A fixed-life MMORPG?

As long-time readers of the blog will know, I’ve been toying with the above idea for quite a while. Mostly because Cult TV is as much of my life as gaming – and because I know many of my fellow MMO players love the same shows I do so we end up discussint them a lot on Teamspeak.

In fact, this post is inspired by a guild chat the other night on the subject of Star Trek and Babylon 5. Not really a compare and contrast, that’s been done to death – we were mostly discussing what we liked about each and where Battlestar Galactica falls in the whole ‘which is best’? category (for me, it’s overtaken Babylon 5, for the record). But the discussion is kind of irrelevant, it just triggered a few thoughts…

There are certain similarities between a good ongoing TV show and an MMO, but they’re all a little flippant – lots of characters, a detailed background, and a long lifespan (unless you’re like Brimstone or Firefly!). TV shows run in seasons, MMOs run from content update to content update (nb: this might be a patch or expansion). Until Babylon 5 came onto the scene, TV shows spiralled on as long as they could – a bit like MMOs. But since Babylon 5 we’re seeing more shows with a built-in lifespan; Battlestar Galactica and Lost (since we know there are 34 more episodes anyway) being just two examples of this. And the shows have definitely benefited from it, becoming tighter and more focused and allowing for long story arcs with payoffs many years after the original hints and clues.

So will any MMO be brave enough to follow cult TV into embracing the fixed lifespan model? It’s risky. You’d need entry points (a bit like mid-season round-ups, or ‘previously on’ segments), but with instancing it’s possible. It would allow for an actual narrative structure for the MMO, and for persistent changes to be made by players. It could allow the developer to explore various subscription models where players could sub for the entire life-cycle, or for a ‘season pass’. There would be a problem, of course, if the game isn’t good enough and the playerbase drops too low for the big ending – that’s where the risk comes in. And of course, we like the social side – how would I genuinely feel if I played a 3-year game and then there was nothing. TV series combat this with prequels, spin-offs, and films. Maybe an MMO that worked this way could do something similar. Anyway, I find myself more and more intrigued by the idea.

To me, the current MMO model is much more like X-Files, where there is an  underlying ‘lore’ and that st ory gets progressed every so often, but there’s a lot of filler (grind) and the quality of that can be a bit patchy. Or, that’s how I see World of Warcraft these days anyway. And no hate please, I stopped playing it before Burning Crusade, though I did stop in to check out the new starter areas – but it was already too locked into raiding for my life. I can see WAR after 4 years being in a similar position, truthfully. I know Dark Age of Camelot lost some of my attention after 2 years of play..

Lord of the Rings Online is one I should talk about in this regard though, since it is a little different than the others. I have a lifetime subscription, but I don’t know how long the lifetime of the game is. I do know the narrative structure, because I’ve read the books! But, if we get Moria now.. Rohan sometime down the line, it really could die off numbers-wise before we ever get the pay-off of Mount Doom. I, of course, hope it doesn’t. And it gets closest to the fixed lifespan that I’m enthusing about but, it isn’t fixed by any means. I’m sure if they could can post-Mount Doom they will.

Anyway, I’m no game pundit, and I’m certainly no TV pundit. I see, in the shows I love, how much they benefit from a long story arc and a known end-date or fixed period. I don’t know if it’d work for an MMO, but I’d love someone to give it a shot, mostly because I think there could be some really interesting narrative potentials with such a move. Hell, there may even be one I just don’t know about!

On another note of similarity, in my youth I knew nothing about TV producers or game designers… maybe the name Aaron Spelling, but not much else. Now I know Joss Whedon, Brian Fuller, J J Abrams, Richard Garriott (ok, knew him a while back), Ron Moore, Mark Jacobs, Will Wright, Rob Pardo.. it seems we’re entering an age where those behind the scenes both in TV and games are finding the spotlight more often, and embracing it.

And finally, because I don’t play that many games myself, I do need to mention that non-MMOs already embrace the ‘sequel’ strategy to lengthen their titles’ life and perhaps provide new ‘seasons’ of content. Fallout 1, 2 and 3, the Baldur’s Gate series, Diablo 1, 2 and 3, Half-Life 1, 2, etc. There was a hint of belief on the latest PC Gamer podcast that perhaps Dragon Age and Massive Effect will enable people to use their old characters in sequel games – this would more or less be the TV model, but still wouldn’t have a definitive end-date.

Brainiers-than-me, what do you think?

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6 Responses

  1. Awesome post!

    I would love to play a game like this with a really strong and moving storyline, in seasons. I don’t know how easy it would be for people to catch up, but like you say, with entry points … why not?

    I think MMO makers must realise what the average time is that a player will stick to their game. So why not design something with that in mind?

  2. It’d certainly be interesting to see a game like that; I was also thinking that a continuing narrative might be offputting to new players (even with a “… previously on” type recap), but then current MMOGs can also be unforgiving on somebody starting at level one on servers full of level 40/50/60/70s. With fixed “chapters” or similar, it might even be an easier way for people to jump in at the same point as everyone else.

    A couple of sort-of-related examples that spring to mind, though I’ve never played them so I’m only really going from vague murmurings and their Wikipedia articles, are The Matrix Online, which I gather has some sort of ongoing storyline supported by an in-game event team, and A Tale In The Desert , wherein apparently “…the game itself has a global foregame, midgame, and endgame: on average so far, every year and a half the game ends, achievements are tabulated, and a new ‘Telling’ begins, with certain modifications requested by the player base.”

  3. Ah, of course, I forgot Tale in the Desert which Spinks played for a while and which intrigued me a lot. I guess that is the closest to one that closes down and starts up again.

  4. Very interesting game. I enjoyed it a lot. It’s brutally cliquish, by design, but has an incredibly helpful and creative commuinity. I’ve never seen crafting done better.

    Maybe I’ll write about it sometime, I think I played in TiTD2.

  5. Interesting blog, i have bookmarked it for future referrence

  6. interesting post, will come back here, bookmarked your site

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