Daily Archives: January 17, 2008

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?”