This is a prose-piece followed by a look at MMO design. If you want to skip the prose, then click here [tl;dr].
Teleah stared across the plain at the lonely, empty hut so far from the city she called home. She knew it was empty because just a week before, she had entered and killed all three people who lived inside. Killed, or murdered? She wondered about it. Sure the three were outlaws under penalty of death and the coin flowed through the mercenary’s purse like any other contract, but this time it was different. One of those three had been a child. Teleah couldn’t help but think that she was no better than they were: filthy murderers and heretics.
It was different, too, because they were gone forever. Teleah had needed to carry the heads back in a sack to satisfy the bounty, but she had buried the bodies in the earthen floor of the hut. They wouldn’t just spring back up like they did in the training days or the games. Still, every few days Teleah returned to the hut just to check, and each day it was empty. The mercenary looked down at her sword. It was notched in a few places to provide speed and it screamed just before a blow landed. She had made it herself; no one else in the whole world had one. As Teleah crossed the barren field, she sheathed the sword, her mouth a thin line.
When she approached the hut’s opening, a wolf leapt out, vying for Teleah’s throat. A few quick punches and a swift kick sent the wolf on its way. Teleah knew wolves. She’d earned that accolade on her ear when she was thirteen. But what was a wolf doing this far south, Teleah wondered. It must be some straggler that thought this hut would offer shelter for the coming night. Teleah glanced around the inside and cringed. The wolf had done some digging.
Behind her, the mercenary heard a series of yips and her blood froze. A quick pivot and a flick of her wrist readied Teleah’s custom sword for battle against the pack of wolves she had just angered. The wolves were no match and Teleah dined on wolf meat for the next three days, traveling into the north to see what drove the wolves away. When she arrived there, a new town greeted her, one that had not been there on her last trip that far to the north, and run by a man much like herself.
This bit of prose is a brief description of something that could happen in “Illuria”. Illuria is the name of the long-standing, nearly-impossible massively-multiplayer online game concept that I dreamed up as early as my EverQuest days. Now, I’m not much of an MMO person. In fact, I have this strange habit of playing MMOs up into the mid 30’s level range and just getting bored with it. I have a number of reasons why, but that is not what this post is about. This post is about Illuria and why it will never be made.
Illuria is non-persistence taken to the maximum. Nothing is persistent in Illuria. Cities change, monsters are born, terrorize, and die at the hands of a hero or disappear into the mists of age. NPCs actually have lives and generations. “My father was a blacksmith,” a young upstart might say, “but I’m going to the university to work in the courts.” And the reason he wants to work for the courts is because the father was hung for a crime he didn’t commit and the upstart wants to right the injustice. And the upstart will go to university and maybe he will succeed. Time will tell. Of course, most players won’t even know that tidbit, because the upstart isn’t glued to one spot, but moving about town preparing for his trip. How he has the money as a blacksmith’s son to join the university, you may never know. But he knows and the game knows, so that someday, when he is an old man, he might tell his grandchildren how he did it, and maybe a player will overhear.
Or maybe not. The point is, the NPC has a life that goes from birth to death, and no one player may ever see any part of it. And that’s ok. That’s what makes a living world. Expounding on this, let’s take the scenario laid out as the prose above. And yes, I know it isn’t great prose, but I wasn’t trying to make it that. Anyway, let’s say that you are playing Teleah. And this young upstart has grown up to become just what he feared, a corrupt magistrate. The magistrate despises hermits who live on the king’s land and invented a hideous crime that three innocent people have not committed. Then he hires a mercenary (you) to seek them out and kill them. Which you do, probably shocked that one of them was only ten years old. In other MMO’s you could wait and these people would respawn for the next quest taker. This is Illuria, though, so they don’t. The magistrate doesn’t offer the task to anyone else, unless you return empty-handed.
The part about the wolves is also important to the concept of Illuria. In Illuria, animals and monsters and other NPCs will react to the world changing around them. A group of players built a new town near some wolf hunting grounds. The wolves flee the area to find new hunting grounds and end up somewhere you have never known them to reside. In other MMOs, monsters and animals spawn in specific places and never move from those regions. They’re only there for you to kill and take their loot, after all. In Illuria, Players can also affect the world in significant ways. Players can make new towns, chop down trees, cut tunnels into stone, and raze the countryside. The actions of the players (and NPCs) matter.
I also threw in a blurb about customization. Players can make new designs for whatever and NPCs can make variations. NPCs can invent new things too, but invention is best left to those with arbitrary brains. The right AI, though, and it becomes more possible. I used a weapon, but it could have easily been a dress or a piece of music. Neither makes sense for Teleah, but for someone else, maybe.
But Illuria cannot be made. Illuria cannot be made because the sheer amount of processing and storage required for just such an MMO is far greater than what we can muster. You’re talking about keeping track of every NPC, of every object, of everything in the world, on a complex level. We’re not just saying there is a box right here. We’re saying there is a box here and it was delivered at this time and it now contains this commodity, and here is a list of all the places it has been delivered, all the things it has ever contained, who has owned it, who made it, where the wood comes from and a plethora of tiny details. And this is just one (1) box! Imagine a shipping company. One small company may have more data than an entire city in a current, popular MMO. And one city in Illuria? Think of all the bricks in all the houses. Think of the complexity of just one resident. Illuria cannot be made because it just cannot be made. It’s impossible, but yet, I yearn for it.
Feel free to add your comments below. What is your dream MMO?