.
True permadeath, randomly-selected players and pay-to-troll audience participation are really just the instigators for what RobotLovesKitty hope will be the real draw and purpose of the game: celebrity.
Everything in the game is being designed to try and create a sort of cult of personality around those eight players. Imagine a video game version of Hunger Games, or Smash TV but with an audience made up of you.
"The game only runs for two to three hours a day, like a television or game show," Goble says. "The players are really the characters in the game. How they talk to each other and interact with each other is the entertaining part.
"We're hoping for real, real people interactions. Real meaning in a game, real permanence in a game."
That notion is what drives every design element of the game. Goble likens it to designing a game that is almost completely backwards.
"With a normal game you are trying to make it fun for the player," he says. "We just want to make it fun to watch."
To that end, the game will split players up into two teams, in hopes of getting the audience to pick a side and invest in that team and its players.
"What want to build up is a new friendship with these people," Goble says. "I want to see people band together, make friendships. When someone dies, I want it to be an emotional response. I want someone to care. I want to see something you only get out of a movie."
While Goble agrees that players might pop into the game and die in seconds, he also thinks some will be able to last for months.
"A lot we don't know about how to do this because no one has done this before," he says. "So we're starting to play around with things. We're making a lot of infrastructure on the backend so we can balance on the fly and make changes on the fly. We want to be able to fix things as it goes. That's the benefit of it being up for two to three hours a day."
For the next couple of months, the team will be messing around with the sort of arena of death I tried out, working to tweak balance and creatures, he says.
Once it launches, if it's a success, in theory eight players will become in-game celebrities, famed players whose interactions with one another and skill in the game will earn the developers real money. So what's in it for the players, I asked Goble.
"They really will become a celebrity if we can pull this off," he says.
But only in the game, I point out. What about revenue sharing or allowing them to include their Twitch or YouTube channels as a way to extend that celebrity?
"We've been talking about that," he says. Both about revenue sharing and allowing people to share their real identities.
The short answer is that they haven't figured it out yet. Besides, it doesn't feel like this is a game driven by a desire to make money.
"I'm mostly curious to see what happens," Goble says. "So much of this is a human experiment.
"What kind of personality will hold people's sympathy?"