23 July, 2007
Over in the thread about design, there was a really interesting question in a comment. I had written about science fiction as a setting for games, and someone asked a very interesting question.
Sorry if this is drifting back to already-explored territory, but I’m curious as to what exactly you consider to be the most crucial issues with designing an SF MMO…
I thought this was worthy of a full blog post. (Well, it was also almost too long too be “just” a comment, too. ;)
The mark of a good setting for an MMO is a detailed world. I one of the problems with SF, as you point out, is that the galaxy isn’t always that interesting of a place. It’s mostly empty, and the worlds are huge. Note that most SF, even the really good stuff, tends to gloss over the exact scale of things; for example, aliens tend to be a lot more homogeneous than humankind. Consider the fate of SWG, where they had to create whole planets when the movies only really covered a small section of each one. All that we saw beyond Mos Eisley was a bunch of sand dunes, and that kind of scenery gets boring quickly if you’re putting it all into the game. It was easy to gloss over large parts of the universe in Star Wars because it didn’t matter to the original story.
You have a whole other set of problems if you focus on hard SF instead of soft SF like space operas. In hard SF, the world tends to take a very secondary role to explaining the science behind the universe. This can be offputting, especially to non-scientific types. Note that when people point to SF being popular, they usually refer to soft SF.
Anyway, even the most cliché fantasy world has a lot of variety: the Black Caves of Darkness is different than the Black Castle of the Evil Black Knight. Or, to pull from LotR, Rivendell is very different Lothlórien, even though both are inhabited by pointy-eared vermin. …I mean elves.
Worse, most great SF stories tend to be very highly character-focused. To pick on SWG again, the big disappointment was that you played more ordinary people trudging along in the galaxy. The most common criticism of SWG when it first launched was that it was an “Aunt Beru simulator”, because you weren’t playing one of the swashbuckling heroes. But, someone’s gotta slog through the deserts of Tatooine and harvest the Kryat Dragon pearls.
The best you can hope for is to have a recognizable group that the main characters belong to. And, to kick again SWG while it’s down, consider the most popular protagonist characters from the original trilogy of movies: Luke/Obi-Wan and Han Solo. So, it should come as no surprise that people wanted to be Jedis and were always cranky when Smuggler never lived up to expectations. My idea for an SF MMO, Cowboy Bebop, has a recognizable group as well: bounty hunters, which are a surprisingly diverse group of people.
Again, look at fantasy; every character is an “adventurer”, a special class set apart from everyone else. Players can do things that other mere mortals cannot.
So, my two most crucial issues are:
- Limit your scope. A whole galaxy seems too empty. Even a whole planet is too huge, let alone multiple planets. Figure out how to make engaging locations for people to visit. People want some diversity.
- Find a category of people the players can belong to, especially in a licensed universe. This helps set the players apart from the commoners. It tells them why they’re special.
So, am I on the money? Or, are there other important things to consider?