Playable myths: Classical Gaming

An interview with Meg Stivison

The 30-year-old game designer works for Next Island, a multi-player computer game with a science-fiction theme. Next Island’s overall game world is based on fiction written by CEO David Post. Next Island  exists in the Entropia Universe, both technically and creatively.

Technically, because Next Island relies on the Entropia Universe platform, developed by Mindark, and relies on Mindark as a publisher of game content. Creatively, because players of Next Island exists on a planet in the long-established Entropia Universe. The overall story of Next Island invites players to take on the role of an “Elysian,” one of the scientific pioneers exploring space and time. The game features a time-travel system, through which players can visit ancient Greece.

Stivison landed her job at the midtown Manhattan game studio after reviewing computer games as a freelancer for several years. As she moved into game design, she began working with Next Island’s team of artists and programmers to create items, interactions and activities in ancient Greece. “I’m assigned to projects in both Greece and tropical,” Stivison says, since the game’s main destination is a present-day tropical island. “And I do enjoy work on any sort of quest design. But as a classicist, working in ancient Greece is especially close to my heart.”

Next Island’s ancient Greek location is inspired by mythology and history, not designed as a simulation.  But Stivison says the themes are there. “In our November content release, our players meet a young woman called Arachne,” Stivison says, “Arachne is working on a special creation, to show off for the festival of Athene, and our players will have a choice to whether to help her or warn her against hubris, with a different outcome depending on which they pick.” Stivison believes players will enjoy both the retelling of the ancient myths, and the open-ended storyline.

When asked if there’s an interest in classics in the culture of gaming, where her project will be competing with everything from the gory Grand Theft Auto to light and fluffy Angry Birds, Meg Stivison is more than optimistic. “The myths of the classical world are appealing to all of us,” she says, “The larger-than-life characters, the intrigue, and the emotional themes in myth will always be attractive in entertainment, whether they are presented in epic poems or movies or interactive games. I’m just the next in a long, long line of storytellers to make use of these myths.”

She believes that the heroes and villains of classical history offer interesting gameplay mechanics and interactive characters for her players. Large-scale, dramatic battles lend themselves well to the multi-player game environment of Next Island, and themes of disguise, secrecy and honor lend themselves to story arcs.

Stivison’s game content is characterized by ties to the in-world economy, a system by which players create, buy and sell essential items. Players focusing on the crafting game system can discover, trade and share “blueprints,” instruction sets to create in-world items. This allows players to create everything from weapons and armor, to clothes and decor, using the game’s mechanics. These blueprints send players on a hunt to acquire the required ingredients, which may require virtual mining for minerals, virtual hunting for leather, searching for virtual fruit, trading with another players, or a time-travel trip to Ancient Greece. She finds the freeform gameplay of ingredient acquisition and item creation can work in connection with her carefully designed missions to create a detailed, active virtual community.

Game design is an unusual career choice for a classics major, but it’s an excellent use of Meg Stivison’s background. As she talks about her work, it’s clear she gets pleasure and satisfaction from creating historical elements for game players. “One day I was writing a proposal for hoplite armor,” she says, “detailing how we were going make it as accurate as possible while still utilizing the parameters of the Entropia Universe system. I was getting frustrated because I was under deadline to get it finished to submit for approval, and I just realized what an amazing thing that was to be frustrated about at work.”