Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Game Concept: Time-travel Themepark MMO

[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.


motstandet said...

Isn't one of the points of character progression to allow the character to overcome past obstacles more easily? I guess if you had to option to preserve your high level rather than forcibly reduce it, it would be ok.

FFXI did level reductions with certain special encounters, but nothing out in the open world.

Anonymous said...

I can't even imagine how difficult something like this would be to implement. It's interesting, definitely. I don't know how feasible, though.

evizaer said...

It's feasible. I've given serious thought to the technical obstacles and they are surmountable. The interface may be more challenging to design than a standard MMO interface, because you have to show players timelines and let them propagate gear changes forward through time.

The game would be more linear than modern themeparks in the sense that there wouldn't be 20 quests that you could do any time at a given level. It's not a problem, though, because each quest can be significantly more engaging and can actually change the world because the only players in the "present" are you and your group members. There can also be relatively complex branching storylines that can radically alter the world in the future of the timeline. No worries about permanent effects though, because the player can always go back to before the decision and change what happens and start a new timeline.

foolsage said...

City of Heroes offered two options to allow players of disparate levels to play together: sidekicking and exemplaring. Sidekicking involved a player of lower level temporarily gaining a level comparable to their higher-level friend; the skills and abilities s/he already had would be increased proportionally, but the new skills, abilities, and gear that players of the higher level would normally have would not be present. Thus a sidekick was considerably weaker than a normal player of a given level, but a sidekick could still meaningfully assist. A higher level player could also become an exemplar, meaning s/he adventured with a lower-level friend and took on an appropriate set of limitations. Skills, abilities, and gear were reduced in effect to be roughly comparable to the lower level, although an exemplar still tended to be considerably more powerful than an equivalent player of that level. Still, it allowed a high level player to group with a lower level player and consume content appropriate for that lower level. Multiple players could sidekick or exemplar at once, so this worked for groups just as well.

It was a fairly elegant system really. Players of any level could easily group together to consume content appropriate for the "real" level of any one player. I've not seen any other MMO handle this issue as well as City of Heroes did.

Kenny said...

"In a non-WoW themepark MMO ... 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."

I fail to see how your suggestion would work as an incentive for players to do content all over and over again... and then some more. Yes, players would be able to play at an appropriate level instead of just steamrolling (lower level) content but let's face it: for the majority of players this is not a motivating factor, if they have to redo boring content yet once again I guess about 95%+ would chose steamrolling over "grinding" it once more.

But it would definitely help facilitate grouping at every level - tho it's a bit hard to imagine what's the tangiable gain for a higher lvl player time traveling back (by "merging the two timelines").

evizaer said...


If devs can visibly change the game world with the quests they design, I doubt the game would become grindy anywhere near as fast. You would play through the game yourself and enjoy it, then you could go back and play through it again with the same character but with a group of friends or guildmates. In the second timeline you could chose to do things differently by making different plot-related decisions and you'd see new content that you would've had to start a new character to see in a traditional RPG or MMO.

The game could feature content as well-polished as Dragon Age: Origins, yet still have an MMO feel.

Joshua said...

Actually had a similar idea to this myself but slightly different and didn't explore it in so much depth. Basically the idea was that you could rip open dimensions (the whole game could be based on them, so if you want to change something just get it from another alternate dimension), this way one could relive the events of the past (while the HOW you got to the content originally would be different, e.g. how a server progressed). So one time events could be relived.

Now the issue is, these events then do not become special (e.g. like many major MMORPG events, they are stuff of legends). But at the same time you might need to recreate the conditions anyway, e.g. you needed thirty people for the original event that all had a certain condition.

Your merging of timelines is interesting considering it adds more depth to the idea of what MMORPGs can do. But then again it may be just too complex, instead of a linear server story line (e.g. players do X and Y happens) you can have heaps and heaps more possibilities. I mean time travel itself as a concept is impossible to wrap one's mind around, and I have no problem admitting that it wouldn't be any different for MMORPGs (esp when it comes to 'merging timelines').

