When a game becomes popular I believe that the developer and publisher have a responsibility to provide more detailed background information regarding the universe it is set in. Let me give you a real-world example.
After the success of Unreal in 1998 Epic should have started producing the official Unreal Universe. This would have contained a basic timeline of major and important events, possibly starting from around 2000 and extending beyond the supposed dates when Unreal was based. Far from stifling creativity it could have cultivated it by ensuring that any creative work was linked in some way to the history.
I posted this idea on a couple of Unreal forums but some visitors felt that this would limit fan’s options. One comment that I particularly remember went something like this: “Here is another person who wants to know everything”. This person couldn’t see that by giving people more information about a setting could, and generally does, inspire people more than only a basic outline.
It’s a simple fact of psychology that people generally prefer guidelines to work within. Give somebody an blank sheet of paper and ask them to write a report and most will struggle, give the same person a sheet of paper with the headings and points to make and off they go. Of course that’s a generalisation but I believe it’s close enough to be of value here.
Have the Star Trek and Star Wars universes suffered because of a detailed history? I don’t think so! By giving players and interested parties the basic framework you still allow a vast number of possibilities regarding characters and situations.
I see huge potential where others see restriction. Giving the community a chance to be part of the universe would strengthen the links that currently exist. Mappers and modellers are filling in this history with no guidance, meaning there’s no coherence to the mods and weapons produced. I’m not suggesting that they can only produce “Officially-Sanctioned” concepts, that would be stupid, just that they have the opportunity to be part of something greater.
By expanding the universe mod makers can place their mod within a consistent story and technological framework. Competitions could be run to find the best ideas for sections of the history left vague for that exact purpose. The Developers wouldn’t even need to do all the work because the Unreal Community is so strong. They would just guide us. Fan Fiction has become more and more popular since the release of Unreal and this is another area that could easily be incorporated into the idea.
I am worried that we have seen the last of the Unreal Universe in a Single Player game. Perhaps the Unreal 3 Engine will be used to make Unreal 3 but who knows? Unreal 2 wasn’t as well received as hoped, the amount of mods produced are some indication of this. Although this may have been mentioned, and I’m purposefully not doing any research on this point, beside the Skaarj and some weapons, what exactly was the connection with the Unreal Universe in Unreal 2? Was it made clear exactly when the story took place along with its background? How far in the future was it. What might have happened in the past to get us here?
I envisage that there would be a website run by the developers and a small group of dedicated individuals that would approve all official content. A timeline would be created where events from mods and fan fiction can be placed. Anybody can make an application to have their work included and the Universe Development Team (UDT) would study the proposals and make a decision based on the appropriateness and other work under consideration.
This may lead to a logo which can be displayed by the successful applicant advertising high quality production and consistent content, similar to the ISO Standards in Europe. This may encourage mod makers to attain certain standards. However, the quality of some mods is way better than some retail games, so clearly it wouldn’t affect everybody.
Notice I said, “Approve” not “Produce” content. One of the points about this concept is to encourage co-operation between developer and the gaming community. Of course Epic have recently finished the Make Something Unreal Contest, which definitely helped extent the solid relationship they have with the community. But notice that there was nothing about Single Player mods and maybe even storylines. It was all about technology. Maybe this was linked to the Nvidia connection?
Clearly some games don’t need it and others don’t want it. But lots would benefit from it. I think if you have a sequel then you should at least consider creating a universe. Will we see a Red Faction 3? I doubt it but maybe a Star Trek Elite Force 3 because they got a universe to fall back on. What is needed is something that supports new ideas without the players thinking that a new game is just an attempt to live of the success of the previous games. Maybe all sequels are like that but if they give back something to the player then why not. I don’t just want new weapons and the chance to drive/fly/pilot vehicles I want more. I want involvement in another related story.
If I’m honest with you I started this post thinking about Unreal and some of the mods made for it. I think that we will soon get to the situation where they can’t keep producing new versions set a few years in advance of the last one. Look what happened to Star Trek. They reached a point where going forward in time would produce too many problems. It’s very difficult to predict how technology will change and affect society. After Deep Space Nine and Voyager they had to go back with Enterprise (which was recently cancelled BTW). I think the same could happen to Unreal Tournament. It may turn in a Sports Title with a few adjustments every couple of years. I believe they would be better to set-up the UDT and try and branch out into a specialist story line. This could give rise to completely new weapons and consistent locations. Of course I may be wrong but how different can Unreal Tournament 2006 or 2008 be unless something drastic is done?
Maybe this has been discussed within Epic maybe not. It might be interesting to see what would happen if they developed a new Unreal Tournament set before the first one, with different weapons etc. Retro modding!
Valve seem to have had the right idea with Opposing Force and Blue Shift, give players more of the same universe but with enough differences to keep things interesting. I’m actually more looking forward to what happens next with Half Life 2 than I was with the actual game. Will you be able to play as the Combine or rebels in future mission packs or add-ons? There’s even scope for playing within the Seven Year War.
Although it would be nice to start building a universe before the release of a game, I don’t think it would be impossible to do once a game becomes popular. I think it’s still possible to do even now for Unreal.
Take a look at the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Oblivion Lost website and you will see they have a large collection of fan fiction already. I’m unclear whether they made any particular effort to promote this or not, but the fact remains that people are writing stories and the Developers are publishing them. This is even before the game is released!
From a marketing point of view having the timeline/history would enable the developers to ensure a ready supply of new material that could be incorporated into new games and mods.
At first it can be hard to see the benefits for multiplayer mod makers because the story is often relegated to the least important item. But creating a mod for a particular battle that has repercussions within the rest of the setting may prove a motivational factor. The recent popularity of World War 2 games has not been limited by the fact that we already know the outcome or exact circumstances; it’s the action that counts.
There have been a few mods for Unreal and the UT games that have strayed away from the FPS genre and I would like to think the UDT would be able to welcome these into the fold with open arms.
If we, and by we I mean both the gaming community and the developers, are not careful the Unreal Universe may be forgotten by all except the hardcore few. This is because new games and themes come out all the time, each one looking to replace the last big release as the most-played game. Unreal, Quake and Half Life have so far survived, but for how much longer?
I can see why others are against this concept because I don’t want to be playing Unreal Tournament in 5 years, I want something new and different but we should at least give the universe a chance to develop and who knows what may evolve.