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

Andrew Hayward | Aug. 18, 2015
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.

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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. 

 

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