The new online multiplayer game Doctor Who: Worlds in Time was created in a steampunk submarine.
For those unfamiliar, Worlds in Time is an interactive Doctor Who game that was released in preview mode this past December. Players can customize their own avatars based on races that have appeared in Doctor Who in the past (both in the old and new series) and can join the Doctor as his companion in a series of missions with one overarching threat. (You even get your own sonic screwdriver and a room of your own in the TARDIS!) The game and the settings are entirely interactive, so along the way you’ll run into other folks playing through their own missions. Because time has been broken, and it’s going to take a whole lot of you to repair it.
Although the show is enjoying enormous success in Britain and the U.S., the games based on the new series have been wobbly. Coming off as either fun but too small or big but too disconnected from the source material to feel authentic.
Doctor Who: Worlds in Time changes that in a big way. And considering the minds behind it, that should come as no surprise.
I recently got the chance to talk with some of the folks behind the creation of the game, Max Engel, the senior product manager at BBC Worldwide, and Caroline Skinner, the new executive producer of a great big show about a little blue box called Doctor Who.
According to Skinner, Worlds in Time was an idea hatched about a year and a half ago as a way to provide an interactive way to present new content to the massive online fanbase that the show has gathered. That same online fanbase has made Doctor Who the most downloaded show on iTunes and has resulted in that same fanbase becoming very practiced at scouting out shooting locations of the show in hopes of nabbing episode spoilers. The desire to be a part of Doctor Who is obviously apparent in its fanbase, so how do you provide for that desire? Worlds in Time.
Accessibility was key in regards to Worlds in Time and a lot of the design and aesthetic choices of the game are based on that need, according to Engel. From a practical standpoint, this is why the game is free and browser-based; so that anyone with a computer can play.
The game is meant to be widely accessible to all ages, as well, which necessitated the clear, graphic novel style of the in-game art as opposed to a more realistic depiction of the Doctor and the various alien worlds you visit. This also made sense from a narrative standpoint, as the Doctor’s general cartoonishness is far more easy to portray when he’s actually a cartoon. (The game’s visual design also follows a basic rule of cartooning, which is that someone needs to be able to recognize a character by their silhouette if that character is going to be memorable at all. All the companion avatars you can choose reflect this basic rule.)
Worlds in Time is laced all throughout with the kind of humor fans have come to expect from the show. The graphic style of the game, along with the loads of random chatter that’s been created for non-playable characters, goes a long way towards conveying that humor. The humor also tends to ease social interaction within the game itself. Engel reports that you’ll often find avatars pausing in the middle of missions to chat away with other fans in the game’s common areas. It’s not every day you see an Auton and a Silurian discussing the finer points of River Song’s timeline while the city of New New York zips by in the background. (Although if you play the game often enough, then probably it is every day, and isn’t that just wizard?)
Obstacles in the game take advantage of the humor and all-ages focus, as well. You don’t get anywhere by beating someone up, rather, you need to explore your surroundings, solve puzzles, and increase the effectiveness of non-violent abilities that help you solve a crisis. (Developing your “Eloquence” is a must.) The Doctor solves problems by being clever, so you need to be just as clever.
Doctor Who: Worlds in Time has also benefitted from the input it has received on every level, from the very folks at the BBC who work on the show, to the game developers themselves, to the fans currently playing the game’s preview. For example, that steampunk submarine I mentioned earlier?
Those are the offices of Three Rings, the game developer behind Worlds in Time. And Three Rings founder and CEO Daniel James is not shy about his love for the show. “I have been a fan of Doctor Who since I was a child growing up in London — Tom Baker was my formative Doctor. Shortly after those halcyon days, I started playing and building online games. To build an online game that invites players to join and explore the Doctor Who universe is a dream come true!”
As one can see in their office design, Three Rings is led by an SFF fan with a very expressive attention to detail. The game itself reflects that minutae without overwhelming casual fans and gamers with it. During a playthrough of the game, Max Engel walked me through an earlier era on the planet Malcassairo, the planet featured in the episode “Utopia.” For a brief moment in that episode, the Doctor, Captain Jack, and Martha see an abandoned city which they later learn from Chan-Tho was a “conglomeration” of her species:
You’ll see the same conglomeration in the game, except in a different era, and covered in massive hives that meld with the landscape. Massive hives that are home to Vespiforms. The same sort of Vespiforms that menaced Donna and Agatha Christie in “The Unicorn and the Wasp.”
At no point do you need to make this connection while playing through the Malcassairo mission, but if you’re a huge fan of the show your mind will make the connection anyway, opening a whole new aspect to the mythology of the Doctor Who universe.
The game rewards committed fans to the show because it’s been made by those same committed fans. That detail is there throughout the entire game and, according to exec producer Caroline Skinner, was all double-checked with the show’s script editor Gary Russell to ensure that the details and continuity line up.
So far, players seem to be responding really well to the game and both Engel and Skinner are looking forward to the forthcoming release, which will include forums for fans to debate in (something already happening in-game) and guild play for the burgeoning community. The worlds you can visit are being expanded upon, as well, and Who fans should especially enjoy being able to visit Skaro, the home planet of the Daleks.
Further expansions are currently only in the idea stage, although the hope is that fans will make the game active and popular enough for it to link up with the forthcoming seventh series of Doctor Who. It would be wonderful to provide a way for fans and viewers to feel like they’re contributing to events in the show itself but, Skinner pointed out, they’re only just kicking off a months-long shooting schedule today, so it’s still too early to be able to develop anything concrete in regards to the forthcoming series.
And, let’s not forget, the game has to be alive and kicking when new episodes arrive! From what I’ve seen, Doctor Who: Worlds in Time certainly has the potential to sustain that kind of interest. It’s an adorable game, filled with humor and creativity, made by fans with the blessing and input from the show itself. It’s easy to pick up and easy to come back to, and it’s hiding all sorts of clever connections for fans of the show. Doctor Who has been needing this sort of gaming experience ever since it reappeared on television, and now it appears it’s finally got it.
Chris Lough is the production manager at Tor.com and requested they add a side mission where you trap Robot Charlemagne. Fingers crossed!