Mention the words “story” and “MMO” to anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock for the last year, and you’ll get the same response: Star Wars: The Old Republic. But Bioware’s baby isn’t the only project looking to explore the potential for telling stories through the MMO genre. Out of a small office in the East End of London, a game developing duo is looking to do things a little bit differently with their first foray into the world of MMOs. Ladies and gentlemen, join us as we venture into The Written World.
Uniquely referred to as a Massively Multiplayer Online Write ‘Em Up, the groundwork for The Written World was first laid five years ago. It was back then that Simon Fox, the taller half of Playlab London, ran a writing group with friends exploring the act of collaborative story-telling. Having all played Dungeons and Dragons for years, they discovered something rather interesting when trying to have two people author a story together. Whilst two people working on a block of text frequently stalled, as soon as people got together and focused on building worlds instead, then their ability to populate them with stories became much greater.
It’s on this groundwork that The Written World is built. Simon and his friend, Toby Green, established Playlab London in early 2011 with the hope of achieving socially positive things through games. Doing this on a shoestring budget from a rent and run studio is certainly a big ask, but from what we’ve seen so far things look very promising indeed.
So what actually is the game about? Whether you call it interactive fiction or collaborative storytelling, the game is essentially about being creative with another human being. Whether you choose to write the story, or play through it as a hero, you’re equally responsible for shaping the way the story progresses and the effect it has on the characters that experience it. Simon explains, “It’s a sandbox. At its core it’s turn-based story writing. One person plays the narrator, whilst one person plays the protagonist. At the moment there’s only one protagonist per story, but that’ll change soon.”
“Each of these stories is persistent. They’re stored in a literally mapped out world, and as a hero this is a world I can traverse and decide whether to partake in other people’s stories. Think of these stories as instances, standard MMO-style, so it’s a way of allowing people to have that tight storytelling experience but also continually be collaboratively authoring this universe together.” Taken alone, it sounds exciting, but adding the extra layer of MMO functionality looks set to turn the game into catnip for roleplayers and story lovers alike.
If you’ve ever finished reading a story about a character and wondered what would have happened to them next, you can write it. If you feel that a sci-fi character belongs in a period romance, you can change it. Creating a character makes it available to everyone, so if you make an especially well rounded individual there could end up being fifteen or twenty stories in which he features, though you only took him through a couple of them. Before anyone starts searching for their pitchfork and flaming brand, the team are determined to make sure your characters are always clearly marked as originally yours. They’re currently playing with the idea of branching trees, with the original creator’s journey being marked as such. It’s a pretty cool notion though, to be able to see from when nothing was written about your creation up to where there are multiple copies of them being played by different people. The potential for multiverse stories is rife.
It’s clearly going to be quite different to anything we’ve played before, and the duo has made the active choice to shirk away from some of the staples of the MMO genre. As Simon enthuses, “at its core it’s about collaborating with people; we’re not looking to foster conflict inside the games that people play. So it’s similar to any table top role playing game as it has that communal story telling thing, but there’s no hit points, swords or loot. We really felt like if all of our mechanics focused around ways that people could hit each other, we’re going to end up with just one type of story which is something that we obviously want to avoid.”
Having said this, the guys are aware of the need to incentivise play. For this reason, they’re currently honing the game’s reward system. By playing through and writing good stories, you accumulate more of the in-game currency, known as force points. These can be spent to have a little bit of tug on the way the story is going, regardless of whether you’re a narrator or protagonist. They are capped, however, at how many can be brought into any one story in a bid to keep things fun and prevent one very established player taking control of the story, and dragging his fellow players along on his magnum opus.
If you’ve read all unable to shake a sense of extreme trepidation, afraid you’ll be locked out due to your inability to write well, then never fear. Toby has another option for you: “Playing may only be a small part of the community, there are going to be a lot of people on there just to browse and read. So we’re going to give them an ability to feedback into the system what they do and don’t like and call this “Fame”. This depends on your ability to write well and play well. Our award structure should be based around people being able to write well, for themselves and others. Fame is a sort of peer reviewed way of approaching levels. If you create a character a lot of people like, that’s a famous character and the community will insure the best stuff rises to the top.”
There’s still stuff to be done before the game is ready for general consumption, but development is progressing well. The team raised all the money they were looking for in a Kickstarter project that finished in January, giving them enough cash to get the game to beta and a community to join in the alpha testing. If all goes well, they’re hoping to be at beta within the next six months. Until then, they’re looking for anyone who’s interested to go and say “hi”, and join their swiftly growing community either at @writtenworldHQ or www.thewrittenworld.co whilst they finish constructing their forums.
Whilst you’re all already probably thinking of the stories you want to see told, what of the creators? The final words I shared with Toby Green bode well for a bright future for the game: “What I want to see in 6 months or a year’s time is one, just one, amazing story written by two complete strangers. For me that would be incredible. I’m sure it’s been done before, through forums, but to do it through this platform it’ll show what these kinds of games may be capable of.” Who says you need a budget of $200 Million to make a story-driven MMO worth salivating over?