The following is a free chapter from the first book in my Kings and Conquests LitRPG series Devils Demons and Dead Men, available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore.
“It won’t work.”
“It will work.” Garrett Wyland was one of a scarce few game company CEOs who was equally credible in either cargo shorts and a tank top or a $3000 suit. At the moment, he was impeccably outfitted in the latter, as he was due to make a presentation to a room full of investment bankers within the hour. Running alongside was a surprisingly un-burnt-out developer from the user interface team. His job was to create on-screen controls players could use to configure Fairly Unusual’s games.
“You can’t give that many options to the players! They’ll get confused.”
Garrett turned the corner, walking swiftly along the carpeted corridor towards the gleaming glass-enclosed conference room where he was due to make his presentation. He had authorized a ridiculous lease for the crappy building his exploding company previously occupied, but Wyland and his accountants learned their lesson quickly. If your bank balance is worldwide news, it’s tough to negotiate reasonable costs for basics. So Wyland did one of his trademark hype for value deals and scored one of the most prestigious office complexes in the Los Angeles area. From the south side of the building, the Santa Monica beaches divided some of the most expensive restaurants in the world from the sparkling blue Pacific. The inviting waters stretched to the horizon.
“Players thrive on too many options. Not only will they understand them, they’ll take the time to meticulously try each one and compare it to all the others. Then they’ll write a 20,000 word blog post to tell everyone else about it. Half the stuff we know about these games we learn from the players three months after release.”
“They’ll need help.”
“They’ll write their own. How do you think we make these games profitable in the first place? Any money we don’t spend writing rules we can spend on TV commercials.” Wyland handed the user interface production notes back to the developer and swerved into the conference room. As he made his way to the head of the table, he passed more than sixty people, including investors, vendor representatives and most of his own senior staff.
“Ladies and gentlemen, today’s subject is this.” He picked up a dry erase marker and wrote the word “ambition” on the board. “We’re not going to follow market wisdom. Not with what we’ve got riding on this project.”
“Contributors won’t be happy,” Brody Gray replied as he poured yet another soda over ice in an expensive water glass. “Future stockholders won’t be happy. By all indications, they’re looking forward to a traditional massively multiplayer experience.”
“Contributors are never happy,” Wyland replied. “The first rule of crowdfunding is this: The only real appeal is in sending in money so you have a ticket to complain for 18 months. Stockholders don’t care about anything as long as their shares go up. Half of each side will gripe no matter what we produce. Let’s just presume that’s the cost of doing business going into the backstretch.”
“It’s going to present us with some publicity issues,” Janice Powell added. “The last thing we need is the entire Internet complaining about how much our game sucks.”
“After what we’ve endured over the last two weeks, that publicity would be like sitting poolside at the Miss America pageant hotel.” Nobody was entirely sure who said that, but more than a few heads nodded wearily.
Wyland raised his voice a bit so everyone could hear. “Folks, one thing I am going to cultivate with an almost obsessive consistency in this project is controversy. I want the Internet to complain from the moment this game is released until our players are all admitted to senior living communities. I want them complaining about this game side by side in their adjustable convalescent beds during applesauce hour. When one of them dies, I want their 99-year-old best friend to be sitting front row during the service muttering about their unresolved arguments on character balance. Understand? I want this game to piss off the world, because pissed-off people are mounted knights in the kingdom of word of mouth.”
“What if they sue?” one of the investors asked.
“Then we walk into court and defend.”
“What if we lose?”
“We appeal. Chuck, how many legal obligations do we have to our crowdfunding contributors and audience?”
“Can you please explain why so everyone will understand?”
“Legally, if I give money to you, it’s a gift. You are obligated to do absolutely nothing. This is doubly true if I am giving you money under a terms of service agreement in exchange for you building some kind of speculative project like a video game. I have no legal recourse at all if the project fails. I am issued no stock. There are no ownership documents. There is no contract. I own nothing. Even if there were some kind of contract, force majeure would absolve you legally and since everyone in this room is sitting behind about 11 corporate entities, by the time Joe the video game fan unravels the legal taffy wad, some mail drop in Nevada will be dealing with the paperwork anyway.”
“How do you know all that?”
“I’m a member of the California Bar.”
“Where did you graduate law school?”
“Did everyone get that? If you need it in writing, Chuck’s crack staff will draft something this afternoon.”
“Garrett, we can’t just do a pat answer like this. We’re talking about a ten million dollar project now. There’s more to this than just a bunch of guys in a garage now. This building alone is going to provide the entire fan base what they’ll claim is proof we were just in it for the money.”
“We are just in it for the money.”
“The fact we’re doing so well is precisely why we can’t allow what might happen someday to affect our ambition today, Janice. Now, let’s move on to the ten features.”
“How long did you reserve the room for?” one of the senior developers quipped. Some of the attendees chuckled. The room darkened and the projector filled one wall with an enormous image of the sword-and-shield-reminiscent Kings and Conquests logo. The word “balance” appeared in the center of the screen. Then a red line crossed it out and a red circle appeared around it. Wyland turned and faced the meeting.
“What does that mean?” Brody asked.
“KNC will not be balanced. Balance is boring. Balance kills fun.” Wyland replied.
“So, what are we going to do? Make it imbalanced?” audio engineer Tyler Briscoe asked.
“Absolutely. This game is going to be hilariously imbalanced. I don’t want players to know what’s going to happen from one minute to the next. Balance is a prison, and I’m not going to waste capital paying a bunch of code monkeys to sit and adjust a spreadsheet day and night for ten years.”
