Fantasy/Sci-Fi MMO Steelcage Deathmatch

04 Aug

Summer doldrums being what they are and idle minds being the devil’s workshop, it was inevitable that someone would start the now never-more-relevant discussion of Fantasy vs. Sci-fi genre MMOs. The topics been around a while, but since Wilhelm launched it in his Why So Much Fantasy?, I thought I’d pipe up. Wil didn’t really set up Fantasy v. Sci-Fi, but other than Chore Wars, there’s not much else…

Stating the obvious, science fiction is just that: Science, though Fictional. It approaches the fictional world with a fundamentally reductionist view. The sci-fi universe is governed by laws of physics (though we may not understand them and/or occasionally bend them to tell a story) and as such is fundamentally grounded in a scientific, observable understandable reality. Not to say that wonderous things do not occur or that individuals don’t have wonderous powers, but if they do, they have to be plausible and explainable to the audience.

Fundamentally then, the universe in a Sci-Fi world is explainable as a logical extension of our current knowledge. What makes science fiction compelling is its very plausibility. Kirk and Spock, Luke and Leia, even Dave and Hal were basically relatively ordinary characters in a very different but otherwise quite ordinary future world. The promise of science fiction is that a wonderous and nearly magical future world can be created by the application of ordinary rules of physics and clever technologists.

Fantasy, on the other hand, offers precisely the opposite. There are no preconceived notions of the ordinary nor any obligation to adhere to apparent logical extensions of our real world norms. The fantasy universe really is wide open. It need not be plausible or explanable (at least not in the way that science fiction needs to be an extension of our current knowledge).

That makes designing games (or telling stories) in these universe quite different. To be equally immersive, each genre has quite a different set of tasks to accomplish IMHO. Without the constraints that are placed on the sci-fi genre, fantasy has an easier time of telling a story and quickly and completely involving the player in it. Fantasy universes are fundamentally character driven.

Magic can be mysterious. Technology as applied knowledge by definition cannot be. No one needs to know how palantir are made, what powers them, how they are controlled and communicate with each other, etc. But we damn sure better have a good explanation (or at least a complicated one) as to how warp drive works or we’ll call bullshit on the author or game devs.

Science fiction is more hamstrung by is necessary connection to our universe. Its only through increasingly complex technologies and infrastructures that the “magic” can occur. The character almost plays a secondary role to the technology depicted. IMHO, this decentralization of the character (vis-a-vis technology) in sci-fi genre games causes some alienation. Likewise the complexity of the highly technological universe necessary to create its plausibility and hence immersion is also off-putting. Finally, for many players seeking an escape from the ordinary, science fiction’s essence as being reality-extended may just simply not be sufficiently different from our ordinary experience to capture hearts and minds like fantasy can.

Not everyone wants to have to learn how a watch works to tell time. Wilhelm’s recent series of Eve posts (and comments thereto) show exactly what I’m talking about.

Show of hands as to how many peeps use a microwave oven? Now, show of hands as to how many peeps out there can make a microwave oven? I think you get my point.  For the record, I use a microwave and think I might be able to make one with a buddy a couple of beers, some busted electronics and nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon (not that my wife would let me if she knew what we were doing).

So how to overcome these hurdles? Look at the most successful science fiction books, movies and tv shows and you’ll see all the elements you see in most successful fantasy books, movies, tv shows and MMOs: compelling character driven stories. Technology served as the backdrop in which to tell the story. Love them or hate them, successful fantasy MMOs have these story arcs written through them and players are able to weave their own stories around them.

Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, Firefly, etc. all had these elements yet almost none of the science fiction based MMOs have been able to deliver the goods. Its a bit ironic that the science fiction genre has had such greater commercial success in other media than fantasy (with the exception of the Lord of the Rings franchise).

Whither EQ2 or WoW of the science fiction MMO?


