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With friends like these: What sci-fi has, and doesn't have, going for it

Joe Blancato

Let's face it: The sci-fi MMOG space is pretty bleak. I want Star Wars: The Old Republic to set the world on fire as much as the next guy, but long and nefarious is the path to massively-multiplayer righteousness, and so far, no one's really gotten the futuristic thing right.

Over the 12 or so years that graphical MMOGs have been around, two could be considered a success: Anarchy Online, which recovered from a catastrophic launch; and EVE Online, whose launch was nearly as bad as AO's, but luckily no one was around to notice at the time. That's two games over more than a decade. Conversely, three of the original four fantasy MMOGs were successful: Ultima Online, which is still around; EverQuest, which engendered a sequel and is emulated today by World of Warcraft; and Asheron's Call, which also inspired a sequel. And nowadays, you can barely walk without stepping in some fantastic goop, be it WoW, EverQuest II, or Warhammer Online, to name just a few.

There's no doubt sci-fi has been the bastard genre of developers and fans alike. But why? Nerds are nerds. When you cut us, do we not bleed? When Han shoots, does he not shoot first? However, the reason developers haven't yet struck gold, and the reason we as players haven't flocked to sci-fi in droves, is due to two reasons: obscurity and complexity.

In Space, No One Can Hear You Design
Let me share some names with you; stop me when one elicits a guttural reaction from you, makes you react on a basic level. Neocron, Imperator, Jumpgate, Anarchy Online, Tabula Rasa ...

Nothing yet? That's OK; none of those names mean anything. Hell, Anarchy Online sounds like a Sex Pistols reunion album. Expecting players to jump into a new world, especially one that's going to demand years of their life, without a frame of reference immediately starts things off on the wrong foot. It expects too much of the prospective player to make a purchasing decision about a setting that could range from a time line 10 years from now to one millions of years in the future. Without a known entity, a preexisting brand, it's too easy to scare away potential customers.

In the fantasy space, you've got a bit more leeway. Our oldest stories are ones of magic users and other people with godlike powers, fighting giant monsters to protect the goodly people of The Village. Fantasy alone carries with it assumptions based in our own history, a romanticized version of the middle ages where knights were good guys and smart people with beards could cast spells.

Preconceived notions in sci-fi are far less cast in our collective memory. While stories that predict the future are surely as ancient as the myths describing the past, sci-fi itself didn't really ingrain itself into our culture until the 1800s, with H.G. Wells' stories and other writers at the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. It was at that point were were able to begin looking forward as a culture.

To make things murkier, sci-fi is farther reaching than fantasy typically is, because the majority of fantasy is rooted in some degree on Arthurian or Norse legend, and therefore exists in a past that must eventually make its way to our present. Sci-fi doesn't rely on that. We could play a future where humans just aren't around anymore, one where we've discovered other life forms in the universe and eradicated them, or one where we reached the end of the universe and touched God. Trying to explain that in two-word name is just asking for trouble, and may explain why a lot of early sci-fi MMOGs never built up much buzz, AO being the exception, but it was also the first of its kind.

That's No Moon, It's Just Confusing
Compounding the lack of specificity in setting is the tendency of sci-fi games to overwhelm players with skills and rule sets they initially don't understand and eventually don't need.

Take a look at the included screenshot of Anarchy Online's skill window (click for big). On just one tab are 10 skills, and there are nine more tabs to investigate. To a seasoned MMOG veteran, it's daunting to figure out; now, try explaining it to your sister. EVE Online's skill system is even more complex, and the interface requires the patience of a saint to figure out without the help of a Wiki. The problem is one of lineage and of style.

Most sci-fi MMOGs are based on really old tabletop games. AO drew heavily upon the Cyberpunk 2020 rule set, and Neocron pretty much was Cyberpunk in German clothing. CP2020 and its more fantastic cousin Shadowrun festooned players with skills from which to choose, the problem being a character of a given class only used a handful during its existence. So while a new Shadowrun player may be overwhelmed by the litany of skills before him, he's never far from a GM or skilled player to help him along. The Star Wars tabletop game was as confusing as pre-NGE Star Wars Galaxies, and bad news for Trekkies out there: The Star Trek dice-chucker was similarly challenging.

Stylistically, it's tempting for designers to throw everything at the player and let him sort it out. We love sci-fi because it's technical, and in lieu of a streamlined design that feels futuristic, why not shock the player into thinking he pulled a Rip Van Winkle in space? But we know R2D2 is an advanced machine without being privy to what all of his lights indicate. Our characters in games are a gestalt of what makes them up, and we don't need to know just how the sausage is made.

Fantasy games picked up on this quickly. Ultima Online gave you oodles of skills to play with, but by the time EverQuest rolled around two years later, the actual skills on which characters were based (and they were skill-based; try casting a level 60 shield spell with the Abjuration of a level 5 character) were hidden beneath levels and buried several layers into the interface. That obfuscation did two things: It made the early game a lot easier on new players, since a character's level was a good indicator of its power, and it gave advanced players an added level of depth to explore.

The simplification of character progression is a good metaphor for the rest of a game's design. If a game's got a lot of skills to use, chances are there's a lot of situations to encounter that rely upon each individual skill, which means there's a lot more to design, which means the game is going to be complex, which means the game is going to be hard to design. Down this path lies madness, and a lot of games that don't make it out of their first year.

So how do we fix this problem? It's gonna take a designer with some cojones to abandon history and set off on his own. As much as the world loves to hate the NGE in Star Wars Galaxies, it wasn't a horrendous step forward. A lot of the animosity coming from SWG players was due to the fact the designers didn't bother to, you know, save a copy before overwriting the file, so to speak. Skills got removed, classes got nuked, and what was an open world Star Wars simulator became very much an action-adventure game with persistent characters. The fact it wasn't a stupendous action-adventure game didn't help, but the first fish to grow legs and walk on land probably wasn't an olympic-caliber sprinter, either.

Bold New Games And Player Bases
Game design is an iterative, evolutionary process; that someone tried to slim down a sci-fi MMOG is a revolutionary start. It'd be tough to imagine SWTOR as complex as EVE or AO, which may mean it's iterative enough to be a success. As a sci-fi fan, the idea is exciting. For too long have designers and players been imprisoned by esoteric, nondescript worlds and complexity for complexity's sake. Once someone, anyone, breaks us free of the old ways, our future may be as bright the one so many authors see when they close their eyes and dream.

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