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Sep 10, 2006



Part of WoW's success can also be attributed to franchise and brand allegiance. I've talked to quite a few people who transitioned from Diablo 2 or Warcraft 3 without ever having played a MMOG.

As for reason #8, I would say SciFi has a greater following than fantasy; look at the success of Star Wars , Star Trek, and Dune, to name but a few SciFi worlds that have a rabid fan base. Perhaps companies continue to churn out fantasy themed games in fear of breaking from the mould of EQ.


I brought up the same issue with Damion, since it's one I've been wrestling with myself. Sci-fi in most other forms of media -- television, films, books -- are more popular than sword & sorcery-themed fantasy. Even in video games, sci-fi beats fantasy, yet fantasy has dominated the RPG market -- pen & paper and computer -- since the beginning. And we see the same trend in MMORPG. Why that is still isn't clear; there are lot of possible reasons, but none of which seem to me to be ultimately definitive.

I don't really expect or think that there should be more sci-fi MMORPGs than fantasy. But it doesn't seem right to me that sci-fi is only in the single digits whereas fantasy is nearly everything else. I think a large part of it is that a really good sci-fi MMORPG simply hasn't been made yet. Damion also suggested that straight sword & sorcery fantasy is easily relatable to a large audience, whereas each sci-fi universe is different from another. The gameplay of Star Trek would be very different from Star Wars, whereas the difference between Lord of the Rings and EverQuest would be far less. He also pointed to the lack of success of more "original" fantasy worlds like Asheron's Call as indicative that fantasy is popular because everyone knows orcs, dragons, knights, etc. But in sci-fi, not everyone knows your particular alien species or your spacecraft classifications.



I think fantasy has a generally broader appeal, whereas sci-fi seems to have a more narrow and fanatical fanbase.

But both genres are much the same - where fantasy has fireballs, sci-fi has blasters, but they play the same roles in the world.

The difference is this:

In the real world, filled with technology, many people are trying to find a breathing space where 'the mystical' still plays a part. Seeking subterfuge from science, we're searching for some soul.


> Also, Damion said that xp and levels reward devotion rather than skill so every "subscriber" can advance if he or she only plays long enough.

His use of the term "subscriber" is telling: naturally it's the monthly subscription revenue stream rather than "devotion" which is desired to be "long enough". Here the vocabulary of financial constraints creeps into discussion of elements of effective game design. But it's hardly even a given that subscription is the way to go; the prevailing model may well turn out to be "free-to-play" games which nevertheless induce the player to spend money by and by.

As long as online games are designed this way (playing "long enough" rather than skill), farming and RMT will be an inevitable part of the game, since real-world "time is money" kicks in and there's nothing you can do in-game to change how the real world works. The resulting alienation of a portion of the player base has to be accepted in advance as a consequence of the game design itself, not imagined to be the unpredictable or somehow preventable result of anyone's nefariousness.

This approach to game design pays off big in the short term (a few years), but has the built-in drawback that players eventually hit a wall by maxing out their level and after that the game's ability to hold their interest inevitably weakens sooner or later. And it's precisely the most "devoted" who reach that wall the soonest. At that point the game company faces an ongoing uphill battle (enormous outlays of programming and maintenance effort) to rush out expansion packs to keep players in the game. The "well-tuned level curve" has to be tuned some more. The hard-to-achieve "home run" that was the initial release of the game has to be repeated. At some point the game company often stumbles and the franchise goes into decline.

The most timeless real-world games (whose lifetime is measured in decades rather than a few years) all involve real skill and almost no ongoing design maintenance effort. The quality of the "gear" used generally confers only a slight, not overwhelming, edge. Levels evolve naturally based on skill rather than needing to be carefully designed, and have no fixed upper limit: there is no wall. Carrying out maneuvers of genuine skill creates its own internal mental sense of reward and achievement, rather than requiring a carefully designed escalating series of levelling and drops. "Subscription" is generally not required, rules are simple and require no complicated backstory, all of which make it very easy to pick up the game again after a few months or even years away, which is crucial to really long-term retention.

Of the nine points listed above, which would-be competitors to WoW are likely to be pondering carefully, it's probably No. 4 that provides the most fruitful scope for outright rethinking. Rephrased as a prediction, the top online game of ten years from now is more likely to have broken or modified point No. 4 (and possibly No. 8, "fantasy theme") than any of the other points.


The reason fantasy is more popular than other genre's in MMO's is just that "magic" in one form or another has existed in one form or another for all of humanity's recorded history.

Even though I'd be willing to bet among actual MMO developers (especially among the programmers) there are more sci-fi fans than fantasy, attaining suspension of disbelief in a larger audience is easier if magic is your metaphor. Magic fireballs don't have to obey physics, but a combustion or laser weapon do or immersion goes down the tubes.


On the topic of "system requirements," I meant to add another point: WoW is the only MMO I can play through PARC's firewall. I don't know the technical reasons for this, but I'm assuming it's the same with other corporate firewalls across the world. If so, this is but another 'barrier to play' that Blizzard has removed. Could this be a reason executives everywhere are (rumored to be) playing WoW?


One thing that gets missed in a lot of the "Why WoW is so popular" lists is its humor. I loved the fun/funny stuff in Warcraft and Starcraft, and gave mad props to Blizzard for "daring" to keep it in for their MMO. I remember some friends being pretty sure that they'd not; that they'd chicken out and make it super-serious, because humor doesn't work in MMOs. Whoops. Guess it does.

