‘SOS’ hands-on preview

'SOS' will make you betray your friends to please a livestreaming audience

"SOS" pushes the survival genre envelope, letting you to win for being fun to watch.
"SOS" pushes the survival genre envelope, letting you to win for being fun to watch.
"SOS" pushes the survival genre envelope, letting you to win for being fun to watch.

Highs

  • Audience tracking is a cool idea
  • Watching can be as fun as playing
  • Survival gameplay leads to crazy situations
  • Gives players the freedom to engage with the game their way
  • “Hero” tech has potential

Lows

  • Performative gameplay won't appeal to everyone
  • Players vying for attention may feel overwhelming
  • Other players must “buy in” for it to be fun

Outpost Games’ SOS may well be the first video game reality show.

The game, which hits Steam Early Access Tuesday, sounds a bit like the lately ubiquitous PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds at first, but it’s ultimately plays more like a mixture of tactical military sim DayZ, and the seminal reality TV show Survivor. In each match, 16 players all start alone on an island with no weapons, hoping to be one of the few to make it out alive — but that’s about where the similarities with PUBG end. The goal isn’t to be the “last player standing:” On the contrary, SOS is about making friends, working together, probably betraying each other, and making the whole thing fun for a live, streaming audience to watch.

In a world where streaming and video recording have become huge elements of the gaming scene, SOS turns the idea of having an audience into an actual game mechanic. Catering to the crowd is just as important as winning. It’s a game you can win by talking, potentially without ever firing a shot.

The Game in a Game

The central narrative conceit of SOS is that of a TV reality game show, flavored with a bit of post-modern gladiatorial spectator bloodsport, a la The Hunger Games or Battle Royale. Each of the competitors starts alone on the beach of an island populated with killer ape-like monsters. Their ultimate goal is to obtain one of only a few idol statues scattered around the island, then signal for a helicopter, and escape.

Taking out the idols’ guards isn’t easy, and unlike PUBG, SOS encourages you to work together with other players to win, at least for a little while. Whatever alliances you make, it’s possible you’ll have to break them: There are only three seats on the helicopter, and only players carrying idols can hitch a ride. That might mean you work together with other people to help everyone find an idol and escape, or just stab them in the back as soon as one of you gets your hands on one. The natural stages of the game — find gear, find friends, get idol, kill friends, get to the chopper — create a tension that invite players to team up or betray each other, or simply make unpredictable moves in an effort to come away on top.

Becoming a Hero

Being the cleverest killer or the shrewdest deal-maker isn’t the only way to get ahead though: SOS is meant to emulate a reality show. You are a contestant. Entertaining the people watching online is just as important as gathering treasure.

Outpost Games’ SOS may well be the first video game reality show.

SOS isn’t just aware of how huge a part of the gaming experience streaming has become, but which actively requires and encourages it. The game constantly shows you how many people are watching you online when you play SOS, so you know exactly how big your audience is.

To add extra tracking and features to the livestreaming experience, Outpost Games created an custom Twitch overlay for SOS, which it calls “Hero.” Viewers who watch Twitch streams through Outpost’s Hero website, hero.tv, have access to extra controls, which let them react to what they’re watching with Facebook-like reaction emojis.

Viewers also have some agency over the match itself. Players can signal for occasional supply drops throughout each match to get better gear, but the Hero.TV audience gets to decide what goes in the drop. Fans can make sure their favorite players get exactly what they need, or send a bomb to kill players they think are spoiling the fun.

For players, Hero not only tracks how many people are watching you — both on your stream and other players’ — as well as how they react to what you do, it shows you that information as you’re playing. You always know when you’re being watched, and the game incentivizes you to put on a good show.

SOS game shoot

Why should players care? Aside from the fact that being likable can help them win, SOS takes all that audience and reaction data into account and uses it to rate players on a metric called “Fame.” Essentially, you can excel at SOS through being fun to watch, even if you aren’t great at surviving matches.

With Hero keeping track of your “Fame” rating, SOS gives players two ways to succeed. The game carries two online leaderboards: One tracks your “Survival” rating, showing how good you are at grabbing idols and getting away.

The other tracks your “Fame” rating, and how good you are at drawing and entertaining an audience. You get the same amount of recognition within SOS for winning matches as you do for spectacle.

“We’re still developing all this in terms of figuring out the right balance, but one of the core concepts of SOS is success is not defined by k/d (kill-to-death ratio, a statistic often used in competitive games), or even necessarily surviving a match,” said Outpost Games Creative Director Ian Milham.

Milham said Outpost Games is interested in creating a game and a platform that encourages people to create and participate in ways that go beyond just playing and streaming. The idea is to make a game as fun to watch as it is to play, and give people a variety of ways to take part.

Meet the cast

In theory, the emphasis on making your gameplay entertaining leads to a lot of potential goofiness and creativity. During a press event in Los Angeles, journalists were dropped into matches alongside streamers who had already been trying out SOS in a closed alpha test. A few played as themselves, but several spoke and acted out in-game personas.

One streamer sounded like a pretty heavily stoned Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad. Another could have been Janine Melnitz from Ghostbusters, or maybe Archie Bunker’s wife Edith from All in the Family. Playing a character, making jokes, and finding creative ways to interact with other players are all different ways to try to gain Fame while playing SOS.

During the press event, Milham told a story of one match during SOS alpha testing in which the players abandoned most of the tenants of the match and instead opted to act out a contest akin to The Dating Game or The Bachelor.

“Suddenly you’ve got 50,000 people watching you. That’s going to change your behavior.”

Players stood around, answering questions, with the person giving the least interesting answers getting punched. Before long, only the three best contestants were still alive — and then the group raced off to find their idols and complete the match.

In another game, two players found they both needed an antidote, a rare resource that can save players infected with a disease by the island’s enemies that can eventually turn them into feral zombies. A third player had an antidote for the disease, but only one to give. She offered to give it to one of the other players — but only if they competed against each other in an impromptu rap battle in the middle of the game.

“In an extreme case, imagine you’re playing a game and you come across someone who’s streaming. Suddenly you’ve got 50,000 people watching you,” Milham said. “That’s going to change my behavior. What’s interesting is, how? We don’t know.”

Elements of SOS are likely to change during Early Access, and Milham said he didn’t know how long it would be before Outpost considers it “done.” As it stands, though, SOS is a fun, weird, fascinating experience of playing and watching other people.

“It’s like the person who gets called up (on stage) during an improv comedy show, even though they’re not a comedian, and they manage to crush a punchline, and the audience blows up — that’s a thrill,” Milham said. “We’ve already seen during our testing, people sort of unwittingly, or without much anticipation, finding themselves performing for an audience, and really enjoying it. That’s sort of the magic of the game.”