Watch The Skies 2, Part 2 (Put Your Review Hat On)

An Interesting Day Out

So I’ve dramatized my day at Watch The Skies 2 in Part 1. But what did I actually think of it? It’s a tricky one.

At game-start, I was excited, and I mean excited like a puppy about to wee. The air was bristling with laughter and chatter as people all queued up outside. To say ‘air of excitement’ is to undersell it. People are turning to strangers, tantalized – who are you? What role are you going to be playing? There was a communal feel, something you’d normally find with age-old friends. But here, it was with everyone, didn’t matter who they were. And I’m there, right in with it – I can’t wait to interact with these people in game, to see it all bubble and froth like some arcane social brew. The early technical stutters inside didn’t make me happy, but I was okay with it – sometimes things go wrong. It’s only in retrospect that I realize how much it crippled us. As it was, for the first round or two of the game I had a blast – I was racing around the room, interrogating, wheedling, picking people’s statements apart, reporting to HQ. It was awesome. I mean it, I felt moments of genuine awe.

But as the game asserted itself more and more, I realized that all of those things I was doing (all of those fun things I was doing) were, as a paper, as a team, as players, slowing us down. In order to ‘succeed’ in the game, and in order to do what the newspaper was actually designed to do in the game (i.e. let countries know what other countries were up to) we had to cut that out. I’ll say that again – in order to play the game, by the game’s desires (i.e. press control and every country’s desires), we had to stop having fun. And that right there is the death knell of anything.

From there, the experience only declined. It’s perverse, but the thought has crossed my mind that I’m glad I had to stop playing to take care of my partner player. I was gutted that I missed out on the story of the game – on the hundreds of tiny dramas that were playing out. But had I kept playing? I don’t know what would have happened, but I do know I wouldn’t want to do it again.

The more I think about it, the more it becomes apparent that the media teams occupied a very peculiar niche in the game. A halfway-house between a control role and a player role. The player element is evident from the competing teams. But it felt much more like a control role with a veneer of player role pasted onto it. Once the game started, I barely spared a thought as to how I was measuring up against the other teams. In order to compete with something, you have to be able to interact with it, or at least see what you are competing with. In WTS2, there was none of either. I glanced briefly at one GNN paper, and I only caught the layout and heading. But reading their papers would take time, time that it was literally impossible to take and still play. Equally, the only interaction that was with either media team was a quick line of smack-talk at the game start, and that was it. The game was so large, and the media so small within that, that it was absurdly unlikely that two media teams would ever be competing for a story and know about it. It might, perhaps, emerge that you and another reporter were chasing the same lead, trying to get the same information, but you’d never actually know about that until after the fact – if you happened to read their newspaper – or unless you happened to literally bump into them.

In the half-game I played, there was only one occasion of direct competition that emerged. A player, I don’t remember who, came up to Badger News and China News (because we happened to be in earshot) and offered a hot lead, for a price. It was a good move – capitalizing on that innate internal desire to beat the other team. I snatched at the chance, and when pressed as to what I could offer, Caroline shoved our money (which I had entirely forgotten about) into my hands. I offered a megabuck. Our prospective news-giver looked fairly dismissively at me, before asking if China News would outbid. They did, giving two. And that was that. I didn’t mind that I’d lost, because I didn’t care that they might do better.

The problem was that as soon as it was apparent that China News could and would outbid, and that the lead (whatever it was) was not coming to Badger News, I entirely ceased to care. I had too much else to care about to give a toot about what China News had just gained. I would never find out what that lead was, even from China News’ paper, and it’s fairly telling that in four hours, I had one directly antagonistic interaction with another news team. It lasted less than a minute, and as soon as it was over, it didn’t matter.

The main way we were compared against other news teams was when Press Control informed us – usually that another paper was printing more news than us. But that’s not interaction, that’s not competition, that’s ‘press X to feel’. I say ‘the main way’ we were compared, but as far as I can make out, it was the only way. There may well have been some countries that wanted one newspaper over another, but it would never impact the media’s game because the media would never find out, it would never really impact their game, and the media would still print and distribute to that country regardless.

The fact is that, in general, none of the other non-media players cared which paper they were going to. There may have been exception to this, but on the whole players wanted to speak to The Press, not any particular wing of it. No one outside of the media cared about the media’s division. We all offered the same service. For the most part, people wanted the press because they wanted something in print, which meant they were going to take it to all media teams to maximise the chance of it getting printed and read. On the occasions where people did prioritize one paper over another – the other papers would never know about it, and so they didn’t care either.