As to fantasy vs. sci-fi... fantasy is, simply speaking, easier. On everyone; writers, designers, and players. You can, from a technical standpoint, "do" almost anything with sci-fi that you can do in a fantasy setting. Guns=bows, psi=spells, alien races= monsters and/or other playable races. Problem is, generally sci-fi is meant to be explainable. It's future-fiction that is based on what's happening now. So every time you add... well... anything... you need to be able to 'splain it to Lucy. With fantasy, you just "open a hole to the NetherPlains of Xlopdore" and rock on with your bad self.

There are conventions, sure. But some folks like it when you break them and others like it when you keep them. Good orcs? That sucks! That's cool! But you don't have to explain, from a realistic/scientific sense, why orcs are more immune, say, to fire-magic or ice magic or poison or sleep spells or whatever.

So, from a designer's perspective... much more freedom. If you need any kind of Dark Whatzahoosis to balance out the Boojigum of Lightness... make it up whole-cloth. In sci-fi worlds... gosh. It has to fit. 'Cause sci-fi fans (especially fans of the "hard-core" sub-genre), will eat you a new one if you explain your raygun tech one way and your transporter tech another that contradict each other. It's hard enough for a game development house to be hiring writers, coders, artists and level designers. Now they need particle physicists?

Also... sci-fi speaks to "more of what we've got now." We live, to a degree, in the world of the Jetsons already. We've seen rockets for real. Yes, there's lots more space out there, but the Hubble pics aren't sci-fi. They're just "sci." So when it's time to pretend, there's something a wee bit home-worky about sci-fi that's just not there at all when you strap on a bronze golem and go at it with the vampire captain of the wizard's guild.

I'd love a good sci-fi MMO. But I'd love one that goes way, way out beyond the conventions of traditional sci-fi games and beyond the timescope of many traditional, popular sci-fi books and movies. But then, I'm afraid, I'd be playing it with about 800 other Sheri S. Tepper fans ; )


Science fiction doens't work for the following reasons:

1) Combat dressing: The primary MMORPG sub-game is combat, and using a very specific set of rules... damage, hit points, character levels increasing both damage and hit point. In sci-fi, while a character's skill might improve the odds of hitting/dodging, it's hard to explain why a "high level" character would do more damage with a laser pistol than a low-level one. With swords you can always claim that they're stronger or can carry bigger swords. As far as hit points go... Fantasy can claim "stronger and more manly", but not sci-fi.

2) Gadgets can be used by anyone - In an setting, you sometimes need to come up with a mechanism for something important to happen, such as "The high-level wizard teleports out of the room just before the bomb goes off." In sci-fi, you don't have magic, but have technology. The problem is that if a high-level sci-fi character teleports out of the room, then there MUST be teleportation device. If there is such a device, then my LOW-LEVEL character should be able to use it too. Likewise, my LOW-LEVEL character should be able to use a BFG, a nuclear bomb, super-virus, or super battle armor. In D&D, the BFG (aka: fireball) doesn't come until level 10(?), and the nuclear bomb never comes. How many XP does my character get for releasing a super-virus and killing all the monsters on the planet in 6 days?

3) Technology that is beyond belief... 50 years ago much of what we take for granted was science fiction. 100 years ago it was unimagined. Therefore, science fiction can't ever really take place that far in the future (technologically) and make sense to average players.


I think fantasy has a generally broader appeal, whereas sci-fi seems to have a more narrow and fanatical fanbase.

In any non-game medium -- books, movies, comic books, etc. -- this isn't true. Why it remains true in MMOs is, as Bruce says, not yet clear. It may be that there is something psycho-socially inherent in fantasy (clear gender and role types, clear forms of action, etc.) that makes them inevitably more popular in MMO form. Or it may be a historical accident and the fact that good science fiction games just haven't been made yet (EVE Online maybe being the harbinger of things to come).

In the real world, filled with technology, many people are trying to find a breathing space where 'the mystical' still plays a part. Seeking subterfuge from science, we're searching for some soul.

This could explain the appeal of Star Wars in movie form, and the reason why SWG was not the first MMO to break a million users despite its beloved IP: the mystical component was not there, or was reduced to a game mechanic. It may be that you can get away with this (mechanistic 'spells' and such) in fantasy, but not in something that more closely resembles the life we know.

And yet I agree that people are searching for anima, for soul, for (as Landau said in his keynote) something that connects them to themes that transcend the genre. Fantasy games hint at this (though IMO they don't deliver), while science fiction games haven't yet figured out how to do this.

In terms of WoW's success, there are many factors to point at. If I had to choose one though, one that we should all learn from and never forget, it's Pardo's "culture of polish." As he said, it's always easy to say "no one will notice that one little thing" which is true. But they will notice 1000 little polished things. This is the same as Disney's internal policy of "infinite detail" -- there is no lightbulb too unimportant to be replaced immediately, no chipped paint that is not fixed quickly.

IMO there are groups in the games industry understand and do a pretty good job of subsets of the rest of the items on the list. But a "culture of polish," where polish is seen as an integral part of design and production, not as a last-minute "if we have time" activity, is rare in any part of the software industry, and is most glaringly deficient in games. Nail this, and a lot of the rest of the points above will follow.

All that said, to anyone trying to emulate WoW to make the next hit MMO, my sympathies. No matter how popular fantasy/"men in tights" gaming is, there is now an alpha predator in that market-ecological niche, one that is unlikely to go away in the next few years. If you choose to try to occupy that niche as well, you should prepare to starve, be eaten, or live on the alpha predator's scraps. It will be very interesting to see what fate befalls the fantasy MMOs now nearing completion.


