Last night I had one of those rare conversations about MMOs that pop up so infrequently for me (I don’t have many Real Life people with whom I share this hobby, and my wife is patient and tolerant but unaware of the nuances that fascinate me). It’s not often that I have a chance to discuss gaming at length, and this conversation in particular got me thinking about the possibilities for the near future. Heavy stuff, I know.
Specifically, my friend and I got to talking about the phasing technology that seems to be an important part of The Old Republic. For those who may not be familiar with phasing, here’s how I understand it: like instances, phasing create private pockets inside the game for the player (or group of players) where they can explore or interact with an area without interruption by other, free roaming players. The best example of phasing I’ve read so far are the story-driven conversations players will have in TOR, where phasing will allow them to approach and engage an NPC in a public area, but prevent others from randomly wandering in and ruining their moment. Basically, no jerks barging into the middle of your conversation to ruin it by running and jumping around, spamming emotes, and generally breaking immersion. The player is phased out of the public area, or others are phased out of your area (I’m still not sure which), seamlessly dropping out and entering into the general game world. Or maybe it’s something bigger. Either way.
I love this idea. Capital-L “Love”.
Sure, some purists will say this is contrary to the nature of a massive, open game world; these are the same people who generally disagree with instancing. However, I think this could be a powerful new tool for MMOs, changing the way content is delivered and experienced. Much like the changes that instancing introduced, as long as its done in moderation it can be extremely effective. And it’s not like BioWare is leaning anywhere near a sandbox-style game world; I think they’ve made it clear that TOR is not that type of MMO.
But I’m enthralled with the idea not so much because of how BioWare appears to use it, but because of the ways it could work, or be made to work. Yes, the example above is a great use, and certainly enhances BioWare’s ability to deliver story in a personal, powerful way. But let’s extrapolate a little here, and consider a few of the potential uses (or, at least, how I’d like to see it used).
First and foremost is this:
“The basic idea is that there is NO servers, just the game world. Your decisions directly affect what you see in the game world. Players that have made similar decisions are in the same ‘phase’ of an area as you.
Yes, this breaks down logically very quickly. Will players just go poof? Will friends be able to play together if they make different choices? What happens when I’ve made decisions that are different than everyone else and I get phased into my own space?”
The idea of separating the game world into existential phases has endless possibilities. Quite literally – endless – as every choice could spawn a different phase. And, granted, the concept has other potential issues, as heartless even states. Would it be possible to phase oneself out of the general game, to the point where you are playing alone? How would you continue to play with your friends/guildmates after making your own personal decisions? It’s a bit like trying to think about time travel – too many loopholes and logic-breaking possibilities.
But consider phasing applied to a game world, instead of temporarily applying it to a player in order to preserve the delivery of story. World of Warcraft does this a bit in Northrend (so I’m told). LotRO should do this, as the game has some problems with timelines; for example, the movement, placement, and progress of the Fellowship. How do you represent the location of the Fellowship for all players at all times? They tend to move around as the story progresses (that’s the point, isn’t it?). But you can’t remove them from the world for players just starting out simply because your elder players have progressed the story past Rivendell. Turbine dealt with this in it’s own way, but it’s not entirely logical and requires a huge suspension of disbelief. The members of the Fellowship exist in multiple places at the same time, but we are supposed to believe that when we encounter them in Rivendell and then in Lothlorien, that time has passed in the game even though it is barely reflected in the world (if at all). Turbine has achieved its own version of “phasing” in small ways, by using instanced rooms where major characters appear (or don’t, based on what you’re doing) for spans of time; Aragorn in The Prancing Pony and the various members of the Fellowship in Rivendell are two prime examples. It’s somewhat tough to swallow, but we do it anyway.
If applied liberally, however, phasing of the game world could reap huge benefits for players looking for a better storytelling experience or heightened immersion. The Fellowship could be at all necessary places at all times, but only visible to me, Player A, where they should be based on my personal progress in the Epic Quests. Player B would still encounter them in Rivendell, whereas I see them in Lothlorien. Towns and outposts could be bustling, deserted, or entirely destroyed based on my actions, and I would see that area, and share that area, with the other players who made similar choices. Not every choice would spawn a different phase of the game world as described above, but major events, encapsulating large chunks of content, could be represented differently to different players.
