Back in June of 2008, I published a blog post describing a game design concept that fascinated me: the Living World game.
Since then I've remained fascinated by the idea of a game that models social dynamics at both a very high and a personal level, and that runs constantly like an online game (simulating changes while the game is turned off). I would still love to see a game consciously developed as a gameworld, where the fun comes not from following some game developer's linear story to a predetermined conclusion but from being a part of and exploring an truly enormous and dynamic open world.
One of the possibilities in my original work-up of this concept was that players would create their own characters who, in typical role-playing game fashion, the player would mold and "level up." Lately, however, I've been thinking it could be much more interesting to eliminate level-based character advancement entirely.
Rather than the standard RPG model of creating a new character out of thin air and then leveling up that character through progressively more difficult challenges, a Living World might not need to copy that model. Instead, the primary gameplay system really ought to be designed to highlight the scope and dynamic features that make the Living World unique.
And what comes most strongly to mind is not giving the player a new character at all, but instead making gameplay about "jumping into" existing NPCs. (Credit Where Credit Is Due Dept.: this line of thinking was inspired in part by some comments made by Owain abArawn to the Gamasutra version of the original Living World essay.)
In this model (which, yes, now that I think about it does somewhat resemble the notion behind "Quantum Leap"), players starting the game would first experience the gameworld from a disembodied perspective. They would be shown the Living World from a great distance; the camera would then zoom in to various regions and then to individual NPCs going about their lives. The player would be shown how to take control of two different NPCs as a tutorial. After returning to the big picture view of the world (to impress on the player the scope of the Living World), they would then be free to begin exploring the world by inhabiting the NPCs of their choice.
This is where the core gameplay of the Living World would be found. Every NPC would be defined to have a particular role. (Role definition would be part of the toolset for building the content of the Living World.) Players would be able to observe or inspect an NPC to see the role he or she has, and then choose whether or not to inhabit that NPC.
Inhabiting an NPC immediately gives the player access to all the skills -- defined as gameplay activities -- that are associated with the role to which that NPC was assigned. So if you want to fight monsters, inhabit a Ranger; if you want to chase thieves, jump into a City Guard NPC; if you want to practice crafting, inhabit a Blacksmith or Baker; if you're looking for economic gameplay, inhabit a Merchant; and if you feel like trying your hand at the very difficult game of city or kingdom management, you would be able to inhabit a town's Mayor or even the King of an entire nation.
As noted above, in each case the kinds of gameplay available to you would depend on the role of the character you choose to inhabit. These gameplay activities would need to be predefined by the developer as selectable actions which use and/or affect objects inside the gameworld. The "Ranger" role, for example, might be defined to optimize skills (gameplay actions) such as Shortbow, Shortsword, Tracking, Herbal Medicine, and Stealth. Meanwhile, the "City Guard" role could be defined as having special training in Shortsword, Tracking, Negotiation, Perception, and the Guard badge which allows that character to summon other Guards. Other roles would have their own appropriate skill optimizations.
In addition to roles having particular skill optimizations, roles would also be keyed to preconstructed gameplay content. In other words, the role of the NPC you choose determines the kind of prescripted gameplay content offered to you. If you choose to inhabit a Ranger, you would not only be free to explore the gameworld while doing Ranger-y things, the act of inhabiting that NPC would also activate any number of world events (either automatically or at the player's discretion) in which Ranger skills could be particularly useful -- say, a monster invasion, or finding a lost child for some villagers. The same would be true for every role. Even highly mundane roles such as Baker would have gameplay events (e.g., baking challenges) scripted for them that would be fun for someone who voluntarily chose to be a Baker. (Note that this design integrates into the "epic storylines" feature of a Living World game.)
The assignment of NPCs to particular roles would need to be integrated into the social dynamics of the gameworld. Because the Living World models the birth, growth, and death of individual NPCs (possibly only at a statistical level except where the player has traveled or currently exists), the mechanism of children maturing into adults would need to be fitted into the role system. For example, a village experiencing dynamic growth would encourage children to fill high-priority roles as openings (due to death, injury, retirement, or possession by the player) occur, then useful roles, then expansion-oriented or support roles as the group's resources and rules permit. A village or social group that can't or doesn't care to continue, on the other hand, would probably find most of its children emigrating to cities or taking on "solo/loner" roles. In other words, the Living World needs to be designed so that role assignments to juveniles are made dynamically based on a determination of whether to maintain/enhance the existing social group or to break it up in favor of forming new groups elsewhere.
One other note on the gameplay design approach of "inhabiting" NPCs: Because the Living World would simulate not just large-scale social movements but personal social structures as well, in many cases the NPC whom the player chooses to inhabit would be part of a social group -- a member of the city guards, or the blacksmith for a village, or a husband or wife who is the parent to some children. This raises the question: should those NPCs realize when someone who is part of their social group is "inhabited" by an entity with the unique power of possessing people's bodies and minds?
I very much like the idea that these NPCs would definitely know when someone in their group is inhabited by the player, and that they would be able to react toward the player according to their beliefs and fears. It seems reasonable that stories of this kind of possession, occurring for thousands of years, would be part of the legends and histories of all the peoples of the Living World. Would you be considered a god? or a demon? or perhaps just a very talented sorceror? If you choose to inhabit an NPC who, in addition to her gameplay role, is a wife and mother, how might her husband and children react to you when they realize that she no longer exists as herself and that you might do anything at all to her, from taking her across the wilderness to getting her killed? These relationships, I think, would also be an excellent opportunity for prescripted gameplay activities to be activated, with the twist that they could have more than the usual amount of emotional resonance -- would you choose to risk the life of an NPC whose children are begging you not to take her away?
I'll be thinking more about this approach to character-based gameplay within the Living World concept. For now, the more I think about it, the better I like it as a system that supports and improves the overall design of the Living World game.