On the topic of "system requirements," I meant to add another point: WoW is the only MMO I can play through PARC's firewall. I don't know the technical reasons for this, but I'm assuming it's the same with other corporate firewalls across the world. If so, this is but another 'barrier to play' that Blizzard has removed. Could this be a reason executives everywhere are (rumored to be) playing WoW?

I suspect it's just because the PlayOn group is playing WoW for their research, and this gave them reason to ask for those ports to be opened. But I could be wrong. :)



If there is such a device, then my LOW-LEVEL character should be able to use it too.

This is, obviously, why there shouldn't be something as irrelevant as levels. =P

How many XP does my character get for releasing a super-virus and killing all the monsters on the planet in 6 days?

I liked Bartle's example better: if you burn down a forest, do you get XP for all the bears? (Designing Virtual Worlds) You don't need particularly advanced technology to commit mass murder.

Technology that is beyond belief...

That doesn't make sense. How did we manage to convince everyone that sparks dance for a bit and then a fireball appears? Rise of Legends is an interesting case study of the dance between "technology" and "magic", even though as an RTS, just about everything is reduced to DPS.

Having roleplayed Starcraft, I would argue that it's possible as a RPG, even an MMORPG. You'd have to do it right, of course. You can't make people marines or Zergs, though making them Protoss zealots might be tenable. Making them pilots, Ghosts, commanders, psychics, etc would be fine, if it held itself together.

Similarly, Warhammer 40K relies a surprising amount on hand-to-hand combat and maintains a high level of visceral tension.

Explainability isn't really a barrier because really... who cares that Warcraft magic is derived from pre-Titan elemental tyrants, the Twisting Nether, the Well of Eternity, the Emerald Dream, and so on? (Well, besides me.)


Science Fiction does seem more populare than fantasy (as in swords and dragons) in other media...or is it?

I'm not sure people could claim science fiction is substantially more popular in novel form, by the time you add up all the fantasy books and stuff.

As for movies and TV shows, well I think this simply comes down to a good fantasy movie (as in swords and dragons) ever being made. As soon as a good one was made, Lord of the Rings, people flocked to it. So I think there an issue with quality scifi movies and TV shows having been produced, but not quality fantasy by and large.

Also, you must consider, that some things that are highly successful being labelled science fiction, probably belong in the fantasy bracket. Star Wars is assuredly one of the most successful fantasies ever to be seen in the cinema, just because blasters replaced swords, the Force replaced magic and a Star Destroyer replaced the castle to rescue the princess from doesn't remove the fact it's a fantasy product more than a scifi one.

So, the issue of science fiction being more popular in other media isn't as clear cut I don't think.


The most successful Sci Fi pen and paper games are those that involved magic in some kind. Wether its Shadowrun (with a blend of tech and magic) or Star Wars with the Jedi "magic" or Warhammer 40K with "Chaos magic", it is more fun and gives a player more options than a simple high tech game alone.

Compare it with such games as Traveller or Cyberspace or Cyperpunk 2020 etc. .... all good games, but they get repetitive soon with "only" high tech solutions.

A pure hightech MMORPG like EVE is an EXCELLENT game and slowly gaining players - in contrast to almost every other MMORPG out there, which tend to peak soon. But it is a magnitude smaller than WoW - because its much more limited in scope and has a MUCH steeper learning curve.

Other Sci Fi MMORPGs like SWG had all the potential in the world, but lack of polish, lack of pacing, lack of content, high system requirements, lack of bite sized chunks and unbalanced combat system (even after 3 years) combined with stupid design decisions (Combat Revamp, NGE anyone ?) ruined the most promising of all virtual world games. There are significantly less players in SWG now than in EVE and the "SWG in Japan" desaster speaks volumes. It takes hard work to ruin one of the most successful IPs in history.

I really hope some companies will take the (financial) risk to follow all the things that Blizzard did right and apply it to a well known Sci Fi IP (like (new) Star Wars, Star Trek, Warhammer 40k, Stargate, Starship Troopers etc.)

Have fun



I do too, Erillion.

Again, I'm not particularly bothered if fantasy is forever more popular than sci-fi in MMORPGs, but as of right now it's... disproportionate.



A key failing that is not mentioned here is the part of the donut that isn't a hamster and doesn't enjoy the treadmill. That is a big part of the donut and includes the legions of people who play FPSes. CS doesn't make you play 500 hours of Frogger before you can play CS... Guess what: more people still play CS than all of the MMOs combined.

My guild, LOTD, has been around since UO. We've spanned acrossed all of the MMOs which feature PVP as we have that as a focus. All members are between the ages of 18-40, median at ~25... and most of us are bored out of our minds.

We did WoW. The game is one of the most offensive treadmills to-date. They even made PVP rankings a treadmill!

We did GW. While I personally enjoy the ability to advance soly through PVP (life is too short to grind on AI), I agree with my guildmates in that unlocking all of the necessary skills to compete is far too time consuming.

We're not hardcore, we're not casual... We're the ring on the donut. WoW has been a great venue for recruiting some new MMO blood, but it has proven to be the hardest chapter to keep running due to the high turn-over rate.

So yeah, I guess WoW has been bought and played by every member of the donut... that doesn't mean they found it to be satisfying.


I think a key reason why Sci-Fi hasn't resonated like Fantasy is due to an intrinsic nature of the genre. In movies and books, Science Fiction is inherently about ideas - the Asimovian and Dick schools of sci-fi writing still drive Hollywood, for example. This has two side effects.

