Chaos is King

I am going to sail dangerously close to the dread topic “Why So Much Fantasy?” when it comes to MMORPGs.

That was not really my purpose when I started thinking about this, but somehow I ended up there.

As I see it, one of the key requirements for an MMORPG is a viable, believable, independent role for the individual. Every individual.

Essentially, the game must support chaos.

It must support a mass of players running around and doing whatever they feel like and it must be believable.

Well, reasonably believable.

It just so happens that fantasy supports chaos very well. In World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online, and the like, chaos reigns, and it feels good. People do what they want to do. They group up, join guilds, or run around solo as they choose, doing quests if they want, bypassing the ones they don’t like, and generally being themselves within the world.

The fantasy genre views the world as chaotic and even stepping outside of the castle walls is something of a risk.

The problem is that as we move towards the modern age, chaos becomes less tolerable.

To get out there in a modern setting and, well, kill in the wholesale quantities that you do in Norrath or Azeroth, you pretty much have to join the military. Really, even crime isn’t going to get you there. Your typical mass murderer can’t hold a candle to somebody who played WoW up to level 5.

And once you join the military, you lose either chaos or believability, which means you lose the essence of your MMORPG.

I have never played World War II Online and I probably never will. It is probably a wonderful game, but to be true to the era, you cannot let players run around willy-nilly doing what they want. Yet, to have a viable game, you have to let players do just that. You cannot enforce military discipline and expect people to pay to play. So WWII Online holds no appeal for me and can never hold any appeal for me. I cannot abide the chaos in that context, yet I have no desire to submit to martial discipline in my game play.

Tabula Rasa lost me a bit there as well. The game is built around the war against the Bane, and you are a trooper therein. But if you don’t want to follow orders, well… your character does not advance I suppose… but nobody stands you up against the wall and has you shot for disobeying orders in the face of the enemy.

And so it is, the chaos of the middle ages, the lawlessness that made life “short, brutish, and nasty,” the very thing which we built modern society to protect us from, is that which makes an MMORPG play fun.

And so extending the MMORPG genre to the present and into the future, the future where one can imagine the rule of law strengthened and the homogenization of society and culture increased, proves a challenge. You have to put players some place beyond the iron grip of society. You have to recapture that chaos in a modern setting.

Auto Assault went post-apocalyptic to create freedom of action for the individual; society fell so that you could blow things up at will.

The Matrix Online chose the red pill, the pill that showed you that what you believe is an illusion and that chaos in that context is okay.

EVE Online put you out in space run by capitalism in the extreme, where chaos is just another market opportunity!

So, added on to all of the past discussion, I see one of the reasons for the prevalence of fantasy in MMORPGs is that fantasy does not require the creation of a context where chaos is acceptable. Fantasy is full of trolls, orcs, and dragons. Chaos is the default, and you jumping into the fray to fight it (or stir it up) is, as far as high concepts go, a slam dunk.

Fantasy represents the past from which we escaped, the “good ol’ days” which only look good in hindsight.

Science fiction is the future. The future is supposed to be a better place. After all, if the future isn’t going to be better, why would we go there? (Yeah, like we have a choice, but still.)

So to make a science fiction based MMORPG, a team not only has to come up with the premise, but has to set up what amounts to a layer of extraction from our expectations of the future to allow chaos to run free.

Basically, fantasy gets chaos for free. Science fiction has to work for it.

5 thoughts on “Chaos is King

  1. michael, St Erroneous

    Interesting point. A credible low-tech setting does not require heavy urbanisation or a long and stable supply-chain. A credible high-tech setting requires both of these, somewhere (off-planet) or somewhen (post-apocalypse).

    Consider a hypothetical cowboy/western MMO. This conforms to the high-tech model since, while there is credible lawlessness, the situation is economically dependant on an engine of urban civilisation off stage.

    That said, I don’t think (c|C)haos is the sole core of the issue. Scifi authors are adept at putting finding the worms in paradise and creating good reasons for conflict. It’s credible weapon ranges and the emotional response to close combat.

    Fantasy gets melee for free. Science fiction has to work for it.

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  2. martin

    in my opinion a believable and interesting scifi setting needs fluctuating micro states or societies, a kind of chaos that is not barbarism.

    the states compete for human brainpower using wealth, freedom, mindcontrol, war you name it. they have to offer something to you to make you flock to them.

    to make it work you must make anybody in the game, yes also the npcs, immortal. introduce somekind of mind backup system and cheap and fast cloning. this way murder and slaughter become an annoyance for the victim and he or she may sue you for the cost of a new clone body and some extra cash for the inconvenience caused.

    add some uplifted creatures as monsters (a sharks mind within a self replicating space ship body with lasers, missiles, kinetic weapons etc. searching for energy sources to feed maybe), some tech terrorist trying to borganize humans or some gen terrorist trying to do something evil.

    add a beyond-super-human-intelligent ai to guide players or to stop players from doing something dumb (like blowing up a continent with anti-matter bombs) or something similat.

    just make the scifi believable, orginal and interesting. at all cost avoid cheap tv scifi.

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  3. martin

    and for melee, why don’t you just upload your mind into a robot body that has a stealthy armor (no tracking from orbit) and such thick armor that the best way to kill you is to get close or throw a nuke at your head.

    this would also allow to introduce many different bodies for your characters (upload your mind into a fluff sized drone, a dog sized drone, a human, a bison sized combat robot, a spaceship).

    tell the devs they to stop watching scifi channel and just to read some scifi books (hugo, nebula, locus award winners or nominees).

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  4. Kieffer

    Any fontier/exploration/post-disaster setting (western/cowboy is one such) will work here. IMO that is where developers should look.

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  5. Openedge1

    I had noted in a blog post that maybe something is missing in Sci-Fi…and that is magic..
    No one seems to put that there…
    Sci-Fi calls for such strict guidelines to be playable…
    Magic represents that “Chaotic” you speak of also. For the forces of nature and equilibrium are shifted for magic to work…

    All I know is very little in the way of “success” happens to Sci-Fi MMO’s…and until the right formula is found (Earthrise? maybe?), Fantasy MMO’s will rule.

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