Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
Impossible, or just never done right?

"Fantasy MMORPGs are more popular than SciFi MMORPGs", "Classic autoattack/hotkey combat is more popular than action-oriented combat in MMORPGs", "<insert your favorite MMORPG prejudice here>". It is tempting, but often misleading, to extrapolate the success of individual games into industry trends. Tempting, because game developers would like to have a magic formula on how to make a successful MMORPG following simple guidelines of what works and what doesn't. Misleading because in the end the only thing that 9 million World of Warcraft players tell you is that World of Warcraft is a very good game.

Although Vivendi already made it official more than a year ago that WoW isn't the last Blizzard MMORPG, a recent job posting on the Blizzard website for "Lead 3D Character Artist and a Lead 3D Environment Artist to work on a next-gen MMO" recently fueled speculations about the next Blizzard MMORPG. Although we have no confirmation whatsoever, there is a general assumption that that "next-gen MMO" would come out before World of Warcraft dies of old age. Thus a WoW2 or World of Diablo fantasy MMORPG would cannibalize the subscribers of the original WoW, and business managers don't like slaughtering cash cows. Which leads many people to believe that the next Blizzard MMORPG will be based on the Starcraft brand. Whether it will be called World of Starcraft or something else isn't really relevant. But the combination of the strength of the Starcraft brand in Korea, the boost that the Starcraft brand will receive from the soon to be released Starcraft II, and the growing importance of the Asian market for MMORPGs all make a Starcraft MMORPG seem like a plausible bet.

At which point we are back at the perceived truths stated at the start of the article. Of course even "Blizzard can make a second multi-million subscriber MMORPG" is just a perceived truth. But there is at least the tantalizing possibility that Blizzard could make an action-oriented SciFi MMORPG which sells as good as WoW. Nobody really knows whether SciFi games are *really* less popular than fantasy games, or whether it is just a statistical fluke that the most successful games up to now have been fantasy themed. Nobody knows whether the current type of MMORPG combat used in so many game is the best possible solution, or just the sad evidence of copycat game design. It is totally possible that with Star Trek Online, the possible Star Wars themed Bioware MMO and the next Blizzard MMO we might see some very successful SciFi MMORPGs in the coming years. And by changing the genre, with the possibility of having some of the action take place in space and not on a planet surface comes a good chance of us seeing some new forms of MMORPG combat. Then we all might have to think over our prejudices. Maybe all the things we think don't work in fact just were never done right.
Anarchy Online - flop
Star Wars Galaxy - huge disappointment
Mythic's "Rome in Space" - canceled
Tabula Rasa - underwhelming

Shareholders and investors will look at the perceived failures of Anarchy Online, SWG, and Tabula Rasa as proof that sci-fi mmorpgs aren't as popular, but none of those games would have been successful regardless of their genre.

My hope was that Star Trek Online would be the first sci-fi mmorpg hit, but the canceling of Rome Rising simply raises too many red flags. Plus the fact a STO developer was bragging about "evil tribbles" being in their game. Anyone who wants evil tribbles in a Star Trek mmo is the last person that should be developing a Star Trek mmo.
Star wars Galaxy had a very very good system base to work on, it was fairly fun to do and made allot of sense. What it lacked was polish and finish, even many many patches on (before the NGE crap) it was still not finished and what I would call ready to release.

Where Blizzard won was the polish and finish to their game that won allot of people over I think. Starwars had a bigger fan base and had the potential to be massive but the money-grabbing mentality of Lucasarts & Co wanted it out asap making the first few months a disaster imo.

Anarchy Online was done on the cheap I think, and again when released was the buggiest unfinished pile of crap that the world has seen.

