Yes, yes, I promise I will write “Do levels suck? Part Two” soon.
In the meantime, Terra Nova: How to end a world? discusses the end of Asheron’s Call 2. It calls to mind for me, however, the ways in which betas have ended.
At the end of the UO beta, we had a very lengthy beta event to better explain the storyline. It was one of the few events that I’ve gotten to write for an MMO, and I jumped in with short stories and everything!
The death of a shard
The premise of UO, now immortalized in the terms “shards,” was that when the evil wizard Mondain was defeated and the Gem of Immortality shattered, that copies of the Ultima universe existed in each of the shards of the gem. In effect, Britannia had grown into a multiverse; something that there was some precedent for in the earlier standalone games.
The overarching plot was that an evil force (the Guardian) was transforming each shard into Shadowlords, attempting to destroy the universe; the Time Lord was trying to stop this by collapsing the shards back into one world again. This would, of course, result in the disappearance of all the people who existed in only one world.
This lay at the core of the disagreement between Lord British and Lord Blackthorn in UO. Blackthorn argued for chaos, because it preserved the life of the universe he knew; Lord British worked to heal the multiverse, knowing that millions would cease to exist, for the greater good. Once fast friends, they ended up on opposing sides of a fierce political battle. This was all related in “My Book” by Sherry the Mouse, the mouse living in the walls of Lord British’s bedchamber:
“Such simplicity to the game, Blackthorn,” mused Lord British, idly brushing one finger against the board. “Black and white, each to its own color, as if life were so simple. What think you?”
Blackthorn sat heavily on a hassock beside the chess table. “I think that matters are never so simple, my liege. And that I would regret it deeply if someone, such as a friend, saw it thus.”
Lord British’s eyes met his. “Yet sometimes one must sacrifice a pawn to save a king.”
Lord Blackthorn met his gaze squarely. “Even pawns have lives and loves at home, my lord.” Then he reached out for a pawn, and firmly moved it forward to squares. “Shall we play a game?” he asked.
These matters reached a head when the beta was ending. A short story was posted on the website explaining recent spawns that had appeared, crystals that were showing up on the ground around the world.
The images shifted to follow one of the falling lights, closing in on it, as it was revealed as a falling crystal, that falling through the air gathered heat and light to it, shrouding it in contrails of cloud and smoke. It fell to the earth, and as it approached the ground farms became visible, and with the farms the crops being plowed in a runneled field. They saw a bull placidly pulling at a yoke, and a wagon behind it, a young farmboy perched on the wagon, idly chewing on an apple core.
And further did the crystal fall, as the startled farmboy watched, until it embedded itself with a thundering crash in the road just ahead of him, throwing up mud and rock with a sound like a thunderclap. The bull snorted and broke free of the yoke, panic showing in its rolling eyes, and the wagon overturned. As the flames began to dwindle back down, the images shrank, until Lord British was barely able to see the lad crawl out from under his broken wagon, and see the boy’s eyes widen as he saw the crystal in its crater in the road before him, a crystal that embedded in it had a refracted image of a planet–Britannia itself…
This led to an event whereby we asked players to collect as many crystals as possible — a variant of the old MUD Easter Egg hunt game — there were six crystals to collect, and when you looked close at them, they had clues that pointed to their connection with the Shadowlords from the standalone games. We knew full well what would result from this: wholesale slaughter as pk’ers roamed the land stealing crystals from one another to collect the set of six. Which led into the very next story, wherein a cast of characters were able to shed light on the world’s events, reacting to what the players were doing:
“Rough night?” pretty Alyssa asked. She was the newest of the tavern wenches here at the Blue Boar, and her dark hair curled around her head constrained by a bonnet.
Galias sighed. “Rough indeed. All these hunters seeking after these crystals…”
Alyssa shuddered. “None too nice a group, I think!”
“Nay, these are the nobles of the realm, the greatest of heroes!” Galias said sarcastically.
“Noble? Pfui.” Alyssa twitched her skirt out of the way of a grasping drunk and cleverly happened to spill some ale on the drunk’s face, then nudged him with her foot to roll him under the table. “I’ve never seen a more ragged or desperate group in my life.”
Galias looked around him, and soberly said, “Yet I spoke truth, Alyssa.” The men around him had the look of the hunted, not the hunters. Their faces were drawn and exhausted. Many of them clutched pouches and packs to their chests, and they checked them compulsively, peering inside for the crystal he knew must be within. “These are in fact the flower of Britannia–the greatest heroes, the noblest of adventurers. Now they have the look of criminals and killers, as if they were hag-ridden or possessed. I think these crystals are indeed something dark and powerful.”
Alyssa giggled. “Your song was mere fiction, minstrel! Do not ascribe to thy art more than it doth possess!”
“Nay, Alyssa, I am serious. When he was drunk, Nystul did tell me a story he had heard as a child, about evil lords of shadow with the names that are inscribed on these crystals… ow!”
Alyssa had delivered a sharp kick to his ankle. “I say you are just fantasizing, Galias. The crystals are harmless. You hear? Harmless! Do you want this ale or not?” She sloshed a mug full and set it down in front of him with a thud,then flounced away.
Galias stared into the ale, and wondered if he would ever see his friend Nystul again, for the clouds were heavy that night and the lightning flickered with strobing colors over Lord Blackthorn’s keep.
He fingered his lute idly, then grimaced and took it into his lap to tune it, and soon was singing again for the patrons, wistful ballads of summer love and flower necklaces.
Alyssa watched him from the bar, and from time to time ducked into the pantry, where she crouched and shifted jars on a shelf. There, glinting despite the lack of light, lay a crystal shard, and she ran her fingers over it, tracing the name engraved in runes upon it, eyes lost in its transparent depths.
