Is There Hope for a Science Fiction MMORPG?

This came to be in the car during my commute while I was pondering the future possibilities of Star Trek Online. I think I actually managed to capture most of it in notes, put great chunks of it down in writing, then edited out the irrelevancies.

This is an attempt to lay down the environment that brought about the seeming wealth of fantasy MMORPGs and compare that to analogous factors for the science fiction genre. I should be able to do this, with the right information, as this sort of systemic analysis was my minor way back when.

Note I am using the term MMORPG rather than my usual MMO. I want to emphasize the “role playing game” aspect of these games, as I think that is a key to their stickiness with players.

And, yes, this is sort of going back to the “Why So Much Fantasy” topic, so sue me.

Hypothesis

Fantasy MMORPGs came about because of a series of environmental factors made them possible and that those same factors do not exist, at least in the proper proportion, for Science Fiction MMORPGs to be created, much less be equally popular and prevalent.

Tag Line

You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.

The Factors – Fantasy

Literature: A lot of people point to “The Lord of the Rings” as the spark for the popularity of the fantasy genre. And you cannot deny that it has had influence, but so did Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” more than a century before. Works of fiction surrounding King Arthur, such as Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur,” a title that has seen a number of resurgences in popularity over the last 500 years, and general interest in things like myth and mythology all builds a strong foundation for a work like The Lord of the Rings to flower and in turn act as an inspiration for further works.

Table Top Role Playing Games: By this I mean, of course, Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, there are many variations on the fantasy table top role playing genre, but D&D is the big name, the World of Warcraft in the FRP market, and the first player. It is a rare thing indeed to find somebody who has played more than two role playing games that has not done something with D&D. D&D has been a success and has found its way into popular culture, driven by the base of literature, but also popularizing that literature as well. I played D&D before I read “The Lord of the Rings.”

Computer Role Playing Games: There has been a long line of very successful computer role playing games. From the early text games that lead to Zork to the current Neverwinter Nights 2, there has been a long list of popular and profitable games in the fantasy genre. These games created, or adopted from other genres, many of the interface conventions that ended up being part of the standard MMORPG interface.

MUDs: Single player games showed how things should progress graphically while MUDs showed how a multi-player environment and community might be developed. Again, high fantasy rules the road and there were dozens and dozens of successful, well populated, heavily played MUDs that worked out over time, if not the best way, at least a viable way to run a multiplayer fantasy environment. My own favorite, Toril MUD, itself the result of several generations of change and development, had a very obvious and direct influence on the development of EverQuest.

The Factors – Science Fiction

Literature: Science Fiction’s body of work is somewhat less substantial and also somewhat more scattered. I took a course at University on the history of science fiction, and the professor was quite adamant that the direct antecedent to science fiction was Mary Shelley’s gothic horror “Frankenstein,” and that the true heart of popular science fiction lay in the melding of technological speculation (star ships, ray guns, and the like) with coming of age stories (one of those Joseph Campbell staples) where a young male, often in his teens, faces adversity, defeats the bad guys, and prevails, often where his elders have failed. How many Heinlein stories follow that thread? “Ender’s Game” and Star Wars in a nutshell as well, I’d say.

Yes, that theme is also popular in fantasy as well. You can view “The Lord of the Rings” through that lens, putting hobbits in general and Frodo in particular, in the main role. But as a genre, science fiction is not that far from its roots, the pulp novels of the 40s and the domination by Heinlein in the 50s and 60s. There is not 500+ years of work behind the genre. There is no long history of popular revival of the genre.

And, perhaps more importantly, as has been suggested by others, real science has made a lot of science fiction look rather silly. It turns out not to age well. How much of Heinlein’s time line have we passed by without the technology showing up? No flying cars yet! If you go back and read, say, Asimov’s “I, Robot,” you get to a section where he writes about how hard it was to develop the technology to allow robots to speak, but that getting them to understand voice command was trivial. That, of course, is the opposite of reality today.

So while science fiction has a foundation, it is not nearly as big nor as solid as the high fantasy foundation.

And while Star Trek itself actually has a pretty large body of written work, it is pretty much a niche market. It does not extend into popular culture the way the television shows have. Nobody is planning to make a Captain Sulu movie that I know of.

Table Top Role Playing Games: There have been, of course, many science fiction based role playing games. There was even a very good Star Trek based role playing game from FASA. But as a percentage of the market, they were all eclipsed by D&D. And popular ones not based on a known IP were even less significant. The best known are probably Warhammer 40K, which has its roots deep in fantasy, and Traveler, which was wonderfully deep and complex, but not all that popular in the end.

Computer Role Playing Games: There have been a ton of science fiction themed games. The first computer game I ever played, on a main frame, was Star Trek. But good, science fiction themed, role playing games have, again, not been as prevalent as the high fantasy counterparts. There were some good ones out there, like Fallout. But most games in the science fiction theme have been shooters (Marathon), tactical simulations (Starfleet Command), or empire building (Masters of Orion). There are a few fleshed out role playing styles in the science fiction genre, probably best characterized by Wing Commander and Freelancer.

MUDs: My experience with science fiction MUDs is pretty small. This is mostly because the few I played were all either boring (and usually Trek based) or high fantasy with a science fiction veneer. Doing a global replace on longsword to make it light saber is not all you need to do to make a science fiction MUD. Since my knowledge in this area is weak, I will admit in advance that I could be wrong, but I do not think there was a popular, heavily played science fiction MUD that would act as a guide to making a science fiction MMORPG the way there was for fantasy.

Quick Summary:

Above I tried to lay out what I see are the antecedents required for creating a sustainable, popular, MMORPG environment for a given genre. Things that have both created the interest in MMORPGs in said genre as well as acting as a practical guide to creating the games. Those are, with my assessment:

               Fantasy  SciFi
 Literature    High     Medium
 Table Top     High     Low
 Comp RPGs     High     Medium
 MUDs          High     Low

The Result

Guess what? As a culture we have created an infrastructure that not only produced, but practically dictated the form of a bunch of fantasy based MMORPGs. Meridian 59, Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft are all logical conclusions when you look at what came before. Literature, Dungeons and Dragons, computer fantasy role playing games, and MUDs set the standards and expectations. That is probably why I felt such an affinity for EverQuest on day one. I, the people around me, and the people who created it, had all been groomed for that eventuality.

But you probably knew that already.

On the science fiction side of things though, the factors are not as strong.

The science fiction body of work is relatively young compared to fantasy and has the flaw facing anybody predicting the future, being wrong more often than right.

Single player computer role playing games have existed, but have tended to chew on just corners of the genre. Standards for space traders and ship combat have been well defined, but other roles for the genre have been left unexplored.

And there has not been the same small community building exercise that fantasy got with the MUDs of the 90s that taught a generation of players and developers about groups, raids, boss mobs, drops, the holy trinity, and the uselessness of rangers.

With that setup, you get a series of unsatisfactory games when you are looking for a science fiction MMORPG. You have EVE Online, which is more a mass space flight/space trader sim than a role playing game, Tabula Rasa, which is more of a shooter than a role playing game, and Star Wars Galaxies, which really seems to be a fantasy game in science fiction clothes.

Conclusion

Given this view, we’re utterly naive to hope for a good science fiction MMORPG to show up, and if it did show up, we might not even be equipped to recognize it. Brilliance and insight have been thwarted in the past by an uncomprehending public.

So back to Star Trek Online, it is not that the IP is impossible, any curse not withstanding, it is that science fiction as an MMORPG genre is not possible, or at least is not likely.

Comments

So this is something I put together pretty quickly, shored up a bit with details, but otherwise tried not to disturb too much, lest I talk myself out of it.

But does it make any sense? Did I miss something? If so, what?

If it does make sense, how do we get to the point where we have the conventions and understanding to make science fiction MMORPGs not just possible but likely?

And what does it say for other genres… like pirates, for example?

Or was this all an exercise in “Well, duh?”

65 thoughts on “Is There Hope for a Science Fiction MMORPG?

  1. Kendricke

    I think, at the end of the day, it comes down to stories and a desire – a basic, instinctual need to hear stories of “simpler times”. Even George Lucas set Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away, and yet still “long, long ago”.

    The best fantasy adheres to archetypes, classed socities, fuedal lords, powerful armies, and a more romanticized style of combat where you closed with your foe and the more skilled warrior wins. Sure, we’re fascinated by gadgets as a people, but we’re moved by magic.

