Tenfold Hate

Lightsabers vs. Longswords
November 9, 2007, 11:31 pm
Filed under: Gaming, MMORPGs

Ugh, another fantasy MMORPG. I’m tired of orcs and elves. Give me sci-fi, the wild west, steampunk–anything.

And so gamers call for change. Or do we? If we are so tired of the fantasy genre, how do games like WoW, LoTRO, and EQ2 continue to rake in the big subscription numbers, leaving all competition in the dust? Planetside and SWG gasp for air in the soundless vacuum of space while only Eve seems to shake the inevitable curse that befalls virtually every non-fantasy MMORPG. Matrix Online anyone? I didn’t think so.

When I think fantasy, very specific images come to mind. Sorcerers in pointy hats. Loincloth-clad berserkers. Gallant knights suited up atop their steeds. From a conceptual world building perspective, all you have to do is take Medieval Europe, throw it in a blender, and pepper it with whatever comes to mind. Maybe gnomes. Maybe scaly, venom-spewing demons. Maybe buxom, scantily clad elven maidens to keep the hormone happy kids and chronically unlaid coming back. Science fiction, on the other hand, isn’t so simple.

What brand of sci-fi are we talking about here? Are we colonizing other planets? Are we survivors making our way across a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Cyberpunks? Members of a fallen utopia overrun by evildoers from another dimension? Science fiction MMOs force developers to throw away the cookie cutter and tread into the realm that venture capitalists hate the most. The realm of that which is untested–unproven.

Like the age old folklore it’s derived from, most elements of the fantasy genre are public domain in a sense, embedded in our consumer consciousness. The Tolkien Estate may have the hobbit market cornered, but halflings and hobgoblins are fair game. Conan Enterprises own the licensing rights to everyone’s favorite Cimmerian, but a barbarian by any other name is still a barbarian.

Let’s face it. It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to whip up an explanation for why the fair humans of Fantasyville have been at odds with the goblins since the dawn of recorded time. The goblins are green and scary and want to eat them. In science fiction, most of the whys? can’t be pulled out of Gandalf’s hat.

Sci-fi means different things to different people. Star Trek? Babylon 5? Blade Runner? Jules Verne? There’s not as many across-the-board genre standards to fill in creative gaps.

Fantasy done poorly is unoriginal at worst. For the most part, it uses proven archetypes and rehashed mythologies. Don’t get me wrong, well executed fantasy is…well…fantastic. I’m arguing that the flaws in a poorly executed sci-fi game fall much more heavily on the creative team’s shoulders. There’s no room for being derivative. And if you are being “derivative,” chances are you’re not tenderly borrowing from timeless legends passed down through the ages, you’re treading on the toes of some author or filmmaker who more likely than not, is still alive and kicking. It involves a heck of a lot more work to be good–a lot more creative risk. And with that comes a much larger chance of failure.

‘Hey, Mr. Game Designer, why is my avatar running around in a twenty-fifth century lacrosse helmet? Why are the eight-armed purple people eaters so dead set on vaporizing my little brother and reducing our space port to cinders?’ Developing a science fiction games means working outside the hundreds, perhaps centuries worth, of established conventions fantasy creators have to draw from.

I’m not accusing game designers of being lazy, uninspired twits by any stretch of the imagination. At the end of the day, it’s probably the way it is at any of our jobs. It’s generally the bigwigs, the financial backers and corporate higher-ups with a whole lot to lose who tend to be much more conservative when it comes to taking creative risks. And maybe even we as consumers are less willing to take a gamble on something totally unfamiliar. Perhaps we have a certain amount of apprehension about investing ourselves in a game world to which we can’t apply any preconceived notions.



As you somewhat brushed upon, the reason there aren’t many SF tropes as fantasy ones in today’s games is that the standard fantasy scenario is public domain, while the usual SF scenarios are copyrighted intellectual property that is expensive to acquire.

There aren’t a lot of public domain SF worlds. Jules Verne set his SF in his own time, mostly, as did HG Wells. The whole historical fairy tale milieu so widely used as the basis to fantasy, has no mirror in science fiction.

Another: while fantasy stands still, in the past, SF is always about the future. SF worlds of the past largely seem silly today — the Galactic Empire of Golden Age SF is pointlessly outdated these days (even though Lucas set Star Wars in it as a nod back to the Golden Age).

The SF worlds I would love to see set into an MMO — Gene Wolfe’s “New Sun”, Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” — are hampered by being part of copyrighted IP.

Until SF stories are as much a part of our culture as fantasy, and SF IP begins to fall from copyright, we’ll continue seeing a heavy emphasis on fantasy in MMOs.

Comment by tipa

Yeah, Tipa. Another interesting case study on this general topic is CoH/CoV. The superhero genre conjures up pretty specific images, maybe even moreso than fantasy: men (and women) in tights with extraordinary abilities, masked street thugs, and supervillains with diabolical plots waiting to be foiled. A pretty foolproof formula that one would imagine is translated pretty easily into MMORPG terms.

But then ZAP! POW! we had Marvel suing Cryptic for copyright infringement. I never followed the specifics of the case, but is it Cryptic’s fault that a player created a character called “Spiderish-Man” or “The Incredible Bulk?” Is Cryptic at fault for giving a subscriber the tools to create characters that might step on the toes of someone else’s IP?

Comment by tenfoldhate

Cryptic included things like retractable claws that were *obviously* inspired by Wolverine, etc. They took the most popular heroes and put all that together, plus even more, to make their character generator.

*Naturally* Marvel got mad. And they lost, because Cryptic didn’t, in the end, infringe anything themselves. Giving you the alphabet doesn’t mean you will write Hamlet. Though you could, it’s not my problem.

However, that’s an excellent point — superhero comics are so incredibly generic that their elements — big city, costumed heroes facing costumed villains and the notion that the common people need superpowered guardians reigning over them — have become as recognizable as fantasy.

But SF is still pretty interesting. I guess if I had to, I’d go with the Golden Age Galactic Empire (commonly, and anachronistically, seen these days in Star Wars and Star Trek; modern SF has mostly done away with these tropes) — traffic between worlds easy, quick and common, worlds have single cultures and environments, blasters, robots and AIs and bizarre methods of personal transportation… well, it’s been tried with Star Wars Galaxies, but maybe it’s time to mix it up with Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and the Second Foundation and make a base generic enough to build a game upon.

Comment by tipa

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