[In this installment of the long-running design column, author and game designer Ernest Adams sketches out a design for a new kind of MMOG -- one which takes a specific moment in history and hopes to educate and entertain audiences by bringing it into the light and building sensible, accessible play mechanics around it.]
Persistent worlds are great places to play around in, but they're problematic venues for storytelling. Most of them let players do a vast number of things: make stuff, sell stuff, kill stuff, collect stuff, explore, socialize, and so on.
The one thing players can't generally do is change the world forever, and that's something that storytelling games need. Most persistent worlds are full of opportunities for interaction, but they offer no sense of agency, of doing something that matters in a visible way. If you accept a noble quest to go kill a vile doom-chicken, it'll only respawn a few minutes later, leaving you wondering why you bothered.
In many persistent words, the only thing that changes permanently is you -- you gain experience points and treasure. (There are exceptions, such as A Tale in the Desert and Minecraft.)
More sophisticated stories are about the hero changing himself rather than changing the world, so there's a vague similarity; but for this experience to feel story-like, the hero must engage in a series of adventures that are unique to him.
It's not the same if you know that thousands of people around you are marching along the exact same path to enlightenment. Nor does it feel meaningful if your personal growth is expressed entirely in numbers.
In many persistent worlds the whole universe is alleged to be in some kind of dire trouble, but the player can accept or reject quests, take as much time over them as he wants, or abandon them in the middle, without any consequences.
Because the world is essentially static (apart from infrequent updates by the developers), the game creates little sense of urgency. Time-based quests don't solve the problem either, because failure has no consequences for the wider world.
I want to make an MMOG that tells a story with a beginning and an end. In this game, every player participates in a single global storyline, each player's experience is unique, and every action matters. For this to work it needs to depart from many of the usual conventions, and I'll explain how and why later on.
I propose to make a quasi-educational, free, historical MMOG called The Blitz Online. The Blitz was a period early in the Second World War during which Hitler tried to break Britain's spirit by mass bombing raids targeted at civilians. It failed, and in the end it proved to be self-defeating because attacking civilians diverted the bombers from attacking factories and airfields.
But the human price was terrible, and it gave birth to a legend -- the "Spirit of the Blitz" -- an idea, actively promoted and ardently prayed for by the British government, that the people of Britain could not be broken; that they rolled up their sleeves, pulled together, and came through it united by patriotism and a stiff upper lip.
The truth was both less and more than the legend suggests. People went to extremes of heroism and self-sacrifice beyond what any propaganda machine could dream up. Neighbors helped each other and shared scarce resources in a way that should make today's so-called "survivalists" ashamed of themselves.
On the other hand, there was a fair amount of profiteering, in spite of the laws against it. In the blackout conditions, and with a police force reduced by conscription, petty crime thrived, and of course there was some looting of bomb-damaged buildings.
The chaotic circumstances and limited duration of the Blitz make it ideal for a storytelling MMOG. I want to make a game that reproduces some of the challenges and social conditions of the Blitz, to let people get a sense -- in a limited, virtual way -- of what it was like.
The Blitz Online will be non-violent, at least so far as player actions are concerned. (In other respects it will be extremely violent.) Each player will perform a civil defense job, ideally in a first-person 3D environment. The collective object of the game is to keep morale high so that Hitler abandons his strategy of civilian bombing.
The more lives and buildings that the players save, the sooner Hitler will give it up. In this respect it differs dramatically from most other persistent worlds, which go on indefinitely. Even if morale drops, The Blitz Online will last for a maximum number of days, which I haven't yet decided on.
The game will include commissions ("quests") as well as ad hoc challenges, but I have made it a key design principle that every commission will be playable only once, by one character. This guarantees a unique story-like experience for each player. Players will perform certain routine duties more than once, but I expect these will feel different as the continuing bomb damage throws up new obstacles to completing them. There will be no grinding -- no commissions of the form, "Go find me 15 of these objects," although in some jobs there will be value in collecting things like scrap metal.
Players won't be able to join a game in progress after the first day has ended, another difference from most persistent worlds; and a given instance of the game will support only a limited number of players -- hundreds or thousands, but not tens of thousands. This guarantees that there are enough unique jobs and commissions for everyone. There will always be too much to do, and failure to get something done will have consequences -- determined mostly through the mechanics rather than a prefabricated plot.
The ad hoc play will often be collaborative, like raiding in a more conventional MMORPG. When a fire crew is called out or a mobile kitchen needs to be set up, the players will have to cooperate to get to the site and do their work. The more efficient they are, the better the work will go and the better the results. I want the game to feel like one giant common enterprise, in which the players have individual responsibilities but all contribute to its success.