    To tap into Star Wars again, I think this is where it works so well. The concept of The Force, with energy sword wielding Jedi works wonderfully because, again, we’re back to primal desires at work. The hero and a roguish pirate save a princess from the minions of a diabolical monarch. Wait, are we talking about Princess Bride or Star Wars?

    For most of the best Sci Fi (at least in my opinion), we’re still talking about fairy tales. We’re still talking about magic. We’re still talking about the unknown.

    Think of how many of the more popular “science” fiction series still fall back on simple spiritual themes. I’ve already mentioned the Jedi aspect of Star Wars. What about the Ascended humans and the false Gods of Stargate? What about the Psy-Ops and Rangers of Babylon 5? What about the mystical “powers” of The One in the Matrix? Even Star Trek had several themes based the concepts of basic human nature being more powerful than all the tools we surround ourselves with – with storylines based around the Continuum, telephathy as fact, and mysticism within cultures (Sisko as a prophet!?).

    As much as I had to point out what I think is the obvious, magic is easier to “explain” than science anyway. As children, I’d suggest more of us are fascinated by Orcs than Klingons, and we’re more excited by lightning bolts than pewpew phasers. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the Sci as opposed to the Fi when dealing with futuristic games. There’s only so many times you can reverse the polarity on the deflector dish before you’ve worn out your consistent explanations. But magic – that’s easy to explain. In fact, I just did – because it’s magic.

    Seriously, who wasn’t disappointed to hear about mitochlorians the first time? Wasn’t the Force a much more enticing subject when it was something that “flowed through you”, as opposed to just being the result of a blood mutation? Yeah, that’s fascinating Qui-Gon… *roll eyes*

    In many ways, it’s a similar explanation as the one I save up for World of Warcraft. Blizzard didn’t set out to make a top end game, just a good, consistent one. They didn’t shoot for the moon with polygon counts, realistic environments, or historically accurate dance emotes. No, they built a highly stylized game with solid storylines, and an easy to enter world that didn’t require a lot of explanation. They shot for the middle crowd…and they found their mark.

    Fantasy is a lot like that, I think. It’s more fascination and less pontification for most people. There’s more myth and less logic.

    Can Sci Fi work? Absolutely. Just don’t overlook the wonder and the story, and I think you’ll do just fine. One look at anime shows that the Japanese love their giant robots and lasers at least as much as they love their ninja and demons. Take a peek at Saturday mornings here in the States and you’ll find that our shows are pretty much the same way – for every Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, there’s a Ben 10.

    The common thread? Wish fulfillment. Imagination coming to life. Which kid of today doesn’t want to be Harry Potter, just as the kids of our generation all wanted to be Luke Skywalker. What’s the common thread? Finding out that the boring life you hate was just a facade, that you’re really meant for more, and that you have massive power at your control that you never knew existed. It’s a form of wish fulfillment.

    I think the problem is when developers concentrate too much on the science and mechanics and not enough on the story. Again, that’s why I think the best Sci Fi incorporates elements of fantasy. It’s not enough to build Cyperpunk. Slap some combat mages and elves into the works and now you’ve got Shadowrun.

    Too much explanation, not enough fulfillment. That’s something fantasy delivers almost every time, but Sci Fi has to work out.

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  2. Jason Bennett

    I always thought that Sci-Fi had a lager general population appeal. There is much more Sc-fi on TV and in the movie biz, than fantasy. If anyone ever gets a Sci-fi MMO to work well,(other than Eve) they will have a large hit on their hands.
    Their are many reasons why Fantasy lends itself to MMO’s and RTS so well. Combat being the main reason. Technologies often mirror our own medieval technologies. People recognize “chain mail”. Futuristic combat has to completely be developed, often taking it in directions that have mixed reviews.

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  3. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Kendricke – I am 100% with everything you say, but I was also trying to move to a more nuts and bolts level to see if the same groundwork that lead to things like EverQuest even existed for science fiction. I contend that such ground work does not exist, at least not to a sufficient degree, and probably for the very high level reasons you and others have brought up in the ongiong “why so much fantasy” discussions.

    @Jason – Need I say more than “Harry Potter?” A lot more scifi maybe, but more accepted in popular culture?

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  4. tenfoldhate

    Many of the great works of fantasy and sci-fi you mentioned in your post survive because stripped of their robots and/or dragons you still have great stories and characters that readers connect to regardless of how they are dolled up. While MMORPGs undoubtedly have a certain amount of story to them, they are more about the “dressing”–the orcs, the dragons, the aliens, hacking, slashing, and shooting. But let’s face it, how many MMORPGs do we play for the story? Storytelling in the context of an MMO is generally just enough to lend some credibility/”reality” to the world and then they let us loose to kill stuff. I think the lack of storytelling, or just plain bad storytelling in MMORPGs, works against sci-fi.

    Sure, real science has made most of the speculations of 20th century science fictions writers look downright silly–but if there is a content and story behinds the blips and beeps that resound with us, we can ignore the flying cars and undersea kingdoms where telepathic humans farm kelp–for what lies below the surface.

    In a sense, we ARE the “content” in an MMORPG, so if the trappings don’t work, the game doesn’t work. The fantasy genre will always exist only in the fertile soil of our imaginations–a world that never existed and will never exist except in our minds. Our imaginations, on the other hand, either exceed or prove impossible, the worlds sci-fi creates for us every twenty years or so.

    Fantasy deals with archetypes we’ve all been familiar with since our grandmothers bounced us on their knees and told us a fairytale–chased with the medieval history that no doubt captured our imaginations as prepubescent school kids. It is “our” world to play in–whereas sci-fi exists in so many different versions and so many creator’s visions it always remains the realm of the creator. And bad creators present such a hackneyed, dopey vision of the future that it’s not a place where most gamers wanna dwell.

    I don’t think it’s that sci-fi MMORPGs are doomed, it’s just that the genre has not produced its Roddenberry or Heinlen yet.

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  5. Rodin's Thinker

    Good post.

    A side comment. I think there is a deep thematic difference between F & SF. The central focus of Fantasy is commonly a HERO who starts off lowly but becomes so powerful as to change history (LOTR, Conan, chars in WoW who face raid bosses). In RL history, heroes tend to come from privilege (Caesar, Kings) or through vast bureaucratic processes (Prime Ministers, Generals).

    In contrast, Science Fiction is commonly about survival in a STRANGE LAND, with the aim of discovering the “physics” of the new world (Frankenstein, Eon, X-Com, maybe Eve-Online).

    There is a murky in between zone which I could call Science Fantasy (Star Trek), where a new MMO might work.

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  6. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    The thing with even that “murky zone” is that the temptation will be to go with the conventions that D&D has ingrained in so many of us over the years, which will end up with the awful “Star Fleet ensign grinding Gorn soldiers” image we’ve all now seen. Trek purists will deride the idea, while gamers will dismiss it as an attempt to be “WoW in Space.”

    On the other hand, if a studio tries to blaze a new trail, they will be faced with the reaction, “This is different. I don’t get it. I don’t like it.” because there has not been the huge, evolving body of work (table top, computer games, MUDs) to set a convention for what a science fiction game really is that is both generally accepted and distinct from the fantasy conventions.

    Perhaps we should all hope for Blizzard to make a StarCraft MMO. They are one company that might actually be able to muscle past the lack of conventions by creating their own set that people will accept.

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  7. michael, St Erroneous

    @Wilhelm: Harry Potter: Boarding School Pron Revival: Discuss.

    At the moment in the UK, science fiction has a modicum of “respectibility” that Fantasy – which the possible exception of Harry Potter – does not have. This is in part due to the enormous success of two television shows: the revived Doctor Who, and Life on Mars.

    On the subject of SF’s Great White Hope: don’t overlook the forthcoming 40K MMO. I’m sure GW are aware they can’t afford to just transport WAR into space without being laughed out of warpspace… However, since they’re working with THQ (who publish Relic’s 40K Dawn of War franchise) rather than EAMythic suggests to me that the 40K MMO may be RTS/squad based instead of a conventional over-the-shoulder MMORPG. Perhaps the first triple-A MMORTS title?

    Don’t forget the influence of System Shock.

    I think you’re over-analysing the impact of Fantasy’s longer history. Parents tell children fairy stories in their cribs. They don’t tell them tales of hyperindustrialised dystopias. We’re introduced to one genre long before the other and that, I suspect, is enough in itself.

    H. G. Wells and Jules Verne? I think you’ll find the Martians and Captain Nemo have been “revived” plenty of times.

    Happily, in my local bookstores, there’s more Dick than Heinlein.

