"My goal is not to make you more powerful than other people," Eskil Steenberg, the video game developer recently told Kotaku, as he explained which video game design rule he is breaking. "It is to let you be more respected."
Eskil Steenberg's ambitious video game Love, a game he made by himself, officially launches tomorrow. We've covered it a bunch before (in text and video), though its Google-proof title doesn't make coverage that easy to find.
It's even a Game Developers Conference tradition for me to spot the sharp Steenberg lugging his laptop through the show's halls, happily coaxing me into another demo of the game. I marvel at the only video game I've ever seen that looks like it was art-designed by Claude Monet. He races through the first-person game explaining its quasi-massively-multiplayer design and its morphing terrain, skipping any explanation of its made-up in-game language and tugging on me to look at all the advanced texturing tools he's created or some other technology he surely knows I can't fully appreciate.
Never before, not until this month's GDC, did I jokingly accuse Eskil of being a hippie. He was explaining how his game works and why it doesn't let players level-up. You collect things in this first-person game. You kill computer-controlled enemies. But in this MMO, you gain no experience points. You don't level up into a character that is better than everyone else, a Level 80 World of Warcraft master that would make the WoW newcomers jealous. Instead, any of the benefits you gain for your actions — improved character health, better weapons, new transportation options — are made accessible to anyone in your player group, anyone who is playing from the same base settlement that you started in.
What's gained for the individual in Love, in other words, is gained for the group.
If you let a player level up their character, Eskil told me, "then people start caring about themselves." But if you have them build something for the community then you have something that makes people respect you and from which everyone benefits.
Steenberg sees this as a time-saver. He says it helps a player who is busy with non-gaming parts of their life to still have a character who can play alongside those who devote more time to Love. Steenberg himself thinks he will benefit from this aspect of Love gaming. "The game is designed for me, because I don't have a lot of time to play."
But beyond a time-saving feature it is a matter of values. Steenberg seems turned off by braggarts and is invigorated by the idea of people gaining acclaim for charity and upkeep for the community. It isn't the most perfect analogy but Steenberg suggested I think of Barack Obama and why so many more people liked him when he became President than they did when they hadn't heard of him two years prior. Obama didn't physically transform when he became President of the United States, Steenberg pointed out. He didn't level up. "He can't take 50 bullets. He can't fly. He didn't grow two arms. He got an achievement and people started trusting him. He did something people respect."
I think it was after Eskil Steenberg made that point that it clicked. Making a game called Love. Making a game full of settlements of players who share communal ownership of individual achievements. You're a hippie, I chided him. He smiled. He laughed. He was not at all offended.
Love launches tomorrow on PC and will come to Mac and Linux if Steenberg can find people to help with that. Get the game from the official Love site.