[This is a brainstorming post: a brainstorm on a radical and mind-bending idea. Don’t expect all difficulties to be solved and all systems elucidated in this post. Here is only a summary of some of the aspects of a time-travel themepark MMO. If this idea can bear your criticism, I will develop it further into a more organized set of mechanics and post those here.]
Themepark MMOs restrict the number of players that can, at any point, complete certain content. In a non-WoW themepark MMO, this turns into a severe problem. Population has never remained above critical mass to make all group content work beyond the first few months of a new themepark game—there will always be parts of the game that too few players have incentive to complete (or redo) for the content to be doable or fun.
Why not try to remove as much content gating as possible in favor of allowing anyone to play with anyone else at any time and accomplish something meaningful in the process?
I’ve been pondering how to remove content gating from a themepark design, and I’ve come up with an odd solution: player time-travel.
Start with standard themepark core mechanics—vertical advancement via quest completion and gear gain, quest-based storytelling, static content—but instead of advancing your character permanently forward and being stuck playing your character at whatever power level it happens to have attained, you can choose point in time at which to play your character.
A quest would be the atomic unit of time. You couldn’t jump into a quest in the middle of completing it—you’d only be able to time-travel to the beginnings of quests.
If someone invites you to a group, you’d be able to time-travel to the quest they’re on—you’d have the equipment you had gained through quests completed earlier in the game, but you wouldn’t have the equipment you’d gained in later quests. You’d be able to play with your friends at whatever point in the game they’ve reached without ruining the experience! In fact, you’d be advancing your character in ways that can ripple forward through time.
Whenever you travel back in time to do an earlier quest again, you create an alternate timeline. Now you can proceed forward in the game on the alternate timeline until you’re done playing with your friend. At this point, you can either merge your new timeline back into your main timeline and boost your main timeline character based on what your alternate timeline character gained, or you can keep the timelines separate and jump between them at a later point. (Say, if your friend logs back on a few hours later, you could come back and keep playing that timeline with him while still having your other timeline intact.)
Your character wouldn’t travel through time—you would be able to play your character at any point in time, up to where your most advanced timeline is in the story.
The game world would act as if you and your group members have an instance to yourselves. This seems like it would ruin the open-world feeling of the game—but not if other players at different points in time had “time-shadows” in your character’s world. Whoever is in the same area of the zone as your character would be visible, but partially transparent and in black-and-white. The nearer in time they are, the less transparent they’ll be. Only your group members will be visible as normal, though, because only they are at the same point in time as you. In this way, you’d be able to talk to other characters forward or backward in time—to you and the person you’re talking to the chat would be like normal, but, in game, it would be as if your character can perceive the variances in the 4th dimension directly and could “talk” through time.
Mechanics could easily be implemented that allow characters to pop into one another’s time so that there can be a unique open-world PvP element. Certain servers would allow this “popping”—the PvP servers—while PvE servers would not allow you to “pop” into a non-aligned character’s time.
In an MMO based on players travelling freely through time, anyone can play with anyone else. Guilds have have tremendous meaning in such a game. The social fabric of the game would be significantly stronger, because you can feasibly jump back to where a newer player is in the game and help them without compromising the content’s difficult and accomplishing nothing for you. WIth a proper UI, negotiating timelines would require only a little getting-used-to, a small cost to pay for such a huge benefit.