    I don’t think the lack of a “good” over-the-shoulder avatar-based SF game is related to story issues – the “storytelling” in all the big MMOs just seems to suck full stop anyway. Certainly when compared with a) literature but also b) single player games. Quests are the thinest possible veil to hang over the brutal skeleton of the Holy Trinity Gameplay. If people were really primarily interested in the story MMOs would surely never have gotten off the ground.

    I think the problem for SF world is making something as compelling and “social” as the fantasy-based tank/nuker/healer combination that’s credible in a “rationalist” world. How would Star Trek Online combat work? Kirk leading with his fists, whilst Sulu phasers from range, and Bones keeps running around injected them both with hyposprays?

    So, not just the literature, imo, but mainly the core game-play combat mechanics – which would surely have been solved back in the MUD days if they’d been easy. Avoid avatars, or go pseudoRTS, and I expect it gets easier.

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  8. Ardwulf

    First off, great article, as usual, with lots of excellent points.

    However, I must take you to task for mischaracterizing the impact that Traveller (note the British spelling,) has had on tabletop RPGs. It was one of the first Sci-Fi RPGs and one of the first to use a skill system in place of D&D level/class system or something like it, and the first game to do either that would have much of an impact. It directly influenced numerous other game lines, including but not at all limited to, R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk games, RuneQuest 3rd edition and Artesia: Adventures in the Known World, published just two years ago and based on the comic series. It may be obscure today due to not having a major RPG publisher behind it anymore, but it’s also one of a very small handful of tabletop RPGs to have sold more than a million copies of the basic game – far more than all four of the Star Trek RPGs that have been published put together. It thrives today on the web, with hundreds of dedicated sites and millions of words of material available.

    Your overall point regarding Traveller – that it hasn’t penetrated the popular consciousness like D&D has – is quite correct. But in tabletop RPG circles, Traveller remains pervasive both in its influence and in actual play. If you’re looking, you can see this influence in EVE and its predecessors as well – it was an acknowledged inspiration for Elite, which in turn has been mentioned as an inspiration by the designers of EVE. And you can see it in the economics-based gameplay.

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  9. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @ Ardwulf – Traveller, yes. I always spell it that way, then the spell checker clucks its tongue at me. I did not mean to minimize its influence, just to place it relative to the the monster that is D&D. It is an awsome rule set (I used to drool over, but could never afford, all those books) and has a dedicated following, but Traveller & Twilight 2000, both of which had a ton of effort put into them, were still not enough to keep GDW alive.

    @michael, St Erroneous – Literature set the ground work, in my opinion, that put people on the path that lead to where we are today. I’m not swayed much by the mention of Wells or Verne, since neither were even alive when “Ivanhoe” was first published, and if I want to bring out the big stick of fantasy revival, I need only go to “Beowulf.” Fantasy just has a longer history. But it also has a big advantage in that it can borrow from the past, from concrete places and things in history, to weave a tale. We all know and accept swords and have all heard tales of magic. Much of Mother Goose and the brothers Grimm set the stage early in life for an acceptance of fantasy.

    And I will go to the mat on the idea that fantasy has more acceptance in modern culture. So much more acceptance, in fact, that we do not notice it. Science fiction stands out. Fantasy blends in. After all, if you’re going to let me call “Ivanhoe” fantasy, despite where it lives at the bookstore, then I am going to push on and claim much of Shakespeare. And if I can do that, then I get to claim anything that takes historical events and reshapes them to make a better, more interesting tale, so I get HBO’s “Rome,” Showtime’s “Tudors,” and a few hundred other modern works. And if I have crossed the line out of fantasy with that, I’m still going to claim “Bewitched.”

    But I am mostly being silly with this. (the general tone you should read into 90% of what I write.)

    The reason I included literature is that it influenced Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson enough for them to create Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn ingrained in a generation of gamers and game designers (for better or worse) what a fantasy role playing game is and how it should behave, and that there has been no equivalent set of circumstances in science fiction, in part because there has not been the long tradition and influence from science fiction on popular culture that there has been from fantasy.

    My local used bookstore has a lot more Shatner than either Dick or Heinlein. But perhaps that is as it should be.

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  10. Yeebo

    That was the second best read I’ve had all week. Only a few random comments.

    An argument could be made that EVE is “Elite, the MMO” in many ways. In fact the general “fly a spaceship, trade or pirate, buy bigger spaceship, repeat” was the first really uniquely sci fi RPG system to appear on PCs. EVE borrows many of the basic mechanics pioneered by those games, and is also the most successful sci fi MMO to date (measured in terms of current subs and steady growth). This seems to support your basic premise (i.e., walk before you can run).

    However, there is also a problem, at least in my mind, that the line between sci fi and fantasy is pretty thin. Star Wars is a perfect example. Not just because of “the force” (and totally agree about those damn midichlorians…damn you Lucas!), but also because no attempt is ever made to explain any of the technology. The technology is so far in advance of ours (save for a few primitive computer displays here and there…I guess color LCD was unthinkable back then) that it might as well be magic. Robots are artificial life. Light sabers are to all intents and purposes magic swords. Tie fighters absolutely should not be able to fly in an atmosphere. The disigners made no attempt to be constrained by what seems possible, when designing, tech, social systems, or anything else. They mainly just did whatever “seemed cool.” In your terms they were writing fantasy with a sci fi skin.

    Much of what we call “sci fi” uses technology the same way. It’s magic thats technology instead of magic (an obvious quote comes to mind here). I see absolutely no reason why the current mechanics of fantasy MMOs could not be put to good use when instantiating one of those sorts of sci fi properties.

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  11. Debes

    @Yeebo:

    I somewhat agree with your point about magic technology, but would like to note that when you get into the realm of “scifi mmo” and you attempt to make it not a fantasy mmo in scifi clothing, you suddenly need to start explaining your technology, especially in a gaming context where you have people coding programs to more efficiently crunch numbers of one flavor or another. See some of the “a battleship has what mass and what volume now? and that’s 10x that cruiser?” issues that occasionally pop up in eve, or the “spaceships less dense than clouds” issue from David Weber’s Honorverse.

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  13. B80

    First of all let me congratulate you for the theme of this post.
    About the blending in of fantasy and general acceptance of it in our society compared to SF: we just have to remember that the first stories that we are told, bed tales, etc are fairytales (ie:brother grimm tales). Fantasy is the first theme that we learn and that we pass on to our kids (telling bedside fairy stories) and thus perpetuating the cycle.
    How many of us have ever heard, while going to sleep, a tale about robots, spaceships, etc? hmm? And how many of us have told any sci-fi story to our kids/grandkids, etc? I’m guessing no one, right?

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  14. michael, St Erroneous

    Oh well, since we’re being silly… ;)

    @Wilhelm: “But it also has a big advantage in that it can borrow from the past, from concrete places and things in history, to weave a tale.”

    That’s not a specific advantage over SF – that can describe good science fiction too. Don’t get hung up on the swords v laser trappings – good modern scifi and fantasy are interchangeable in the scope of their ambition and the literary skill they use to pursue them.

    “And if I can do that, then I get to claim anything that takes historical events and reshapes them to make a better, more interesting tale, so I get HBO’s Rome, Showtime’s Tudors, and a few hundred other modern works.”

    And you’ve just described Alternate History / Speculative Fiction, also a branch of SF. I’ll also claim Greek Myth for SF (all that teleology – yes please) and hence all religious creation myths.

    Meanwhile, back in serious-land…

    [There’s not been a D&D for SF]

    Yeah, but no, but yeah…

    I think SF inherently has scope issues winding itself down to small-scale casual hand-to-hand combat that so characterises the personalised avatar combat in current MMORPGs. I think this is a hard problem to solve when the world is being rendered on a computer screen without it feeling distant and less visceral than swordplay. In a tabletop roleplay environment – and mostly in a MUD too – the battlefield is in the mind’s eye, so a GM’s story-telling can continue to have a human focus, even if the “action” is spread across a much more abstract area.

    It may be that there is no easy solution to the intense over-the-shoulder personal focus that a computer RPG gives when combined with a non-melee combat environment: you see yourself, and what you are doing – you can’t hear other player’s GM narratives, and if they’re a tiny set of distant pixels on-screen, they’re depersonalised. Shrieks of despair over teamspeak aren’t quite the same thing.

    Essentially, I guess we’re saying that a SF MMORPG has slightly different set of scope and involvement problems to solve to a Fantasy MMORPG. The lessons learnt from MUDs of any genre simply aren’t all relevant to the computer screen.

