… Starting tomorrow.)
Many of the blogs I read regularly — and a gazillion I’ve never heard of, for that matter — spend lots of time discussing what systems we’d like to see in games: complex crafting, turn(ish)-based combat, henchmen, mounts, two-headed avatar options, MMcMansions, all that. What we almost never talk about is artistic style, and we talk even less often about genre. We generally just tend to assume that the MMO standard is fantasy and that the MMOs that don’t quite cut it but are trying really hard to make their own little niche are sci-fi/horror-esque. (Plenty of fantasy MMO launches flop, but most people don’t ascribe said flop to that game’s genre.)
I doubt fantasy is going out of fashion anytime soon — not with so many lovely IPs to “re-create,” especially in this age of the Hollywood Remake, or am I being cynical? (Tangent: I wonder to what extent Hollywood affects MMO creation. Now, before you say “Pfft, not at all!” stop and think about how games are financed and who controls money and greenlights. I don’t actually know, I’m just wondering, but I bet there’s some correlation; MMO-money men probably know as much about MMOs as movie money-men know about what “the little people” want to see.) And, on the whole, I don’t mind (to quote Syp, I think), Yet Another Fantasy MMORPG — fantasy is ideal for standard archetype portrayal, I love dragons (and don’t see them nearly enough in games except as things with lots of hit points to be chopped up), the landscapes are usually wonderful to look and and escapist, &c. &c. &c. I could use a bit less of the holy trinity, but that’s for anther post.
So. Artistic style — that’s probably not the right term, but bear with me. By it I mean the general “look” of a game, and in MMOs these days that certainly includes the level of “realism” in the artwork. Oddly enough, while I thought I liked more realism better than less, I got a lot of uncanny valley experiences in Vanguard, EQ2 and, yes, WAR among others, where the character models were just this side of too weird yet too human (high elves, anyone?). I sort of expected LOTRO to do the same, but in fact their models somehow avoid that, and the landscapes in that game are definitely the best I’ve seen in any game, anywhere. Yes, even better than the Oblivion ones, which oddly enough didn’t really grab me; better than Vanguard’s, too, though occasionally it could be a close call. (But LOTRO has gorgeous landscapes at every turn of the road, while Vanguard only has them on *most* turns of the road. Some of the VG landscapes are pretty flat, and/or suffer from an excess of “brown and plasticky,” as do all the EQ2 ones I ever saw.)
On the other hand, too cartoony probably won’t hold me for long, or will start grating on me after a while — as with Wizard 101. Warcraft is okay for the time being. In fact, I’ve found myself appreciating the artistic style in WoW more than I did the first time around. Sure, there are some really really awful zones, mostly the ones where the basic colour is red and everything is flat (Badlands, Stonetalon, Hellfire Peninsula…), but there are some really stunning areas too, and they’re often closer to home than you’d think. Sure, it’s stylised, but that works okay for me. I only went to Northrend once, and didn’t go out of the starting area, but it seems to me that there have been quite a few improvements made there too; I look forward to seeing the rest of it. (My biggest gripe with WOW is how everyone, as always, looks exactly the same, whether it be physically or in what they’re wearing, but WoW is hardly the only — or indeed worst — offender in that area.)
Spellborn seems to have gone with a more stylised look, and it seems Studio 38’s code-name Copernicus will too. I suspect a little less realism is probably a lot less demanding, graphically, which is fine with me. I’m getting really, really tired of wonderful-looking games that I CAN’T RUN at those settings because my machine isn’t bleeding-edge enough to do it. Besides, bleeding-edge is code-speak for “crashes a lot” and I can do without that for a while too. What’s the use of “almost as good as the real thing!” if the only way *I* can run the damned game is when it looks like a more advanced version of Pong? So, yeah, give me slightly more stylised graphics that a) will stand the test of gfx-technology time, b) will run on Jane Average’s machine at near-max settings AT LAUNCH, and c) won’t make me too queasy when I look at the character models.
That’s my art demands over with, and it segues neatly into the genre thing I started with. I would love, really love to see a steampunk game come out one of these days. I have fond, though brief, memories of Castle Falkenstein and Space 1889 (they’re tabletop RPGs, links are for nostalgia’s sake) not to mention a few others. And, while many fantasy games are incorporating steampunk — it goes almost as well with dwarves as does ale, and I think it’s all gnomes can do, other than sit on lawns — having a steampunk side-theme isn’t quite the same as doing the full Steampunk-Monty. It wouldn’t even have to have dwarves. Really. In fact, steampunk doesn’t necessarily even require dwarves. And — don’t lynch me, but I have to speak my mind — I’m a little tired of dwarves. They are freaking everywhere, and they are identical everywhere! Gah! Pod-people have nothing on dwarves in fantasy games, lemme tell ya.
Another genre I’d love to see is another punk: cyberpunk. Whooshing through the datanet, assaulting data fortresses, getting your ass kicked and your brain turned to mush by evil black ice? Kewl. However, I also suspect — ironically enough — that cyberpunk is going to be one of the hardest genres ever to adapt to computers and especially MMOs. Reading about hacking and cyberspace is one thing, trying to actually make it fun in a game is quite another. Personally, I never thought the Matrix (the movie, I’ve never played the game) did it all that well either, though the cascading 1s and 0s have evidently become visual standard for “computer-y, probably virtual-reality-y” metaphors. In any case, for my younger –and therefore certainly smack-worthily philistinic — readers, I’m not talking about the Matrix, I’m talking about REAL cyberpunk — William Gibson and (though I like his stuff a great deal less, I’ll admit) Bruce Sterling. Go Google them.
The Neuromancer / Count Zero / Mona Lisa Overdrive trilogy blew my mind. I’d love to see an MMO like that, but I don’t think we will. And I’m not sure it would work with stylised graphics either. That would pretty much require the art to be as gritty, ugly and realistic as you can make it. Aside from all that I really believe that *playing* a hacker is likely to be a damned sight less fun than reading about them; and “grinding” your 80th data fortress with the same sequence of code is probably as much fun as killing that 1,000th rat. I just hope someone finds a way to go beyond the damned hack’n’slash 10 rats design and that I’m proved wrong before I’m too old to enjoy the resulting game.