First, science fiction is very splintered as a genre. People have been taught that Sci-Fi is Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, the Matrix, I Robot and Minority Report - there's a lot of variance in those visions, because each of those has a different vision to sell. Each writer is trying to tell a different idea - which incidentally makes them great for movies.

By comparison, fantasy tends to be all about characters. And not coincidentally, characters tends to be what MMOs need in droves.

I don't think that making a Sci-Fi game is necessarily a doomed enterprise, though. I do think that it will take more work to get it over the hump to where it has Fantasy's level of approachability. Most sci-fi writeups for games are horribly overthought and complicated. Fantasy succeeds largely because it's simple, and WoW is even simpler than most in that regard - note to critics, this is a compliment.


"Fantasy has wide appeal..."
Don't forget, when WoW launched it was following 3-4 years' worth of heavy advertising and promotion of the (multiple-award-winning) LoTR films. Orcs and elves had been burned into the collective consciousness through advertising saturation, and I can't help but feel this greatly assisted WoW's assimilation of gamer's hearts.
The public was primed, sci-fi had (has) no such champion currently.


Bruce, no, I have to ask the IT guys to open ports for all the OTHER games we study (EQ2, CoH, SWG, SL, There, EQOA), but not for WoW. That's a significant barrier to play removed. So I think WoW may be the only MMO you can really play from the (firewalled) office with your co-workers.


The original success: I would probably argue the hula hoop hypothesis.

All this continued success, however, is much more interesting -- even moreso when observed in so many similarly structured, totally-dead-on-the-vine-yet-still kicking games (like Ultima Online for instance).

In fact, “persistence” may well be the most blatant current manifestation of how new media aesthetics indefinitely extend (and therein destroy) the ephemeral, transient, and (previously) fundamentally fragmented nature of play and novelty and revolution.

The obvious analogy begins with reference to all that pessimistic social-conflict-based Frankfurt School stuff that says, basically more or less, that the cyclical nature of history has been interrupted and altered and frozen by mass media persuasions. The ruling class is now too entrenched, too powerful, too Borg: They win.

Likewise, game designers (the penultimate info industry artists) -- aided and abetted by new media and all those cute little leveling, grinding, carrot-on-the-stick, socially pressuring, groupy bonding, psyco-sycophanty tricks – have won.

Work is play. You is they.

And the corollary: From whence must then come the last info industry artists (and thus, we can only hope and pray, the last of the info industry)? Solely from those last and lonely individualists: the griefers. Death to all people having fun.


With writing like that you should do well in liberal arts where obfuscation and logorrhea are valued.

Except "penultimate" means 'next to ultimate,' second best, not 'really ultimate.'


Fantasy is about drama, plots inside plots, wild costumes and crazy characters.

It's about the basic desire of being sexy and strong.

Fantasy is about the dream of being someone special with an important destiny - the chosen one.

True science fiction = fiction about science. Not about people. Not about hopes, dreams and destinies, though these appear as frameworks for the story.

Sci-fi is intellectually fascinating for lots of people, but it doesn't really reverberate in the nether regions of the masses.

Fantasy is not intellectual, it doesn't need to be "understood".

It's an escape from the world of explanations.

Despite lots of well thought-out posts here, I still believe this is the most important explanation :)


Bleak, Dave, very bleak... but +10 DKP for mentioning the Frankfurt School! And I do think you and the first poster are right about the Borgishness of the Blizzard brand being underestimated.

Bob, thanks so much for posting this. Great stuff, nicely set out. My hunch is that #1 and #5 deserve much more credit than folks have been giving them, and that #2 is an issue with WoW as much as a strength. I hope it isn't seen as a form of progress/innovation by other industry players. You should note, too, that post-60, WoW becomes all social all the time, doesn't it?

p.s. Not all donuts have holes. Aren't creme-filled donuts also donuts?


Bruce, no, I have to ask the IT guys to open ports for all the OTHER games we study (EQ2, CoH, SWG, SL, There, EQOA), but not for WoW. That's a significant barrier to play removed. So I think WoW may be the only MMO you can really play from the (firewalled) office with your co-workers.

Well, then my guess is, either by accident or by design, WoW is using ports that are frequently allowed open anyway. That's pretty smart thinking if it was intentional, but I doubt it's a major factor in WoW's success. :) I don't know what ports WoW uses offhand, but I'm sure you could look up and see what other apps use those ports.



The WoW client uses TCP through port 3724. The downloader/patcher uses ports 6112 and 6881-6999.



I believe most games use UDP, where WoW seems to use only TCP. This could contribute to working well with firewalls since they tend to 'trust' tcp more.

This is very interesting since TCP is very susceptible to stalls due to its transmit/ack window, but it doesn't matter much in mostly strategic game, where a FPS like Unreal requires non-sequential packet delivery.

Going back to the sci-fi issue, I think its harder to build a sci-fi game, especially if it involves space. Spherical worlds, seamless landing onto a world, large coordinate system, etc -- not easy stuff.

Game design wise, fantasy can basically hook into some very common concepts of what a fantasy world is, using Tolkein and others as a source. Sci-fi has a challenge of being very diverse.

Eve-online gives us a glimpse into this genre, and I think there is a lot more to explore. I'm curious to see how Star Trek will do.



Michael Chiu wrote:

This is, obviously, why there shouldn't be something as irrelevant as levels. =P

While I'm not a fan of levels, they have their uses. I don't think levels work with sci-fi too well, as I already pointed out.

As I see it, sci-fi hand-to-hand combat (or blaster-to-blaster) works fine as a FPS, where the skill comes from the player, but not so well in CRPG form. (Particularly the hit-point problem, as I mentioned.) However, sci-fi ship-to-ship combat works well in CRPG, as Eve Online shows.