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  16. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @michael, St Erroneous – I see, we’re going to have to have a podcast where we debat whether ALL FICTION is science fiction or fantasy, the winner being declared the sole literary genre and all bookstores being required by law to reorganize according to the resulting new Library of Congress system.

    The podcast shall be called “All you stories are belong to us!”

    I actually think that science fiction claiming speculative fiction as part of the genre is rather like Switzerland claiming Bavaria because 1/3 of the Swiss population speaks German.

    Speculative fiction pre-dates science fiction. There were pieces written in the 18th century about things like a French invasion of England.

    Now, there is certainly speculative fiction that is science fiction. Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series (aliens invade during WWII) is certainly science fiction. Harry Turtledove’s Timeline-191, where the American South gets its freedom in the Civil War (without aliens landing at any point) is not science fiction.

    But on the actual subject and hand, and your sentiment of, “Yeah, but no, but yeah,” I can only add my own, “Well, yes… but… yeah.”

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  17. michael, St Erroneous

    @Wilhelm: The Difference Engine, and The Man in The High Castle: no aliens, still SF. ;)

    You dodged my scope/involvement point, I was actually serious about that…

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  18. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @SciFi Massive

    Passive-aggressive much? Do you have anything constructive to add, or was simply turning your nose in the air with a pretense of superiority your sole goal?

    If you feel we have good SciFi massive titles available, please, unmask my ignorance. Enlighten us all!

    (BTW, one of my pet peeves is somebody walking up and claiming to represent “the community,” what ever that community might be. I’ll derail any discussion to poke holes in such pretension. Are you making such a claim? It sure sounds like it.)

    @michael, St Erroneous

    Yes, but I think those works are listed as SciFi primarily because the authors were stuck in that pigeon hole. How much of Vonnegut is really SciFi? But HE isn’t in that same pigeon hole, so he sits in the general fiction section, aliens from Tralfamadore notwithstanding.

    Defining SciFi is a whole ball of wax unto itself, and where the bookstore places an authors work is not, to me, the definitive test to which we should all subscribe.

    On the scope/involvement point, sorry, I had an overrun in the silly buffer. But, essentially, I agree fully. I have some experience with MUDs that tried to go SciFi but failed (in my opinion) because they were held within the constraints of the fantasy conventions. There has been no prototypical encompassing model for a massive SciFi game that really works. Not yet, in any case.

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  19. Graktar

    I think in order for a Sci-fi MMORPG to be successful it needs to be based on a coherent setting that makes sense and allows players to feel like they belong in the universe they’re playing in. Fantasy MMORPGs have had an advantage in the creation of coherent worlds due, as you pointed out, to the preponderance of existing literature and backstories upon which to draw. Humans have been generating fantasy stories for hundreds of years, making it much easier for us to put together a coherent fantasy world.

    Sci-fi is harder, because the scope is broader and our historical exposure is smaller. Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault are both examples of games that failed to provide a coherent world. They seemed random, jumbled together, and didn’t really make sense. Auto Assault died, and I don’t expect Tabula Rasa will do much better. They both lacked points of reference for a player to attach meaning to by creating entirely new worlds connected to nothing we know.

    The inverse obstacle is familiarity with the setting, or perhaps over-familiarity would be a better term. Fantasy settings thrive because our expectations are generic — a dragon is a big lizard thing and a sword cuts things, and as long as expectations like that are met, it’s all good. Games like Star Wars Galaxies take something that people have too much familiarity with the specifics of and try to make a game out of it. It ends up failing because what we expect to see (based on our vast knowledge of the IP) cannot be met in the game, making the game world flat, irritating, or just un-interesting. D&D Online fell into this trap also (one of the few fantasy offerings to do so) by giving an expectation of Dungeons and Dragons and delivering something that didn’t match what we’ve learned Dungeons and Dragons means. Neverwinter Nights was successful because it DID deliver on our expectations of D&D, but of course wasn’t an MMO.

    I think the next, best hope for a successful Sci-fi MMORPG is if Bioware creates a Mass Effect massive online game. It has a coherent world and was designed from the ground up with the backstory necessary to support rpg elements (such as classes, rival factions, etc.). The novels, while somewhat cheesy, nevertheless further the coherence of the game world. Despite this, it’s not an IP founded on movies and decades of ‘canon’ that would have to be cast aside or corrupted in order to make a game work. If you played Mass Effect, try to imagine an increased scope for the setting in which hundreds of other players are flying around in the game world with you. I can see it, and I can see it working.

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  20. Sci Fi Massive

    @ Wilhelm2451: I was merely attempting to interject a bit of levity, unfortunately the internet doesn’t convey light-hearted banter. You were correct; I did not have anything constructive to add, save for a bit of a joke that–were I standing in the same room with you–you would have probably had a bit of a chuckle over (or perhaps not).

    It seems my attempt at making a joke has provoked you to attack me.That is unfortunate.

    Passive-aggressive? No sir. I am actually a great fan of your blog. I never expected a tongue-in-cheek quip would unleash a torrent of venom from a blogger that I generally find quite insightful.

    I find it curious that you are assuming I am pretentious. With all due respect, I believe you are projecting quite a bit on me. I am just fella who runs a humble forum, for a handful of gamers who enjoy each other’s company. I hope that doesn’t offend you, or fall into your category of “pet-peeves”

    You have a gift for rhetorical technique. Unfortunately, creating a straw man at my expense was unnecessary, in my humble opinion.

    I will be content to return to reading you blog from afar and abstaining from the direct dialog. All apologies for my attempt a humor-craft; I regret that it was not received in the spirit in which it was intended.

    Good Day Sir.

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  21. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Oh wow, I appear to have take the absolute worst possible read on your comment. Sorry about that.

    You comment did manage to pick at one of my pet peeves, as I mentioned, so I thought you were attempting not only to be sarcastic, but also in the name of a whole forum.

    I apologize for my complete misread of your intentions.

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  22. bluelinebasher

    Absolutely. There’s always hope. There’s no reason that there cannot be a Paranoia type MMO based on the RPG where you have a class based system based on the color ranks. Patent Pending! I could see an MMO based on Blade Runner and being a replicant or hunter. Or a MMO version of Syndicate. Battlestar Gallatica seems to be back to life on the Sci Fi channel, that could be an MMO. And of course, isn’t World of StarCraft always the latest rumor? The ideas are out there, just mostly the sci-fi that people are familiar with gets the crappy console port (played the Wing Commander or Battlestar Gallatica multiplayer fighters on XBox live yet? It’s garbage.) But I think therein lies the problem — isn’t MMO already a niche, and then sci-fi the smaller fraction of that niche? There is already Star Wars and EVE, does City of Heroes count? Tabula Rasa kinda looked Sci Fi from the box art….Phantasy star…all battling for the same market that is dominated by Fantasy. If it exists, World of Starcraft may be the exception to the rule only if they bundle it with WoW, but it seems it will take a massive TV/Film story like Star Wars to lay the foundation for any new Sci Fi MMO game to survive in the business sense. And even then, how many active accounts would a Starship Troopers MMO have? Think you need serious exposure and fan base behind it. Star Trek should have that, but video games have a rich and nasty history of punishing their fans.

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  23. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Well, yes, I always have hope. I was trying to assess how realistic that hope was.

    I’d love to see Paranoia as an MMO, or even as a single player game. I even wrote something about that some time back. But my fear then, as now, is that the mechanics of a game where you’re supposed to lose most of the time might be difficult as well as beyond the comprehension of the average player. We see every day how people favor advancement and success over fun.

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  24. bluelinebasher

    I think the hope is merited — Eve online seems to be a good indication that there’s definitely a market out there. I was not impressed with the latest upgrade Eve had to offer, and I’d bet there’s enough capsuleers out there that are ready for the next big Sci Fi offering. As for comprehension of the average player, I think Eve goes right against that too. I think it operates under the old MST3k motto “The right people will get it.” and there are plenty of pilots online still. Maybe throwing in advancement / success over fun is what makes Star Wars Galxies a wolf in sheep’s clothing. There’s definitely room for a good Sci Fi MMO. Of course I kept hoping for a multiplayer Wing Commander after Armada and it never showed up. Will it be World of Starcraft or World of Halo? Either one seems to reek of millions…

    (Pirates seems like a too little too late jump on the franchise movie gravy train without the license, but maybe it’ll be big in Europe?)

