Whether it’s City of Heroes, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or even World of Warcraft, almost every MMO has an underlying story behind it. Even EVE Online has an ongoing story aside from the player-generated ones in the dark depths of nullsec. It’s not enough to make your MMO pretty to look at or have unique combat mechanics. Even though a bunch of players tend to skip any text they may see in the game, the fact is that the story tends to be the context in which players level, craft, and fight.
But as a living game-a game that expects to exist for years of real time-it becomes unlikely to remain static. Will the Klingons be at war with the Federation forever, as it was when it started in Star Trek Online? Or will the two great powers bury the hatchet (er, poor choice of words) to deal with the greater threats hinted at in the storyline? What will happen when the Gree Enclave comes back in strength in TOR? Azeroth’s been hammered quite a bit with the Cataclysm in WoW. In other words: stuff happens.
One of the problems, though, is that when stuff happens, you have to ask, “hey-what about x, y, or z?” City of Heroes demonstrated the tricky nature of continuity recently. Take Praetoria, for instance. Events in the game have more or less turned Praetoria into a not-so-good place (think “boom”). This came about due to events in the endgame Incarnate Trials. Not such a big deal, if you consider the timeline being a level based timeline. But the upcoming new Issue places refugees into a storyline in Brickstown-an established lower level zone for the 31-40 crowd. So you suddenly have the potential of leveling content that happens after you outlevel the area. Or put in continuity terms, you’re dealing with an effect before you get to the level where you can be the cause. On the other hand, you can’t use content publish order as a timeline; the killer of Statesman is still alive and well for lower level villains long before they can do the arc that puts the hero to his end-and that killer isn’t in a position after that arc to be standing around giving out missions.
Stuff happens. WoW decided to try a different tack, a ways back. It blew up the planet. Well, not exactly, but close enough. They revamped the entire early game (which is to say, before the characters go to the Outlands). Now the 1-60 experience in the major continents has undergone a big change-old quests are gone, new quests are here. Of course, they take place in a post-Cataclysm world, while the Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King content takes place in a pre-Cataclysm world. Full disclosure: I haven’t looked at that kind of content for years, so for all I know Blizzard did change that conetent to reflect Cataclysm. But my gut is telling me, “Nah.”
The Old Republic, being a relatively new game, is so far free from the snarls that continuity will bring. Of course, being a game heavily leaning on story and individual choice, one would expect that things will get more complicated as they add content-especially if said content is class-based missions. Your characters may have done things differently than another person’s, and the future content will have to account for those choices. An Imperial Agent who defects would have a different feel than one who is still loyal to the Empire, as an example. The alternative is to just make all future content generic, such as the recent Grand Acquisitions Race-it didn’t care what class you were, or what choices you may have made on the way. While that may not be ideal, most of the game is made up of non-class missions; it may not be as big an issue as one might think.
The real challenge with continuity, though, is the effects on new players. This is a problem shared by books, comics, and even movies: when you have Friday the 13th Part 22: Jason Gets Really Upset, you’re likely to get folks who follow the series-but aren’t likely to pick up new blood. That’s one of the reasons we tend to see a lot of reboots; we got Batman Begins after the debacle of Batman and Robin, we got a new Battlestar Galactica that only resembled its original series, we got a new Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock for Star Trek, and even DC Comics rebooted its entire comics line. The reason: the producers of all of these media want to bring in new blood. Someday, we’ll see it all reboot again. As the rebooted Galactica would put it, “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”. What does this have to do with MMOs? Well, there’s a reason we see sequel MMOs. Everquest 2? Guild Wars 2? The NGE? Conversions to a Freemium pay plan? All efforts to get new blood.
But “continuity” has another similar word that is worth noting: “history”. Having events move on provides a setting with a real sense of history. Down the line, you can tell newer players that you remember participating in the Grand Acquisitions Race, or fighting in the battle at the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj, or even flying around Spacedock before Q transformed it. There’s nothing wrong with a sense of history-as long as it has some level of consistency. And if you’re around long enough, you might be in a position to tell the new guys one day about how you were at the big event, once upon a time.