How MMORPGs Can Better Implement Time Travel

Time travel is often used in MMOs, but never implemented to its full potential. We have some ideas how this could change in the future.

If there’s one plot device we don’t see very often in MMORPGs, it’s time travel. Time travel is a major plot device in practically half of the RPGs we love, but how often does it show up as more than just a random quest or dungeon in an MMORPG? Not very often.

One solid example of an MMORPG that steps fairly close to the time travel continuum is Funcom’s The Secret World. While many aspects of the game are arguably clunky, there’s no denying that some of the storylines and missions that feature time travel are among the best aspects of the game (if you’re familiar with TSW, I’m referring to the Franklin Mansion storyline, specifically). Time travel is simply something we don’t see much of amidst the sea of high fantasy titles, and it’s a downright shame.

Just think how awesome an MMORPG inspired by Doctor Who (the defunct Worlds in Time excluded) or Quantum Leap would be. An MMORPG where we’re tasked with diving back into various timelines and seeing new worlds. Dinosaurs. Medieval sword fights. Chariot races. Western brawls. Glimpses of modern day in a totally different universe. Futuristic battles. Awesome time travel portals that make “whoosh” noises. Saving characters who have an impact on future quests. Traveling back and forth for funsies once we’ve finished gearing out our characters. Role-playing in our favorite time periods. Fighting hulking prehistoric beasts in one raid tier and mutant space ninjas (because why not?) the next. Setting up housing in our favorite zones that are 100% different from one another.

It could be argued that time travel would be difficult to pull off in an MMORPG due to the fact that most MMORPGs have static worlds that feature a “hub” city or base of operations. The multiplayer aspect of most MMORPGs enforces that idea that players need to gather in one or two specific areas to socialize, form groups, and engage with vendor NPCs, auction houses, etc. Even in an MMORPG where time travel is a “loose” plot explanation like in World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor, you have faction-based hubs where players can quickly take various portals back to Azeroth.

Hubs are important, both for practical reasons (it makes trading and group-forming infinitely easier) and for social reasons. If you’re ever caught questing in an area that seems desolate at 1 AM, you can quickly dash back to the main cities in most MMORPGs and at least see a few people hanging around. Most people play MMORPGs to be part of a living, populated world. That’s why our central hubs tend to shift and change with every expansion.

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Where would that hub exist? Let’s say, for instance, this MMORPG has a Roman-esque world, a medieval-esque world, a colonial world, a modern day world, and a futuristic world. Which world gets the main hub? Sure, each timeline could have a hub, but there would also need to be a base of operations that exists between all worlds. Otherwise, each timeline’s hub would never see that large a population—especially if factions come into play at some point.

In The Secret World, for example, the game world is split up into various “branches” a.k.a. areas that are incorporated into the story and leveling experience. The main hub of the game is the Agartha map that looks like a giant tree. Players can use the map to go from branch to branch to travel between different areas. This is essentially what would need to exist in any MMORPG featuring time travel—a central area where players can gather between timelines. Now, in The Secret World’s case, Agartha lacks a few features such as actual things to do/take part in as well as vendors, etc., so it ‘salways a little dull even though folks use the space to chat and look for groups. A central hub is vital, but to be successful, that central hub also has to have things for players to look at/do.

There’s also the factor of progression. It’s a known fact that any MMORPG needs an endgame that’s extremely solid. These days, players spend one-tenth of the time leveling that they do experiencing endgame. That percentage is even smaller when it comes to hardcore endgame players. Arguably, one of the reasons that many new MMORPGs don’t do as well as its developers intend is the fact that the creators concentrate too much on the leveling experience and not enough on the endgame.

If an MMORPG took place at multiple points in time in the same world, traveling between those points would obviously be part of the story. In most MMORPGs, this is how you’d level—by traveling from point to point, learning new things about the class you’re playing, and saving innocents and/or changing the timeline to revert evil doings. Doing all this while leveling to the cap would be super fun, but it’d also limit the use of each of the timelines significantly.

Instead, an MMORPG with a world system like this would do much better with progression that’s more experimental and non-linear in nature. One that isn’t based on levels, but rather ability trees, skill points, or cosmetic upgrades, for example. We haven’t seen a lot of MMORPGs successfully pull off non-linear progression systems, but this type of setting is ripe for such a system. This would let players jump into timelines in whatever order they choose and would also allow plenty of room for endgame content additions.

And that ties into the final mechanical issue that would likely come up in a time travel-focused MMORPG. In order to blend in with most story lines, player characters would have to change their appearance as well as their fighting skills as they progress from world to world. This can be accomplished in a number of ways—through temporary and permanent cosmetic/wardrobe setups and new abilities that are learned/lost upon entering each world or even learned permanently.

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It doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to imagine a sword fighter from a Roman timeline using a laser sword in a futuristic universe. Likewise, a bow user could easily upgrade to a high-tech crossbow as they advance through time. A magic user could simply learn more powerful spells and ones that embrace the current level of tech in the given world (i.e. the ability to raise the dead versus the ability to summon robots).

The best part about creating an MMORPG with elements of time travel is that the creators would be able to come up with completely new weapon/costume systems that bend the “rules” of the genre. A game where spells and abilities change upon moving from world to world may need more animations/graphics created, but this could be controlled somewhat by limiting the amount of abilities players can use at any given time. This would also make it easier to balance each class.

The MMORPG is a medium that can literally go anywhere with its mechanics and plot elements. The problem is when developers don’t see the genre’s unlimited capabilities and merely just copy what other games have done before. Innovation, frankly, is what the genre needs, and thinking along the lines of the above could bring some much-needed innovation into our world of elves and dwarves and kingdoms at peril (until the next dude comes along, anyways). In a genre that is very saturated with copy cats, time travel is just what the Doctor ordered.