Design Mockument: Plausible ideas for The Matrix Online 2

Chicks who've broken our hearts.

When Bree found out that I’m a fan of the Matrix franchise of films, she said it’d be fun to see me take on the idea of a hypothetical sequel for The Matrix Online. She probably was not expecting my suggestion for the following for The Matrix Online 2:

Don’t. Don’t do this. Do not make this game. I know it sounds like a good idea. I know that the original had its fans. It’s still a bad idea and it doesn’t really mesh well with the films. No matter how good an idea it might sound like, do not make this.

However, we are getting a fourth Matrix film, and I’m not going to lie: I’m excited about that. Sure, the Wachowskis haven’t really had a film that got over in the public consciousness other than, well, The Matrix, but they’ve never produced something I haven’t found entertaining. So a new Matrix film? Sure! That sounds fun. And since that means that TMO is in our mind, well… let’s play with this idea after a bit of preamble.

There’s a series of videos by Bob Chipman about “How To Fix Such-and-such” in which Chipman speculates about the path to fixing a movie or movie franchise that’s either stalled out, having trouble getting made, hasn’t been well-received for a long time, or some combination of the above. It is, of course, done with tongue firmly planted in cheek; the suggestions are serious, but the idea is not “here’s why I’m smarter than everyone” but rather “here’s what seems like a path that would work well and be fun.”

This is the kind of thought exercise I like. Hence, this column, taking on projects that are for whatever reason in our collective consciousness. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s been reading my stuff for a while that I really enjoy speculating about all of this stuff, so here’s a chance to do exactly that.

So let’s get back to the premise of this particular column. How would I handle TMO2? Keeping in mind that I think the right answer is “probably don’t make it.”


Well, let’s take a step back and ask why I’d say “don’t make this.” The answer is that for all the franchise seems perfectly tailored to the idea, since functionally the nature of the films is that you have a group of particularly powerful hacker player characters, a game has to sort of sidestep the reality of the films. It’s basically a chance to treat the Matrix, a construct that is itself meant to be a prison for minds, into nothing more than a game playground for doing the most visually cool bits of the trilogy.

It also is a franchise that inherently doesn’t play nice with ideas about progression and gameplay. There’s no such thing as “leveling up” in the Matrix. If you need a skill, you download it instantly, and then you can do whatever you need to do with absolute mastery. Even practice is a bit off to one side, and it’s hard to create a satisfying ludonarrative when your character starts being able to literally do anything that any other character can do.

However. If this is a thing we’re making, then we also need to start from the idea that it is a thing worth making. So let’s start with first assumptions. We’re making a new game, it’s not a direct sequel, and it’s not being associated with the publisher of its predecessor. Where do we start? With the premise.

And that premise? It’s not to just do a pastiche of the films but to do something new, starting with the idea that in this game, you start off akin to Neo in the first film, getting the call, evading capture, getting unplugged, and being woken up… to find a very different world than you had previously expected.

It’s about two decades after The Matrix Revolutions. Peace exists between man and machines, and there’s even a city that’s being worked on as a joint venture, called Babylon 2.0. (Because it’s The Matrix franchise, and we are going to hit that symbolism button hard.) Zion remains, as does the machine megapolis, but it turns out that the peace negotiated at the end of Revolutions isn’t as easy to achieve as anyone had hoped.

The systems of the Matrix are built to enforce control and regularity. Programs meant to maintain the Matrix are still hard-wired to maintain it by their very nature. While the machines as a whole may be at peace with human beings, the Matrix itself has now grown beyond their control just the same. Thus, there is still a need for humans within the framework to sort out the problems being caused by rogue programs, including the Merovingian still acting as a criminal foil to all of the above. And then there are humans who still want to smash the whole system because they were only ever here for smashing.

But that’s not to imply that there are player factions, or at least not system-wide ones. The point is that human terrorists, the Merovingian, rogue programs, and so forth are enemy factions that complicate player objectives. The goal for player characters is obvious: to create a future wherein everyone can feel comfortable in the world they choose to inhabit.