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  26. Cantonkid

    I think that you make a good case, but in your assessment that the table top RPG genre for Sci-Fi has been low, I think that you have not considered that there were a number of games out there that could classify in the sci-fi genre depending on how you define it. For example there were various super-hero games one from Marvel and one from DC and then several that were generic brand universes. Giant robot genre such as Battletech, Robotech, and some anime based Mech games. There was the future version of Warhammer (though I myself am not familiar with the Warhammer series). The short lived Cyberpunk RPG and the Shadowrun RPG (though this one is very much a hybrid of fantasy and sci-fi). Palladium had a series sci-fi based rule sets for aliens, alternate dimensions, robots and such.

    So I would agree that while fantasy has gotten a majority of the RPG market in terms of promotion and product (if you go back and look through old gaming magazines, a majority of the ads were for fantasy themed stuff, games, miniatures, etc) there still has been a good number of sci-fi games that just did not have the same exposure (or big names like a Star Trek or Star Wars on the label).

    While I myself might not count the super hero genre as sci-fi, I actually stumbled across your blog while looking for news on any new sci-fi MMOs on the horizon. This author considered City of Heroes/City of Villains his top pick for sci-fi MMOs.

    http://internetgames.about.com/od/mmorpgs/tp/tpscifimmorpg.htm

    I played City of Heroes/Villains for a few months before the repetition got to me. I am currently playing Tabula Rasa and finding it lacking. The fact that the Star Trek MMO now seems slated for the shelf leaves me less than hopeful. Stargate Worlds is due out later this year and that might be something to look forward to, but only time will tell. I have not played any of the other sci-fi based games as yet or any of the others out there like Planetside. Still, there seem to have been quite a few Sci-fi based computer games of late such as Halo, Gears of War, and Mass Effect. I am hoping that the popularity of these series might spur more MMO developers into the direction of sci-fi.

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  27. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Cantonkid – You do highlight one of the issues behind all of this, which is “what is sci fi?” You can see that Michael, St Erroneous and I were trying to thrash that out a bit, and we did not even get to super heroes.

    As for my table top scifi assessment, once you put D&D in the picture, it is hard to rate anything else something besides low.

    Has any scifi table top RPG inspired a computer game that you know of? I cannot think of one off-hand, though I had a co-worker at one point who claimed that Blizzard completely ripped off the ideas and mechanics from one game as the basis for StarCraft. I forget what the table top game was though… and so did everybody else apparently.

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  28. Debes

    One of the biggest problems I see with scifi v fantasy as re mmo material is that in fantasy, you get you gnolls and dragons and..rats.. that you can kill in the thousands and no one minds. In Scifi this is less prevalent. Most the the “opponents” are things people want to play, which results in gameplay issues.

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  29. bluelinebasher

    As far as table top ports I’m pretty sure I still have a blood bowl cd somewhere (although I guess that’s still fantasy orcs vs humans), but it makes me think there was probably a space marine/space hulk game too. I’m not sure what table top game was the basis for StarCraft but I think Dune II was a grandfather of sorts in video games. Film seems to be a heavy driver of Sci Fi games. Should that be considered a factor (or is that bundled with Lit)? I would give that a higher score if that’s the case. Did anyone play Matrix Online?

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  30. Eclectic Vox

    Have any of the developers out there looked at doing an Amalagam of Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I would thinka setting such as Palladiums Rifts might help to break the Sci-Fi MMO main stream. It’s an established world with alot of canon for Mages fighting along side Cyborgs and what have you.

    Does it sound plausible that this is a way to build the market?

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  31. Joraster

    Proposing something radical here. The imbalance isn’t as large as we think.

    Here are the AAA fantasy MMOs released in the last couple years:
    Asheron’s Call
    Dark Age of Camelot
    Dungeons & Dragons Online
    EverQuest
    Final Fantasy XI
    Lineage
    Lord of the Rings Online
    Pirates of the Burning Sea
    Shadowbane
    Ultima Online
    Vanguard: Saga of Heroes
    World of Warcraft

    Hope I didn’t miss any. Here are the AAA sci-fi MMOs released:
    Anarchy Online
    Auto Assault
    City of Heroes
    EVE Online
    Earth and Beyond
    Neocron
    PlanetSide
    Star Wars Galaxies
    Tabula Rasa
    The Matrix Online

    That’s 12 vs 10 there. I suppose Neocron is debatable whether it was a AAA title, but even without counting Neocron that’s still not that imba. The major difference here, I think, is that I’m not counting sequels and expansion packs, which would basically triple or even quadruple the size of the fantasy list while barely doubling the sci-fi list. That discrepancy is obviously due to popularity.

    As for why fantasy is more popular than sci-fi, my feeling is that fantasy gameplay has just been more refined and tuned than sci-fi. Fantasy MMO gameplay is, like the multiple iterations of Final Fantasy, largely formulaic with minor tweaks to the combat/leveling system/story. On the other hand, looking at the list of sci-fi games, there’s some really varied gameplay there.

    So what I’m saying is that fantasy is alot more popular because it’s mature and offers familiar gameplay that’s easy to pick up. Sci-fi in the MMO space is much younger, and currently all over the place. It may be a while before it’s refined enough to attract the mainstream MMO crowd.

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  32. Pingback: There is Hope for a SciFi MMORPG « The Ancient Gaming Noob

  33. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    I agree with your conclusion about the maturity of the game play and the essential downside that the formulaic approach to fantasy will reap eventually, while the power of SciFi, which I covered in my post today, is that it is unconstrained and just needs the right game to set the genre alight.

    On the actual balance of total MMO titles, I might argue about City of Heroes being SciFi or Fantasy… or something else altogether… but that is a good list to look at. I would add the distinct sequels, EverQuest II and Lineage II and maybe Asheron’s Call 2, since AutoAssault is also on the list, just to call out that they are separate titles with their own followings. There are plenty of EQ players who have no desire to play EQ2 for example.

    But yes, when you put the subscriptions (peak or current) next to those titles, you will see a different picture. Even if you leave off WoW, the balance swings heavily towards fantasy, and success breeds imitation.

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  35. Domenico Zizzo

    I think that this follow the evolution of humans, so when we will have a more logical psicology and society, people will love more the wonderful mysteries of science that the fantasy.

    Surely Vulcanians would like more Sci-Fi MMORPG ^^

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  37. RogerH

    Coming a bit late to this topic, but @Wilhelm2451 asked:

    “Has any scifi table top RPG inspired a computer game that you know of?”

    I’m not sure if it would qualify as “tabletop RPG”, but Warhammer 40K (a sci-fi game played with miniatures) spawned a game called “Dawn of War”. It was successful enough to have an expansion pack, and I believe it (the table top game) is the inspiration for the StartCraft series. At least the Space Marines and Zerg look an awful lot like WH40K models.

    The game play of all of these titles is mainly squad based, with the notable exception of StarCraft’s “Ghost”. It’s too bad the game based on that never got off the ground.

    In WH40K game play you have squads that engage in close combat with futuristic sword-thingies and high tech versions of guns. You also have vehicles which can carry much larger weapons and do much more damage.

    And I think this is where a Sci-Fi MMORPG is going to have trouble. Anyone familiar with the Sci-Fi genre is going to want to have a *really cool* vehicle/spaceship/battlesuit. As a game designer, how do you give that to your players and still maintain game balance?

    One way to handle it is similar to how WoW handles classes: classes that do lots of damage (mages) get crappy armor and are very delicate. “Tank” classes (like Paladins) don’t do a lot of damage, but can withstand a lot. So it’s a balance between firepower and durability.

    In WH40K, a vehicle also has a speed factor, with faster vehicles having less armor and getting killed more easily. And not being able to hit targets as well (less accurate).

    So there is a framework to build from and Blizzard isn’t shy about “borrowing” ideas from other franchises. They have the experience to pull it off and I hope they are secretly working behind the scenes to do just that.

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  38. Skeet

    Personally I think SWG in it’s original state before they started making major core design changes was the best MMORPG I have ever played. The only thing that sucked was the holo grind which could have easily been avoided by removing or changing the way players become Jedi. If they made a new server today that was running the version of the game back then and worked on fixing bugs I would go play it.

    What about a MMORPG based on the Dune series of books?

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  39. cerise

    Dune would be (my) most obvious choice for a sf MMORPG. It has many of the same elements that make up most of the fantasy MMORPGs, and it employs the same kind of storyline / questing mechanisms. Many of the traditional space operas have an MMORPG* potential for the same reason(s). For Dune, I see the following items available to an MMORPG creator:

    1. At least one fully-inhabited world to provide a consistent setting (Arrakis), with the possibility of other fully-inhabited worlds for more content, exploration, expansions, etc.