Tabula Rasa, now there is a new kettle of fish, I managed to beta test it and all I can say is that it's completely unoriginal and repetitive. Basically if you have played the first 5 levels you have played the entire game really, it's that repetitive. I was stupid enough to take my character to max level just to see if it changed ... it didn't. Combine that with 4 different shops to go in that all looked the same, all the people looking the same, about 6 different models for the mobs so most of them are the same and lastly but not least ... it was totally unbalanced. I could go into a dungeon that was supposedly meant for a group and clear it solo, but come up against a mob that is 5 levels lower than me and it would two shot me with no warning of its difficulty, plain and simple stupidity.
Pure fantasy without any doubt has a demographic advantage compared to pure sci-fi. Females seem to have a harder time to identify with sci-fi settings (ugly aliens, very "techy", less emotions). This has nothing to do with the quality of the final product, but more or less with the image of sci-fi and fantasy genre people have in mind, built up over years from the Lord of the Rings and the Star Treks of this world. If you want to go for mass appeal, you need the female audience, hence you choose fantasy, if the market is still untouched e.g. the time before WoW was launched. Blizzard easily could have shoehorned the Starcraft IP into the game we call WoW now, but they would have lowered their chances to appeal to such a big audience. Orcs, magic and dragons are more mass appealing than lasers, spaceships and creatures bursting out of your stomach area.

You just played to much of the genre Tobold. Did you complained in EQ about Verant not going the sci-fi way back then? There are millions of wich WoW is their first MMO, they won't notice the setting monopoly for this genre for a very long time, just like many of us did not, when EQ was the showrunner. If the mass audience is ready for new settings, we will see them. Right now the majority isn't fed up yet with slaying dragons. Add the fact that you need a very deep and rich setting to begin with and you lower your chances for a sci-fi MMO even more.
I'm not even complaining, I'm just wondering why everybody believes there can't be good SciFi games. Switch on your TV at random and tell me what are your chances to stumble upon a TV series having elves, orcs, and dragons, as opposed to finding a TV series having spaceships? Star Trek, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, the list of SciFi TV series is endless. Fantasy you can only find in the pseudo-historical mythical variant of Hercules or Xena. Outside the Lord of the Rings movies I don't remember ever having seen an elf on TV. Why should the preferences of people be so much different in games? Can't be females, because there are actually more females watching SciFi series on TV than playing fantasy games on the computer.
Fantasy has always been considered dangerous territory when it came to movies and television. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings opened that market a bit and we saw Eragon, Narnia and the recent Stardust have some amount of success largely due to the acceptance of the big name fantasy movies.

I know tons of females who love sci-fi tv shows. The catch? Those shows are about the characters (including the Star Treks) and the geeky tech is just fluff. What we see in games is just the opposite: all geeky tech and you'd better learn the language and how it all works, while story and character interactions take a back seat.

While I hope Blizzard makes a new IP for their next MMO (sorry, Starcraft just doesn't have enough lore and draw to it yet) let's say they do make a Worlds of Starcraft. This is Blizzard. Blizzard doesn't invent new ways of doing things, Blizzard refines existing methods into what they view as "the best." Sure they could make a better version of Tabula Rasa's control scheme. Perhaps make a game with more action. Or they could make a game where you run around, press TAB to lock onto a target, and spam 1,2,3,4 repeatedly to fire guns and toss grenades rather than swing swords or cast spells. Same ol' same ol' in a different skin. Because are 9 million subscribers wrong?
Quote: before World of Warcraft dies of old age

I'm not sure this will EVER happen.

People still play Ultima Online and Everquest.

10 years from now there will still be a massive amount of people playing World of Warcraft.

I don't think Blizzard is aiming for the next MMO they are developing to replace WoW, that would just be silly.
I was just talking with my best friend about this last night.
I've played computer games and roleplaying games for about 30 years now. And one thing I have observed is that most people who like to play Sci Fi games will also play fantasy. The reverse is not always true. I think it's because we were all raised on fairy tales and King arthur or whichever heroes we have culturally. So fantasy has a more familier feel. It's an easier sell.

Also Sci Fi game developers (and movie directors ) seem to either think that a good solid story is not necessary if they throw enough wierd sci fi technobabe at you. Or they try to make everything so alien and wierd that it turns off the non scifi fans.

For example my wife loves fantasy. She played wow for awhile. She loves to watch those kinds of movies with me. But sci fi turns her completely off. She doesn't like the weird stuff. She'll watch a WWII movie with me but if I put in space above and beyond she's out of the room. There's not much differnce between the two but the fact that it's in the future fighting Chiggs is apparantly enough to kill it for her.

