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The Digital Continuum: Sci-Fi, Looking Back

Kyle Horner

Where are my friggin' virtual hover craft? Where are the energy swords and teleportation devices? I'm not talking about botched attempts and broken promises. I know that redemption is a possibility and that my childhood dreams could come to fruition. I'm also very sure that anyone who gives two tugs of a dead dog's -- well, anyone who cares about the sci-fi genre of MMOs knows a bit about most of the past attempts.

If you're going to make an MMO that focuses on the freedom of combat, trade and exploration in space well that's just peachy! However what you still have to remember is that a lot of us sci-fi nuts (and there are a lot of us) want more than just warp, mine, trade, dog-fight and repeat. Now I'm not knocking the types of players in EVE Online or the stick-jockeys playing Jumpgate and looking forward to its upcoming sequel. You see it's also not enough for many of us (or perhaps this is just me) to just focus on a sci-fi version of what we basically have with any standard fantasy MMO game. You have to include both space and land at launch to entice and possibly please me. Am I asking a lot of developers? I don't think I'm asking very much by current industry standards. So where do we start to get to this nirvana of sci-fi MMOs? Well, there are some good lessons to learn from the past and one game comes to mind specifically.

Earth and Beyond launched on September 24, 2002 to average reviews. One of Earth and Beyond's largest issues became content and its eventual updates. This was likely due to Westwood Studios being half the studio it was before the (first of many) Electronic Arts acquisition. Unfortunately for the die hard fans of E&B, the game servers were shutdown due to an ever-declining subscriber base. This was far before the time when WoW roamed the land and MMOs were major-ultra cash cows in the eyes of industry moguls. This was the time of EverQuest and industry moguls who only desired to create a standard cash cow.

Earth and Beyond
wasn't a terrible game; it just wasn't ever finished. It bothered all of us that three of the nine race classes were never even implemented. I never got to roll my Jenquai Seeker and that seriously pissed me off, considering I paid fifty bucks plus monthly fees to do so. The real reason Westwood didn't ever finish those last three classes was likely because the class system was flawed in the first place. When you split up each race into a fighter, trader and explorer and then do the same thing with the experience system you're setting yourself up for annoyed players. It was obvious what was going on here; artificial longevity, at least an attempt at such. No matter what class you were, each of these three experience bars were going to get filled. However, you could only excel at your chosen class experience, thus certain bars filled up more than others. Why confine players into a singular role when you could let them start out in one and work towards others at their leisure? Oh, I see. You want me to level three different characters, making the game content you already have last three times longer! Obviously I had some problems with the peculiar design aspects in E&B. My guess is that keeping the class system was easier than restructuring it into something better than what EverQuest already accomplished in its time.

Beyond the unfinished game content and standard design, what was contrastively good about Earth and Beyond was its character. Not just the NPCs or Megan (your personal digital assistant!) but every inch of the game oozed with its own sense of character. Granted, the art style wasn't for everyone and it definitely had its rough edges. (Yeah I'm looking at you; characters who ran awkwardly around those space stations.) One of my biggest problems was with combat, which had you parked like an old dodge dart in a moldy garage. Probably one of the first things I loved about EVE Online was that I could at least move around while I fought off space pirates.

What we can learn from Earth and Beyond is no matter what genre or IP your game may have, the devs have got to move their game design in some sort of genuinely interesting direction. Character is wonderful and all, but it isn't enough to just come up with some hobbled mess of a feature and call it good. Players will instantly recognize laziness and to them that shows lack of consideration. Sometimes a simple thing like character animations goes a lot further to please us than I think developers may realize. It can be taken further with tweaking of gameplay mechanics, that is to be sure. This does not mean we want another Star Wars Galaxies on our hands. Changes don't have to be so drastic that the people who bought your game for what it was will feel betrayed. A little bit of content love will go a long way if you're consistent about listening to the community at large.

An obvious thing to learn from Earth and Beyond is that you can't just throw in a few bare content updates and call it good. If games like WoW or CoX have shown us anything, it's that players expect dedication from developers if they want long term subscribers. One dev-rule I love about City of Heroes is that there are three content updates per year, every single year. The content updates always add enough meat into the game that existing players rejoice and run around like lunatics screaming "more hairz!" (Okay that's just me) While other inactive players return or a month or two out of interest.

Earth and Beyond shut down its servers on September 22, 2004. It's always sad to see an MMO without a home and its players thrust out into the cold world of the fleshy. Hopefully some of those players were able to find a new place to call their virtual home-space in EVE Online, yet there are many whom may have not. Next week I'll be looking into EVE Online, which has been perfectly happy with throwing out many MMO conventions while maintaining a few friendly components. Just how close is EVE Online to the sci-fi nirvana I so desperately seek? I guess you'll just have to come back and see!

Each week Kyle Horner writes The Digital Continuum; a look at the past, present and future of Massively Multiplayer Online Games!

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