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As the Worlds Turn: What if?


Richard Garriott did it. A critically acclaimed game designer, whose previous modus operandi regulated itself to PC and console games, created a successful MMO in a market overshadowed by Thrall and Co. Some say that his only claim to fame is the Ultima series but then again, those that say such things, their only claim to fame is a blog read by their mother and a few old college buddies.

Big names attaching themselves to MMO projects are becoming commonplace. With 38 Studios making the news and podcasts these days, with starry-eyed fanboys salivating over visions of Drizzt vs. Spawn in an MMO that may or may not contain baseball, one wonders: who else might throw their hat into the MMO ring? Of course, each such entry runs the risk of the 800-pound gorilla, with epic gear, stomping it into oblivion.

But what if ...

Ken Levine Presents "BioShock Online"
I'm assuming you've pulled away from your keyboard long enough to at least know that BioShock was a game. And by game I mean "one of the highest achievements in immersive gameplay in modern history". A pretty good game, too. How would Levine translate some of the ideas found in BioShock to an MMO? Rapture, the city and setting of BioShock, is underwater ... and collapsing, at least in certain parts. No wide-open fields of twenty-minute jogging sessions. No horses or flying horses to take you zipping across the countryside. One element of BioShock that lent to the atmosphere was the sense of claustrophobia. Constrained spaces limit your choices and force clearer decisions. There are no cliffs to dive from should you pull an overwhelming mob. Not that any of us do that.

Oh, did I mention that BioShock was a first-person shooter? Huxley is coming ... eventually so it is possible that the genre of MMO FPS is looming. Running around in a submersed, collapsing city littered with freaks and tweakers and ruled by lumbering hulks of unbridled rage sounds like fun. It also sounds like Los Angeles after the earthquake that sends it to the bottom of the sea.

Sid Meier spreads Civilization
I know that Civ IV has multiplayer but I'm not referring to subjugating your friends and family with religious oppression. What Civ could offer the MMO sphere are well-balanced complexity and the multiple win-conditions. Level grind your way to becoming mayor of a town. You're in charge. You have to have run the city well, manage resources, and face re-election. Picture ArchLord ... of micro-management. Of course, to make it interesting, your underlings could be blackmailing you ... or plotting your outright assassination on the steps of city hall. It could happen. As far as the multiple ways to "win", in an MMO with these mechanics, you could achieve "end-game" status by climbing one of the available ladders. Become a religious leader, a military leader, or win that election. The catch? You can only go one path. Spread yourself too thin and you won't achieve any of them. You'll just be mediocre and no on likes mediocre. (My sympathies to Hellgate fans.)

Does this sound fun? Maybe. I guess in our society, it would only be fun if every citizen was well armed and there was an impending alien invasion. I would think that adding complexity, albeit optional, to the MMO gameplay might create a deep and rewarding experience. Then again, it may cause fits of suicidal tedium.

Peter Molyneux hates you. Peter Molyneux loves you.
Fable taught us many lessons. It taught us that our decisions shape who we can become. It taught us that benevolence and general do-goodery is rewarded with adoration. It also taught us that if we marry the mayor's daughter, coax the mayor out of town and brutally murder him, we inherit all of his wealth and property. Then we can dispatch of our naïve wife and have it all to ourselves. Although, I do believe there are special pits of Hell reserved for such behavior. Good thing this is just a game.

It is common for MMOs to have sides, or factions. This faction is at war with this faction and neither one of them like this faction. So when you make a character, you choose a side and you are forever locked into that faction and you play the game trying to further the goals of your fellows. Very little variation on this theme exists. If morality drove the goals of an MMO, the monsters that populate the wilds would be neither good nor bad ... well, bad in the sense that they'll attack and eat anybody, but beyond that, they are simply monsters. As players, your decisions dictate what side you eventually fall on. Help that widow plant her farm and the goody-two-shoes of the land will take notice. Cut her down in her yard, burn her cottage to the ground and run off with her only goat and other, more sinister powers will take a liking to you.

I'm not sure how this well this would work since it is usually easier to go into a town and indiscriminately slaughter anything that moves than to take their silly fetch quests and trot your arse all over the countryside. Certain mechanics would have to be in place to prohibit such wonton carnage. Perhaps the village is protected by a small contingent of celestial warriors wielding lances of righteous execution. Oh, did I mention they are impervious to all but the most powerful mortal weapons? Fear is a great incentive. Still, you can't be too slanted because then it becomes safer, if not easier, to be good than it would be to be bad. Wow. Morality is tricky.

Will Wright is a god ... or at least a demigod.
Lord knows what this guy would come up with ... I don't even want to speculate.

Super Mario World ... World.
When Shigeru Miyamoto eventually leaves this earth, his body will be encased in a solid-gold, star-shaped casket and his remains will be blasted into space. It is only fitting. I'm not sure an MMO where your only weapons are your tremendous jumping ability or the fact that you spit little balls of fire would work. Maybe if you had a water cannon from time to time and your epic gear looked an awful lot like a bee suit.

I guess not every great game or game designer could switch gears to MMO development. But it would be fun to try.

We're all curious to see how 38 Studios and Curt Shilling's dream team fares in the coming years. I think Richard Garriott's success with Tabula Rasa should open the door for other well-known developers who've conquered other mediums to try their hand at MMO development. The genre needs innovation. Let the innovators do their thing.

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