Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Sci-Fi in MMOs Doesn't Work For Me

Credits to Tobold for linking this interesting article over at Gizmodo, The Physics of Space Battle, which paints a picture of what combat in Space would really look like given what we know about science today.

It’s a fun read. Although, in fairness to Science Fiction, most authors simply write some tech to circumvent the problems that gravity, inertia and propulsion present. A quick blip about an anti-grav device and an inertia-less drive solves 90% of the issues identified in the Gizmodo article.

I love Science Fiction. Always have loved it and I consider myself a huge fan of Sci-Fi. Although, perhaps not necessarily Sci-Fi movies as much as books. Most Sci-Fi movies are written as part horror movie and I prefer Epic Sagas over Alien Slashers. For whatever reason, Sci-Fi in Film that has a story seems to be a pretty rare occurrence.

But Sci-Fi in MMOs, or any RPG really, have just never worked for me. I just can’t get into it. Which is so odd considering how much I love the genre. So is it the implementation of Sci-Fi in MMOs or is it the Sci-Fi genre itself that doesn't work for me?

Space is Boring
Outer space is a REALLY REALLY big place. And it’s mostly empty. Our closest planet (Venus) is 23,000,000 miles away at it’s nearest point. Mars is 36,000,000 miles away. And those are our closest celestial neighbors (not including our Moon – which is still 220,000 miles away).

This means that any MMO that even remotely resembles Space is very large and very empty. And other objects in space are very far away. Which means that all space combat is ranged and attacks are typically fired from a distance.

The bigger something is, the more time it takes you to get from point A to point B. That means travel. As anyone who has played any MMO knows, travel is boring. And travel through big empty things is REALLY boring.

Even with such things like Faster-Than-Light (FTL) drives, Jump jets and Turbo boosters – you still have to travel through mostly empty space. Space whose predominant color is black. So unlike being on a landmass which has varying terrain (and colors), the setting in Space is “black” in nearly every direction.

So outside the occasional planet, asteroid or some other floating structure, most of your landscape is simply black. And you get to look at it all the time for long travel distances.

Space is not linear
OK. Space itself might be boring, but what about Space Combat? That’s why we play right? To blow crap up!

No. Space Combat is not boring. It’s confusing.

The issue is that Space Combat occurs in three dimensions. Getting flanked from below or above is just as likely as getting flanked from the side or behind. And it has to be that way in order to preserve the realism of combat in space.

This added complexity is great for immersion and horrible for gameplay. You rarely see your target close up and even the most engaging combat (dogfights) is mostly comprised of glimpses of your target. It's also possible (if not likely) to be killed and never even see what killed you.

The net is that if you don’t like Combat Flight Simulators (like flying F-18 Fighter jets), the chances are incredible high that you won’t like combat in space. It can be disorienting, random, and mostly comprised of flying around in circles. Exciting? Possibly. Confusing? Most assuredly.

Suspension of Disbelief
So Space has it’s problems. But not all Sci-Fi games are set in Space. Some are set inside of a star base, city or some landmass. Or in other words, a more traditional RPG setting where you move the individual character rather than a vehicle.

Interestingly, I’ve yet to enjoy an RPG (any RPG game, not just MMOs) that have this futuristic setting. There are plenty of examples of FPS, RTS and other genres in which I enjoyed that setting just fine. But with RPGs, it just hasn’t felt right.

But why? I think in part it comes from something called the Suspension of Disbelief. The idea being that in order to become immersed in a extraordinary adventure, the reader (or player) must suspend their disbelief of the implausible. Or in other words, if you are constantly calling “Bullshit” on the impossible, you’re not going to BELIEVE or feel invested in the story being told.

I think what sways me about the futuristic setting is that, in a similar manner to the uncanny valley, the closer an RPG setting gets to realism – the less I am willing to suspend my disbelief in that setting. When I see a character running around broken skyscrapers in a post-apocalyptic game, I am struck by how NOT like skyscrapers the game looks. And when I see a broken TV, I am struck by how NOT like a TV it looks.

For me, the closest I've come to liking a Sci-Fi RPG has been Knights of the Old Republic. And I think the reason this wasn't immersion breaking is because the setting was as far removed from reality as any fantasy game.

I think there could be a game developed that uses a Sci-Fi setting that I enjoy but I have yet to play it. In fairness, this might have as much do with never having played a quality MMO that uses this setting.

I will say that since I have played FPS games that didn’t break immersion (Halo, Half-Life) that I think the “not done right” explanation is likely the most credible.

Or alternately, you could argue that like KOR, both of those games have a setting which is very far removed from reality.

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