Anyway, current MMORPGs are so far away from it, its not funny. First we need a game that actually is affected by players rather then one that runs on the developer's bad storylines (plural since there are so many versions of storylines in games, not even funny, why people even bother to think they can do Tolkien in this medium is beyond me) to even THINK about complex concepts like time merging.

evizaer said...

Merging timelines isn't as difficult as you seem to think it is. The game would simply track gear and inventory change from quest to quest. When you're done with an alternate timeline, you'd chose to either keep your current inventory and gear or the inventory and gear your character had at that same point in the other timeline.

Then you can find differences between gear and inventory in this part of the timeline and in the future, and rectify them by letting the player choose if he wishes to keep certain gear and items in the future instead of picking up new stuff.

The game would generate merge requirements to ensure that you don't dupe items by travelling back in time and removing them before they would otherwise be used. You'd only be able to add items to your character in the future by doing BETTER on time-travel-redone quests and therefore getting more stuff as a reward.

It's certainly trippy.

Kenny said...

What I meant evi is that your idea does not encourage doing content multiple times - it only removes one of the obstacles of doing so. If you reward them with items only then in principle it's absolutely no different than any other itemgrind we have (get friends, get to insta, get phatz) combined with sidekicking. If you provide other rewards (such as xp or faction or whatnot) then masses will flow to the easiest content and abuse that one.

If you read postmortems, how many times in the past years did studios complain about people not seeing half of their games? And we're not talking about CRPGs only either. Exploring multiple paths on the same content is not something the majority of any playerbase would do. People are sheep and they go the path of least resistance; that's it for most.

And if you want players' alternative choices to have an effect on the game world, that's an entirely different nut to crack - something that I think will make even SWTOR suck.

Jakob said...

Well, I like the idea. It seems to me to be a mish-mash of Dragon Age: Origins, Wizard101, FusionFall, LOTRO, City of Heroes, And the best science fiction story yet written, and I believe we need more people with srange and new idea's to keep the public entertained. I may not be a hard-core gamer, hell, I can even get through God of War without going on easy, but MMO'a? Those I get. Now, I think that this would be fairly difficult to design, and i it were brought to fruition, some mechanics will need to be terminated, and no one may take this idea seriously for a long while. But, the idea does have merit. I for one, would see this story as one with time travel being one of the most important aspects, with the beginning areas(timelines/ historical places) actually very important in the overall storyline, with a bit of revisitation. it should be a "Quantum Leap" scenario, with maybe some "Time Warp Trio" thrown in for good measure. Just imagine, instead of there being a storyline involving just the one character as the super important person with the balance of whatever on his shoulders, why not make it an organization, with storylines involving things specific to your class or race. Think about it, a central hub where you get all main quests, and and "Time Gates" or something letting you go anywhere in the time space continuum, but to make sure people can't farm levels off the starter area, let the quest givers say they update the agent database and are activating Time Gate Number 00001 or something. Or, let each player have individual mini gates in their office or whatever, and the gates ask for a voice recognition command, a 'password' if you will, so players cant go through another players gate, and then the gates state the players current mission, and open the portals accordingly. each time could be mini hub, bristling with drama and intruige. although it's forbiddin by the people at HQ, you cant help but help the people in the timelines(known to the common MMO world as side-quests) the missions you're sent on will never turn out the way planed, and always turn out with you asking the people around town, village, city, or spaceport for help. each level would end up with an instance that evolved the storyline even more. now that I think about it, the whole "Gates" idea reminds me of Vexx. Oh well. I could just imagine the levels! Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Rome, Babylon, the Wild West, the Prehistoric Era, New York City, London, The Moon, the Alpha Centauri Nebula! so many different area available to basicly F*** around in the past, present, and future, at least until you remember where you need to be in the first place! If anyone made it this far into my rant, Well done. you are a more patient man than I.