Sci-fi settings are good for puzzles, and for NPC interaction (using improved AI). Since MMORPGs don't do puzzles, and don't do AI either, and blaster-to-blaster combat doesn't work well, sci-fi is limited to ship-to-ship combat. (And a trading sub-game.)

I liked Bartle's example better: if you burn down a forest, do you get XP for all the bears? (Designing Virtual Worlds) You don't need particularly advanced technology to commit mass murder.

I was expanding on his idea. And realistically, if you light a forest fire, most bears will escape. You'll mostly kill a lot of lizards, insects, and frogs, which are all level-1 monsters. ;-)

Bartle also notes that because of this problem, player characters aren't allowed to light forest fires. However, in a sci-fi setting where WMD are probably part of the combat game, it's difficult to disallow it.

Technology that is beyond belief...

My point is that once sci-fi technology is sufficiently advanced enough (100 years +), it looks like magic. (Some famous sci-fi writer noted this... Bradbury? Clarke?) If it looks like magic, you're once again in a fantasy setting... You can call it science fiction, but at its heart its about magic.


Sci-fi settings are good for puzzles, and for NPC interaction (using improved AI). Since MMORPGs don't do puzzles, and don't do AI either, and blaster-to-blaster combat doesn't work well, sci-fi is limited to ship-to-ship combat. (And a trading sub-game.)

Oooorrr maybe, we need to come up with new game designs, if we hope to tackle scifi? And possibly some better AI? ;)


Re the fantasy v sci-fi thing, I really think there's not a significant difference from the perspective of a capable game designer. Space opera like Star Wars is just fantasy with different costumes. The example of Starcraft, mentioned previously, shows that Blizzard can do fantasy or sci-fi for RTS, and the same is true for MMOGs.

Btw, there have been April postings about WoStarcraft. You can still find the Gamespot preview of WoS on Google's cache. It sounds pretty genuine, though the bolded parts below makes it clear that this is a joke:

...By introducing four completely different playable factions and spanning the gameplay across not just a few continents but an entire solar system, Blizzard will ensure that World of Starcraft is a much, much bigger game than any it's ever produced. What's more, the company intends to address many of the specific issues that have plagued World of Warcraft up till this point, especially those relating to the extremely high demand for the game. For example, rather than having to sit around twiddling your thumbs, waiting in a queue to get onto your preferred server, Blizzard will be treating its fans to a fully integrated game of classic Starcraft, built right into the queuing system. Imagine playing one of the greatest real-time strategy games of all time while waiting your turn to play one of the greatest massively multiplayer online role-playing games of all time! World of Starcraft promises to revitalize interest in the original RTS classic for a whole new generation.

What's more, the World of Starcraft application will be available as a free download--no having to scour your local shopping mall for a $50 box. Monthly fees will apply, but Blizzard is hoping to offer players some sort of free trial. Further, an in-game, ad-supported version of the game will be available to players at a reduced price. What types of real-world products still exist in the far-flung future? You'll have to wait to play the game to find out! And for those marathon stretches you'll doubtlessly end up spending with the game, Blizzard's got you covered with a full-on integration with its newly-announced . By typing /burger at any point in the game, you'll gain access to a highly integrated menu, allowing you to special-order fast food, delivered straight to your home. Since Blizzard's got your account data, charges will be transparently applied, seamlessly integrating the fast-food-buying experience straight into the game.

But the Pandaren were a joke too. ;-)


Samantha LeCraft wrote: Oooorrr maybe, we need to come up with new game designs, if we hope to tackle scifi? And possibly some better AI? ;)

You're breaking the cardinal rule:

Commandment #1) Thou shalt make no game that is not Diku-based, with monsters, hit points, mana points, and NPC vending machines.

I agree with your comment. Basically, if you're going to do sci-fi, you'll probably need to re-think the game. You can't just create WoW with laser guns. Likewise, you can't create a modern-day MMORPG and expect the primary sub-game to be combat... unless the setting is specifically based on wartime, and even then it's itching to include planes, submarines, tanks, etc., and some sense of battlefront. (Which is getting into eve-online territory, further away from Diku.)

Something I forgot to mention: The reason why I think AI is more important for MMORPG sci-fi is because (a) hand-to-hand NPC combat probably won't work (as per my previous posts), so (b) the only thing left to do with NPCs is talk to them. "Talking to them" actually requires some AI.

Many sci-fi shows/books are about talking to and interacting with aliens and their cultures. For example: Star Trek often involves meeting new aliens, having a cultural misunderstanding, and then sorting it out with some problem solving (and maybe some shooting). StarGate, Babylon 5, and FarScape have similar formulas.

The reason why "cultural misunderstanding" is used so much is that scifi usually makes the assumption that humans just recently discovered warp drive, and are now wandering around the universe discovering new aliens/cultures who magically speak English, but who have a different culture with their own taboos. The intrepid scifi explorers acidentally break those taboos. Shooting their way out would only make things worse because (a) they are representing Earth, and/or (b) they are fairly powerless and any act of violence would get them in even bigger trouble.

In traditional Tolkien fantasy, orcs and all other races have always existed. There aren't any cultural misunderstandings other than good vs. evil. The only good orc is a dead orc. Thus, killing every orc on sight is a reasonable thing to do.


You're breaking the cardinal rule...

It's true, it's true, I make it my goal to routinely break every commandment of MMOG game design. Damnation is in my future, I know.

Basically, if you're going to do sci-fi, you'll probably need to re-think the game. You can't just create WoW with laser guns.

