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Epic Persistent Timelines in MMOs ? Thats Unpossible!
by Barry Reddy on 11/30/09 11:15:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 
One of the problems of current MMORPG worlds is repetitive events.

This is a problem often consigned to the limitations of game mechanics, and the constraints of creativity. Programming, designing and writing events along a non repeating timeline seems a prohibitive undertaking.

But stories tend to need a timeline in order to be meaningful, in the point A to point B sense of the word 'meaning.  The meaning we derive from stories, the cathartic, or absurd effect those stories have on the audience and participants are a product of the individual perspective 'meanings'  that can be gleaned from a story.

Games that use a count and reset method, respawning items and creatures, leech interest and undermine any actual storytelling since the repetitiveness itself becomes predictable, eventually ridiculous, and often ignored.  

Having a believable timeline is possible in my opinion. Games, and stories often operate on a collapsed time line, where 1 second of real world time, is 1 minute, one hour, or one day of game time. 

Creating a storyline that in broad strokes plays out over 5000 years, could be done with a game that in play time would require 5-10 years for that particular epochal storyline to complete, depending on the game-time to real-time ratio.  A 5-10 year arc of epic storyline is probably a decent scale for the shelf life of any commercial game.

Having a persistent timeline based world could create a world in which the sense of mortality is added to by time. Characters would age and die, depending on race or class features, making their impact brief, but more intently meaningful. 

A characters ‘individual’ level would be less relevant than the players involvement in a series of characters and storylines in the game world.

There are a number of common objections to this suggestion, which are usually variations on the following:

   ”People playing from different timezones could miss out on events.”

Aside from the fact that this is already the case in repetitive and inflationary MMORPG’s, there are a few interesting possibilities this question raises.

A persistent timelime would mean that everyone at some time would miss out at some points, this could potentially create an online atmosphere where people (PC/NPC’s) talk and have interest in the
actual online events that occurred in previous sessions, hence adding to character and story.

This respawning process for handling timelines may be attractive in its simplicity to developers, but surely the developer is not the only creative contributor to a 'successful' game world.  

Respawning timelines tend to resulting in a games 'meaning' being only a cumulative numerical measure of levels or uber loot. I suppose the mathematical elegance of this suits developer contributors, but I hope that isn't the final expectation of what is possible with games as a medium.

There is no better way to make an event meaningless, than to put it on a repeat timer, eventually the story, the reason for the event, or NPC becomes irrelevant, the only thing generating interest is what the event or NPC ‘drops’, and its subsequent ‘uber’ value in the inflated playing economy.

One of the most forceful objections to the argument of a persistent timeline, story rich world is:

   “It could never be done, having a environment that is continually new and interesting would require enormous NPC-AI development, or a huge investment in developer time to create all that content." 

NPC-AI handling could be done in a variety of ways, from creator-maker mobs that build, craft, sell and perform a variety of NPC functions.

Like the resource management games, where peon, carpenter NPC's harvest materials, build and conduct themselves along predetermined 'constructive' paths, NPC's can and often are in current games, builders providing a range of utility and constructive functions.

AI dialogue can be scripted and automated with writers and actors taking the part of screenwriters and directors, staging NPC dialogue against the timeline plot of a particular in game regional area. 

Offline play could be made part of content creation, in the builder-peon sense, handled through resource management style of interface, where the players, being based in an in game regional locale contribute, via trades, or affiliation to the 'content' in that area, whether their trade is craftsmanship, or entertainment, blacksmith, or bard.

A number of MMORPG’s have handled offline playing excellently.  Allowing the player to maintain a presence in the game timeline but in a maintenance, or learning mode capacity. EVE does this fairly
well, as one example.

Volunteer and paid writers and content creators contributing to the ongoing storyline, could contribue, much in the way MUD's drew on their playerbase for area and content creation, providing a base for paid or volunteer actor/admin/puppeteers.  

Player created content, would need to be subject to approval by admin/editors/writers, making sure it player contributions worked within the larger epic timelines, or smaller regional timelines.

PC's could be given the means to preset some NPC dialogue for their 'offline' characters, effectively turning them into NPC's while they perform their 'offline' functions.  

PC Actors could be awarded creative latitude within the grand-epochal storyline.  Allowing for dynamic content creation within the game framework creates the possibility of NPC or PC driven events where an epic story event could take place.

Consider the Lord of the Rings setting, from the Silmarillion to the LoTR trilogy, several millenia pass, events could be scripted along a similar large scale timeline, whether futuristic, or medieval fantasy, the way modules are designed for RPG games.

I believe that each of these generically described objections could be handled in a variety of ways, the theoretical ways I’ve described are just that, suggestions based on opinion, with some examples that are currently in use in existing games.

I think my main argument is that MMORPGs are going to grow as an entertainment medium, and in order to do so, will in my opinion eventually adopt some of the constraints of real ‘dramatic’ literature, much in the way early cinema grew from primitive charicatures to richly textured, and in some cases, believable stories.

Timeline and mortality are in my opinion foremost, in the literary evolution of games as storytelling 'media', since ultimately human experience is shaped and constrained by the experience of both.

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