I hope that someday someone can find the right formula but I'm not sure there is a right formula for a wow like success.
i agree, it's so weird that fantasy works so much better in games but sci-fi rocks the TV/Movie world.
i even think fantasy wins it from sci-fi in the book department, but i'm not sure about that.

i think it's a matter of guns (lot of people don't like guns but don't see the real harm in swords) and romanticism.
with fantasy you can dream about fluffy horses and love, while sci-fi tries to imitate real life and how it would be in the future.
we all know fantasy is 'the past' and will never happen.

but that is just a wild guess ofc :)
Why don't they make a MMORPG out of the MegaTraveller franchise?
One kind of setting that brings sci-fi and fantasy together is the futuristic 'fallen' empire type scenario. So you can have most items based on fantasy standards like swords etc. but with the occasional remaining technological marvels (epics?) to be found.

I'm trying to think of a notable example where this has been used outside of sci-fi writing, but struggling at the mo. Seems to me like it could bridge the genre gap tho.
Books of swords
And Empire of the east.
by saberhagen

Changeling and Madwand by Zelazny

The best example I can thing of were they coexist is
Operation Chaos by Poul Anderson
in that one you have a modern alternate earth where magic has been used the way we have technology. THere are factories making magical utensil, kitchen gadgets etc. All the technology is magic but a lot of it is very similar to our own tech advances
Sci-fi can work if you don't make the avatar a ship. It's not just females (although they're a HUGE part of the demographic), but many people don't want to think of themselves as the SHIP.

So if it's space-based sci-fi, you must have avatars.

That's a HUGE part of what put PotBS off for 2 years.
I think Ophelea put it nice and short: make sci-fi world with the gadgets and technology, but put the avatar -the player- to the focus.

In WoW the world is alive and the toons are 'living' that experience. Sure, it's easier to 'live by the sword' as everything you see should be killed. In Sci-fi genre it's however easy to make the world in shades of grey instead of black and white of the typical Fantasy settings.

Tobold, you wrote sometime ago about the good and evil in games and as far as I see the Sci-fi genre would suit better to that: the player could be one and another, not counting the other out completely.

But this would pose the programmers and developers a new problem on ranking the actions and quests.

Oh, and combine this with the level-less system!

If the system without levels is possible in pen and paper games, why is it so hard in MMORPGs?

I'm looking forward to the sci-fi-WoW (in sense of scope and playability) as I have always been more sci-fi related. Babylon 5 FTW. Maybe Hellgate:London is the first real step towards this kind of game?

The fantasy crowd is older and larger than the sci-fi crowd, therefore a fantasy based MMORPG is almost guaranteed to A: be a better game and/or C: bag a greater number of subscribers than one with a science fiction theme will. Why? Fantasy is just plain easy. The whole medieval fantasy/ancient mythology thing has simply been around for much, much longer than any well received sci-fi flavor I can think of. It's well established.
Everyone is familiar in some way with these fantasy stereotypes of dragons and elves and kindly wizards, rainbow shitting unicorns and "good" triumphing over "evil" and since so much of it is either taken from or based loosely on history and old lore, it feels more comfortable to most people. We see some of these same themes carried over into science fiction, yes, but sci-fi generally presents the audience with a grim world set in the future, crawling with alien beings, highly advanced technology, and lots of other scary things that most people can't relate to and are probably on some level afraid might actually happen some day.
So, it's easier (I imagine) for game creators to provide players with a deep experience, full of interesting lore, races, creatures etc, when there's so much fantasy writing and real-world mythology to go on, than to wade into murkier waters trying to invent something new for a futuristic/science fiction setting, while still ensuring that players feel immersed and comfortable enough in their environment to keep coming back.
...I hope I've made some sense here.

BTW, I'm female and I love science fiction. Evil robots, cold technology, crazy aliens and space travel and all that good stuff. And honestly, as much as I enjoy story lines and character development, I'm very turned off by too-much-sap-not-enough-action in my gaming experience. Some sort of balance needs to be had.
I'd be thrilled to play a sci-fi mmo if it were done right. ;)
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