World of Shameless Magic

Most MMO players would probably agree the best MMOs they ever played during their gaming career had the full “package”; that ominous word all of us understand and nobody can explain (well). MMOs are different from other games not just due to aspects like character identification, development or longterm dedication – they’re also virtual worlds and simulations, which means above all they need a coherent theme and setting, they need a past, present and future which are also realized through narrative. That doesn’t even brush the pandora’s box that is gameplay yet. When Angry Joe claims the most important aspect of any game is gameplay, he is probably right – but for that to even matter MMOs especially need to best so many hurdles first and do so many things right in terms of package, it’s unreal. Frankly, it is a miracle there’s even a handful of MMOs out there right now that people love and keep playing for years!

I think theme is one of those things that gets overlooked or at least underestimated in some MMO debates. When Tobold talks about how innovation is “not enough”, I fully agree with him – just like I agree with Kemwer that it’s no MMO player’s “duty” to support (= pay for) games he doesn’t actually enjoy, just to make a statement pro innovation. That is a ludicrous (and risky) idea; why would I support something that doesn’t even appeal to me personally? Whenever I refer to the refreshing aspects of GW2 for example and all the ways it’s innovative, I am actually talking about innovations I enjoy. Innovations that to me are worth supporting, to drive the genre forward. First and foremost though, I am looking to play good games – innovation is a bonus and (just) a part of that whole MMO package. Or in other words, as commented in Kemwer’s thread (and edited for typos ahem) –

“If there’s a thing we know about suc­cess­ful MMOs then it’s that they need to have the full pack­age; pol­ish and a wide appeal. only THEN can we also start talk­ing about inno­va­tion, the way WoW took a con­cept and improved on it — and the way GW2 does too. but for that to even be appre­ci­ated by a wider audi­ence, they need to do an awful lot of things right first. and they actu­ally need to know which things must NOT be inno­vated on in order not to alien­ate your audi­ence entirely! it’s a very tricky line to thread.”

So…what role does overall theme/setting actually play in package? While Tobold dismissed this aspect rather quickly by making fun of “don’t bother innovating too much or giving us anything other than swords, elves and dragons”, I think that point in particular warrants further thought. Can we really dismiss that TSW serves the more niche horror or “goth” theme in regards to its current playerbase troubles? I say no. At the very least it plays an equal role as other popular concerns, such as the gameplay formula, looks or lack of polish…in fact, I would go further than that.

The unlimited fantasy formula

If we turn back the clock to consider all MMOs that there went ever since Ultima Online, the common denominator of almost every game with wide appeal is fantasy setting. A world of classic sword & sorcery – a world of magic. Yes, I know about City of Heroes, Fallen Earth or Eve Online; I would argue that superheroes are awfully close to mages and paladins though and that to some extent fallout and sci-fi themes still share many aspects of fantastic journeys. That said, Eve is the only MMO of the non-fantasy lot that can claim anything resembling “wide appeal”. On the other side stand MMO giant WoW, Rift, Aion and Guild Wars – and a not inconsiderable amount of players invested in anything between LotRO to DDO to the FFs. There is plenty to choose from in fantasy games!

Why is that though? Are developers just scared to seriously attempt non-fantasy MMOs since y’know, “UO and EQ started it all and let’s not risk it” – or is it the absence of players in games like CoH or Fallen Earth confirming what most of them suspected all along? And if the majority of the MMO playerbase indeed wants fantasy settings – is there any point / need in going for different?

There are several reasons why I think the classic fantasy formula works so well and why it IS risky to attempt innovation in this particular corner. MMOs are already a niche to begin with, so any developer would need to consider if breaking down that audience further is actually the sensible thing to do. Especially if you cannot also provide a very polished package. But let’s look at some pro fantasy points:

1. Not just “elves and dragons”
To state that fantasy is basically limitless is well duuhhh…but the fantasy genre is actually huge and almost all MMOs borrow from a much wider palette than just sword&sorcery tradition. Fantasy encompasses everything from fairytales to folklore, mythology, medieval history (Age of Conan is a fantasy MMO that actually keeps a focus on the world of humans), ghost stories, steampunk….you name it. Strictly speaking everything that isn’t a reality simulation could be included, certainly science fiction and horror do too. However, let’s stay on the more romantic and magical side of things for now and consider that scope alone. It’s vast – and unlike creating a “pirate MMO” or “zombie MMO”, it isn’t nearly as thematically restricted. There is diversity enough to actually create an entire world out of it, a world with a past, present and future that players like to explore and dwell in for longer. Which brings me to point 2.

