Note: This is a long read. Feel free to scroll to the pictures and video below to get a vague sense of how things went down.
Let me tell you about a game I made with the sole intention of watching it die.
I wouldn’t call myself an experienced game designer (and I’m far from a professional), but these days there are plenty of ways to create game-y bits and concepts without the hassle of programming. As a big fan of game jams (inclusive events with the aim of creating games in a short timespan), I was able to collaborate on The Message, a text adventure created using the interactive fiction tool Twine (and a paintbrush) for Fuckthisjam.
After it (unexpectedly) enjoyed quite a bit of positive reception, I was eager to create more interesting little games, and it was only convenient that Ludum Dare, one of the largest jams of its kind, cast its shadow.
Long after the event had kicked off, I chatted with a bunch of friends on Skype and spitballed ideas for LD27’s theme “10 seconds”. There were obvious ones such as 10-second rounds, 10 seconds to reach a goal, and a couple of interesting concepts like making an entire game in 10 seconds. After my first suggestion – a game that would only be playable a single time, for 10 seconds, and then disappear once and for all – iteration quickly led to what eventually would become Impetus.
Although I had a fleshed-out idea in mind, Ludum Dare’s “compo” event only allows for one developer per game. More importantly, its deadline was mere hours away, so I reckoned I would go full “jam” style. This gave me another day and allowed for teams, the bending of rules and a genereally lower stress level. I’m glad that my buddies Jan (who is experienced in the arts of programming and prototyping) and Jeremy (my partner-in-crime on The Message) were quickly on board to help out implementing the concept, functionality and story I had in mind.
Here’s the gist of Impetus: the game is, in fact, only 10 seconds long. After its countdown timer runs out, it’s over, permanently. There is no way of restarting or playing it ever again. The catch: most prominently placed on screen is a button that lets players reset the countdown, instantly and for everyone else to see, stretching the timeframe again and again. Sustaining the game’s life.
In order to have players overlook their mindlessly repetitive task and instead provoke thoughts and emotional response, I added to the formula by introducing a character to bond with. Displayed in the background is a young woman in a space suit, unconscious and hooked to various tubes and pipes. She’s breathing slowly, there’s a flashing signal, sounds of her heart and a frequency monitor, which, ever so often, would skip a beat.
Once I had thrown in an illustration, some animation and sound, the game was not about clicking a button anymore. Suddenly, it was a human being whose inevitable demise was a maximum of 10 seconds away. Her life was in the hands of players who happened to stop by, wondering what was up with the glitched-out countdown, seeing themselves confronted with a meaningful responsibility.
In the hours preceding Impetus’ release, we had already come to terms with the fact that we would eventually have to bid our farewell – and most likely very soon. There was no way of knowing how many players would come to check out our game, if there would be any at all. Survival meant that, all around the globe, somebody just had to keep clicking and clicking. Would players “get” it? Would they condemn it because it’s not “game” enough? Would they intentionally let Impetus die to see what happens next?
Once the design was finished and we were satisfied with what we had got, it was time to embark on its dangerous journey. We triggered the timer’s death function (internally labeled “fuckup”) and took turns clicking the button. I submitted the link to Ludum Dare’s website, spread it on Twitter and hoped for the best.
For me, everything came down to the first night. Ludum Dare’s submission deadline was at 2 A.M. and each of us was either dead tired or had to get up early. There was a good case to believe that both The Girl and our game would be gone by morning. Even though we saw that a whole bunch of users were visiting the site and actively making use the life-saving button, it was a most painful act to finally close my computer’s lid and call it a night.
And then the whole thing went through the roof.
After its first night, Impetus had lived another 30.000 seconds thanks to a total of over 25.000 timer resets. At that point, I was certain that somebody had to have built a custom script to suspend the game’s conclusion. It was completely insane.
With some of our players popping up in our timelines, we had a pretty clear image of what was going on. Hey, have a look at this, they tweeted, don’t let her die! Judging from dozens of reactions, people truly cared about The Girl. They watched her in her deep, isolated slumber, making sure that she was stuck in the loop. Some of them even transferred the game’s name onto her, a thing that was never intended, although we deliberately left out any detailed exposition to leave room for interpretation (and because there’s only so much you can come up with in a couple of hours).