Posted by on August 4, 2007 in Uncategorized



9 responses to “Fantasy/Sci-Fi MMO Steelcage Deathmatch

  1. talyn328

    August 5, 2007 at 8:42 pm

    A huge issue for me is that everyone seems so “in the box” that sci-fi means flying around in space and hardcore technology. The Terminator movies are considered sci-fi, yet there’s no spaceships there, and little to no mention of uber-geeky techno-terminology. The Matrix is sci-fi with a bit of cyberpunk thrown in. Again, no spaceships (ok, hover ships that fly in sewers… more of a nod to the old Sewer Shark FMV game than spaceships) and no geek-speak. Neo has “magic” powers inside (and even outside) the Matrix itself. When you get right down to the nitty-gritty, what’s the difference between Neo using his techo/psionic powers to martial arts melee with super agents or a fantasy warrior using a skill/buff that temporarily increases his attack speed and damage output? Same concept, different graphics. Bullets and lasers are merely ranged attacks, just like arrows and spells. Star Wars didn’t usually get too overly technical with the geek-speak. Star Trek tended to, but in a more simplistic way that even the uninformed viewer could grasp with relative ease. The Enterprise could put up a force shield to protect itself (or another ship) for a limited time depending on how much power it had. A WoW priest can cast Power Word: Shield to accomplish the same thing.

    It’s all the same, just a matter of seeing and accepting that.

  2. p@tsh@t

    August 6, 2007 at 12:25 am

    Exactly! All the great sci-fi stories are just that: stories. I think there is great power and promise in the ability of a sci-fi setting to create more immersion because of its inherent ability for the audience/player to place themselves in that milieu. Much more easily than in fantasy actually IMHO.

    As you point out, the basic premise of extra human powers, whether “magical” or technological can’t be so overwhelming that players can’t identify. Thats whats so frustrating to me. To adapt to a fantasy universe, authors/devs need to create an entire “rule set” and teach that to players and apparently have done so to great success.

    Somehow, sci-fi game devs haven’t been able to do the same thing!

    If 8 million WoW players can figure out buffs, dots, aggro, etc., then why can’t sci-fi game devs do the same? From a functional game play perspective, like you, I don’t really see the difference. So why haven’t they?

  3. hallower

    August 6, 2007 at 7:25 pm

    I agree and I disagree.

    All types of stories and settings must deal with believeability. Fantasy may have more leeway than sci-fi, but both must at least hint at a foundation in a logical world. Hence, in good fantasy stories, there’s a consistency to the magical and fantastic. In LOTR, for example, the only magic-users are the angel-like or demi-god characters who belong to an age before humanity (Gandalf, Sarumon, Sauron) and elves, who represent something between humanity and what Gandalf is. If Aragorn suddenly cast a spell, readers would be griping that it can’t happen. As a fiction writer, I know how important believability can be in even the wildest stories.

    We associate fantasy with unreality mostly because we live in an era in which technological advances are everyday while “monsters” and spiritual explanations are considered things of the past (sci-fi is more about “future” than anything else).

    What is a monster, other than just a terrifying and mysterious animal? We don’t believe in monsters anymore only because technology has enabled stuff like global communication, global travel, and depthful study of most of the world’s creatures… so animals aren’t so mysterious anymore, and they’re not as dangerous to us anymore. The movie The Ghost and The Darkness is a good exploration of the difference between animals and monsters.

    Likewise, by itself, magic doesn’t represent unreality or a lack of physical laws. As a Catholic, I could offer quite consistent and depthful reasoning behind the nature of exorcisms, holy water, sacraments, prophecy, etc. Think of it as an alternate physics (set of laws explaining the world) based on a different set of assumptions. Billions of people still believe that the world contains spiritual elements and occurrences, but those elements just aren’t the focus of most modern socieities. They’re not left in the past, but they are associated with the past.

    Star Wars leaves as many things unquestioned as LOTR. Not many fans question (during the movie) warp speed, laser guns (what’s their power source?), communication between species (can you understand a dolphin?), how a giant worm can survive on an asteroid, or how R2-D2 can fit so many gadgets and so much energy in that dinky little tin can. And Star Wars has plenty of monsters.

