Whether it’s Cyrano de Bergerac predicting solar-powered spaceships or HG Wells positing biological warfare and military drones, it’s disturbing when you realise your favourite science fiction predicted the future. Yet who’d have thought that British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf’s prediction of Jane Austen World would one day come true?
Ever, Jane has just scraped through a successful round of Kickstarter funding, driven by Judy L. Tyrer, an erstwhile Second Life developer. Players take the role of a lady or gentleman focused on making their reputation and fortune by moving through the society of an 18th century English village. The game is a simulation of Jane Austen’s world conceived as an MMO, where players’ main interaction isn’t violence, but dialogue – particularly gossip.
Players focus on certain personality traits - say, duty over happiness - when choosing to respond to events, which will affect their status and in-game reputation. “We want to provide a character progression path that isn’t just ‘what level are you now’ based on how many rats you killed.” says Tyrer. “The personality traits you choose to build and those you choose to sacrifice will open and close doors in terms of gameplay.”
With a realistic graphical style built on the Unity platform, the playable prototype isn’t going to win any prizes for its looks. But, then, the heroines of Austen’s novels more often won their men through wiles and charm than beauty. And this prototype was just a proof of concept, according to Tryer.
“… [it] included the basic game loop infrastructure, the core of the gossip and invite systems,” says Tryer. The village is just the tiniest smattering of buildings. But with the exception of the main server loop which determines players’ proximity and line of sight, nothing we have is anywhere near production quality, so most of it will be refactored and rebuilt based on what we learned from the prototype.” Behind this simple frontend are scalable cloud servers designed to be robust against population surges.
But why Jane Austen? She’s known for creating novels of 18th Century English manners with a subversive theme about the survival of intelligent women in a society that socially and legally represses them. It was this rigid societal structure that attracted Tyrer. “The most important part of any game is the ruleset and Austen’s world comes complete with its own set of rules. And because historically it was a time of great fear after the French Revolution, the social rules in Regency Britain were adhered to with a kind of ferocity that isn’t matched at any other time.”
Of course, it’s not simply the setting of Austen’s novels that’s compelling; the books are nasty and clever, though never as dark as the Brontës’. “Austen has a sardonic wit that is hard to match.” says Tyrer “It’s not just her stories, but her social commentary that attracts readers.” Basing a game on manners and wit is definitely idiosyncratic - only the wonderful Spy Party has come near to it.
And, at the moment, Ever, Jane sounds like more a roleplaying tool and chatroom than a traditional game. Once you’re past the tutorials, much of your time will be spent gossiping about other players and attending balls and parties. “I am building a sandbox for people to play in.” says Tyrer. “They will create their own ways of using the toys in the sandbox. If I provide enough great toys to trigger the imagination, then the players will build the rest of the game through their own storylines. We will, of course, mess with the story from time to time just to keep things interesting in our curated world, but we are just curators. The players are the creative geniuses.”
Austen’s work, though cynical and loaded with irony, was always light; every character had a relatively happy ending, in comparison to the darker, more troubling stories of the contemporary Brontë sisters. Ever, Jane will provide endings for every character’s story. “Part of the game if you choose marriage is not only having children, but seeing your children married off and preferably everyone else’s as well. And the endgame is about establishing your legacy and setting up your inheritance. We plan on providing a form of reincarnation for players to set up new stories with new characters born into the families of their old characters.”
Ever, Jane will deviate from Austen’s books slightly; though black people don’t feature in the novels, Tyrer will allow players to choose their race. “We are actually using this as a wonderful opportunity to correct some historic misconceptions. For example, there were ample wealthy blacks in England during this time. While most lived in the cities, some chose to move into the country villages, marry and have children. And there were aristocratic blacks from other countries who were accepted in aristocratic circles in England.”
Trolls, meanwhile, will be dealt with. “Conveniently, the UK was just starting to deport people to penal colonies starting in the Regency Period. We will have a server called Botany Bay, as that was the first actual penal colony. This server is for people who don’t want to play by our rules. Anyone can join it, but some people are limited to only playing there. It will be a much more free-for-all environment where our other servers will have much stricter adherence to the Regency rules of conduct.”
Given all these elements, it’s obvious that Tyrer is building a game unlike anything that’s on the market at the moment: a game that’s definitely not for the hardcore MMO crowd. And that’s deliberate. “Early on, EverQuest had a split community: some role-players and other hardcore [players] and they looked at the numbers and said ‘role-players don’t count’, so the entire MMO genre dumped all the role-play aspects of their game and focused on raids and other more hardcore activities. I want the role-players who got left behind.
“I also want the women’s market which is completely neglected by the video game industry. Oh, there was a pink gun period, but then when pinking a boy’s game didn’t bring the girls in they made the wrong assumption. They assumed the market didn’t exist instead of realising they weren’t doing what it took to create the market. I want that market. I believe in it. I believe I can pitch to it. And I look forward to showing everyone just how very, very large it is.”