So in one of our infamous brainstorm sessions, we were sprouting MMO ideas, and one of them that came out is one that I’ve seen great examples of in other games – Star Citizen, EVE, The Repopulation, even Star Trek Online, but none of those quite had the hook we were thinking of. I thought this week I’d go ahead and just toss the idea open to the ether for someone to run with or ignore (my guess is that there are at least a dozen other people thinking along the same lines who have more programming expertise and, more importantly, money to pay programmers.) Our thought was something of a Star Trek mixed with Battlestar Galactica and Blade Runner - that drive for exploration, but with a real sense of danger in the universe. Space travel is not safe, but it is necessary. Necessary because earth is dying.
The Year is 3786 AD and the Earth is dying. War, starvation, global warming, predation of resources are enough to seal our fate. But, as if to rub it in, scientists just confirmed the sun is slowly and surely expanding. The expectation is it will not be long before we go extinct – we won’t live to see the Red Giant because we’ll have killed ourselves long before then; the days are numbered for the human species. But 50 years ago we found something. Conspiracy theorists whispered of a discovery by Mars 17 that was quickly hushed up along with whispers of alien artifacts. Shortly after the announcement of the Sun going Red, the Corporation unveiled a fleet of ships “capable of faster- than-light travel” along with a list of the most promising systems that could support human life. And they are recruiting scouts…
One of the things that first got me excited about my first Dungeons & Dragons character—my “magic-user” to use the old fogey term—was not simple combat magic. Sure, Magic Missiles were pretty darn cool, and you could generally take down an orc or two with them, but some of those early utility spells were pretty great. I remember reading those early spell descriptions out of the 1st ed. Players Handbook and thinking about creative ways they could be used. Remember Detect Magic and Knock? Levitation? How about Wizard’s Eye, the spell that allows you to see around corners or down the hall? Sleep was almost more powerful in its way than those early damage spells – you could possibly put a whole group of monsters to bed, and subsequently, death. Tenser’s Floating Disk for carrying your stuff? Spider Climb, which allowed you to skitter up walls temporarily, and Tongues, which allowed you to speak another language.
My brother Erik gave me a copy of the novel Ready Player One for my birthday back in June, and since it’s his birthday today, thought I would wish him happy birthday and thank him for that trip down memory lane. So much of our early days were spent in these fantasy worlds. I remember picking up copies of the super-sized Fantastic Four and The Hulk at the PX on the army base in Germany, and later moving on to Weird War and Sgt. Rock, Tales of Mystery, and Tales from the Crypt . Erik kept up with everything too, and made the great discovery of The X-Men (I think we were both in love with Jean Grey there for awhile) and The Micronauts when we had moved back to California. We started out, probably with Raggedy Andy and later The Magical Land of Noom books, but later of course on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and later, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and ultimately Dungeons & Dragons up through a good chunk of the Dragonlance series. We were both hooked in our own ways on these worlds, me more in the tabletop realm, and Erik taking to video games like a fish to water. It seems we were in great company, though, but books like Ready Player One, amazing in its own delving into video game lore, only scratched the surface of all the stuff we were interested in.
One of the givens in an MMORPG is that each player must choose a faction, usually right at character creation. In Warcraft, you are either part of the Horde or the Alliance. Alliance players are always human, dwarf or elves, and Horde players are always orcs, trolls, goblins, and so forth. This, of course, all dates back to Tolkien and a perhaps a dualistic view of the world that was made for a very convincing good guys/bad guys story. Gollum may have been the one character in those stories pulled in both directions, a study of the light and dark, Jekyll and Hyde.
If George R.R. Martin has done one thing for the fantasy genre in Game of Thrones, he has blown apart the trope. The “evil” Lannisters certainly have their more admirable members in Tyrion and Ser Mormont, and the “honorable” Starks certainly have their overly black and white view of the world in Ned, and of course many characters who are somewhere in-between. It’s a much more complicated world, which in many ways is very realistic and satisfying, but perhaps a bit less comforting. It’s good to know who the enemy is.
I was trading off playing between Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this week with a bit of The Secret World (TSW) and recalling many of the frequent comments from players lamenting that MMORPGs had become “too easy” and “too casual.” It’s an interesting assertion since these two games in particular have a very different feel as far as difficulty is concerned. LOTRO questing is in many ways similar to the World of Warcraft in that expeditions are on the “easy” side – it’s pretty straightforward taking down the bad guys or collecting relics on the beach or whatever the game asks of you; but the feel of the game is more calm and relaxing. There’s certainly a nice aspect that; causally exploring the countryside, taking in the view of distant ruins or mountains while hunting boar hides is a mode of questing that can be a nice reprieve, especially after a stressful day, or as a nice way to get rolling in the morning with a cup of java.
It’s been fun watching the EverQuest Next news and reactions at SOE this year; after several development reboots, Sony finally showed off the latest direction of the venerable MMO title. For those who are not completely up to speed where EverQuest (EQ) fits into MMORPG history, it was the big MMO on the block after Ultima Online, but before World of Warcraft (WoW). It was known as EverCrack in its early days due to the addicting lure of a vast world with lots of stuff to do in-game. Later days brought EverQuest 2, but that wilted before the might of WOW polish and popularity. EQ and EQ2 have hung in there quietly all these years, while WoW has gone on to become the MMO standard. But Sony has been working on this new version for awhile now, and last year they announced they were going back to the drawing board with the game, with SOE president John Smedley basically saying it was too much of the “same old, same old.” Sony wanted to do something revolutionary with the next version of EverQuest, not a simply polish of old engines and ideas.
With World of Warcraft adding an in-game store, or cash shop, one of last bastions of pure subscription MMORPGs is yielding to market forces and testing the micro-transaction model. There’s no indication that the WoW subscription is going away completely, but it seems today that the line between using in-game money and real money to purchase virtual items (cosmetics, potions, mounts) is becoming increasingly blurred. Purists complain that adding an in-game store breaks immersion in the game world, with filthy real-world lucre polluting and destabilizing the in-game marketplace not to mention adding dollars or pounds to silver or gold piece in-game currencies. But can the in-game store be made palatable, or even “immersive?”