Inside The Flock, the Mac game that slowly dies as its players do (online)

Slated to hit Mac and PC on Friday, August 21, The Flock is a truly eerie experience. The first-person multiplayer game is draped in shadows as you control a hobbled, sluggish human-like creature protecting a glowing artifact—or one of the four ferocious monsters out to claim it. The Flock is billed as a horror game, and it’s the rare one in which the scares come not from scripted sequences or computer-controlled characters, but rather other online players.

And the scariest thing about The Flock may truly surprise you: The game has a finite lifespan of its own, and it’ll stop working once enough player deaths are tallied. In other words, the worse that you and everyone else are at The Flock, the faster the game approaches its promised conclusion, ceases to be playable, and is no longer available for purchase. How’s that for incentive to play well

To hear the creators tell it, the idea of an ever-dwindling “population” of player lives is all about delivering a one-of-a-kind online experience—which must be savored within the potentially short window in which it’s available. Most online games die quietly as players lose interest and/or companies stop reaping profits. By comparison, The Flock’s players will see a countdown of overall lives remaining for the entire community. Once the number hits zero, they’ll be able to experience a grand finale before the game goes offline forever. 

Luckily, that approach ties neatly into the premise, which tells the story of a race of beasts “doomed to extinction” on Earth in the year 3000, says Jeroen Van Hasselt, creative director at Dutch studio Vogelsap. In fact, the population system—which was devised later in development—solved one of their biggest design problems: How to work story into a multiplayer game focused on short skirmishes, while simultaneously keeping players interested so the online game doesn’t fade away.

The Flock began as a university project for Van Hasselt in late 2012 at the Utrecht University of the Arts—he’s still a student, in fact—when the idea of using light to illuminate unseen action took hold.

“We were thinking about a visible way to anticipate each other’s moves. Out of this came the idea to use light to show and visualize where you are looking,” he explains. “Now the light needed to have meaning and power, so what if you had to get to the person with the light, but are not allowed to move [within] the light”

From that initial thought, he held a “real-life playtest” in a school basement with flashlights and friends, and then set off to create a multiplayer game built around that mechanic. In the game, which supports between three and five total players per match, everyone starts as one of The Flock—the clawed monsters that can move swiftly through the darkness and bound incredible distances. When one player finds and grabs the flashlight-esque artifact, he or she is transformed into the human-like carrier, who limps around with the light. 

Here’s where things get interesting: Sure, the Flock have an obvious physical advantage, and if unseen in the darkness, they can easily steal the artifact. But the carrier’s light is even more powerful—so much so that any movement within the illuminated path will immediately burn them to death. Luckily, the Flock creatures can stand still (like a statue) to avoid that grisly fate, and their majority means that the carrier probably can’t keep one foe pinned down with light for long without risking a sneak attack from another. 

Each battle will surely generate a small stack of Flock deaths, and those will be taken away from the starting tally. That initial number is 215,358,979—so hundreds of millions of lives are up for grabs before the game shuts down for good. The developers used data from the closed beta test to help shape that figure, but player demand and interest will determine how long the game actually lasts. And there’s one caveat: If Vogelsap opts to release the game on consoles, that total will be adjusted for all platforms. 

Will The Flock last months A year More It’s a question that flies against conventional wisdom in the gaming space. While it’s true that online games typically don’t last forever—although World of Warcraft still attracts millions of subscribers after 11 years—there’s such a preoccupation with the concept of “value” for many game players. You buy a game and expect to play it over and over again, right But at some point, with The Flock, that just won’t be true. 

It’s almost inching towards performance art, paying for one experience that lasts a certain amount of time—only unlike a play or screened film, that end time isn’t finalized from the start, and your own actions help hurry it along. The Flock isn’t structured like most other games, so treating it with the same expectations seems like a fool’s errand. 

“Instead of the game’s player-base withering away—as most (indie) multiplayer games are destined to—we want the game to end with a climactic finale and have the players’ experience be solid from start [to] end. I understand people like to go back to their games, but if there’s no other players online to play against, that’s not worth much,” Van Hasselt asserts. “We chose to sacrifice that option of being able to replay the game years from now, and turn the overall experience of The Flock into something better for most players.”

At least the finale might be worth the wait, however long that ends up being: Van Hasselt says they’ll tease out hints while the game is live, but although he won’t get into details now, he says the playable ending event will be memorable. He also claims that a second season or return run won’t happen, since it would kill the uncertainty that helps make The Flock unique. “We’re here to make sure the players feel amazed and excited for what we have to offer,” he explains. “They can’t go through the same experience when they already know the outcome.”

The announcement of the population system has generated a lot of buzz around the game: Some positive, but also plenty negative, as prospective players gripe about paying for something that isn’t certain to last. Van Hasselt admits that the The Flock won’t be for everyone, given that distinctive approach. However, he seems sure that possibly scaring away some players is a worthwhile sacrifice, as it makes for a better game for everyone else willing to take the plunge. 

“We want to create an authentic experience that will be something worth remembering. We’re not here to make a cash-grab,” he says. “We’re taking a big risk here. I believe we might even hurt our sales more by stating this than [we would have] without including the population plan, but we genuinely believe the player experience will be much better for it.”

“We want to be honest, transparent, and explicit about this,” he adds. “We wouldn’t want anyone to buy The Flock and find out later: surprise, the game ends! We stated it upfront and will continue to do so.”


Andrew Hayward

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