    2. There are plenty of non-allied factions/classes/professions to choose from: Bene Jesserit, Fremen, Mentat, Spacing Guild, Face Dancers, etc. as well as actual Houses — House Atreides, House Harkonnen, etc.

    3. Combat capabilities — Bene Jesserit with their ‘weirding’ ways, House fighters, Sardaukar, Fremen, Face Dancers, etc. They employ shield devices, ‘atomics’, knives, projectile weapons, poisons, doctors — so you’d have your standard ‘tank/close dps/ranged dps/healing’ type of fighting possibilities.

    4. Possibiities for instanced settings — Sitches, Houses/Palaces, Docked Ships, etc.

    5. Plenty of quest possibilities: kill x number of fremen/guards/etc., take out x number of spice harvesters, find water supplies, poison water supplies, plant traps in house/palace/sitch/etc., assassinate so-and-so, and on and on.

    6. Since there are ‘organisations’ such as Bene Jesserit, Spacing Guild, etc. there are obvious paths to level and benefits. When exactly does one become a Reverend Mother?

    7. There are also possibilities for PvP areas/actions/servers as well.

    8. An economy, the possibilities of drops, looting bodies, mobs, etc.

    9. An ability to make a humanoid avatar and play from that perspective, which is the ability to pretend to be that character.

    All of these elements can be easily found in the fantasy MMORPGs, but can be wholly missing from sf MMORPGs. Dune has a mythological based idea (the hero’s journey) that lends itself very easily to an MMORPG concept.

    There is a psychological factor at play when you can be a ‘character’ in a game versus a ‘ship’. While there might be a possibility to customise a ship, a person will never ‘identify’ with anything outside of an animal-based character when playing a game (in front of their computer, not immersed in an environment). So whilst it might be cool to travel around as a ship and explore space, asteroids, etc., the psychological impact of being a character running around in a world will always be much more fulfilling.

    Frank Herbert also did a lot to create a desire to want to *pretend to be* some of the different classes/factions in his story. I know I’ve imagined what it’s like to be a Bene Jesserit… That’s part of the reason why Dune could easily be adapted into an MMORPG — the same with Star Wars or Babylon5 — the fact that you want to ‘be’ a certain kind of ‘character’ and not just a desire to ‘see what a new world/ship/alien’ is like.

    Any story that elicits a desire/wonder at being at least one of multiple ‘types’ of possibly opposing characters will have a natural base upon which an MMORPG could be designed.

    *Please note that I am using the current popular trend in MMORPGs to show how science fiction storylines can be adapted to create a popular environment. There might be a new MMORPG mechanism in the future that I have not considered (and I hope there is!), but I am not attempting to establish or describe that new variant.

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  40. Jax

    I would like to point out a few things from sci-fi and fantasy, just as a thought. In fantasy games how do you fight? Hand to hand, sword to shield, firebolt to flesh(bad luck for that dispell). Sci-fi on the other hand is mostly well, guns. Starwars is one of the few that I can think of that uses the idea of a sword, but where else? If a Sci-fi MMORPG was made it would mostly be an MMORPGFPS, first person shooter. it isn’t necessarily bad overall, infact I love FPS games, and I love MMORPG. Now lets elaborate a bit here. Let us say we have a fair sci-fi MMORPGFPS(side note, just having the genre title MMORPGFPS is ridiculous) game mechanics on our hands, items, ARMOR for that matter becomes amazingly complex. With all that in mind I am thinking I might need to upgrade to the TB harddrive space…o.O

    I love the tabletop game Shadowrun btw. It is totally different from D&D, which I also play. It is old but hey it has a 4th edition years ahead of D&D. That counts for something doesn’t it?

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  41. carl sagan can help us

    i’m jumping on a little late, i know. but i’ll try to make a few quick points and maybe stir up a few nocturnal neurons out there…

    i’ve read quite a few comments in the last hour, and have come to a conclusion based on what you guys have said; its relatively safe to assume that even we, as the very proponents in the Sci Fi realm, consistently contradict, blend, and dilute our selves right back into “fantasy with a space ship, laser toting skin”.

    my initial response was star wars galaxies preCU, as well. however, be it as it may, our perception has exceeded our reality. in other words mans vision has exceeded his grasp once again. in the fantasy mmorpg forums the big complaint is the holy trinity concept.

    now correct me if i’m wrong, but didn’t the fantasy sector just fulfil itself? the paradigm of online game as most know it has possibly come to fruition.. sad as it may seem. and i’m not a pessimist either. i strongly look to the future for… well.. the future. but in the meantime what can we do to make the dream a reality? how do we create a tangible goal that satisfies our hearts *current* deepest desire?

    i’ll state my peace and avoid a longwinded essay on the subject. (you attempt to pursuade your audience, but your charisma check fails against a dc 20)
    1. we have to start with clearly defined expectations
    2. we have to avoid looking for a template that ‘suits us best’ ie. lets try traveller! or, lets try dune! or lets try thisthatetc! good names, good titles, all worthy of a shot at the title but the point is…
    3. in other words we have to create this “world” that we want to be a part of.
    4. our imagination is the closest essence we have have to god; due to its infinite scope. therefore, nothing that can be thought of is outside of bounds. (aside from something that is downright physically lawless, ie. the earth being flat, or hyperspacing through a planet)
    5. we need to, however small the movement may be at first, *catalog* or in some way collect these ideas; we need to assemble, be heard in some way, (this is where the vast, oceanlike vagueness of the internet both equips and paralyzes us) our voice is lost amongst the great dotcom.
    6. in the end we have to accept that something different is all that we can expect. this sounds utterly cliche, even me sitting here trying to explain and voice a concept that is only a thought in my head. i am humble in my means. a simple gamer. easily pleased. aesthetically motivated for a ‘realistic yet superrealistic setting’ i want to be fullfilled sitting at my computer, even when my character is possibly carrying out the most mundane task. ie. killing 10 rats. or assembling a dl-44 heavy blaster pistol.

    in the end my motivation is for exp points, loot, levels, skill points, upgrades or in some stretch of the word, you name it.

    but deep below that paradigm lies a pure desire. i want my character to time travel. i want him to evolve. i want him to develop supernature powers. i want his mind, my mind to be the limit. i want an indistinguishable line between fact and fiction. i want it so blurred that i forget i’m playing a game. i want to plug in. i want to lose myself. i don’t care if its against droids. against aliens. against a virus. against my nextdoor neighbor. i want to break the 4th wall down. fight the iris.

    “…i was but the learner.. now i am the master”

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  42. Zebulon

    Would someone please take the license for the old pen & paper Science-Fiction Role-Playing Game, Star Frontiers from TSR, and turn it into a very in-depth MMORPG? I would really appreciate it, as Star Frontiers held a particular place in my heart.

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  43. SomeNick

    I don’t think that the genre of science fiction is the problem itself, I think it is rather a problem of stereotypes. Science Fiction has accustomed us to interstellar travel and shooting a lot of bad guys with lasers. Rarely has science fiction fully explored all posibilities. With so many planets in an universe, it should be possible to make engaging stories and beyond amazing worlds, with deep characters. But like I said, the problem is that most Sci Fi sticks to very fixed stereotypes, and end ups ruining something that could otherwise be great.

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  44. Valis

    I still want to know whats up with the Mechwarrior universe. I’d say that if Microsoft would stop killing the franchise with terribad Mechassult games, that universe has the potential to be a terriffic mmo.

    The old Mechwarrior: Mercenaries pc game actually had a campaign mode which would certainly form the basis of a solid scifi MMORPG. There were PVE missions which scale nicely up to squad based encounters, there was a whole “pvp” arena aspect, there was an RPG element of upgrading your parts on salvage taken from the battlefield, there was a good deal of mech customization (but not as much as the terriffic-in-some-repects XBox 360 Chromehounds), there were different factions you could develop rep with, etc etc etc. If I recall right, there was even a trader element where you could buy and sell parts and make a profit based on what was happening in the current system. The only thing missing was the online multiplayer aspect.

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  45. Zazzy

    How about Dune….

    Large Body Of Written Work
    Many MUD’s that are deep with story and gameplay
    The Original RTS

    …… Plus you have about 1,000,000 fans, 400K of which would probably play.

    Brian Herbert will do anything for profit including selling parts of the IP.

    I’m all for it, I would live on that game. Just take EQ and make it all a desert world. I would play.

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  46. Merlin4

    Well you have a number of problems there. You concluded the article with:

    “With that setup, you get a series of unsatisfactory games when you are looking for a science fiction MMORPG. You have EVE Online, which is more a mass space flight/space trader sim than a role playing game, Tabula Rasa, which is more of a shooter than a role playing game, and Star Wars Galaxies, which really seems to be a fantasy game in science fiction clothes.”

