It's a good time to be a Doctor Who fan. Along with the recently announced PlayStation-exclusive Doctor Who: The Eternity Clock, this week we'll see the launch of a public preview for Doctor Who: Worlds In Time, a browser-based, free-to-play MMO developed by Puzzle Pirates studio Three Rings Design.
I've seen it in action.
As a lifelong fan of the BBC's long-running science-fiction series, I was offered an early peek at the Flash-based Worlds In Time ahead of this week's public debut, courtesy of BBC Worldwide Digital Entertainment and Games EVP Robert Nashak and Senior Product Manager Max Engel.
"Doctor Who is not about violence, it's about wit," Nashak said of the game's approach to the Doctor Who universe, which he described as "a blend of narrative gameplay and puzzle gameplay."
For those who are still a little shaky as to what all this "Doctor Who" stuff is about, the basic premise of the series is actually fairly simple: The Doctor is a brilliant, occasionally reckless member of an alien race known as Time Lords, who travels through time and space in a ship that looks like an old British police call box (essentially, a blue phone booth). He's frequently accompanied by human (and sometimes alien) companions who join him on adventures as he rights wrongs and protects the universe from all manner of threats.
As Nashak indicated in his description of the series, The Doctor shies away from using traditional weapons against his enemies, preferring to outsmart them and use the power of his centuries-old, but rather eccentric, intellect.
It's no secret that Doctor Who has a spotty history in the gaming world, with developers often struggling to translate the show's unique flavour to the interactive medium. However, with Doctor Who popularity at an all-time high these days, there's no small amount of reward — and risk — that accompanies the notion of a Doctor Who MMO.
In Doctor Who: Worlds In Time, players begin the game when they're recruited by The Doctor and tasked with recovering the "shards of time" that are scattered throughout the universe.
"There's been an explosion in the time vortex that created shards across time and space," explained Engel. "The Doctor knows something nefarious is going on, and you need to piece time back together."
Players can choose their avatar's gender and species from four alien races: the reptilian Silurians, the feline Catkind, the insectoid Malmooth, or for those who want to stay in their comfort zone, human. Additional customisation options allow for changing your character's facial structure and other attributes.
As you can see from the screen caps, the game's art style is the sort typical for Flash-based environments, with a simple, cartoon-like character design and a bright colour pallete. Since the actor portraying The Doctor has changed numerous times throughout the series' 50-year run, the BBC made a point of noting that the iteration of The Doctor appearing in Worlds In Time is based on the likeness of current star Matt Smith.
"At times you'll be in a social space that could be filled with 30 people, so it's important that you have the ability to quickly recognise yourself," said Engel of the range of customisation options.
While your character begins the game in pajamas — fans of the series know The Doctor has a nasty habit of dropping in unannounced — Engel indicated that a long list of customisation options will open up as the game progresses, with players able to collect more clothing during missions or through in-game purchases. (The game's opening is also a subtle nod to The Doctor's first meeting with his current companion on the series, Amy Pond, who spent much of her first episode in pajamas.) In my brief walkthrough of the game, there was a wide range of character designs represented, with some sporting iconic items culled from the show's long history, such as The Doctor's favourite Stetson.
Once your avatar is created and you've been introduced to The Doctor, the remainder of the game is set in the TARDIS (The Doctor's ship) or on one of the 10 worlds players must traverse to find the lost "time shards." Each player receives their own private room on the TARDIS that serves as a home base and can be visited by other players and customised with items (trophies, furniture, decorations, etc) collected during the game.
A room I visited during the walkthrough contained statues of an Auton and a Weeping Angel, two alien races from the series.
"Everyone has their own room, and with the concept of the interior spaces, part of the fun is being able to customise your room and what's in it," said Engel. "For instance, do you actually have a swimming pool in your room inside the TARDIS? Being able to visit your friends and see what they've done is also part of it."
Gameplay in Worlds In Time consists of visiting each of 10 planets that have been invaded by creatures from the series. My walkthrough had us visiting London during an invasion by the Autons (a race of featureless creatures that look like mannequins), but I also received glimpses of Sardicktown (the setting of last year's Christmas episode) populated by clockwork robots from the episode "The Girl in the Fireplace," and the planet of New New York during an invasion by the creepy, tentacled aliens known as Ood.
On each world, the landscape was filled with evidence of each invaders' presence, from the "eggs" that spawn the Autons, to floating clockwork structures and — in the case of the Ood — a layer of ice over every surface.
"Different invading forces will come and impact the visual style of the game on each world," explained Engel. "It could just as easily be Dalek architecture in London. It's going to be a lot of fun when you return to a planet [after recovering a shard] and now there are Weeping Angels or one of the other monsters there."
The social element of the game primarily comes into play during each mission to the planets — or "interventions" as they're referred to in the game — as you can team up with other players to accomplish the tasks required to recover that planet's shard. Each intervention is made up of several puzzle-style quests that involve everything from picking locks and hacking a computer to repelling an enemy or convincing an NPC character of something. Communication between characters is conducted via in-game chat, and players can invite friends to join their mission using in-game options.
