July 29th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

Mythic's Jacobs: Successful SF MMOs are Basically Impossible

By now most of you know that the subject of why there are so few science fiction (as opposed to D&D-ripoff fantasy) massively multiplayer online games out there is near and dear to my heart. Mark Jacobs is the co-founder of Mythic Entertainment, the company that developed Dark Age of Camelot and that has the Warhammer Online roleplaying game in development right now, and he just gave an interview to the GamaSutra.com website. One of the things he said kicked off a small argument over on Slashdot.com, and I think what he said and one of the responses on Slashdot were interesting. He said:
"Fantasy is easier than sci-fi. Want to know why? It’s simple. A gun. What’s a gun, a gun is impersonal. A gun can shoot somebody from across the room. A gun in the future should be able to shoot a room from a mile away. Part of the challenge we found with Imperator is how do you make a combat system based on lasers and energy weapons, compelling to an RPG audience."
More-or-less in response, Slashdotter "SmallFurryCreature" wrote:
Think of the classic sword fights you see in the movies, now think of the classic gunfight eh fights you see in the movies. Notice a difference? The sword fights, last! They take time. The hero spots the opponent, closes, parries, thrusts, dodges and finally makes the kill.

The gunfight is far faster, spot, shoot, kill.

While in real life a hit with a broadsword is probably as much an instant kill as a bullet in the head, movies have made us believe that sword fights last minutes while gunfights are over in a matter of seconds.

Now take a look at the various MMORPG's games. Because of the general lack of AI or anything approaching tactics let alone strategy most fights are about wearing down the enemies hitpoints slowly in a prolonged duel. No instant kills allowed. It just doesn't fit in the gameplay.

SWG offcourse had guns and believe me that after years of movies and books and other star wars games it came as something of a shock to find that stormtroopers do not die instantly if you hit them with a blaster shot. Neither two, nor three, nor five.
Now, here's the funny thing. I've run tabletop roleplaying games in worlds that had guns in them, in which one-hit incapacitation is pretty likely if you do get hit and one-hit perma-kills are not impossible. And that, realistically speaking, is how guns ought to work in a game like this: no "wearing down" somebody's armor or hit points, guns don't do that. Over 2/3 of all handgun shots, even at point blank range, completely miss the target. But virtually everybody who gets hit falls down and is out of the fight for a span of time ranging from "long enough for the other person to get away" up to "until after several weeks in the hospital, and they won't be as spry and nimble afterward as they were before." In my tabletop games, I dealt with this via the simple exigency of making it almost never the right thing to do to fire a killing shot, and seldom the right thing to do to fire a weapon in the first place. I ran my game worlds so that unless both sides were equally prepared, the first person to show a weapon usually forced the other person to retreat. Now, I got a little negative feedback over this when I took it too far; as anybody in my old Mage: The Ascension campaign will tell you, I got reminded once rather vividly that if you don't let people take out their frustrations violently every so often, it comes out in other ways.

But imagine a science fiction roleplaying game, played online, where there were almost no places where you could draw a weapon without getting in big, big trouble. Where once a weapon was fired, it was a matter of seconds before the cops were going to arrive in force. Where once the cops arrived, you could in theory shoot your way out past them ... and then not be able to turn around for the rest of that character's life without being ambushed by cops. But if you only showed a weapon, or at most only fired a shot that incapacitated the other player briefly, and you only did it in relatively lawless areas or at least in front of few or no witnesses, the cops wouldn't have time to deal with it. Imagine a game where all of the player versus player (and most player versus non-player) conflict was about who out-organized whom, who out-thought whom, who out-planned whom, who out-spent whom, who out-researched whom, so that if two sides showed up to fight over something it'd be obvious pretty quick that to actually pull the triggers would be suicidal ... and wouldn't change the outcome. Sure, some people who just want to blaze away at things for 3 minutes until they fall down would find that too frustrating ... but are we sure it wouldn't find a big enough audience to pay back the development costs and pay the server operating costs?

Another of Jacobs' objections seems easily dismissable, to me. He points out that you don't have to explain to someone what a fantasy creature is, as long as you stick pretty close to D&D, but if you create science fiction aliens and animals you have to explain to people what they are before they know how to react to them. Feh. This is one of the things I think City of Heroes/Villains does right. In CoH and CoV, you very nearly always only fight other people, and people can be made as varied as your development budget permits, certainly more easily than customizing a bazillion fantasy creatures who are all different shaped and who all move differently.

I do agree with one of the things that Jacobs said about SF MMOs, though. "I think that some day someone’s going to get it right. Nobody has yet – nobody’s even come close to getting it right. But when they do, then I think you’re going to see big numbers come out of sci-fi."
Brad @ Burning Man

Thunder and Lightning

There's thunder overhead, as a few pop-up thundershowers are scattered across the former blackout zone in what I was calling Baghdad on the Mississippi. And I'll bet a lot of people who were never afraid of lightning before are shuddering to hear thunder right now. Why? Because while Ameren(ron) claims to have restored power to the last of the people who lost it because of the last two big storms, we all know that those repairs were done in a heck of a hurry, and that about half of the repairs were done by crews who weren't familiar with the local power grid. Right now, our power grid is being held together with bailing wire and duct tape, and we're just going to find out the hard way, the next couple of times it rains, how well that rush job is going to hold up.