Right. Not only do I agree that doing sci-fi successfully would require re-thinking many of the accepted norms of MMOG gameplay, I also think that even if we could do sci-fi successfully without re-thinking the MMOG norms, WoW-with-laser-guns wouldn't fly. I really do think that in this post-WoW world, any MMOG coming to market now needs to be able to answer the question "What makes this game different from WoW?" And I don't think "Our men wear cyber-tights" (or post-apocalyptic tights) is enough of an answer. Blizzard might be able to get away with it, were they to make World of Starcraft without changing any of the basics of WoW gameplay, since it would have the level of polish that (thus far) only Blizzard has been able to deliver. But anyone else? Personally, I don't think they'd have a chance -- I think they'd quickly find their players returning to WoW.

So IMO, the way to go now is in a completely different direction: ie, something other than fantasy, with something other than Diku-esque gameplay. Is sci-fi the way to go? I dunno, but it is something different. I do think that we as game developers and players often get so entrenched in our own subculture that we forget that the vast majority of people in the US don't like fantasy or sci-fi. Just look at network TV. What do we have? Police dramas, sit coms about barely-happily-married folks, and reality shows. I'm a geek through and through, and I'll admit that not much about any of those inspires me. But then every now and then something like Lost comes along, something that defies genres and norms -- but only barely -- and that manages to hook a huge number of people. And just when I'd given up trying to figure out how to fit a game around Lost, the Lost Experience pops up, and gives us what may well be the first mass market ARG.

What the evolution of Survivor to Lost to the Lost Experience shows me is that we have to keep evolving. We can't rely on what's worked before, we have to keep working towards something new.

And personally, I find cultural misunderstandings infinitely more interesting than killing orcs. ;)


I do believe that a successful Sci-Fi MMOG will require the breaking of the cardinal rule :)

Samantha and others are probably going to the right direction. Most people are introduced to the Sci-fi genre via Movies and TVs: Star Wars, Star Treks, Stargate, etc. Readers of sci-fi already "buy-in" to the sci-fi genre, the inner donut segment.

Sci-fi is not about science, but is about people living in an advanced world, discovering new worlds, new races, discovering ancient civilizations, building a better world, a positive future, etc.

I personally think it's more Star Trek than Star Wars, more cooperation than combat, more puritans than conquistadors, and perhaps more myst than halo.

The primary gameplay will not be hack & slash, it will probably be a more cooperative form of EVE, primarily the first 2 stages of the 4X space strategy (explore and expand).

Content will come in the form exploring new worlds, creatures, ecology, etc. (all procedurally created and hand-polished). There will be many different roles such as Defense (warrior), Science (mages), Culture (priests), Naturalist (druids), etc.

Will people like this? I hope so. I believe the power of sci-fi is the hope for a better world whereas the power of fantasy is the hope for heroics. I think the ideals of ATITD combined with the fun of WOW would work out.



Mike Rozak writes:
The only good orc is a dead orc. Thus, killing every orc on sight is a reasonable thing to do.

Feh. The only good elf is an elf on a spit with some Mordor spicy barbecue sauce and crispy Hobbit Toes as a side dish. :)

I love the ongoing deconstruction of Blizzard's and WoW's success. I agree with all the points in the article, along with the Blizzard's fan loyalty, and the good LOTR movies mentioning by others. I also believe the following

1) Simplicity It is SIMPLE, effectively a retarded forest fungus can become a "paladin". In fact, they have and become net memes in the making (Leeeroooy).

2) Accessibility Similar to Low Barrier, but it's more than that. As soon as you create your first character, you're in the game, playing. People spend HOURS in Eve and CoX to get their characters built.

3) Instant Six Pack of Friends Not so much on Alliance, but in the Horde, it's rare that someone doesn't answer your questions. In fact, I'd arguing the WoW is an Instant Messenger with a huuuge graphic interface rather than a game.

As for SciFi has a higher suspension of disbelief: technology and the "History." What happened to make the universe the way it is? What physics allows for VR or Psychic Powers or FTL drives? What events happened to make us go out in the stars or drive us to earth?

This barrier includes:

1) Matrix-like VR
2) Galaxy Spanning Ships (FTL/Jumpspace/Stargate...)
3) Psychic Powers
4) Nukes and Nanotech
5) Ancients and Precursors
6) Aliens (good, bad and ugly)
7) Blasters and Slugthrowers


1) Swords and Sorcery
2) Elf vs. Orc split

So there's complexity. SciFi, mostly, is expected to be consistent. Combine complexity w/ consistency and you have a very difficult time explaining why things aren't as logical as players will make it out to be.

And if you try to be TOO consistant, the game sucks because no 60th level grand psychic poobah wants to admit a level 2 schmuck could kill him with a hand nuke.

Then... if you really want to be consistent, add a religion - pick one, any one. Dune's strange Islamism monotheism, or The Force's Animism. Either way, the result is emphasis on 1 viewpoint, when in reality we *KNOW* that if 6 billion people have 10-30 major religions, we have zillions more in a galaxy of 600 billion with different alien races.

Tackling that complexity is what makes a game/genre rich, and most SciFi solutions aren't going to help.


But then every now and then something like Lost comes along, something that defies genres and norms

Instinctive reaction:

Ooooh..... Okay, so the world is a Desert Island type. But it's a really big Island. Maybe it's an archipelago, maybe it's a full-blown continent (but, um... no). New players kind of float their way in, suffering amnesia of how they got from Where They Came From to where they are now.

Okay, I'm done. =P Mostly because I haven't bothered watching Lost yet, except for some of the first episodes, which I promptly forgot.

