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?