Full disclosure: My girlfriend is a writer on TUG.
TUG is a procedurally generated, open-world multiplayer game with an emphasis on crafting, but it’s also an attempt to answer one of the gaming industry’s most pertinent questions: What, exactly, is the relationship between a developer and its audience?
Finding the proper balance of artistic vision and fan interaction is one of the trickiest problems facing game-makers today. No longer can a company release a few exclusive screenshots to Electronic Gaming Monthly and expect the mass audience to be satiated, drooling for more. Now, both publishers and developers must tread lightly to avoid all-out war with a riled up fanbase. This is an era in which Electronic Arts can be voted the worst company in America two years running, in which a Microsoft employee feels the need to straight-up insult consumers who question the need for an “always-on” game console. On the other side of the pendulum, you have gamers demanding a developer change a game that didn’t suit their fancy. (While I still haven’t finished Mass Effect 3 — and thus have no concrete opinion about its ending — I strongly feel that developers should be allowed to end their games any damn way they want.)
So, this relationship is out of whack. It’s a scary and frustrating time both for consumers and the companies who must appeal to them. The worst part of all this strife is that anger and frustration — from either side of the aisle — won’t make games better. It won’t create discussion about how developers can create more fulfilling gaming challenges, and it will drive gamers away from new and exciting ways they can experience the medium. I don’t think games should necessarily exist in the same artistic vacuum as more passive art forms like movies or books. In games, the audience is involved in the actual mechanical function of the piece, so its input is important. But there must be a way to include this input without stampeding upon the original intent of the developer.
TUG is a game that will tackle this compromise from day one. Its development team includes researchers and social scientists who will use their in-game findings to not only make the experience of playing TUG better, but hopefully make the people playing the game better for it. They will pay attention to what players find enjoyable, how they interact with one another, and how their multitude of different play styles transform into a functioning microcosm. Modders and outside-the-box players will be rewarded for coming up with innovative ways to play TUG, not chastised for pushing the game’s envelope. It’s a game that will respond to player input with respect and thoughtful consideration. It will use the immense talent and creativity of its user base to forge unexpected paths forward.
But at the same time, TUG has a solid foundation and an artistic ambition all its own. It will still have plenty to offer gamers like me, who enjoy interacting with someone else’s vision of the world. The game’s concept art is gorgeous, at once cartoony and mythical. And Nerd Kingdom promises a deeply thought-out world of mystery and magic, a story that surrounds the experience but never envelops it. I can’t wait to explore the game’s ruins, piece together its lost civilizations and mythologies. The developers want much of this element to be a surprise, for players to discover TUG‘s secrets on their own. But what they’ve shown indicates a narrative vision that dovetails perfectly with the gameplay. The world of TUG is right in front of you, but it’s up to you to explore it and make something of it.
Of course, the team behind the game can explain its intricacies and ambitious goals in much greater detail. If what I said above intrigues you, I highly encourage you to check out TUG‘s Kickstarter page. There, you’ll find everything from early pre-alpha gameplay footage to in-depth discussions about sound design and narrative. Nerd Kingdom has been wonderful about communicating with the community; they are open, smart, funny people who care deeply about video games and the state of the industry. They want to makes games better, and they want you to help. While the game is still very early in its development, TUG is certainly one of the most ambitious and well thought-out attempts to bridge the gap between developers and players. It might just be the game we need.
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