"[The missions] are unique to each player's narrative," said Engel. "It's all about balancing the narrative with the game elements, so players who are big Doctor Who fans will get the great narrative they expect from the show, but players who are new to Doctor Who should also be able to come in and be welcomed into the universe."
During my walkthrough, our quartet of players — one controlled by Engel, the rest computer-controlled — were tasked with picking a lock while keeping a group of Auton soldiers at bay. While one player worked on the lock puzzle, the rest of the group were occupied with a different type of puzzle representing their interaction with the Autons. Over time, troubles with solving the lock puzzle prompted more Autons to show up, giving the whole ordeal a sort of frantic, tense tone.
According to Engel, a story engine created for Worlds In Time allows for a long list of intervention permutations that match a world with an invading force, a set of missions required to locate the shard, and various items to be found on each planet. As players accomplish each world's intervention, the environment changes to reflect the dwindling presence of enemies or other conditions brought about by the mission.
A player's ability to handle the tasks required by an intervention is determined by both puzzle-solving skill and certain customisations made to the character over time. Along with all of the clothing, appearance, and room options, each player is equipped with a "gadget" — a customisable tool similar to The Doctor's all-purpose "sonic screwdriver" that can be tailored with certain "charges" to increase certain player attributes and abilities.
For example, the gadget wielded by Engel's character was equipped with an "Eloquent Charge" that made it easier for his avatar to talk his way into — or out of — certain problems.
"Much like every Doctor has their own sonic screwdriver with unique styles, so to can every player have their own gadget that reflects their personality," he explained, adding that if a player is good enough, his or her gadget becomes the equivalent of The Doctor's own sonic screwdriver.
Players will be able to form in-game guilds. Engel indicated that in addition to the solo story offered in the game, there will be some additional elements for guild-based play once the solo narrative is completed.
"We're looking at this as a multi-year effort, and to really get that attachment, guilds will be a critical component," he said. "Which guild can excel at being the best at saving the universe? Who's best at repelling forces or collecting the chronons from each world?"
The "chronons" Engel mentioned are the in-game currency, and are used to embark on interventions or purchase items. They're also expected to be the chief source of revenue for Worlds In Time.
"Players receive a daily allotment of energy that they can use," explained Engel. "When you come into the game, you'll have your daily allowance, and you can use that energy to travel with the TARDIS and go on interventions. That acts as the turnstile fee that you'll use when you're going through the narrative."
"You'll use this free energy to go on missions, and you'll also be able to use it for virtual items — customising your gadget, items for your personal space, and so forth," he continued. "Down the road, we're also looking at opportunities for collaborative purchasing for guilds, too."
While Engel and Nashak weren't able to provide specifics on how much the typical player will be able to do in an average day before running out of chronons, they stressed that the game is envisioned as more than just a short daily diversion — and players' allowance of chronons will be an aspect they keep a close eye on during the public preview. The pair were quick to indicate that neither in-game purchases nor multiplayer cooperation would be required to complete Worlds In Time.
"We were committed to making this game completely playable and finishable," said Nashak. "We'll obviously grow it, but you can play through the whole game as it launches without paying a penny. . . Chronons just allow you to get through missions faster, customise your avatar more robustly, or create environmental contraptions in your home space."
As for the need to recruit other players to get through the game, Engel said the presence of non-player characters will enable players to take a more lone-wolf approach to Worlds In Time.
"We made sure that NPCs can come in and help you when you need it," he explained. "If you want to come in and be a solitary hero, you can totally do that and have a rewarding experience, and in addition there will be the chance to have supporting characters — non-playable characters — that you can develop a relationship with, just like when The Doctor makes a friend within the context of an episode and then has someone on a planet that he goes back to in later episodes. You can have that same relationship in the game."
Finally, with Worlds In Time going public just a week after The Eternity Clock was announced, the BBC team offered some clarification about the two projects and how they'll differ.
"The Eternity Clock is a hyper-realistic, cool platformer that's downloadable on Sony devices," clarified Nashak. "Worlds In Time is a community experience. Basically, we're trying to create the largest online Doctor Who community ever created."
While I wasn't able to go hands-on with Worlds In Time, it certainly appears to offer a nice entrance point for anyone new to the Doctor Who universe, and plenty of elements to appease longtime fans. While the cartoony, anime-influenced style of animation could take some getting used to, what I saw of the game indicates that the developer's done a great job of capturing the series' quirky tone in its character interactions (all text-based, sadly, so you won't be able to hear Matt Smith giving you your orders).
The customisation options — both for characters and each player's room in the TARDIS — clearly received a lot of attention from the Three Ring team, and combined with the depth of the narrative, make the project appear to be a far cry from typical Flash-based browser games.
Doctor Who: Worlds In Time begins its public preview this week and should be playable on all Flash-enabled browsers, with the official launch scheduled for March 2012.