    No, I think the two main differences between sci-fi and fantasy — and they aren’t hard, absolute difference; just general guidelines — are:
    (1) Past vs Future. Fantasy stories tend to have a fable-like quality, telling creation myths and exploring our past in other ways. Sci-fi’s about the possibilities the future holds for us.
    (2) Spiritual vs Technological. In a way, fantasy is more focused on a laws-driven reality than sci-fi. Sci-fi is more about what people can do with the world and make of it. Fantasy is more about what the world is and how people respond to the objects and actions of the world they have little power over.

    I like mixes of both genres, but I lean more toward fantasy settings.

  4. talyn328

    August 6, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    If you say sci-fi is about future possibilities, and Star Wars is sci-fi, then why does each movie begin with *A long time ago* in a galaxy far, far away? Wouldn’t the Force be the equivalent of magic? It’s certainly spiritual.

    Of course there’s Rifts (yay) or Shadowrun (yuck) which combined fantasy and sci-fi into a single setting, but another interesting take on that concept were the Starshieldk (can’t believe I just linked Wikipedia *sigh*) novels from Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, where “quantum weather” affected the physics on various planets or parts of the universe. Sometimes magic was real, sometimes only technology functioned, sometimes it was a mixture. Their spaceships had both warp drives and magical crystal drives so they’d work no matter what type of quantum physics dominated the region they traveled.

  5. p@tsh@t

    August 6, 2007 at 8:45 pm

    Great comment Hallower. I like past/future spirtual/technological axes.

    I almost wanted to footnote Star Wars in the original post because of so many of the aspects you mention. Its really a great example of what I’m getting at: Its a great character driven story that incorporates a fable-like past and is fundamentally a morality play simply set in a “futuristic” alternate universe. The technology is incidental though the setting is key to make the myth compelling. Star Wars was wildly successful in the movies, etc. and modestly successful in the MMO space precisely because of these elements. [You can insert your own lengthy discussion regarding SWG here…].

    So why haven’t game developers been able to successfully recreate that same feeling that most fantasy games seem to evoke in players?

    Why aren’t we knee deep in Sci-Fi MMOs the way we are with Fantasy? (I think there are probably way more good science fiction writers out there than fantasy–forward flames to /dev/null).

    I’d love to see the Sci-Fi MMO game space garner the same attention (and development dollars) as fantasy. Particularly now that the MMO market has been validated by the success of games like EQ, EQ2 and WoW.

    Eve is a great game, but it is not a terribly accessible game. Not in the way WoW, EQ2 or LotRO is. Who’s developing that 1 million+ subscriber game?

  6. Wilhelm2451

    August 6, 2007 at 9:31 pm

    “Star Wars leaves as many things unquestioned as LOTR. Not many fans question (during the movie) warp speed…”

    Yes and no on that Hallower. I remember the great “Kessel Run” brouhaha, where Lucas used “parsec” like a measurement of speed rather than distance. Then he had to back fill with an elaborate description of how space travel in the Star Wars universe is must avoid stellar objects so that straight line travel is impossible, thus a measure of travel efficiency is actual linear distance travelled. Even Star Wars, as light on description as it is, managed to step off the path.

    In most games we are willing to suspend our disbelief so long as an internal constituency is followed. It is easier, in my mind, to maintain that consistency with swords and sorcery than it is with hard science fiction. There are too many physics majors out there eager to prove, for example, that Ringworld is unstable and needs attitude jets to maintain its position.

    But I get that at which you are digging and agree otherwise.

  7. hallower

    August 7, 2007 at 2:36 am

    I’ve always thought of Star Wars as a mix of sci-fi and fantasy.

    For one, there’s the occasional focus on monsters and wilderness. Second, as Talyn points out, it’s set “long ago”. Lucas wrote the story after reading a theory about a common structure among mythologies, and Star Wars is really a kind of myth. You could use mythology to explain future events, but myths are more often an allegorical way of explaining the past and present. And Star Wars falls more into the fantasy pattern I mentioned of characters responding to adventure, rather than shaping it.