    While you rightly claim that “Doing a global replace on longsword to make it light saber is not all you need to do to make a science fiction [MMORPG].” you missed it entirely here. What’s wrong with an mmo with fps aspects? If you’re human what weapon makes the most sense? A gun duh. And if you’re an alien, you’re bare hands aren’t a bad choice either.

    The major fault with Tabalu Rasa was its lack of multiplayer functionality, but otherwise it was a very good MMORPG. EVE well I don’t think the space traders genre is going to ever be very popular, mining gets very very boring over time and so does economic work unless it is the means to annihilating an opponent. While I haven’t played it yet, I think Star Wars Galaxies may likely a good example of a good scifi MMORPG.

    Go try out Anarchy Online, Wolf Team, and Sonny. (While you are at it do some more resarch on Tabula Rasa.) And then look at things again.

    Scifi’s predictions is a total non-issue for fans in most cases as long as dates are never meantioned. most people that enjoy scifi take great interest in new ideas and new directions, so the lack of groundwork in scifi is something of a non-issue. Go watch some Stargate, Eureka, Enterprise, Lost, Warehouse 13, Primeval, Doctor Who, and then make up your mind about writing the Scifi genre off :P

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  47. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Merlin4 – TR was a good MMO but EVE won’t ever be very popular? Really, those are your statements? TR closed down due to lack of interest and EVE has over 300K players, which places it in the same zone as every successful MMO behind WoW. Are you sure it is me that needs to do more research?

    Go back and read what I wrote, because it sounds like you missed my message. Shoving a science fiction wash over the standard D&D methodology does not make for a good game. The facts of the market bear me out. The one successful and growing science fiction MMO is EVE which looks the least like D&D. In the 300K+ subscriber club there is just that one scifi example.

    And you don’t have the lecture me about the science fiction genre, I did not say it was unpopular, I said Fantasy was far and away more popular, by leaps and bounds. Again, the reading comprehension thing seems to be holding you back, but when you mention examples of science fiction, you only quote TV titles which is a tiny part of the body of work in the genre. Read some more maybe?

    And while you’re at it, go read my follow on post on the subject where I say there IS HOPE for a science fiction MMORPG.

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  48. Zazzy

    @Merlin4

    I agree the article could use more background. Try these books The entire Dune Saga, The Illuminatis! Trilogy, The Foundations series, 2001,2010,2061,3001, Caliban. That will give you good science fiction background and hit every genre of the field you could possibly aim at.

    @merlin4 If you never played Star Wars Galaxies then you can’t be that much of a Science Fiction nerd. I’m disregarding your post.

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  49. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Zazzy – Again, my argument is not that Science Fiction isn’t popular, but that Fantasy is so much more popular and has such solid gaming roots relative to Science Fiction that it is no surprise that we have so many successful Fantasy based MMOs relative to the crop of Science Fiction MMOs. D&D is the elephant in the room that influences all of these games. It limits what we get in fantasy and ruins a lot of science fiction potential because designers shoe-horn space into the D&D framework.

    As for background or research, hey this is a blog. I do this in my spare time.

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  50. Zazzy

    @Willhelm2451 – Seeing as Fantasy MMO’s were born from Fantasy Muds, which were born from Fantasy Novels, which were born from AD&D, which was born from Mythology. Yes Fantasy can trace it’s roots much farther back than Science Fiction. However, a Science Fiction game just hasn’t been done from the right material. Anarchy Online should be a template used to make a successful Sci-Fi MMO. I don’t feel SWG was a fantasy game with a Sci-Fi feel (there was space combat, guns, droids etc.) I feel as AO did a better job. The correct source material has never been used I.E. Dune, Foundation, Enders Game, Star Trek etc. No I don’t think a “ship” mmo will ever be that popular, you still have to follow what fantasy has laid out for you. But don’t tell me that people wouldn’t enjoy an everquest version of Dune. Because they would love it just as equally. It’s still Dune. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to make this work.

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  51. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Okay, I’ll bite. We’ll take your view that there need not be a different game paradigm for Science Fiction and SWG wasn’t just fantasy mechanics, as dictated by D&D, with Star Wars window dressing. (Contradictory though these two assumptions are.)

    So why isn’t SWG a huge success? It is arguably the most popular science fiction setting in the last 30 years, but it couldn’t surpass EverQuest with a freshly minted background story? And don’t get me started on the WoW comparison. How could anything beat a Star Wars franchise MMO?

    Because strapping SciFi onto the D&D->MUD->EQ paradigm, which is what SWG did, is a mistake. The market has born that out quite clearly. (SWG, AO, MxO all failed that way.)

    So to say “Well, you just haven’t used the right IP for the game” is silly. Nothing you have mentioned is more popular than Star Wars. (Maybe Star Trek, but that is a tough call.)

    Dune? You keep bringing that up as your shining example. Except that the fan base is minuscule compared to Star Wars and probably getting smaller due to the will-sapping efforts of Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson. Sure, some people would love it, but not enough people to make it worth the effort to produce such a game even in a “just re-texture EverQuest” model.

    This whole discussion bloomed from the ongoing “Why are there so many fantasy MMOs” discussion. What are you saying is the reason? I am saying that science fiction needs a different game play paradigm from fantasy.

    You’ve said, despite the SWG elephant in the room, that it is the IP, that studios have not used the right source material. But I cringe at the thought of a Star Trek or Ender’s Game MMO run through the D&D paradigm.

    And in the end, the market is over-saturated with fantasy MMOs but science fictions MMOs are rare, and all the more so when we start talking about “successful” MMOs by any standard definition. Your claims cannot explain that away.

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  52. Zazzy

    Ok so since you never played SWG let me tell you why it failed and broke my heart. At some point it has nothing to do with IP, when a game is a failure because it’s mishandled. SWG was not a failure, at least not initially. At launch over a million copies sold and 700K were playing. (Before the days of WoW that was a large number.) Then Combat Upgrade One came and some people left, putting population areound 500K. At this point people were questioning Sonys methods. Then the NGE is released (new game enhancments), two weeks after a 50$ (Trials of Obi Wan) was released. The NGE changes the game completely, the entire game changes from a skill based system (Which in my mind is how Sci-Fi MMO’s should differ from Fantasy MMO’s.) to a class based system. The impliment First Person Shooter elements into the game. They bug 90% of content, destroy guild cities, destroy bank items… make jawa’s cry. Everything. Population goes from 500K to 50K… to the current estimate about 5K (mostly station access.). So there’s a difference between the right IP and killing a game. The reason I suggest the other IP is that it may not have a huge fan base but it would create new “different” games. That ultimately is what we’re searching for. The arguement was given that you need history, games etc. to be successful. So I suggest Dune. Dune has a large following, especially in the older gaming community. You do not need WoW numbers to sustain an MMO, even as a smaller company. Remember 30K players at 50$ is still 1.5 mill at 15$ a month that’s still 450,000$ per month. It’s a big money industry. Small games can survive as well.

    But yeah that’s why SWG failed, not because of IP. Believe me when Kotor 3 comes out and Bioware is handling it.. it won’t fail. Unless the game is terrible.

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  53. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    Yes, pissing off the fan base is a bad thing and will kill a game. Bad SOE. Tear another strip off Smed’s hide.

    But if you’ve been following the NGE football, you’ve read the justifications for it, which is that SWG was floating around 300K (not 700K) subscriptions, which put it at 70% of EQ’s subs at the time. That spelled out “fail” for execs at SOE because Star Wars is huge. More people love Star Wars than will ever even know what EverQuest is. So they went to fix that and managed chop a third of their subscriptions in short order. No win.

    But given the potential user base, it wasn’t viewed as a win in any case, or they wouldn’t have tried to fix it.

    I played SWG post-NGE, but not for a long time. It felt grindy and dull and unexciting. There were some interesting things in the game, but not enough to keep me with it. You have to want to be in a Star Wars MMO to play SWG in my opinion. If RP is you thing, it is probably okay still, but for a fun time gaming I had a of better choices.

    And to a certain extent, I agree with you, that new IPs would be good. Where we diverge is that IP is the only key, that making EverQuest with Dune graphics would somehow be a fulfilling game.

    And I agree as well that smaller games can be good. (Though 450K a month sounds like a lot, that doesn’t buy a lot of infrastructure. Plus you need the people to run it plus people to keep coding. You can make it work, but you need to plan for it from day 1.)

