Thursday, October 30, 2008

Massively Multijedi Online RPG

Over two years ago I ranted about why "Babylon 5" was a bad choice for a MMOG. I haven't changed my mind on that. I am willing to alter my views on "Star Trek" which were implied in that article, but I'm not holding my breath.

And now BioWare announces that they're doing a MMOG based on their popular (wildly popular, I'd even say, based on a very informal survey of old gaming friends) Knights of the Old Republic line of computer RPGs. And I'm thinking this may be a good thing.

So what makes "Star Wars" a better property for MMOGing than "Babylon 5"? Unlike the other popular sci-fi franchises, "Star Wars" is unapologetically focused on swashbuckling action. Even Captain Kirk didn't fire up the phasers at the first sign of trouble. But everyone knows a wookie will gladly rip your arms off just for beating it at holographic chess. Firefights and ship battles were cool parts of both "Babylon 5" and "Star Trek" but they were also rare, and generally saved for the climactic episodes that book-ended a season. Such battles and action are close to the heart of "Star Wars". Heck, the animated "Clone Wars" shorts which aired on the Cartoon Network between the "Clone Wars" and "Revenge of the Sith" movies were little more than wall-to-wall action, a loving recreation of the sorts of things we all did with our action figures, way back when.

That all said, the action in the "Star Wars" movies was rarely pointless. This is a subtle but important point; part of why Sony's attempt at a "Star Wars" MMOG stumbled is because killing five minocs and bringing in their left wings doesn't feel like "Star Wars". And changing it to killing five stormtroopers and turning in their helmets doesn't help matters any. Gratuitous murder and pillage doesn't feel like "Star Wars", because the heroes of that franchise don't act like that. Whenever there's a fight, there's a point to it: rescuing the princess, or escaping Cloud City, or breaking into the deflector shield projection array. Killing droids or stormtroopers might need to happen, but it's never the point. In the same way that City of Heroes couldn't blatantly be about killing and looting, a "Star Wars" MMOG also has a fine line to walk between the competing expectations of their audience.

Which makes this promising:

“As an attempt to appeal to a broader and broader audience, consequence has left gaming,” said BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk to me after unveiling his MMO this week. “Everything is very low impact and there’s no real negative result that can occur. We’re going to start bringing that back but in a rational way, a way that doesn’t punish the player — but puts them on the spot.”

It'll be interesting to see how this is implimented. The honest truth is, there's a vocal cadre of gamers who squeal in agony when forced to endure anything less than a steady, if slow, improvement in all areas of their online persona. Consequences of any sort are just a lesser version of permanent death, and anything that alters your character irrevocably is to be avoided as unfun. And against that, we have the expectations of BioWare's fans, who enjoy making the tough choices in Mass Effect or pursuing the romantic options in Baldur's Gate.

I think this needle can be threaded, and I think the folks at BioWare are more likely than most to do it, with their reputation for integrating story so strongly in their games. The fact that it's so important to them and, more importantly, their fans means they can't just drop that aspect on the cutting-room floor as deadlines approach and release an almost-good-enough bantha hunting game.


Jack Badelaire said...

I'm not a MMO person, but this is an extremely good point. Star Wars isn't hack & slash D&D in space, and never should be. The usual WoW/UO/EQ paradigms should be abandoned, and the gameplay should, at least as one direction, be mostly quest-based (which I believe is kinda/sorta how City of Heroes handles it, like you said).

KotOR is a great game (Haven't played #2, but I'm guessing it's also great) because I think it captures the galaxy-trotting, fighting and intriguing nature of the SW universe extremely well. If someone can pull off a MMO that is at least somewhat comparable to KotOR, that will be a coup.

Nick Crayon said...

Love the article, especially the bit about consequence in gaming. A Star Wars MMO, done intelligently, could be the Next Big Thing.