Something that comes into play when you jack out of the Matrix proper.

That’s right, we’re not just staying in the system here. Players will need to deal with both the network of the Matrix and the real world to play the game, and neither one is the “instanced” or “social” side of things. You get two chances to customize your character, and you can look similar in both the Matrix and in the real world or wildly different.

In both worlds you have to deal with combat. The real world makes combat obviously much more dangerous and difficult, since you won’t have access to your abilities of hacking the system. But the difference is also that the real world is, well, real. In short, that’s the narrative throughline of the game. Is it better to embrace a simulation you know isn’t unreal, or an easy philosophy like “just smash everything,” which is comforting and straightforward even if it’s wrong? What is real in this situation, especially since as a player neither one is actually real?

Yeah, that’s a whole lot of emphasis on philosophy and backstory, but you sort of need that for anything set in the universe. It’s in the bones of the setting.

In terms of actual mechanics, players start out able to equip or use anything they so desire. Think of it along the lines of City of Heroes powersets; you’d choose from a long list of fighting styles that also includes things like automatic firearms, Equilibrium-style gunkata movements, whips, and so forth. That gives you access to a variety of different abilities you can use right from the start, ensuring that you get the immediate sense of being an instant expert at battle.

You also gain the ability to switch between sets as you need, probably either two or three at any given time. But as you level up in the Matrix, you also gain the ability to modify your skills with your increased mastery of the system. Along the lines of The Elder Scrolls Online, you evolve your various techniques into specialized forms based on breaking the “rules” of accepted reality.

So let’s say your character has specialized in Judo as your combat style. Leveling up doesn’t give you access to new techniques, but it does allow you to make a basic throw now hurl someone entirely across the room. Or maybe now you can perform the throw even more easily and follow it up with a punishing body-blow.

You also gain points to put into a secondary set that allows for more “direct” breaking of the rules – tricks that allow you to immediately heal from injuries or deflect bullets or even fists or hold more weapons than should be physically possible. This also includes travel abilities, like superhuman jumps, fast running, and the like.

“But none of that stuff is in the real world, so how can that translate to combat?” And that’s right, it doesn’t translate to the real world. However, practice matters in the real world. So while your ability sets are more basic and you don’t have any specialized bonuses, the more you use a given skill, the more it scales up. The result is also that real-world fights are more dangerous and complicated, which is… well, kind of the point.

And to round things out, let’s take a dip into content. While traditional quests being given in both the real world and the Matrix definitely make sense, the fact is that quests for this should be big, sprawling objectives. Instead, let’s steal a couple of pages from RIFT and City of Heroes for this one. Players can get most of their leveling content by picking up transmissions that require attention, a la radio missions; you could even call them TransMissions if you wanted to feel as ’90s as possible. There are also dynamic spawning events that take place when particularly bad glitches occur in the Matrix or something goes down in the real world, a chance for players to jump in and deal with a dynamic spawn along the way. Heck, transmissions and dynamic events could even be a part of actual longer quests, that you unlock these by earning the trust of various factions via these procedurally generated bits of content.

It still would need a lot to flesh out the gameplay, but I think this at least works as a foundation. It sounds like a game that would be fun to play for me at least.

Which one of you is the Juno Reactor and which one is the Don Davis?

So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Like it? Hate it? Feel free to let me know because this is a rather lengthy and complex project. This one isn’t going to be coming around more than once a month at most, but if you can think of another potential sequel or spinoff you’d like to see get the same treatment, let me know that one in the comments, too. Maybe next time we’ll just have a poll to vote on these.

Designing an MMO is hard. But writing about some top level ideas for designing one? That’s… also remarkably hard. But sometimes it’s fun to do just the same. Join Eliot Lefebvre in Design Mockument as he brainstorms elevator pitches for MMO sequels, spinoffs, and the like for games that haven’t yet happened and most likely never will!
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