Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #69:

The Power of the Medium: Continuity

by Shannon Appelcline

April 18, 2002 - It's been a while since I've talked about this topic, but back in 2001 I started a series of articles called "The Power of the Medium". One of the articles was specifically about prose games, but the rest more generally discussed the whole concept of multiplayer online worlds. Their basic thesis of the series was this: online games are a pretty cool medium... and we should be using the particular advantages that the medium offers to us.

If this all interests you, take a look at my other thoughts on this topic:

But for now, onward.

I got onto the whole idea of continuity today thanks to a comic book. It's called Suicide Squad and it's been running for just 8 issues in its latest incarnation. The book, I'm not ashamed to say, is a super-hero comic, and it's got a great writer named Keith Giffen and a great high concept, invented by the last great writer, John Ostrander. Super-villains are given a chance to redeem themselves by going on very dangerous missions for their government. And many of them die.

Now, the thing is, DC Comics doesn't want to be killing off Lex Luthor or the Joker or any of their other big name villains. So, most of the villains selected are no-namers. Folks who have appeared a few times and would otherwise have been consigned to the junkpile of comicdom. Some of the sillier villians who met their ends in the first eight issues were Clock King, Bolt, and Reactron (the Nuclear Man).

Now the thing is, I remember Reactron. He plagued Supergirl in issues of her comic that I read while still a lad, perhaps 15 years ago now. Seeing him in his ridiculous black and red and yellow costume brought a smile to my face and reminded me of paging through my boxes of comics on a rainy Sunday afternoon long ago.

That's why of the reasons that continuity is important to us as people. It offers us nolstalgia. We can revisit old places and be reintroduced to old friends. There's also a more practical side to it all. Continuity values an investment that we've made. It allows us to take the time we've already put into deciphering a creative endeavor and use it again and again.

Overall, I think it's pretty cool.

Continuity in Creative Mediums

I've already stated that continuity is a power of the online game medium, and you might question that, asking why continuinity is more useful in online games than elsewhere. Quite simply, there's a lot more of it, as the following examples show:

  • The average movie is two hours long. Total continuity: 2 hours.
  • The average book is 350 pages. Assuming a fairly rapid reading pace, total continuity: 6 hours.
  • The Lord of the Rings, even adding in the Hobbit and the Simarillion, totals 1800 pages. Total continuity: 30 hours, though that can be multiplied out by the thousands of pages about Middle Earth published by Iron Crown Enterprises, Christopher Tolkien, and any number of other sources.
  • James Bond, one of the longer running film series, currently totals about 20 episodes. Total continuity: 40 hours or less.
  • An average new comic book nowadays might run about 60 issues. Total continuity: 30 hours or less.
  • A successful television show tends to run for 7 seasons of 22 episodes nowadays. Total continuity, if it's a drama: 115 hours, dividing out for commercials.

To get to a really high number of continuity hours I really have to consider a massive franchise (say, Star Wars, which besides 6 eventual movies also includes maybe 100 novels, 200 comic books, and 75 game books, for a total of 920 hours by my thumbnail counts). Or, alternatively, look at the whole output of a comic book company, because as I mentioned when I started out here talking about Suicide Squad, much of the joy of comics is from the continuity, which largely comes from other comics (I can't even count the number of comics DC or Marvel has produced; perhaps less than 100,000, which would give a 50,000 hour continuity count, clearly the winner and champion).

But in both of these latter cases — and especially with comic books where perhaps thousands of different minds have worked together to create a supposedly coherent universe — you have to ask how much things are actually continuous, and how much they're really disjoint.

And that brings us to online games.

According to surveys I've seen, the average player of an EverQuest sticks around for a year. And on average he plays about 20 hours a week. From what I've seen of our own games at Skotos, the statistics are pretty similar.

Now, figure that a successful game has perhaps a thousand players in it, all in the same world (or shard, or whatever). Then do the math.

1000 players x 20 hours x a year = 20,000 hours a year.

Even if you figure that each player isn't generating unique continuity, because he's grouped with other people, you still end up with a pretty humongous number. Figure people hang out in groups of 5 on average and you get 4,000 hours a year. Figure groups of 10 and you get 2,000 hours. Or, comparing it to comic books, which are, I suspect, the most dense masses of continuity out there, a decent online game generates 4-8% of the continuity that DC Comics has generated since 1938. Every Year. And it exceeds the amount of material produced for Star Wars by 2-4x. Every Year.