2. Where would you rather build your home?
Whether the game literally allows you to or not, MMOs are about building a second home for yourself / your character – or that’s how it used to be. Despite some doomsaying concerning “casual MMOs” in this context, I believe an awful lot of MMO players are still looking for that immersive experience, that virtual world they consider a home – or at least a cosy and familiar place to return to, to relax and unwind. Developers certainly want to create this appeal in order to keep a longterm playerbase around. So, let’s put this to the test: all MMO players who feel like pitching tent longterm in one of the following sceneries, please raise your hands –

(Click image to enlarge)

…No? I thought so.
Yeah, I’m being intentionally dramatic with these image choices; yet, TSW is certainly no charming, frivolous or particularly relaxing world. In fact there’s a lot of grimdark to be found and just how much of that will you serve yourself with the frequency MMOs are “supposed” to be played? It was really a comment by Bhagpuss that drove this point home for me:

We cancelled both out TSW accounts yesterday[…] In both “reasons for leaving” forms we included the unremittingly bleak, depressing settings and subject matter. There’s nowhere near enough conspiracy and far too much horror. It was sold as “everything is true” but it turned out to be “everything is much worse than you ever imagined”.

I love the quality of the writing and the wonderful detail and art direction and I don’t actively dislike the setting, but all horror all the time is just wearing and not much fun in the long run. Needs a lot more light to go with all that shade.”

Dark and gritty themes work well for single, shorter session gameplay; it’s why zombie shooters are popular or taking in that one hour fright dosage in Amnesia. In fact horror games can be a lot of fun like that. But to dwell in such an atmosphere all the time? No thanks!

3) Kicking magic ass is awesome
Not much to explain here; humanity has been obsessed with and certainly entertained by the idea of inexplicable magical forces, abilities and powers since forever. Marvel superhero or fire spec mage – we love to dream of otherworldly powers (rather than just physics and mundane technology), committing heroic deeds and conquering vicious foes with our sword of awesomeness. Or else what’s the goddamn point??

4) Fantasy Fans, Geeks, Gamers
There is a very fluent line between people calling themselves geeks, fantasy fans and gamers in that demography I personally familiarize with. I would take all such labels with a pinch of salt but it’s no big revelation than many MMO players are also fantasy fans who read fantasy books, collect artbooks or love fantasy movies. My personal experience proves that many (not all) of them do – and if you ever run a forum poll on “which one of you has seen the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy more than once…extended?”, I predict the outcome would be exponentially higher in an MMO forum than let’s say a FPS or errr…tennis forum. Just sayin’. Players impact on genre and genre impacts on players.

…All in all rather strong arguments pro fantasy setting in MMOs. Even if it weren’t any of the above though, there still gotta be some very good other reasons why developers think the fantasy formula so safe. “It’s just lazyness” is insufficient an explanation. There’s an obvious, assumed risk so one must ask about its origins. Why do not more developers bother to go all out and create a polished, full package, non-fantasy MMO? Speculations welcome.

The fantasy in Guild Wars 2

To end on a GW2 note and live up to my current tune, Spinks recently reported how “it’s been awhile since I played a fantasy game that wasn’t afraid to be magical.” This didn’t occur to me at first, so dazzling and colorful, warm and welcoming are the vistas and general atmosphere of Tyria. The world is so soaked in magic that you take it for granted and while it’s not all srs bzns, it doesn’t compromise and relent on that point.

Tyria is the kind of world where I can go to be a magical hero. It’s the kind of world where I want to build myself a home under that old yew tree, next to a murmuring river bend. A place to rest this adventurer’s tired old bones for a good while. A place that never gets old.

Myself  shamelessly magical in GW2

18 comments

    1. Hmmm, trick question? ;)
      Cutesy wootsey for me. Asura on the other hand would definitely qualify as more horror – they remind me of gremlins.

  1. A popular parlor game in our house is “if you could move to somewhere in an MMO world and live there full-time, where would it be?”. I tend to vacillate between Khal (Vanguard) and Freeport (EQ2). I like big, Mediterranean-style port cities, what can I say? There are several other contenders (Lion’s Arch and Divinity’s Reach not least among them) but as you rightly point out, nowhere in TSW is going to make the top 100.

    Whether that’s a reasonable way to judge an MMO I’m not sure, but it’s a big factor for me.

    1. I’m not sure being reasonable is required to justify what we enjoy. :) or if that’s even a thing. the home question is really a wonderful topic I should revisit more fully sometime.

  2. I think one reason fantasy is so popular is the power of myth. We want to go on a hero’s journey. We want to slay dragons. We want to be the person the entire world depends on, and who comes through and delivers, not just a tiny cog in a vast soulless machine. Not everyone in the world feels that way… but frankly the ones who don’t, don’t play games either.

    Now you don’t have to be in a fantasy world – you can have a hero in just about any setting. But fantasy is MADE for heroes. It’s based on the stuff of our oldest legends, it’s a setting that posits heroes with the ability to perform amazing deeds, and it has ACTUAL dragons to slay, not just metaphorical ones.

    Guild Wars 2 supports that beautifully. The personal story combined with your exploring and other adventures constitutes a hero’s journey. You start out, travel to wondruous places and see amazing things, and come back with the power and wisdom to defeat the big bad dragon.

    1. Folklore tradition, but also classic fairytales and cultural legends definitely have much to do with our romanticized ideas of heroism. I like to refer to myself as having been ‘grown and fed by fairy tales’ as a child which has left me with such vivid imagination and a utterly hopeless longing for those worlds beyond. :)

      I agree GW2 supports the “hero’s journey” theme very well. although I’ve yet to go slay the really big dragons…I can’t wait.

