The Soapbox: The inevitable Mass Effect MMO

Mass Effect - The Normandy (SR1)

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I don't know about you, but I've yet to play Mass Effect 3. This is not by choice, mind you, and now that I've returned from the wilds of last week's GDC, it's time to settle in for another 30-hour tour with Shepard and company.

What does this have to do with MMOs? Well, nothing really, except that BioWare hasn't exactly closed the door on a Mass Effect title. On the contrary, the company's dynamic doctor duo have hinted at the fact that this, ahem, theoretical game would need to be somewhat different from the firm's maiden MMO voyage.

At this point I think an ME MMO is inevitable, so join me after the cut to discuss whether BioWare can really break the mold with its second effort as well as what that effort could look like.

Mass Effect - Shepard, Kaiden, and Ashley

First off, why would this potential game need to be different from Star Wars: The Old Republic? After all, TOR has apparently nailed down second place in the subscription MMO hierarchy, and BioWare considers its 1.7 million paying customers a huge success even if forum flamers do not.

Why not replicate the entire thing for a Mass Effect game, then, and pave a few more driveways with gold? For one, an ME MMO "would lend itself to a different type of gameplay," according to Greg Zeschuk. Presumably he meant a different type of gameplay than SWTOR's, which despite the considerable number of story cutscenes is the same-old same-old when it comes to MMO mechanics and design.

Statements like Zeschuk's are music to the ears of those of us who are fans of BioWare but not fans of SWTOR, and Ray Muzyka offered an even more appetizing nugget in that same article. "You have to capture what [the players] think is the possibility space," he said. "You need to let them do everything they think they should do, and you can't block them from doing anything they think they should be able to do. You have to nail all the features and content that should be in that possibility space."

Yes, "possibility space" is cringe-worthy marketing-speak, but Muzyka nonetheless raises a very interesting point. The "possibility space" in an MMORPG is quite a bit larger than what BioWare has shown us with SWTOR. A lot of people like the game, which is great, but in reality it is a very predictable, safe, and ultimately unambitious take on MMORPGs. The world and its NPCs are lifeless, the PvP is an abject disaster, and the much-hyped story elements amount to talking-head cutscenes (and any first-day creative writing student can tell you that exposition is best delivered by showing something happening as opposed to making people sit around talking about something that happened).

Mass Effect 2 - Shepard and Tali

But will BioWare actually go in a different direction if it comes to a Mass Effect MMO?

The counter-argument is a strong one, of course. Like Cryptic, BioWare could probably take its SWTOR sub-structure and crank out a similar story-driven themepark in a relatively short amount of time. Replace force powers with biotics and Twi'leks with Asari and rake in the profit, right?

I'm not so sure. On its most basic level, Mass Effect is little more than an adult version of Star Wars, and I very much doubt the market will support two sci-fi MMOs of identical design and similar backstories.

On a personal level, I'm completely in love with the Mass Effect IP, and I'd hate to see it go down the road traveled by Star Wars over the past decade. "Bloated and bland" doesn't even begin to describe a galaxy, far, far away, whereas ME is big enough to accommodate thousands of MMO players yet small enough to feel fun and familiar. Crucially, Mass Effect hasn't shark-jumped its way onto Sesame Street as of yet, and while it has its share of pulp moments, it's mercifully still geared toward 20- and 30-something consumers.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that for BioWare to make a successful Mass Effect MMO, it will need to step outside its comfort zone.

Mass Effect 2 - Jack

And I know what you're thinking: Oh look, here's Jef with another pro-sandbox, anti-themepark soapbox. That's partly true; I would dearly love to be an Uncle Owen in the Mass Effect universe, but ultimately I'm more interested to see whether BioWare -- one of my favorite studios from way back -- can recapture some of the magic that made it one of my favorite studios. The firm built its reputation on Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights (the latter of which had what was unequivocally the best set of AAA player-generated content tools I've ever seen). They were so good, in fact, that persistent-world NWN shards are still around to this day, 11 years after the game shipped.

Since then, BioWare has cranked out cutscene-driven epics with increasing regularity, and while most of them have been highly enjoyable, I'd like to see the studio put its considerable resources toward something that nudges the MMO genre in a new direction. Yeah guys, we know you can write savior-of-the-galaxy narratives 'til the cows come home, and we know you can animate slick vignettes with tons of snappy dialogue (as long as its not in Shyriiwook). Can you build a virtual world, though?

Can you resist the urge to cut every single feature that doesn't have to do with grind or cinematics, and can you thereby make a game that doesn't feel repetitive within an hour of character creation? Can you admit that spending bazillions of dollars on voiceover isn't so much innovative as it is gimmicky, and can you admit that that approach takes precious budget dollars away from actual gameplay?

Can you relinquish a tiny bit of control to your creative fans and provide them with the tools to tell their own stories? Most of us are going to buy the Mass Effect MMO regardless. You know it, and we know it. However you choose to approach the design of the game, your payday is the closest thing to a guarantee that there is in the game industry.

Knowing this, why not strike a blow for originality and remind everyone of how and why you achieved your lofty perch in the first place?

Mass Effect 2 - Garrus

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!