Has an MMO ever made you afraid? Have you ever been truly scared of what might happen next, of what might be round the next corner?
I love the Stratholme and Scholomance instances in World of Warcraft. The former is a ravaged, ruined city, home to hordes of the Undead Scourge, and a small but fanatical cult of insane ex-Paladins. The buildings which line the street are smashed and burned; they lean at precarious angles, with fire still licking hungrily at their walls – what few remaining signs there are outside the houses remind you that people once lived here, before Prince Arthas Menthil slaughtered them.
The Scholomance instance is a sprawling journey through the catacombs of a dark castle in the middle of a dead, poisoned lake – a place given over to the instruction and Necromancy and the Dark Arts. It's based on an old Transylvanian folk tale, and features the spirits of dead servants of the previous masters of the castle, tortured to death by the sadistic scholars within. As you run through its corridors and vaults, you come across the remains of people, perhaps innocents used as fodder for lessons, perhaps students executed as examples.
Both instances are two of my favourite in the entire game. Given the opportunity, I'll still run through them now. Not only are they technically well designed, but the lore behind them is excellent, hinting at the fate that befalls the innocents in WoW, the peons, farmers and sundry other NPCs we barely glance at.
But for all that I enjoy Stratholme and Scholomance immensely; neither instance is even remotely scary. God knows, there's plenty of material there to work with – legions of the undead, worm-ridden catacombs and crypts haunted by vengeful spirits and crumbling under the weight of ages; impressive yes, but not in the least bit terrifying to play.
H.P. Lovecraft wrote that, "The oldest and strongest emotion of Mankind is fear" and I think that a good dose of fear would do the world of good to the genre. It's been years since I was a teenager, inching my way down the corridors of the Raccoon City Police HQ, terrified of what I'd find around the corner, completely forgetting that I was actually sitting on my bed, playing the PlayStation. I don't mean to compare modern MMO design with that of an 10-year old survival horror game, but my point is that games can make you scared, they can poke the part of your brain that makes you want to run away and hide, so why don't they?
Maybe it's due in part to the lack of fear of death. In a genre where death may mean as little a quick corpse run followed by a minute or two of eating and buffing, how is it possible to make people scared of what's round the corner? Everyone (hopefully) has a healthy degree of caution when they're facing a mob or a boss that they're unfamiliar with, but that's not really the same thing, is it? And you can't have insta-death waiting round every corner otherwise you'll rapidly find your game haemorrhaging players.
Exanimus is a game that I'm watching with great interest just now – a zombie horror MMO that's still in development; I'm hoping that it will be able to convey a good sense of fear to players, as opposed to the usual sense of simply wanting to avoid the afore-mentioned corpse run. I'm glad to see developers willing to step away from the usual fantasy settings we see in the genre, and attempt something that will hopefully, be scary, rather than just gory.
There may be technical solutions to this emotional problem – restricting viewpoints; withholding information on the surroundings, on the monsters you're likely to face; lore that hints at the horrors lurking in the depths, without giving away too much info – the easiest way to spoil a horror movie is to show the audience the monster too early, after all.
Fool the players – have mobs appear out of nowhere, throw down a few heavy attacks, then fade away to nothing, have your players on edge, trying to guess where the next attack is going to come from. Keep them wrong-footed by leading them down dead-ends or switchbacks; maybe have the environment dynamically change around them so they're really don't know what to expect next. I'd imagine this method might be particularly difficult, from a technical point of view – you may have to have instances generated randomly or on the fly.
I'm no programmer, but I can see that being tough to code in the first place, and tough on system resources on both the client and server sides. Dynamically generated content is, by its very nature, going to be a nightmare to try and balance, but that could be part of the appeal – just because you flew through an instance once might be no guarantee that you'll do the same next time.
Assuming you could find a solution to that problem, you may still find yourself faced with the problem of atmosphere. I could see the biggest problem with this kind of thing being the atmosphere. There are plenty of crap horror movies out there and only a few truly scary ones. Some of them are scary because of a character or characters, others scary because of the way they're shot and presented, while some are scary because of the atmosphere they generate. Others choose to sacrifice actual fear in favour of cheap shocks and gore.
I wonder if we'll see more MMO developers willing to try and give players a good old fashioned scare in the future? Personally, I'm looking forward to the day that I'm playing an MMO that makes me want to run away and hide behind the couch.