Some of Otherland’s environments will share elements with more conventional MMO worlds. They’ll have quests and combat, and will usually obey the laws of physics. But even here, Otherland is far more ambitious than its contemporaries: it’s going to be story-driven in a way that will make other games blush to think they ever dared use such an expression. There will be quests of all shapes and sizes, but the top-tier ones will be tied into the bigger story of the world they’re set in. By completing these über-quests, players drive the story on to its next chapter, triggering a dramatic event that will change not only the world, but the experience of that world for many players. Players who have discovered enough about the world are carried through to the next chapter even if they weren’t the ones to complete the transition quest.

Otherland is rewriting the rule book on character classes, too: “As you evolve your skills,” says Carter, “that’s what you become. There’s no such thing as just ‘a healer.’ We wanted to avoid the branding that leaves you on that track forevermore.” Nor do characters have levels and experience points; as digital beings, they have telemorphic capacity. “Think of it as how many CPU cycles you have, how much memory you have. To be experienced you’re going to need a telemorphic capacity of a certain level and it’s going to need to contain programs of a certain quality - that’s your XP.”

For now, Real U is extremely secretive about what these “programs” actually constitute, but they’re clearly going to be a key element of the game. “Programs can be acquired, they can be modified, they can be blended together... in fact it lies beneath everything,” says Buckner. There’s much more than we can squeeze into two pages: voice synthesis, virtual reality “real estate” for every player, combat through computer viruses, and humongous game elements that required a radical restructuring of the Unreal 3 engine. Otherland’s developers are wildly ambitious.

I could end on the customary cautious note here and say that might be their downfall. But screw that kind of miserablist thinking. Frankly, Otherland deserves to succeed precisely because it’s trying to do something new and exciting. I’m rooting for it.

+ An exciting and wildly ambitious attempt to do something new with the MMO genre.

– There are still a lot of questions about how the unconventional design will fashion tangible mechanics and progress for players.

Oct 21, 2008