    Anyway, I agree that the success of Star Wars lies mainly in its focus on characters and personal growth.

    Eve Online is pretty cool, though I haven’t logged into my free trial much. It’s a little slow for me. Maybe Tabula Rasa will surprise me, but the only sci-fi games that really have me excited right now are non-MMOs: Mass Effect and Too Human.

  8. p@tsh@t

    August 7, 2007 at 6:07 am

    I’m not too encouraged by what I’ve heard about Tabula Rasa so far, though that is admittedly slim. Maybe my bias, but when I hear “FPS” my eyes glaze over. Not that there’s anything wrong with the genre, god knows I’ve played enough and enjoyed it thoroughly, but I’m afraid it wont feel like a true MMO.

    I am looking forward to STO and hope to see it in my lifetime. Perpetual seems to be taking their sweet time.

    While Star Wars had that mythic quality to it (call it SF/Fantasy mixed, i agree), Star Trek definitely was more on the “future” side of the scale but not so far on the “technical” side of your spiritual/technical continuum, rather our heroes ended up exploring their own natures when juxtaposed against those of an alien society. To me, that’s a bit more of a spiritual exploration of the human condition rather than spending half an episode on what exactly a Jeffries Tube is. Not the same as Luke in the Swamp, but still human in nature rather than technological.

    Somehow, this exploration of the human condition nearly always involved Kirk getting to know the ladies for some reason. Stewart should have hired Shatner’s agent…

    Regardless, the ensemble cast of interesting archetypes (with necessary interdependencies) made for broad parallel story telling over time. Seems that’s exactly the recipe for a successful MMO. Likewise, I think Firefly has the same potential as would BG or even SG.

    While I think players in MMOs need to feel the promise of Lake Wobegon (where all players are above average), an MMO based on an IP that is focused too much on an elite may fail for want of either creating a compelling hero (read: above average) experience or for failing to provide the elite experience. This may be where SWG and LotRO are most vulnerable. There weren’t a lot of Jedi but everyone wanted to be one. Nor were there armies of Istari, but everyone wants to be Gandalf.

    This is where IPs like Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica or Firefly (or something fashioned in their ilk) could truly excel. Every noob Star Fleet officer could become (or at least dream of becoming) a Kirk or Picard or Janeway, Sisco or Archer (or for that matter a Khan or Chang or Borg Queen or…) and because there were many captains and admirals (not just a few Princesses or Jedi Knights) the canon can be preserved.

  9. sterroneous

    August 7, 2007 at 6:51 am

    Could it be that the lack of a pop-SF MMO is at least partially a function of the influence table-top RPGs appeared to have over heart of the MMO industry?

    My impression is that Dungeons and Dragons still has an enormous mind-share, closely followed by things like the World of Darkness setting. Sci-fi role-playing environments seem to have a lesser following. Is that simple momentum on the part of the DandD juggernaut? Perhaps, though the relatively quick rise of dark horror tabletop games suggests otherwise. Perhaps we should be asking “Where are all the dark, personal horror MMOs?”

    I suspect current-gen game mechanics may also play a part. SF-friendly gamers coming into MMOs are probably accustomed to first person shooters, and the twitch-based fast-paced high-damage world that often comes with them. Despite all the beautiful lore in the current MMOs, their primary focus of minute-to-minute activity still seems to be kill-ten-rats. In a science-fictional combat world, killing is easy and damage is item-focussed. A thirty second knife standing sword fight with wandering scoundrel can be credible. To be “credible” a confrontation between two characters equipped with impersonal gun-type weapons should end quickly and messily, unless we provide a prop such as gun-kata or the Matrix’s beyond-the-surreal moves or extend the action.

    Tabula Rasa appears to have attempt some remedies for this issue but it verdict on whether they are innovative additions to the MMO toolbox or uncomfortable compromises that please no-one seems mixed. Providing immersive character-based science-fiction combat while avoiding twitch-based game mechanics is, I suggest, a difficult problem. EVE-O dodges the issue by sticking with space ships, and making no pretense that frigates are anything but crunchy…


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