Realistically, in a game such as LotRO, this should only be implemented in a timeline-based scenario. The town of Bree is in a given state (Normal, Damaged after a major attack, or Rebuilding after being damaged, for example) at different points in the story timeline, and appears that way for all players who have progressed to a certain point. And it would have to be done rather subtly. Bree could not be entirely destroyed, ever, because players revisit that area continuously, either for functional reasons (Auction House, Bank, Craft Hall, etc.) or to help lower-level friends with content that falls earlier in the timeline. But cosmetic changes could be made to the environment, giving the appearance of change over time. The “backdrop” of the game world, the environment with which we never interact, is a vastly underutilized tool for storytelling.
Also consider the potential when applying phasing to NPCs and monsters in the open world. In general, all system-controlled NPCs (both friendly and hostile) are pretty much static; shopkeepers and quest-givers are generally in the same place all of the time. Middle Earth is like one, huge 7-Eleven – it’s all available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Monsters come and go as players dispose of them, but population levels and the type of monster in a given area remain fairly static. Now imagine that we apply phasing to these aspects of the game.
Friendly NPCs could move around, even disappear due to death, based on a player’s progress. And to enhance immersion, an NPC in a specific location could be phased from a Named character to a Generic character; Player A may have experienced the death of Second Watcher Heathstraw at some point in the story, but doesn’t see Player B talking to thin air when receiving a quest in Bree’s Market Square. Instead, Player A sees Player B talking to a “Bree-town Citizen”and all is right with the world; two NPCs occupy the same physical location, and a player’s choices or progress determines which NPC is visible.
The possible uses are even greater for monsters within the open world. It’s always bothered me that after killing Taluntum (a named monster in Mirkwood and the target of a quest), that that very same monster – identical in name and appearance – is back in his hut a few moments later. If I’m still in the area, I can even watch him reappear. “Great work, Drannos! You’ve rid Middle Earth of that scum for a grand total of 2 minutes! Here’s your reward!”. Let me tell you how much I feel like a hero.
Identical to the Heathstraw example above, replace Taluntum (after I kill him) with a generic Orc. Different model, different skin, generic name, not even a Signature enemy. This way, when I’m hanging out in Burgul-stazg killing Orcs I can watch another player engage an Orc standing where Taluntum once stood. The other player sees and attacks Taluntum, but I see that player attack an “Orc Marauder”. Additionally, population levels could be shifted and Monster types could even be changed entirely. I see an entire tribe of Orcs, but maybe you see a few Orcs, or even a few Worms! Who cares that we’re fighting two different creatures when I decide to jump in uninvited? As long as we’re not in a Fellowship, it’s all about our personal story, right? When was the last time someone said, “Thanks for helping me kill that Orc Marauder“, when you swooped in and saved their bacon? At most I get a “Thanks!”. At worst, nothing. Two entirely different monsters may be a bit extreme, but it’s not unrealistic, nor does it break the game.
I repeat, in a game like LotRO changes like this would need to be implemented subtly. Otherwise, the game logic becomes more broken, immersion suffers greatly, and everyone starts having much less fun because they’re just plain confused. But a few touches here and there, and the experience would become immeasurably more enjoyable. We would be that much closer to a “living” world, because some part of our actions would be permanently reflected in our surroundings.
I could never guess at what influences any of the numerous design decisions that result in a game like LotRO. As a whole, they were all good decisions, because they resulted in a game that I love playing. However, it would seem to me that developers of modern, “themepark” MMOs all operate under a flawed assumption; in order to be impactful and meaningful, a player’s choices must be reflected in the game world. Because implementing this would quickly break the game for 99.9% of the players, instead we are left with virtual worlds that are clearly indifferent to our presence.
Honestly, all I really want is for my choices and actions to be reflected in my character, and in the world I see. My choices only need to impact me. Not the world at large. I’m not especially concerned with what others see, as long as we’re all pretty close. After all, it’s really my story I’m living, isn’t it?