  3. Hm. A pretty good post with a topic that really makes me want to ramble on and on about fantasy, themes and gameplay. But if I did it right now it would be pretty incoherent and probably deviating a lot from your post. I will have to think about it a bit more, try to organize my thoughts and write about it somewhere else.

    Just one note, about a horror MMORPG I am not quite sure it can’t work. It would definitely be a niche MMORPG for sure. This might be me just theorycrafting though since the closest thing that I have to time spent on a horror MMORPG would be 30 minutes in the last beta in the Secret World. I was so underwhelmed by everything (even though I already had low expectations to begin with) that I just couldn’t play more than that.

    As where I would like to make my home in, it would be in Divinity’s Reach or Hoelbrak in Guild Wars 2 or Ul’dah in Final Fantasy XIV. Not simply because they are beautiful but because they are each thematically interesting. :)

    1. Mmm…FF14. I think I’d go there if it wasn’t for GW2 right now. I loved some of the locations and music in FFXI. I guess Bastok and Mhaura would’ve been favorites of mine back then.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly that TSW is too grimdark to spend too much time in. I have never enjoyed horror books or movies, partly because I am not a particularly credulous person in terms of ghosts and slasher type serial killers. I have a hard suspending disbelief. I enjoy myself when playing TSW, but it’s a bit of an effort to start a session because of the grimdark. GW2 is bright and cheery (so far); easy to pop in, do a little this or that, and pop out if I need to, or stay for hours.

    I play both games and intend to continue.

    1. It’s not my genre either. that said, it is possible to lure me into other genres, I give almost any game a chance if there are other, really good selling points. in TSW too much was amiss to even put up with the horror theme.

      in that context one really interesting game to come and show us what can be done is Titan; an FPS MMO in a futuristic / post-apocalyptic(?) world is nowhere close to the current WoW playerbase. but Blizard WILL deliver polish and we’ll see how that turns out.

  5. I’ve never made it past the first 5 minutes of the Lord of the Rings movies without screaming at the screen and killing the DVD. Maybe because I first read the books before many of your readers were born.

    TSW suffered from a problem common to Call of Cthulhu games – it can’t be unremitting. The only successful games I ran in that system were mostly about role-play interactions with the NPC cohorts, investigation, and planning. The horror had to be handled as either short, sharp bursts or a slow, grinding build. Trying to make it constant led to one of two things happening:

    1) The players became inured and started to need bigger hits just to get a reaction.

    2) The players hit their tipping points and just stopped; it became too much and they stopped having fun.

    Obviously neither did much for campaign longevity.

    1. The most successful CoC games I ran were one shots or very short campaigns (partly due to characters losing sanity, partly due to players only enjoying that sort of thing in small amounts.) Vampire on the other hand was much easier to run for longer campaigns — you could put a lot of horror into it, but at its core it’s an urban fantasy/ power fantasy.

    2. Agreed. I value my Necronomicon, but I wouldn’t want to see Lovecraft go MMO. you can make a caricature out of horror figures, that certainly works, but a consistent world infused with serious horror weighs heavy on the mind.

  6. This rings very true from my perspective. I do love fantasy MMOs, even though I class myself as a fan of Star Wars and Star Trek neither can hold my gaming attention for long. I was never remotely interested in TSW because the real world has more than enough darkness already, I need something lighthearted for my gaming time.

    The ‘je ne sais quoi’, the thing that will keep me in GW2, is the magical nature of Tyria. It’s a world I would want to inhabit, that has wonders to find and explore.

    1. WoW used to be like this for me for a long time; sometimes I’d just log in to go sit in Elwynn forest for a while or travel around. it was soothing and relaxing and generally cheerful.
      GW2 has taken things up three notches from there, at the very least. Tyria is so amazing in looks, feel and details I couldn’t even say right now what my favorite zones are. :) I keep thinking I found it and then, lo and behold around that next corner….

  7. Mechanically speaking, too, Fantasy offers the game developers a whole lot of easy “outs” to problems of logic in the game world; it makes things easier for devs because they can gloss over all kinds of logical problems with the “it’s just magic!” explanation, which lets them make the player experience smoother and more fun without logical inconsistencies that would plague other genres.

    Death is an obvious example. In fantasy, you can handwave away character death and make resurrection magic just … exist. In science fiction, you have to come up with technology that allows it, and integrate that plausibly with the tech level in the rest of your setting. That really restricts settings away from low-tech — it’d be very hard to justify “rezzing” in a gritty post-apocalyptic setting, for instance, or in a cyberpunk game.

    1. A very good point. in a world where anything’s possible, it’s easier to deal with such game design questions. that also goes the other way around of course: even though fantasy is basically open like that, devs must create their own rules and limitations, for example for how magic “works”, what it’s limitations and cooldowns are etc.

      it isn’t easy to rationalize why magical characters can only do certain things and not others, or why/when/how their abilities are impacted on by external factors. even in fantasy literature there are different examples for how magic is being handled (for example anything D&D based has very clear regulations and progression rules for mages and mana).

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