May 10th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

What, Is There Some Law of MMOs I Don't Know?

Is there some law of nature, or religious rule, or something that says that every massively multiplayer online science fiction roleplaying game has to have magic or psionics in it? And that if it doesn't, sooner or later it will? And that once it does, it will take over the game?

Anarchy Online: AO was once a breath of fresh air for me, something that wasn't yet another knock-off of a tabletop roleplaying game that I was bored with by the mid 1980s. The premise involved two factions in the very far future fighting for control of a colony world where programmable nanites made up big chunks of the very sand being blown around in the air. Sure, the results looked uncomfortably magical, but the premise was straightforward hard SF. Then came the first expansion set, Shadowlands, where we find out that we're really in a fantasy game, that it's all about angels versus demons and heaven versus hell, and that's why this natural supply of nanites exists - magic. Gah.

Neocron: Classic "Judge Dredd" like backstory. Hundreds of years after an ecosystem-smashing fusion bomb war, the survivors of mankind are clustered in 3 very dense, protected megacities. Cyberpunk freelancers hire themselves out to the corporations that rule those megacities, to battle for control over abandoned ultratech factories and abandoned research facilities and sectors in cyberspace. And, apparently because of this law that you have to have magic users in an online SF game, as an after-thought they included a race of mutant psychics. Who, frankly, took over the game; they're so over-powered that that's almost all anybody plays. And apparently the game's designers are OK with this, because they've done nothing useful about it despite it being like this for almost two years. Apparently deep down they always wanted it to be a game about post-apocalyptic wizards, not cyborgs. Gah.

Star Wars: Galaxies: Setting aside the fact that the Force is fundamental to the plotline, it's worth remembering that during the time period when the game takes place, lots of people either don't believe in the Force or think it's over-rated. Also keep in mind that Ralph Koster promised us that being or even seeing a Jedi would be a very, very rare occurrence. We player characters were going to be plain old science fiction characters, in 99.9% of the cases. But no, every Mary Sue wannabe insisted on playing a Jedi, and among the many things gone wrong with the game I gather is that something like a quarter or a sixth of the remaining couple of thousand players are spell-casting wizards of one kind or another. Gah.

City of Heroes: Sure, it's comic books, but the basic premise was pseudo-scientific. An alien ultra-tech artifact has been leaching off and storing human abilities (yes, including magic) in the form of energy for thousands of years, and has been opened releasing it all at once. And according to the premise, there's no reason why human training, ultratech equipment, psionics, sudden genetic mutation, or magic should be any more powerful than any of the others. But as the game has expanded, one villain faction has come to dominate what must be almost half of the storyline, the Circle of Thorns. Which means that no matter how much you'd rather stick to the hard-SF ultratech side of the game, you're going to end up spending a third to half of your time fighting against wizards in flowing robes, summoning ghosts and throwing spells. Gah.

So while taking a brief break from testing the next release of City of Heroes, I went to glance at the web sites for two new SF games coming out, both designed by the team that designed City of Heroes/Villains so I'm at least predisposed to assume that they understand character customization and world building: Auto Assault and Tabula Rasa. And what do I find, when I go looking at the character classes?

Auto Assault: Humanity is beginning to retake the surface after the planet was bombed into oblivion by aliens; 3 factions use fast, light armored vehicles to duke it out over the choice terrain and valuable ruins. Except that one of those three factions, the mutants, basically read like "orc shamans." They even look Horde. And while they do drive cars, most of their special abilities are powered by magic, or near enough. Gah.

Tabula Rasa: A distant human colony is under attack by a xenophobic alien race determined to wipe out all sentient species but their own; you play human marines trying to repel them. OK, cool. Oh, wait -- all of the character classes are also psychics, and are expected to master at least one kind of psionic "spell" in addition to the various tech weapons. Gah.

Can I get some science fiction in my science fiction, please? I realize that D&D ripoffs make up 79% of the MMO audience, but does that mean there can't be any place for those of us who don't want to play D&D?

Oh, well. Level 28 and rising (after about 72 hours of play since Tuesday of last week) on my thugs/poison mastermind on the City of Villains test server; I now have all six minions and a single-target hold, which should make some of the harder parts of the game a lot easier. At this rate, I should easily hit 32 and get the fully upgraded thugs by this weekend; surely they won't lock down the code base this week even if they have already pre-downloaded the graphics files to everybody's PCs in anticipation of when it goes live. They better not go live any time soon; I'm averaging about one bug report per hour. Anyway, off to bed, and then back to the grind tomorrow.