I knew that we were on to something really big when I received a call from German news magazine Spiegel Online, one of whose editors spontaneously asked me for an interview. I told them about Ludum Dare, our weird ideas, our hopes and our constant fear of Impetus’ existence coming to a sudden end. Mind you, I was still in my underwear and didn’t even have any coffee.
With an impending article about your game on a site as big as SPON (hell, even my mom knows that one), you tend to get a little nervous. News coverage meant that even more players, most of which exist outside of our tiny Twitter bubble, would come and have a look. Of course, increased hits on the site meant an increase in timer resets, which is a good thing right?
Here’s where our experiment started to show its true self.
The article went up after what felt like a couple of minutes and we watched the aftermath unfold: Impetus lived, strong as never before. The timer, which used to jump back to 10 at the last four or five seconds, was stuck at a 9. Massive amounts of visitors checked in to have a go at our little time machine. Numbers in Analytics and the amount of Tweets increased exponentially. Our game was a giant, crazy, wonderful mess. And then it wasn’t.
There always were some hiccups, sure. AJAX requests didn’t fire quick enough, timers ran below zero because client- and server-side clocks weren’t synced properly. One guy even pointed out to me that, for reasons that remain unknown, he saw the game’s end screen when he really wasn’t supposed to. Mostly things you could fix via a quick reload, you know. But not this time.
I clicked the button, just as I did hundreds of times before, and looked straight at an error message. As it turns out, Impetus generated enough traffic to slow down itself and most of the other websites hosted on its server. It was at that moment that my web hoster decided to pull the plug and bring an end to it all. There was no warning issued, no transfer to a bigger server, no offer of selling us more traffic with outrageous prices. A big ol’ 403.
We could have easily transferred the game to a different server and set up a redirect within seconds, but appearantly the hosting guys thought it was wiser to block access to the directory entirely. Naturally, in the timeframe spanning this (completely artificial) “downtime”, Impetus’ time ran out and The Girl’s journey was over for good.
After 89011 global timer resets and a lifespan of 42351 seconds, Impetus has perished and will never return. Thanks for playing!— Dominik Johann (@zerstoerer) August 27, 2013
Of course I was furious when I realised that not even 12 hours after its release, our game went extinct. I don’t blame overly active players, their weird hacks or the major news article that sent them all over in the first place.
It’s not that we didn’t discuss hosting solutions before launch. It just never occured to us that our silly little Ludum Dare submission would attract that much attention. But to think that it easily could have lived much, much longer if we had picked a better service left me kind of frustrated.
Impetus was bound to die, because a dying game was the whole concept. There was never a winning condition, just as there’s no way of winning yourself out of mortality. In the end, the only question was when and why it would happen.
You can still go fire up the site, which has been reduced to a simple game over screen describing the main mechanic and why there’s no need for it anymore.
Despite our major unexpected fuck-up, I’m very proud of our work and the fact that lots of things have turned out way better than expected. Providing players with a vague narrative and a clear description of what’s happening in terms of mechanics has been just enough to keep hundreds of them hooked at a time. We were able to lift the game’s one and only game-like function onto a meta level that was effective enough to convince a giant crowd of a life at stake.
I’m fairly sure we can claim to have created one of the most unique experiences of Ludum Dare 27 and can’t help but smile when I think about our effort / attention ratio. But most of all, I’m proud of the fact that people cared about it. It could’ve easily gone black a few minutes after launch, but it didn’t.
Now that the journey is over, I’d like to thank everyone who helped keep Impetus alive for almost 12 hours. Thank you so much for every button click, article, tweet and kind word. Sorry to those who will never be able to try it out for themselves. I had a blast making it and I’m sure we’ve all learned a few lessons about love, mortality and blind hope in technology.
All I have left to say is: I’d rather see my game die of too much love than of too little.
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