One of the ways to reach Movement Point is to type “doctor who mmorpg” into a search engine, owing to our twin fascinations with Dr. Who and gaming here. This site doesn’t show up until the third or fourth page on that search, though, so you have to be pretty desperate for news about a potential Dr. Who Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game to click through to here. And yet my site stats indicate that someone did.
I can understand the desire. Over forty years, Dr. Who‘s writers and producers have populated the show’s more-or-less coherent universe with plenty of planets to explore, characters to revisit, and enemies to defeat yet again. MMOs, and role playing games generally, put the player into the story universe, to shape it and become a part of it, a form of “active” fan fiction. Millions log in to fight dragons daily; it’s not such a stretch to imagine gamers going online to take down Daleks.
So what, then, would a Dr. Who MMORPG look like?
The main question to be answered is how would players interact with the story universe? Most licensed story world MMORPGs push players into supporting roles, seeing “named” figures from the universe in passing. You don’t get to be Gandalf or Luke Skywalker, but if you’re very lucky, you might run into them as you go about your somewhat-less-impressive adventures. Our participation is, at best, tangential to the established lore, and understandably so. The outcomes of the battle on Hoth and the encounter with the Balrog on the bridge are already settled. We need new adventures for the players to encounter, new obstacles to overcome.
Players, then, would not be the Doctor himself, or any of the pre-established characters. We couldn’t be Jack Harkness or Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart or Leela or Adric or Rose. Would players be Time Lords? Or members of Torchwood or UNIT? Those seem the only real options. I can’t imagine anyone agreeing to be someone else’s Companion, faithful sidekick to the person who gets to drive the TARDIS. (Though, as an aside, early reports out of the sporadic development of Star Trek Online cast some players as “bridge crew” for a starship captained by a specific player, which in itself is not too far distant from the experience of raiding guilds in MMORPGs that tend to have well-delineated leadership hierarchies.)
And what do you do once you’ve logged into a Dr. Who MMORPG? Most MMORPGs focus on character advancement via some form of conflict, be it combat or economic machinations or diplomatic maneuverings. However, the central conceit of the Dr. Who universe is not conflict, per se, but time travel, as seen in Dr. Who‘s very episodic nature: cavemen one week, evil robots the next. Though there were some story arcs, such as season twenty-three’s “The Trial of a Time Lord” and season sixteen’s “Key to Time,” most stories were self-contained. Even the arc-driven current series respects the basically episodic nature of the Dr. Who canon. The Doctor is always on the move, never staying anywhere for long.
Time travel and the episodic nature of the Dr. Who universe would allow players to flit from story to story, conflict to conflict—zone to zone, in the parlance of most contemporary MMORPGs. Start out in a particular time zone against simple opponents and time travel to increasingly more advanced zones, past and present and future, helping UNIT and Torchwood and other organizations along the way.
I guess the obvious solution would be to militarize the game in some fashion. Since you obviously can’t play the Doctor anyway, players could belong to a Time Agency or some other group alluded to in the series, who wage war across time against various time travelling enemies hell bent on conquering history.
I have to agree that the developers would need to posit some form of grand conflict for the players to participate in that ties the various game “episodes” together. Though Dr. Who sailed along nicely without any real direction for forty-odd years, an MMORPG needs some plot thread to hang the whole assemblage upon, some goal for the players to reach. Character advancement must be balanced against a reason for said advancement. The current series of Dr. Who alludes to a Time War against the Daleks that left the Doctor as the last (or nearly so) of the Time Lords. And the Daleks would be the most obvious choice for a main opponent that would drive the overall story of the MMORPG, though any number of the Doctor’s opponents could serve in that role.
Time travel also helps solve one of the oddities of most MMORPGs, that of the game world’s semi-persistence. Kill a boar in the woods, wait around, and it reappears for you or someone else to kill again. Pick a flower and, after a bit, it grows back with astonishing botanical speed. So if your player characters have the ability to move through time, it doesn’t beggar the imagination to think that they could defeat Davros again and again. Not that most people expect strict rationality from MMORPGs, of course.
Ultimately, I can’t imagine a Dr. Who MMORPG being made, mostly because of the difficulty of translating a show that focuses more on cunning and diplomacy as a means of solving conflicts than combat to a genre that relies, for the most part, on more directed approaches to problem solving. There certainly are Dr. Who combat games out there, notably the homebrew Doctor Who Miniatures Game and the Harlequin Invasion Earth miniatures game, but for gaming purposes, a more traditional pen-and-paper role playing game involving a game master and a few players is probably the best match for the Doctor’s style. And if you’re not going to capture the essence of Dr. Who, why shell out for the license when you can stitch together any old universe to let you fight mad robots and cybernetic aberrations?
Fortuitously, Cubicle Seven obtained the rights to a new Dr. Who RPG, joining the past efforts of FASA and Virgin Publishing in creating a RPG based on the Dr. Who universe. The latter work, Time Lord, by Ian Marsh and Peter Darvill-Evans, has been released as freeware.
So there is hope yet for people who wish to play in the Doctor’s universe, even if they won’t be able to interact with thousands of others as they do so. You could probably fit that many people into the TARDIS, but it seems more comfortable with three or four.
(Source image courtesy of theholyllama via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License. The derivative image is similarly licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike License.)