Someone go do it. I can't say I'd be interested, but you should try selling it to the Lost fans. Or the producers. =P


Believeable Sci-Fi combat is harder to do than believeable Fantasy combat. A great deal of that is from greater familiarity with firearm combat than with melee/magic weaponry. The HP scheme and it's variants are long standing, entrenched ideas that most people can swallow for representing fantasy combat. On the other hand people expect things to die when you shoot them with a gun, be it a slugthrower or an energy weapon. Add in ranged effects, movement, and cover disparities and you get combat systems that deviate so far from what is expected that they break the veil of immersion. AO and SWG combat just felt sillier than DAoC or AC, and it detracted from the game. HP combat just seems dumber in Sci-Fi, and more realistic combat is harder to stuff into an MMO package, harder to balance and tune, and harder to differenciate from FPS games. Dune could work though, and maybe 40k. Both have great emphasis on close range and melee combat.

As for their list of reasons, #2 and #6 only holds until the level cap, and to be honest they enforced soloing due to poor travel systems, nonexistant LFG tools, and poorly built instances in the 1-50 range. That's why you see so many people get to 60 and have no clue how or why to play in the newly different range of play at the level cap. I'd be really interested to see how long it takes for the 'average' player to make 60, real time, and how many of those roll alts. Blizzard made a lovely, polished, balanced game from 1-59. They had little idea how endgame would work though, as illustrated by the various scaling issues in the game. Over the long term, a player will spend more time at the cap than reaching it, and it seems that few games pay enough attention to this potentially infinte play period.


"A great deal of that is from greater familiarity with firearm combat than with melee/magic weaponry."

Definitely. It's not realistic to assume that you can run up to an elephant and pound on it with a baseball bat until it falls over but for some reason it's widely accepted in the fantasy MMORPG realm. On the other hand having to shoot somebody twenty times to make them keel over just feels wrong--maybe because people in our modern, technological society are intimately familiar with firearms and their effects.

In the real world, filled with technology, many people are trying to find a breathing space where 'the mystical' still plays a part. Seeking subterfuge from science, we're searching for some soul.

I agree with this, but I also think that the dominance of Fantasy themes in massive games comes from the opposite angle as well.

Fantasy is about a past that both was and never was. But in both senses it is largely fixed-- a dangerous world of incredible potential, an open canvas for its inhabitants to steer, carve and reign in. We all know what things were like in this past as well, and there is broad consensus: Men were men (as they say) and they carried swords and were valiant, wizards were subtle and quick to anger (sorry, getting carried away now).

My point is that "we" (I'm uncomfortable with defining who we is) almost all agree what this stuff looks like. Sure, we love stylistic variations, but in the end the base content and mechanics are all pretty similar. To sum up for my argument here: there is a broad consensus of what Fantasy "should" be.

In contrast, Sci-Fi is much less fixed. We don't agree on whether it's a utopia (Star Trek) or a dystopia (and if it is a dystopia, is it Logan's Run, THX1138, the Matrix, etc) or neither, just different (Star Wars, Snow Crash).

And because of the much wider variation of theme and types of Sci-Fi, I believe there isn't a broad consensus of what a Sci-Fi massive game should be, which decreases the size of the niche considerably.

To give some anecdotal support: For me EQ, EQ2, DAoC, Warhammer Online, WoW, etc... and for that matter Neverwinter nights, Morrowind, Oblivion--the list is seeemingly endless-- are all basically the same at their root; they describe very similar worlds, with similar possibilities--possibilities which congratulate my pre-expectaions.

On the other hand, Sci-Fi games are hit or miss in this regard, and mostly a miss. Anarchy Online was not "the future" for me. I didn't feel comfortable there. Star Wars is well known for not being "star warsy enough" (although there is considerable debate as to why that is). RFOnline was interesting to me until I hit the brick wall of the anime styling, which sunk it for me before their game mechanics could finish the job.

And this is the problem I think with Sci-Fi virtual worlds. The genre is fine for a shooter or a single player, but I suspect there's a disconnect (in this case a lack of connect -- no apprehendable consensus) for MMORPGs. It's not that there aren't people who will be fans, it's defining who they are, and how to connect with them.

Given the track record of the Sci-Fi MMORPG market, I'd argue that there's much research to be done.


There's a proven track record in sales for sci fi books (and other media) that essentially leave the entire issue of vast numbers of aliens out of the picture and concentrate on a smaller spectrum of human interaction. It's often called "space opera," but that has not stopped the best practicioners from earning accolades and plenty of money along the way. Lois McMaster Bujold has tied Heinlein's record of four Hugo awards with her series about Miles Vorkosigan, the mercenary captain, featuring plenty of action and a wide variety of planetary locales and populations, but absolutely no focus on hard science explanation. They are extremely popular. Steve Miller and Sharon Lee have only a couple of real alien species in their Liaden Universe books, yet they came back from a ten year hiatus due to an Internet fan campaign to sign a long term book deal and are doing very well with their particular brand of space opera (I highly recommend them, their books detail a wonderfully complex social structure with great success). And Joss Whedon's "Serenity" movie was produced after the cancellation of the television series, again due to fan support (and frankly, I would play a Serenity based MMO in a heartbeat!). Of the above, only Miller and Lee make any attempt at explaining their science at all (they have the ubiquitous psis and several varieties of space drive) but the explanations are pretty vague. None of their fans care. We're there for the action. And, in general, all three authors tend to focus the conflict squarely within humanity....our future being seen as one in which planets or factions will vie for power. Which does not seem that unlikely if you count on a relative absence of vast numbers of alien species. Even should you choose to throw in a few extra species to spice things up, there are ways to limit the complication from a designer's perspective, just as there are from an author's (ie, make one species originally non-spacefaring).