As the night wore on, she visited it more often. As the night wore on, more fights broke out. A lute was broken. A man was killed. As the night wore on, she thought maybe she heard the crystal whispering to her as she lay abed.
Lord British and Blackthorn, and the court mage Nystul, worked to destroy the crystals, throwing them into a moongate to dispose of them. But what they were unwittingly doing by opening that red moongate was giving passage to the Guardian to enter their shard. The results were disastrous: Nystul was left in a coma, Lord British was touched by the Guardian’s finger and ended abed with a pulsating evil boil upon his chest, and Chuckles the court jester found one tiny crystal left in the wreckage.
The event now changed — the goal was to save Lord British’s life. Reagents were needed, including the rare necromantic reagents which were in the game but served no gameplay purpose. But we had rigged the game: unbeknownst to anyone, there was one reagent that we didn’t spawn. The game was unwinnable. Players nonetheless spread out, trying to win this event as they had the last one.
And then another story was posted. And it ended… badly.
Finally, he stood outside on the balcony. Below him were apple trees, the scent of their blossoms rising to his nostrils, full of promise. Past them, flowerbeds, and the mighty walls of his castle. Beyond them, the twinkling lights of the stores and homes and taverns of Britain, and the stars reflected in the moat, bobbing gently like small candles set afloat. The night was clear and sharp like a splash of cold water. All was tranquil, and the moon presided gracefully over a world asleep, content under its blanket of sky.
Lord British sagged against the marbled rail. His fingers caressed the cold stone, feeling the roughness where his hands had rested many a year. I have not done so badly, he thought idly to himself. It has been a good life.
He thought back to years gone by, when his realm consisted of a small land as yet surrounded by enemies. He thought back to Lord Robere and the fearful battle that stained a plain with blood and left behind a desert. He thought of nights playing chess, and of leaving crumbs for the mouse who lived in the hole in his wall.
Good indeed, he thought. It has been good indeed.
Then the figure moved out from the shadows behind him, an elongated object in its hand, raised to strike. Lord British, alerted by some sixth sense, turned just before it struck.
The struggle was brief, as the two grappled. “You–!” Lord British gasped. “Give me that–!”
“At last!” hissed the other figure.
Between them they held the object, then Lord British fell back as the other figure, cloaked and dark, pushed him ever further back.
With a cry, Britannia’s lord toppled from the balcony. Past the apple trees, onto the hard flagstones of the walkway two stories below. There was a wet smack when he landed.
An owl hooted, somewhere. A few moments later, the cloaked figure emerged from the castle proper, and knelt beside Lord British for a moment. Then he stood again, and darted off, back into the castle.
Then another figure came out, and likewise knelt beside the fallen ruler. Then he carefully gathered up the inert body, and carried it inside.
The smell of apple blossoms was exquisite, and Britain slumbered on.
Lord British wasn’t dead, but now the necromantic reagents were badly needed. As the players scurried around failing to find all six, a short play was played out on the global announcement channel, visible to all players: Lord Blackthorn, revealed finally as a a loyal friend, desperately tending Lord British; the crystal that Chuckles absconded with, revealed as the key to the portal that enabled the Guardian to enter, and Chuckles himself as the possessed assassin who tossed British over the balcony edge (sorry, Chuck Bueche, wherever you are… I last saw him at a dinner at GDC or E3 a couple of years ago)…
In the end, British died. Blackthorn died. The Guardian manifested fully in the world.
Guardian: BEHOLD, PETTY LORD, AS MY SHADOWLORDS WALK AND DAEMONS SPAWN TO BURN THIS SHARD TO CINDERS…
Lord Blackthorn: Agh! No, back, daemon from beyond! Back–back, I abjure thee!
Guardian: A PITY YOU RESISTED MY BLANDISHMENTS IN THS UNIVERSE, BLACKTHORN. YOU MADE A WORTHY SERVANT IN OTHER WORLDS…
Lord Blackthorn: AAAAAaaaaaa—-
Guardian: HA HA HA HA HA HA… THUS ENDETH THIS WORLD, ANOTHER VICTORY FOR ME, ANOTHER SHADOWLORD ABORNING. NOW IT IS TIME TO MOVE ON TO THE NEXT WORLD, THE NEXT PREY.
THANKS TO YOU ALL FOR PARTICIPATING IN THIS TEST OF MY POWERS… WHEN NEXT WE MEET– I WILL DEFEAT YOU AGAIN. THIS I PROMISE!
And then, the true ending: every dev member who was at work went into the world in the form of the toughest daemon forms we could take. We disguised ourselves as shadowlords, and we slaughtered. We spawned thousands of daemons who killed everyone indiscriminately. There used to be a fantastic screenshot floating around on the Internet showing an entire screen of nothing but daemon wings…
Anyway, that was one cool way for a world to end, with a bang.
The end of a galaxy
As we ran the SWG beta test, we did a lot of things somewhat differently. The early phases were much more like focus tests than standard beta testing, because we let people in really early in development. A hundred or so colonists, broken into groups of twenty, all standing aroung trying out only one feature: just emotes, or just targeting. I found it incredibly fruitful for iterating and tuning game systems.
The result was also a fairly tight community. Those first hundred got to know each other pretty well, and when one of them, Moraj Markinnison, died in a real life car accident, it was felt keenly. At that spot where the first beta testers entered, a momument was placed, with the late tester’s name on a plaque — the location where the first colonists landed on Tatooine.
In the end though, it was quiet. Everyone knew what was coming; there was no lore, or anything behind it. It was just the passing of a community, evolving into another community. Not a bang. Just one tester saying “It’s as if the voices of 5000 testers cried out in agony…”
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
— T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”