    In fact, my hope is that some small studio will have a leap of intuition and come up with a paradigm that really works for science fiction to the extent that we all go, “Wow, why didn’t I see that before?” and ends up getting cloned all over the place. Because that sort of change is never going to come from SOE, EA, Turbine, or even Cryptic.

    KOTOR is coming yes, and BioWare has a good rep in the past, but EA owns them now. It will be a good game I bet, but will it be THE game, call it the EverQuest of SciFi MMOs that spawns a hundred imitations? EA is generally too conservative to make those sorts of games.

    But that is the game that science fiction needs for MMOs. The game that spawns clones, not one that is a clone.

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  54. Merlin4

    Yeah, marketing and business decisions have a large effect on any MMO. The main reasons why WoW is popular atm are:

    – marketing
    – its simple by comparison to many other mmos
    – there are already lots of players (the more players you have, the easier it is to atract more players)

    One important thing you have to realize with Scfi is that the Millenials generation was born with TVs and many of them grew up watching Star Trek. The Millenials also don’t spend nearly as much time reading as previous generations did. So this means that the internet and TV have a much larger effect on the upcoming/current generation gamers than books do. In the next generation we’re seeing the addition of social networking into pop culture. Sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook will have a major effect on the upcoming gamers. I won’t be suprised if social networking sites to some degree, play the role that MUDs did in for the fantasy MMO.

    Still theres nothing wrong with the ideas of IP distribution, skill trees, and levels that are taken from the fantasy MMO to appear in a sci-fi MMO. They still work! While AO has its faults in regard to PvP and lack of single-player gameplay it is overall a very good Scifi MMO. But the major reason why AO is not popular is simply because it is complicated.

    As far as D&D goes, clearly you have never researched the d20-modern system. D&D actually invented a system for making Scifi D&D games!

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  55. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Merlin4

    If you’re going to start the “Why WoW is popular” thing, please go create your own blog. There are 100 reasons why it popular. More. You could post one each weekday and have a thriving, active, if argumentative blog in a few weeks.

    But you are clearly making assumptions. When I say the D&D legacy, I am talking about all the facets that make the game, most of which existed long before the d20 system came about. (I could devote a post to why I don’t really like d20 for SciFi RPGs.) But what I mean when I talk about the legacy of D&D is concepts like classes, skills, hit points, armor class, spells, levels, races, innates, and all the other stuff that makes up D&D, whether you are talking about d20 or THAC0.

    All of that can work for science fiction. But if merely working were good enough, my first edition AD&D books would still be current. The system in them worked as well.

    And I am not saying you can never use any of those things, but if they get used exactly as they did in D&D, you’re on the wrong track.

    It is my opinion that science fiction forced into that D&D framework feels like… D&D. That doesn’t bother me too much in RPGs, but in an MMO where there is no GM to fudge rolls or move things along for the sake of role play and fun it feels very wrong.

    The classic bad example for me was from MxO where I was fighting a guy with an M-16 using a knife. And I killed him. I think I have screen shots somewhere from this. He would shoot me, point blank, and I would only lose a few hit points when I should have been dead on the ground. And it wasn’t like I was dodging. I was losing hit points, so he was hitting me. The whole scene would have made sense in a fantasy setting with armor and the like, but in a modern alley where I was wearing a shirt it was silly beyond belief.

    And that sounds extreme, but it isn’t far removed from things I saw all through that game as well as in SWG and other games that have tried to force the D&D mentality onto science fiction.

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  56. bluelinebasher

    SWG was one of the most disappointing MMOs I had ever tried. Maybe expectations were too high on my part. Everything seemed tedious in it, from crafting and combat to being healed.

    A bastardized Dune in EA hands may not be a bad thing — considering 3 families instantly make for Mythic to crank out Space Mids vs Space Hibs vs Space Albs in Space DAoC, all fighting in one sandy frontier because the spice must flow.

    Battlestar Galactica and V coming back are good signs that sci-fi is not dead. Star Trek had a great flick come out. Transformers MMO? I would have loved to see a Privateer/Wing Commander universe MMO myself.

    But really there’s no difference between them all other than just what skin/setting you wish to look at. Interdictors and Logistics in Eve are crowd control Bards and healing Druids everywhere else in fantasyland, right?

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  57. Merlin4

    Yeah, well try Wolf Team :P. Yes, its not an rpg, its an fps. But alot of the same mechanics in it would work well as an rpg.

    One issue with the conversion, is that the d&d universe made melee classes a vital part of the system. The Tank and DD components of the holy trinity are often melee classes. Basicly within the fantasy genre melee classes generally have higher hp and defenses than ranged classes which balances their need to actually get next to their oponent before hitting them. To deal with melee in the scifi realm you either have to make the melee class also be an alien race or monster (such as a werewolf in wolf team). Or you have to toss melee out the window (like Tabula Rasa did for most part, although there still was one or two melee classes).

    I think that when people figure out how to make the holy trinity and melee classes work in a believable way, then we’ll see alot more success in the Scifi genre.

    PS: I think the battle system in a good scifi mmo really will have fps elements rather than the tbs elements that are inherent to final fantasy, d&d, etc. It just works better in the scifi context.

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  58. Cas

    “With that setup, you get a series of unsatisfactory games when you are looking for a science fiction MMORPG. You have EVE Online, which is more a mass space flight/space trader sim than a role playing game…”

    Um, excuse me but I really need to throw a correction in here.

    There is a (somewhat underground) RP community that exists in EvE that would probable be annoyed at the above comment. Putting that aside however you miss the biggest RP part of the game by a long shot. That being the null (.0) space empire building of the major alliances in the game!

    In no other game (et. all) can a clan/alliance/group make such huge changes on a game world like you can in EvE … none. If you can actually affect others in a game, dictate to them where they can go, or what they can access, then in essence you are RP’ing EMPIRES not just a simple character in a vast pixel waste land.

    That’s one of the main problems when it comes to talking about EvE, they just don’t get the scale of what they are looking at. Oh sure there are the empire huggers that cling to the “safer” area but the real action, for those with the guts and time, is out in the wilds.

    EvE is a trading, production, mining, fighting, empire building MMORPG. It has out lived many and out performs most and whether you like to RP as a pirate, or a trader, or a corporate mogul, or a troubleshooter, or a fleet admiral, or an empire leader, it’s all there and full of RP goodness. You just have to see the bigger picture. :D

    Peace.

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  59. Wilhelm2451 Post author

    @Cas: Sure, you can also role play in Yahoo chat, but that doesn’t make Yahoo chat a role playing game.

    As big and as fun as 0.0 is purported to be (though CCP reports only a tiny percentage of people actually ever get there) is it really a role playing game, or is it just ourselves in internet spaceships?

    EVE is undoubtedly a success at what it does, and I have quite enjoyed my time playing it over the last three years, but there isn’t a lot of story to go with the spaceship mechanics. It does not really encourage role play and so you do not end up with much.

    That you have found a happy role play environment within EVE is great. But that doesn’t make the game a rich role play environment.

    I’m still waiting for the SciFi MMORPG with more story.

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  60. basilherb

    The MMO that could be a huge success is the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, if it’s anything like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 1 or 2 on the Xbox (both made by BioWare) potential WoW killer for sure. The backstories and plots from those two games was delivered in great detail, really in depth for console games, I found the history from the games like the info about the founding of the Sith Lords etc and the wars and great battles past quite fascinating. Another example of a potential MMO would be Mass Effect, not the largest fan following, but if it could deliver the same polish as an MMO reincarnated then I have no doubt it would reach the heights of other fantasy MMORPG’s. In my opinion its all about the plots, graphics and gameplay, Mass Effect 1+2 (soon to be a third) provides a great platform for an MMO although a game of this calibre would require a monumental amount of work to keep it afloat, but as it is BioWare (yes BioWare are the best ;P) are in control of both series of games I’m sure they would do a great job. halo maybe in a third-person perspective is almost worth a shot as it could well bring in huge numbers, with Microsoft anything is possible or an MMORPGFPS haha, ya never know millions love first person shooters, particularly Halo the possibilities are there for the sci-fi MMORPG’s

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  61. Minorfreak

    I loved Traveller, especially Digest Group Publications…I lost interest in GDW pathetic products when they started to ‘diversify’ (aka try to be GURPs) and GDW collapsed because of really bad art, bad writing, bad core rules, and the way they destroyed the above company.
    So, no, GDW was a horrible company by the end and deserved to collapse.

    Love the comments, btw. great blog

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