Saturday, April 22, 2006

The 'Men In Tights' Problem

If you wander across the blogs of MMO game devs, you see a lot of reference to the 'men in tights' problem. The vast majority of MMOs are fantasy games. SirBruce, of, estimates that 89% of all MMOs are fantasy-based. So it's a pressing question (for game devs, anyway) of why this is so, and does a non-fantasy game have a chance of succeeding.

There are a lot of explanations proposed, from the fact that our culture is steeped in the past, or that the first MMOs were fantasy, so that's the way it is. I think there is a different reason that most games are fantasy. The fundamental conceit of rpgs is that:

As I do stuff, I become harder to defeat.

In fantasy games, you have all sorts of explanations for this, from magical healing, to better armor, to better skill with weapons, to just being physically tougher than the other guy. Levelling up represents becoming tougher and better skilled. In a swordfight, we expect the more skilled fighter to come out alive. And a lot of the attraction of RPGs relies on this: our working on a character and slowly making them more and more powerful.

However, as you introduce technology, it becomes a lot harder to justify this basic idea. The entire point of technology, in a lot of ways, is to replace skill. There is an old saying, popular in the eighteenth century, that "God made all men, but Sam Colt made them equal." This saying perfectly encapsulates the point that technology makes the unskilled deadlier. Non-fantasy games need to be able to account for this. If you have a game where a character can get shot with a gun at point-blank range and almost always survive, that's really hard to take.

Now, that's not to say that non-fantasy games can't do this. Take Eve Online. Eve Online is pretty much as non-fantasy as you get. Eve Online, however, replaces "I" with "my ship". It makes sense that a better, more expensive and technologically advanced ship is harder to defeat. That fits in with our worldview. And thus Eve works as an MMO, where "levelling" involves improving your ship.

However, it's easier for a fantasy game to account for this. And this is the main reason, I think, that fantasy is the most popular genre. The levelling idea, of character improvement making survival more likely, fits fantasy better than any other genre.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not convinced. The fundamental issue we're talking about here is the balance between offense and defense.

    The modern era is highly geared towards offense. The destructive power of our weapons is enough to kill even a heavily armored opponent easily.

    However, a futuristic setting gives you license to invent nanomaterial body armor, personal force fields, etc. There's no substantial reason why this couldn't work.

    However, what you're looking at here is very basic -- The tactical complexity of a futuristic setting where personal shields are effective against all manner of guns is very limited. There's no point to do anything other than buy the biggest gun possible and the best protection possible.

    For a first-person-shooter this is effective, as player-skill is the primary determinant of success. In an RPG, though, people don't usually want to rely upon player skill (or at least not to the extent that many other games require). Without the emphasis on player skill this would make for an extremely boring play experience as two groups of players clicked on their enemy and watched their avatars trade ammunition.

    What any science-fiction setting needs, I think, is a reason to involve melee combat into the mix. Star Wars did this with Jedi, but I'm not convinced it did well on that front: The Jedi are elite individuals, not average characters. Either their powers would be watered down in the conversion to an MMORPG or they would be too powerful.

    A better example to look towards, in my opinion, is Dune. Dune had laser guns and ballistic weapons, but a soldier could equip a forcefield that would essentially negate those weapons (incoming or outgoing). Although complete protection would not work except for the highest level of gear in a game, the concept itself makes possible an interesting dynamic between melee, ranged, and support in a futuristic environment.