Or rather, it can, if you, the designer, take advantage of this Power of the Medium.

Taking Advantage of Continuity

Using continuity is a constant, fluid process. It's all about making any moment of your story relevant to what has come before and what will come after, about never introducing a new plot element when an old one would do the job. Nonetheless, I can outline the broadest points about how to build continuity into your games:

Constantly Revisit Old Plot Elements. When I had the time to run tabletop roleplaying games one of my rules was always, "in every session, introduce at least two elements from old games." This was in addition to the big picture story which might or might not involve old plot elements. To fulfill this rule, the players might by happenstance meet a NPC from an old story or revisit a location or interact with some object they had seen before. Always those old plot elements would give the current story color and remind people that they were part of a continuing universe. Sometimes they would also develop old plot threads in interesting ways, eventually giving birth to big new stories that I never would have considered on my own. Taking The Lord of the Rings as an example, Professor Tolkien introduced a number of plot elements from his earlier Hobbit, including Bilbo Baggins and a ring which had previously seemed fairly innocuous. Then, he proceeded to tell a totally different story than the original. But, by providing the glue between the two novels, Tolkien truly made it all feel like part of a greater whole.

Constantly Leave Loose Ends. In a massively continuous medium like an online game, I think one of the worst things a StoryTeller can do is be too neat. Again, going back to my tabletop gamemastering, one of my rules was always, "leave at least one loose end." This loose end may be a problem that the players had been unable to solve at the time or just a villain that gets away. Alternatively it might be a strange event or a mystery, perhaps one that even you don't have the answer to yourself. Taking the original Star Wars as an example, one of the questions was "Who was Luke's father?" Did Lucas know the answer to that question at the time that the original movie was made? I'm unconvinced. Often I think it's better for you, as the StoryTeller, not to know because the answer will then evolve more organically from your story.

Don't be Afraid of Retroactive Continuity. A comic writer named Roy Thomas is often credited with the term retcon, or retractive continuity, primarily for his work on a World War II comic called All-Star Squadron (written in the early 1980s). The whole idea behind retroactive continuity is looking at existing history/backstory and then introducing previously unknown facts into it — essentially telling new stories that have already happened. In All-Star Squadron Thomas posited the existence of a new super-hero group during World War II that had never before been discussed and then used the comic book to fill in all the gaps between the comics that actually had been published during the 1940s... and often also explained inconsistencies which had occurred in those comics themselves. The new Star Wars trilogy is another great example of retroactive continuity. You as a viewer know the baldest facts about the era, but now all the bits are being filled in, and doubtless we'll learn a few surprising things about Anakin Skywalker that, if positioned correctly, may make you look at the original trilogy in a different manner.

Because online games often contain NPCs, who are played by gamemasters, you have lots of good opportunities to introduce retroactive continuity. You might reveal how the NPCs actually dealt with an old problem that is just now cropping up again, or how they met each other and what interactions that they had in the past. The possibilities are numerous.

The Dangers of Continuity

Although continuity speaks to something within we human beings, and although online games are a medium particularly well suited for it, there are also dangers.

In short, if a player comes to your community and is immediately immersed in continuity, he'll probably leave because it will be confusing and he'll feel like he's coming in during the middle of a story. It's actually a problem that has plagued many other mediums that have tried to introduce tight continuity. Twin Peaks, despite its critical acclaim in its first half-season failed after season two because new viewers didn't find the show accessible. Babylon Five, another show steeped in continuity, managed to fill out its entire five year run, but it was touch-and-go just about every year. I know many people who tried to watch it but found the piling mounds of continuity too confusing. I gave up after my own first episode, a good ways into the first season, though I was later enticed back, and was fortunate to be drawn in by one of the best episodes of the second season (and the show).

To combat this problem you need to figure out how to construct easy stories for beginners — stories without a lot of weight of history balanced upon them: a simple task, a simple quest, something of the sort. And then you need to offer a slightly less basic story, and slowly the new player will be eased in, faced with your continuity in bite-sized chunks, rather than getting the whole mess all at once.

The moral of this week's article, in brief: online games are great at portraying continuity, and many folks like that, so take advantage of it, but make sure it doesn't overwhelm your new users.

And with that said, I'll see you in 7.

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