“You’re deliberately trying to provoke an argument, aren’t you?” the same investor asked. “Players will go nuts if they think they are being picked on. They’ll claim they aren’t getting what other players get.”
“We’ve already discussed annoying the Internet. There is no better advertising in the world than a bunch of highly motivated complainers, especially Internet people. In fact, we should buy them all webcams and let them spit and hiss and pound the table on Videowall day and night. The more they huff and puff, the higher our subscriber rates go.”
“That could backfire.”
“Good. The more complainers, the better. If we get a thousand of them I’ll throw them a party at the Chestnut.”
The investor shook his head. “Look,” Wyland continued. “I know it’s risky. In fact it could be reckless, but I’ve seen what happens to the companies that play it safe. They plod along, one sleepy step ahead of their burn rate, just trying to get to release day without being overcome by the wolves. That’s not Fairly Unusual. We’re going to walk out on stage birthday party naked, grab a microphone and start singing ‘America the Beautiful’ with the wrong lyrics, because the louder the audience shouts and the more they shake their fists, the more TV cameras will get pointed in our direction. And TV cameras equal sales.”
“Then with all due respect, who buys our game?”
“Everyone. I will personally award a brand new Sovereign 7GL 650-horsepower Gullwing to the first player to reach max level in Kings and Conquests.”
“A two million dollar supercar? Most games would produce a winner in a few months,” Brody said.
“Try weeks,” someone else added.
“The first guy to get to level 3 will be one of the most famous players in the game, and he’ll be too scared to leave the Inn,” Wyland replied. “Death is permanent in KNC. You die, you start over. You die, your subscription cost goes up. You die, you don’t get your stuff back unless you’re the first to find the body, you have the right skills and you escape alive. A lot of the creatures in our game will be well aware of the potential for regular delivery of hot meals near a corpse. Assuming they don’t just eat the corpse and throw all your stuff over a cliff first.”
“What’s our max level?”
“And you think people have the patience for this?”
“They’ll attack it like Norse warlords, and KNC will reward them by beating them senseless over and over again. They will squeeze that water skin for the last drop of even the slightest taste of victory.”
“What keeps them from getting frustrated?”
“Nothing. I hope they get frustrated. I hope they rage against every injustice in the game, because we will have an endless supply. That will motivate them to keep playing.”
“They’ll give up.”
“If they give up, then for them, the game is over. Then they can run to the Internet and broadcast to the world how much of a loser they are.”
“Mr. Wyland, forgive me for my ignorance. I’m not as familiar with gaming culture as you are.” Eduardo Catalan was a senior representative from the Ponferrada Group. His Spanish accent was still rather thick, despite the fact he had been assigned to his hedge fund’s North American offices for many years. “Isn’t the business model here one of rewards for continued play?”
“Let me ask you a question, Mr. Catalan. What is the difference between a game that takes a subscription fee and rewards you with easy-to-obtain treasure and a vending machine?”
“I think the metaphor you would prefer would be a slot machine, Mr. Wyland,” Catalan replied.
“That’s even better. A slot machine is a mechanism that pits a casino against a player to see who runs out of money first.”
“Then should we not be looking for ways to make our game a pleasant experience?”
“Absolutely. I think exhilaration is pleasant, and I think a lot of our players would agree. Wouldn’t you?”
“I’ve never played video games much.”
“Mr. Catalan, the most thrilling moment in Kings and Conquests will be when you and your fellow level two players barely make it back to town on a rainy, lightning-flashing night with the ass in your pants missing.”
The room roared with laughter. Even Mr. Catalan’s face broke into a smile as he shook his head.
“That’s the experience I want to get across. I want players to be continuously aware the world in our game is unsafe. That will set KNC apart from the theme park simulators it will be competing against. I want the prospect of sundown in our game to scare people to the point where they don’t want to visit the next room in their own in-game house. Meanwhile, there will be a rather lucrative achievement for the most spectacular in-game death.”
“What’s a theme park simulator?” one of the investors asked.
“That’s a massively multiplayer game where every adventure location is set up like a theme park ride. You line up with four random people, and then you all sit in a little car that propels you through the attraction. Then you get a balloon at the end,” Tyler replied.
“Exactly. That’s fine the first two or three times you play, but there’s no potential for exploration. No surprises. In fact, a lot of those games punish players who get out of their metaphorical automatic car! Not so with KNC. Every moment in our game should be a life-or-death balancing act between risk and reward. Every discovery should fill players with ruthless greed. Look! A treasure chest! This might be the gold haul that sets them up for the next ten levels. Or, it could be a trunk full of snakes. What it isn’t going to be is a grind fest with an autoloot button.”
“There’s always some genius out there who will have it all figured out in a week,” Janice said with a smirk.
“Good. Kings and Conquests will pose one and only one question to Captain Video Game and his team of finger-twitching geniuses: You think you can you beat the system? Because in this game, the system beats back.”
MALIBU, CALIFORNIA – Southern California developer Fairly Unusual Games today announced the opening of their brand new worldwide corporate headquarters. Company spokesperson Jacob Brewer explained the completion of a state-of-the-art seaside office perched along Pacific Coast Highway overlooking world-famous Zuma Beach had been accelerated to help the company complete its first retail game.
Mr. Brewer also announced the company’s crash preparations for the upcoming GamesWest Supercon, where it is expected they will present players and the media with a first look at their ambitious debut title, Kings and Conquests.
Fairly Unusual made history only last week, becoming the first game developer to raise $125 million in crowdfunding revenue. More than 85,000 people have participated in the campaign CEO Garrett Wyland is calling “The Ultimate Gathering of Heroes.”
Devils Demons and Dead Men is available now at the Palace in the Sky Bookstore!