And in the end, when I'm casting a heal over time on a party member, do I particularly care if I'm praying to Mother Tunare? Or that my Call of Storms lightning bolts are doing their damage through my elemental affinity with Karana, the god of storms? Are you so sure that all of us who avidly read sci fi and play MMO's six hours a day are that concerned about the reasons a level 2 can't hit us with the same laser gun we have at level 50? *cough* Don't care. If it's because at level 2 the safety device won't let her use it or she'll fry her own toes, I simply don't care. My immersion will not be broken. Perhaps it's because at this point the canon of the MMO is as important to me as the sci fi canon. Level 2 no use level 70 weapon. Enough said. I don't care if it's possible in real life. It's perfectly possible for the little level 2 gnome to pick up that fancy level 67 scimitar I got last night, just as it would REALLY be possible for me to physically pick up a two-handed sword (I'm a druid type), I'm not really buying the "magic barrier." I don't think most of us honestly think that way. It's a simple equation....level 67 weapon = level 67 user. And druids just do not use two-handed swords. Even if they like the ones that glow red or blue.

Lack of that believability is not the reason for the lack of success in sci fi MMO's to me. If anything, I would say that the HUGE expectations of the IP's used have worked against them. People leapt in to these worlds with such fervid belief that there could not help but be gigantic disappointments. WoW escaped that because they were moving from a distinctly less complex medium to a more complex one, not vice versa. How could the MMO ever compare to the universe portrayed in the movies of the Matrix or Star Wars? LOTR will have the same tough sell. The franchises mentioned above would be a little less likely to crash and burn because they're not as massively popular, nor have they been as well-established visually, with the exception of Serenity, which far fewer people saw than saw Matrix, Star Wars or LOTR. That's far fewer to disappoint if you don't achieve the exact vision your fans are expecting. There's nothing worse than a disappointed fanboi.


/agrees with Heather

Also, I think the mass market has lower expectations for things like the physics of laser guns than do the people who design games. This kind of relates to Thomas's comments about coding dispositions.


/also agrees with Heather...

Some very nice points. I hadn't thought before about how the expectations of non-game franchise fiction might play into the mechanics of MMOs vs. other types of games. We have had some very successful Star Wars games (Tie Fighter series, Battlefront, etc.), but those mechanics are "short term." MMOs require you to "live the dream," eh? And while the Warcraft series certainly had a mythos... it was all built in previous games. Veerrry interesting.

And you're right about levels, too. I think. This is an issue that comes up in pen-and-paper games, too, though. Ranged weapons, particularly hand guns and crossbows, are incredible levlers of...er.. levels... in real life combat. You can take a decently clever, in-shape guy without much training at all (Level 3), give him a good pistol or crossbow, and put him up against a fabulous swordsman (Level 50), and... bang. Dead swordsman. How well the shooter does will depend, across a real bell curve, more on the quality of the weapon than on the training. Yes, an expert marksman will crush a greenhorn. But a greenhorn with an Uzi will, in many cases, crush many a marksman with a flintlock.

The point being, that in a technology world (sci-fi), the technology is more of the focus than the hero. So the leveling of the "stuff" takes on a greater importance. My laser-scope is better than yours, vs. my spell of seeing is better. You can have better "stuff" in a fantasy setting, too... but the requirements of using it are often linked back to "self."

I'm not really arguing with you; I don't think it's as much of an issue as we like to think it is. It just takes imagination to get out of the grind/farm habbit. People, traditionally, like to have nice, smooth, granular levels to their characters. How do you do that in a sci-fi setting? There could be plenty of ways. And just thinking the question makes me wonder about other, entirely different systems for ranking levels.



Hmm, while I admit that expectations for SWG were high and contributed to the failure of that game it doesn't explain the problems with every other Sci-Fi entry short Eve. Earth and Beyond and AO both did poorly, and it looks like Auto Assault will follow. No existing major IPs there.

I do think that the 'EQ with guns' mechanics used in SWG, AO, and Matrix contributed greatly to their performance. *I* find it silly to the point of detracting from the game to use such mechanics, so I'm sure some unknown fraction of the market does so as well. Furthermore, it fails to differenciate Sci-Fi from fantasy games.

However, I also agree with Heather's point that higher expectations are a problem. I just believe that the market has higher expectations from Sci-Fi game than Fantasy due to greater familiarity and relation to reality.


I started playing WOW not long after launch mainly because I had been looking to play a MMO and I was a big fan of Blizzard and their previous games, specifically Warcraft 2, 3 and Starcraft.

I still play 18 months later because the game is polished, it has lots of activities that I can schedule to play with other people or solo, and I now have a solid social connection to many people in the game... But I know this much, once I stop playing Warcraft I’ll try not to ever play a MMO again.


Sci-fi in most other forms of media -- television, films, books - are more popular than sword & sorcery-themed fantasy

Actually - Fantasy outsells SF in the book market by quite the margin - has done for quite some time. The pay is better, and the audience is larger - publishers will often try and shoehorn SF writers into fantasy, or market them in a Fantasy tone. I don't know if I've ever seen it broken down into purely Sword and Sorcery Fantasy vs SF as an entireity, but in general terms F beats SF, markedly, on the shelves.

And I don't think you can put down the success of WoW to Blizzard's previous reputation/games - it's blown up way beyond that, though it might have been enough to get it past the initial tipping point.

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