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Movies that could be MMOs: Tron


"Greetings, programs." These are the first words you hear as you enter the vast, coldly glittering chamber, prodded forward by a hulking, cowled figure wielding a shockstaff. You glance nervously around you. Your companions seem equally confused and frightened. High above you upon a raised platform, glowing redly, is an Enforcer -- one of the Master Control Program's elite warriors. "You have been chosen to compete against each other for our amusement. Failure to compete is rewarded with deresolution. A victory ensures another day of life. You shall compete until you lose. A loss is punished with deresolution. Today you will receive training. Tomorrow you shall compete. End of line."

One of the cowled figures roughly thrusts a glowing blue disc into your trembling hands, which you hold to yourself like a lifeline, which it is. Your training begins.

Released into theaters in 1982, Tron is a movie about computers, written before the emergence of the World Wide Web. It posited a world inside the hardware, occupied by anthropomorphized programs. Though some of its ideas bear little resemblance to reality, the story and themes still hold up to repeated viewing, and it's a fun ride with interesting visuals. Despite the numerous adaptations into videogame form the movie has endured, the world of Tron could make a fun and engaging MMO. We'll take a look at how its mechanics might work after the jump.

One of the first things a Tron MMO will have in its favor is its arresting aesthetic: vast voids of blackness, or some near-to-black deep hue, defined by neon-faceted architecture of all the colors of the spectrum. We're used to fantasy worlds being multicolored pastorals, with luminous spell effects and character designs favoring an outrageous panoply that frequently bears little resemblance to anything an actual warrior might wear. Compared to, say, World of Warcraft, the starkness of Tron's cyberspace and avatars with glowing, delineated forms would be a welcome contrast.

And yes, this is a fantasy title, despite its technological trimmings. There's very little actual science to be had in this universe, and the game suffers not at all for it.

To dive right into it, let's consider character creation. The conceit of Tron's universe is that every avatar is the embodiment of an application, given humanoid form. It might be fun to link player class to application type. For example, accounting software might have abilities that rely upon the mathematical underpinnings of the game's physics. The class would have access to forces like gravity, light, matter, sound, etc. She could make the composition of the ground beneath her enemies to suddenly become brittle, causing them to fall to their deaths; or remove the heat from their bodies, freezing them in place.

A graphics program could have the power to create minions by drawing them into reality; or altering the appearance of his opponent, reducing the strength of a held weapon by reducing it in size. A networking application could influence the way a group attacks, by connecting the strikes of multiple players into a consolidated blast. There is a huge opportunity to develop some truly novel gameplay around this concept.

Regardless of the actual class, it would be dull indeed to hew to the original color scheme of the film, where blue equals good and red equals evil. We can keep the glowing contour lines, perhaps beginning with simple patterns and evolving into complex sigils with each ten levels achieved. This would help to visually distinguish avatar stats without having to attach any number of cumbersome-looking armors or accessories. We want to keep the sleek, form-fitting appearance, which suggests speed and fluidity over brawn and strength, another typical direction many MMOs take.

What would the overarching storyline be? In the film, it's one man's fight against the tyranny of the Master Control Program (MCP), an evil entity that wants to control humanity. However, the movie plays a little loose with how large the network is -- it began as ENCOM's private system, then evolved to threaten the world somehow. If we update the milieu, we can have a separate MCP for each game server, with the ultimate goal being its eradication. Does this hold up as a goal in light of possible future expansions? To continue the theme, we can posit a sysadmin responsible for managing the server, existing outside of gameplay. Seeing the failure of his overriding maintenance program, he would likely perform an upgrade, which would bring with it concomitantly tougher system security; thus, the next MCP to be eliminated. However, this scheme has a couple of problems, the lesser of which being that it strains belief to think that constant updates would seem a worthwhile way to manage a haywire network. More than two such upgrades resulting in repeated failures would cause any self-respecting sysadmin to either wipe the server and start over, or move on to new hardware. Either way, the game population would be either deleted, or rendered purposeless.

The more serious problem is conceptual: in reality, software applications are written to achieve a purpose. They exist to play nicely with the underlying operating system. Even by anthropomorphizing the programs as in the film, it's uncertain what the characters would be fighting for. Unlike The Matrix Online, where the system is responsible for keeping real life humans under control, Tron's system is responsible for maintaining the lives of the applications, without which they wouldn't even exist. Once freed from the MCP's tyranny, what will have changed?

Instead, let's imagine that the events of the movie precede the game. It's a couple of decades later, the World Wide Web has come into being, and no new MCP has risen to replace the old one. The system is peaceful, with freedom for all. The only thing worth fighting over is power. In the movie, each avatar is kept alive by electrical current, forming and maintaining its body. At one point the MCP's champion, Sark, is killed. The MCP brings him back to a kind of life by pumping vast amounts of power into his corpse, additionally causing it to grow to gigantic size, filled with unholy strength. Assuming this is not a unique occurrence, it's plain that the accumulation and dispensation of power on the Grid is the only worthwhile currency. So instead of one enemy to band against, we have an entire universe of united factions, all vying for control of the system's one commodity.

Faction warfare goals would consist of control of energy-dispensing nodes, somewhat similar to Tabula Rasa's mechanic of capturing ground from the Bane. By capturing a node, players would be able to perform special upgrades on themselves, such as the ability to heal more quickly, or raise impenetrable shields around themselves. However, without something more significant to strive toward, even this type of gameplay might pall after a while. What might be interesting is the idea of a faction's controlling a majority of a server's nodes granting them the ability to alter the landscape in their favor. For example, creating a building to serve as a headquarters, allowing that faction's players to enter and power up, allowing greater strength in battle, and a reliably-protected spawn point in the event of death.

However, disenfranchised players could themselves band together to destroy the node, thus not only weakening that faction's power base, but also freeing the locked-up energy in that structure, to be absorbed by the victors. Or, perhaps even more interesting, power could be put to the use of developing new abilities through the creation of a Research Center. With a sufficiently large investment of power, a previously-unknown ability could be unlocked, usable only for the faction that "discovered" it. At least, until the ability is stolen and copied by the faction that destroys the Center. In this way, the game is kept fresh, and warfare has purpose.

There is room for innovation with a metaphysical universe like Tron's. And who knows? With the sequel rumored to be in development, we might see it in our lifetimes after all. Dream of Solar Sailers and Light Cycles, my friends.

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