Summer: when a young poster’s thoughts turn to flights of MMO genres. Actually it’s more about the lack of such MMOs than anything, but the question to my mind is: will they add any depth to the MMO market? The problem is not with the different genres themselves – I’m as keen as the next grindmonkey to play a decent sci-fi MMO – but whether these games will be anything more than a fresh bed sheet to place on the well worn, lumpy and slightly mouldy mattress of MMO design.

Everyone is talking about the potential StarCraft MMO. Blizzard, in one of their ‘Ahhhhhhh! No, not ahhhhhh!’ moments has recently announced StarCraft II. Of course, everyone in MMOland who wants to see a StarCraft MMO has slaughtered the customary sacrificial ten rats, rummaged through their entrails and soothsaid that this is clearly the staging ground for the announcement of a StarCraft MMO. I can tell you that they’re right, and I’m proud to be able to print a small excerpt from a design document, smuggled out from the depths of the Blizzard Empire:

Welcome to the great Terran refinery of Vespeneforge. In the centre of this great futuristic city are the fiery Plasma Drivers that power the Terran industry. Around this core, Terran crafters can be seen refining minerals and vespene gas and turning them into hundreds of utterly worthless objects such as Bronze Combat Pistols and Power Swords of the Monkey. The commerce ring, which surrounds the great plasma core, harbours all manner of goods vendors that players will just never visit because all the items they sell were too expensive to buy at level one, and are useless compared to their current gear at level two. However, it’s a handy place to go if you ever find yourself in the need for Protoss cheese (just don’t ask how they make it, but be sure that it involves bodily functions) or a Zerg burger (Mmmm, tastes like Terran!).

There’s also the intergalactic financial trade house, where players can try to sell their otherworldly garbage, whilst dribbling over neon-purple weapons such as the Minerite Reaper, the mighty gun Raled’kohr or the legendary laser sword Cashbringer.

Travel between locations is swift: players can jump on an automated hover bike and let its autopilot take them to one of many pre-programmed destinations for a small fee. Later, when they’ve gained enough levels, players can purchase their own hover bike for greater freedom, and when they finally reach the level cap they’ll have the option to buy an epic hover bike which goes a bit faster, has slightly fancier decals and more chrome trim. Travel between planets is simply a matter of waiting for a giant galactic barge, which arrive at the local space docks at regular intervals.

Players will be able to pick from a range of weird and wonderful classes, such as the Space Warrior, Galactic Doctor and Cosmic Psychic! Players can also participate in a number of excellent gathering professions, whether it be as a celestial herbalist harvesting space plants, or as an astro-miner gathering minerals with their laser pick…

Can’t wait!

Tabula Rasa is obviously on the radar when it comes to the sci-fi MMO invasion’s second wave, but will it do enough differently to make a difference, or is it going to rely on the fact that it’s in a sci-fi setting to do most of the work? With the slightly more frenetic combat – sticky aiming reticules and such – it seems as though they’re trying to change the dynamic of interaction with the game and move away from the standard fare. The thing that grates with me at the moment is Logos. Logos is magic. Logos is the guys there saying, “well we’ve got this wonderful sci-fi setting, we’ve added a few blasters in, but it’s not fantastic enough. What we need is magic. Let’s make something that isn’t magic, but is really. I know, we’ll call it Logos, which is like Legos, and everyone loves Legos, right?” Ok, nothing to do with Lego, I know. It’s like someone found Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws, got to number three – Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.- and thought, “Oh thank the lord! We were wondering how to crowbar magic into this game, and now we don’t have to worry! Dave, see if Asimov came up with any laws that will allow us to cram some orcs and elves in too”. Now I haven’t played the game, so obviously I’m going on the titbits that have been dribbled out at various events, but from what I can tell, Logos is an arcane language that once learned will let characters perform weird and wonderful abilities, such as buff their team-mates and damage enemies. Sound familiar?

Logos sounds excellent as a game mechanic, but it just annoys me when RPGs (and PnP games are often as much at fault) try to force fantasy staples into a sci-fi setting. Why? It’s sci-fi, for crying out loud. What, you don’t think that there’s enough potential for compelling, wondrous adventures without magic and orcs? You’ve got spaceships that you could craft like bases in CoH; ship-to-ship combat; planet invasions and mechs. Alien races; androids; cyborgs; power armour and mechs. Hover bikes; VTOL cars; teleporters and mechs. Lasers; phasers; tasers and light-sabre razors. Space stations; space nations; space crustaceans; mechs; rockets; electric sockets and blasters in your pockets. AI; VR; RSI; mechs; cyberspace; cybernaughts and cybershorts. With all this and more, in the name of the Spaghedeity, why do we need magic, elves and orcs in a sci-fi setting?

Oh, and mechs! Those lumbering platforms of shiny metal death. I forgot to mention those.

Shiny metal death? I think I just invented a new music category there. Take the smiley, happy banshee vocals of REM’s Michael Stipe and place it over the thrashing guitar monstrosity that is Napalm Death. If that doesn’t ruin a generation of music listeners, nothing will.

Anyway.

I would love to see a decent original sci-fi MMO (one that is slightly more accessible then EVE, although I do enjoy pootling around in that from time to time), but the reason I want to see one is not so much for the change of setting, as welcome and refreshing as that would be; no, the main reason I want to see a sci-fi MMO is that it might force developers to break the train of generic fantasy MMO staple that is being fed to us regularly with an ever so slightly different IP as back-story. City of Heroes took the comic book genre, made a game that was based on fitting in to that universe and made a great game that broke many of the foundations of MMO tradition. If you were to create a cartoon MMO, based in the ACME world of the Warner Brothers, say, it would be much easier to break the common themes that MMOs tend to share, and go for something original and wacky, which might in its construction reveal new ways to approach the idea of how to present MMOs to an ever expanding and diverse audience. The danger is that, in the RP world, most sci-fi has evolved from a fantasy setting, just look at Warhammer’s 40k with its wonderful futuristic setting, and it’s orcs, elves and dwarves. No, calling them Eldar and Squats does not make them a unique sci-fi race. Sorry.

If developers are going to reap the rewards of the sci-fi genre, they need to approach it from a sci-fi mindset, by reading the Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes and building a game around those settings, rather than taking Generic Fantasy Setting Number Six and trying to wedge a game into the mechanics that support that world.

And it should probably have mechs.

Or else.

Posted by Melmoth at 10:16 am