(Preface: I see how it is. It is now my mission to create such dense content, you guys won’t know what to say! Take that, Pete!

… 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.)

aeternal_shattrathOn 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.

metropolis_smallThat’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.

19 thoughts on “Chugga-chugga-whoosh-whoosh

  1. We don’t need a cyberpunk MMO… we just need cyberpunk to become REAL!!


    I’m also not a fan of dwarves, so at least you aren’t alone with that. When/where/how did it get decided that dwarves have Scottish accents, anyway?

    Fantasy is pretty easy, since you can bend all the rules so easily and call it “magic” and having 3/4s of the populace walking around armed to the teeth seems ‘normal.’

    I’d like to see a kind of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen MMO, but I have no idea how you’d make it work.

  2. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to chase down this premium-defaulter. After that, if you do really well, we’ll send you after someone who FAKED A CLAIM!!! Bring a group.

    I read that post of yours, too. I wonder if it festered in my brain till today. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. Now I feel like a plagiarist! /flagellate self

  3. I’d love to see them make an attempt at a cyberpunk MMO with the Shadowrun IP (just without all that unnecessary magic and meta-human races).

  4. @xochine — Could you start with something like the CoD4 system, extend it into the future a bit to get your huge robots, and make it massive, I wonder? The game already has classes and all that.

    On the other hand, then we’re really close to Planetside, and that didn’t exactly hit it big. But then, it launched a long time ago — maybe the world wasn’t ready.

    Or maybe the pure PvP aspects were what hurt Planetside. I remember it being long periods of dull looking for a good fight, followed by a few seconds of really intense combat.

  5. @ Pete hehehehe, waaaaay ahead of ya on the signup. Firefox told me so — “You beat that silly pasmith to the signup! You rock! Flex for the camera!” *flex*

    I find it amusing that it’s still called a “fantasy” world, but I guess if you start throwing around words like steampunk you’ll probably scare Joe Warcraft away even more. And, technically, it is a fantasy world, since everything that isn’t “real-world” gets called that nowadays. But wait, doesn’t that make romance novels fantasy too? 😛

  6. I’ve long thought that steampunk would be a great setting. I’m definitely looking forward to Gatheryn. (NeoSteam didn’t do it for me.)

    Regarding art style, I’m an artist in the game industry by trade, but I blog a lot about game design. That’s intentional. While I’d love to flail away at the digital canvas and slap together some gorgeous concept art and design bibles, if the game itself isn’t any fun, there’s no point in making it pretty.

    Tell you what, get our theoretical MMO design wiki put together, work up an interesting Steampunk MMO game concept, and I’ll see about constructing an art side to it.

    I’ve been meaning to blog about what I actually DO for a living for a while now. This might be a good transition.

  7. As for cyberpunk, I think the Lawnmower Man game that came out so many years ago, was awesome. It took hacking into account, and the progress through an actual computer system to chase a tangible antagonist that could become intangible. Pretty neat. Also pretty shitty looking compared to today’s games, but at the time it was awesome.

  8. Shadowrun and Cyberpunk were my 2 favorite PnP games. Would love to see them in the MMO space.

    Talking about stylized art, it would work perfectly in either of those genres.

    Fasa still own Shadowrun? God it has been so long!

  9. @ChrisF – you really think stylised would work in a cyberpunk setting? Maybe I’m thinking too narrowly; I’m having a hard time imagining it, but maybe that’s because I associate cyberpunk with “real world” — I guess that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be stylised!

    @Tesh — I’m fascinated by and deeply envious of people who work in the games industry (my closest brush was a stint at TSR-UK in the early 90s and believe me, it wasn’t game design). Sadly I have no coding or artistic talent, so I guess I’m screwed there! 😀 So yeah, I certainly would be interested to hear about what you do.

  10. Tron 2.0 was an interesting take on the whole “dude in a computer” bit. It was heavily stylized, and looked great as a result.

  11. Gatheryn has Steam Driven Mechanical Monkeys!!! OMG!! I’d better get into that damned beta!

    And probably stop using so many exclamation marks</font<

  12. It wasn’t very arty, but I really loved the setting in Hellgate: London.

    Future / technology …. check
    Magic…. check
    Post-apocalyptic world…. check

    It’s a shame they wasted such an interesting and different setting on a crummy game.

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