Looking back, I’m less okay with the technical errors at game start because, especially with the roles we had, that back-foot we started on was something we could never change. Compare us to the other news stations who had working equipment, had bought extra equipment (laptops, cameras etc) and who had meta-gamed – coming with pre-prepared newspaper layouts and fake Twitter accounts set up. I’m not knocking those things, I think it’s an amazing idea to use Twitter, it’s bloody brilliant. While I’m certainly not condemning other news teams for just being better, it didn’t make for a good player-experience. For instance I know that one player, editor-in-chief of GNN had 1: played a megagame before (in the media role) and had meta-gamed accordingly and 2: runs a media-based company in real life. Both of those things are fine, and it’s wicked to see people using their real-life skills in game – that’s what this kind of megagame experience is all about. But in a straight up race, they were starting in a Ferrari, and we were starting with a three-wheeled ford focus. It didn’t matter what we did at any point in the game, we had already lost before we arrived.

So why have the race in the first place? Unlike the countries of the world and, presumably the aliens up in their hideaway, the media didn’t have asymmetrical aims. We all wanted to be the best paper (according to our game info). Any other aims we might have been given were quickly erased as it turns out the only viable way to run a paper at all was in bullet point – which has no scope for spin unless you simply don’t run the story. In the case of Badger News we were supposed to have conservative leanings, but that didn’t translate to game at all, even though we initially tried. If you want a straight-up competitive race, you need straight-up equal start conditions. That said, I feel that making the media-race equal all round is still just solving the wrong problem.

Some years ago Caroline was asked an astonishingly good question about one of her works of composition by her teacher at the time: why does this exist? As a question, it cuts right to the beating brain of any creative act, be it literature, music, painting or game design. As a question, it’s very much one that should be leveled at the media setup of WTS2. For the origins of WTS it makes sense. Having media gives a whole new angle to play – PR isn’t just a number they pay for any more, it’s something they can engage with. They can give press releases. They can give interviews and boost their country’s standing. They can also get caught with their pants down and they know that, making every interaction with the media a beguiling but dangerous move.

Now ask our question of the media in WTS2 – why does this exist? It’s form doesn’t add to the experiences of country or alien players – they don’t care about the competition, only the fact that news exists. It doesn’t add to the experiences of those playing media teams, they don’t care (much) about the competition either. Viewed in this light it feels apparent that the press setup of WTS2 is something that has grown and scaled up from previous WTS setups, but hasn’t been tested or reviewed enough. As a thought exercise I genuinely believe it would be a better alternative to remove it entirely, and approach the issue of media in WTS2 (which in my mind is also known as WTS-300) as completely fresh. ‘Okay we want media. What’s the best way to do that?’ As soon as you do, new ideas can crop up that would solve any number of the problems I, and Caroline experienced.

Something often said by the perceptive folk at Shut Up & Sit Down is that the key to any game is difficult decisions – creating that point where a player is agonising about doing this or that. In WTS2 for the media it felt like this had been missed, or at least mis-considered. For me, there was never a this or that, instead there was this, that, the other, the other other, those, them, thine and thither. Any decision that I made meant that I wasn’t doing multiple other things that I needed to be doing in order to viably succeed. It was quickly a lose/lose situation, that in turn meant you never felt like you were accomplishing anything. This in turn led to the situation being incredibly demoralizing; no one in the world cared about you – they wanted the news, not your news; you could never create a news product beyond bullet points or fluff because doing so required you to have resources that you could never have; and like Sisyphus there was no kind of victory – what you were doing on turn 1 was exactly the same, exactly as breakneck and exactly as unrewarded as what you’d be doing at game end. You get news, you type news, you print news. Rinse and repeat.

So I’ve spent quite some time now tearing down the game I had. A touch harsh you think? Well, no actually, not at all. While neither me nor Caroline are involved in game creation by any professional means, we are both fascinated by game design. One of the appeals of WTS2 was the chance to be involved in this gargantuan, asymmetrical game-world. For people interested in this kind of thing, it was like being an amateur stargazer and then getting to go to the sodding moon. Equally, it’s why I’m writing all of this now. I want to decode what we experienced. I want to give good, balanced feedback to Jim Wallman and all WTS designers – because the game as a whole looked bloody brilliant. I want to help it improve, refine, and grow. It’s something I would categorically recommend to anyone has been reading this thinking it sounds interesting in any way shape or form. The community out there is stunningly lovely.

What you should really take from this review is this: While I was there I could see the Watch The Skies 2 sparking all around me in a constant, kaleidoscopic cascade of vibrant human interactions. It was, truly, a beautiful sight to behold; something unique and precious and to be remembered forever.

But for the most part, I didn’t get to touch that vibrancy. And I couldn’t recommend being on a media team.

By Laurence Kirkby

Post-script: This article is/was getting a little strange to write. I planned to write a two parter on Saturday. On Sunday it turned out Caroline had written her own article too, which has many crossover points. Now at midday on Monday it’s got to the point where I am simultaneously writing/editing this article, and having conversations with people on the Megagame Makers Facebook page. So, if any of this article seems redundant, it’s because not everyone has access to the real-time conversations being had. Likewise if any of this article doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s possibly because I’ve got confused between this article and the current conversations.

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