December 15, 2006 7:07 AM |
['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column tries to throw some cold water on the Browncoats reveling in the news of a Firefly MMOG.]
I'm sure I'm not the only person who was excited by last week's announcement that the tools-maker Multiverse is going to be tackling the Firefly license, and making a Massively Multiplayer game. In fact, I know I'm not. You may have already seen Kwip's 'blue-sky' musings on just such a title as recently as last month. He tells you what he'd like to see, and the reaction from the MMORPG.com boards tells you that there's a lot of interest in the project.
Well, much as it may seem differently from recent articles, I'm not one to see a good thing and embrace it wholly. In fact, I'm a pretty bitter, cynical guy when it comes to these things. To put it thusly: the Firefly MMOG is going to suck. It's going to suck hard, on toast, and leave the hearts and minds of thousands of Browncoats lying trampled, again, in the dirt. I'll tell you up front, I hope I'm wrong. I hope that, a few years from now, you and I are doing our level best to make a dishonest living on the edge of civilized space ... and having a great time doing it. Somehow, though, I don't think that's what will happen. Read on for all the reasons why this bird just won't fly.
"Well they tell you: never hit a man with a closed fist. But it is, on occasion, hilarious."
There's going to be too much fightin'. I can tell you right now, sure as can be, there will be too much fighting to get the tone right for the Firefly universe. In fact, I'd go so far as to say this is the biggest obstacle to making a Firefly MMOG. While we all roll our eyes at killing rats, we go with it because we know there are bigger and better things coming along. There's room in the galaxy far, far away for rat-hunters. The 'Verse (as fans of the series call it) is not so flexible. Series creator Joss Whedon made it obvious over the course of the series that, while people die out there, life is still precious. Endless waves of faceless bad guys, all spawning in place to be randomly slaughtered by your brand new level 1 Big Damn Hero, puts the lie to that but quick. There's got to be combat, of course. Every MMOG has combat. But what has to be different in order for this to work is the meaning behind that combat. Fighting has to be done with a purpose, or you've already missed the boat on what makes Firefly special.
As much as I think the source needs to be boxed around the ears, I think Dungeons and Dragons Online is actually the best place to start. Their instanced, focused, combat would be a great fit for the kind of storytelling you'd want to do in Firefly. The key here, though, is that you've got to make sure there's a world outside of combat. Your character, your shipmates, your ship ... there has to be something besides combat to 'do'.
"For this plan to work, River and I will have to be dead."
While I think there's going to be too much fighting, on the other hand I don't think there's going to be enough ... anything else. Given the constraints of time and economic pressure, the 'not in combat' portions of the game will inevitably get waylaid and pushed outside the scope of the original launch. Massive games are all about combat, right? Who wants to make shoes when we can crush?
Which is, of course, ridiculous. In fact, if anything, the 'Verse is an even better setting for a crafting and entertaining system than Star Wars Galaxies. Just in the very few episodes of the show we see merchants, miners, dancers, prostitutes, Companions, soldiers, preachers, criminals, aristrocrats, and all aspects of the human condition in harsh places. The 'life is precious' theme has to be extended out beyond combat, to include the concept of 'characters have real lives'. I don't think there's a need for a fully immersive alternate existence; this should still be a game, after all. What the designers should do, though, is make an effort to compliment the game's heroic moments with quieter elements taken from the background of the 'Verse.
Though I can't rightly say I know how to go about it, it would be great if there was some element of planning involved in the game too. Some of the most enjoyable moments in the show come from attempts at tactical planning and strategy ... even if they don't work out very well. One option would be to allow the group leader to choose a mission's objectives. If you have several big tough guys, a frontal assault might be an option. If you're, as a party, better at subterfuge perhaps a more stealthy approach would be the way to go. I don't think the game would be 'broken' without it, but it would certainly go a long way towards giving players the authentic Firefly feel.
"We're gonna explode? I don't wanna explode!"
Joss Whedon shows, even when they're being all dark and serious, are funny. Really, really funny. Firefly without humor would have been a waste, a poor man's Cowboy Bebop. I just cannot envision Firefly without laughter to dull the edges. WoW has humor, but it's of the satirical or irreverent nature. City of Heroes, likewise, has humor of the 'send-up' nature. None of those things are clever or witty. I'm not even certain that clever and witty are possibilities in a Massive game; most players don't even stop to read the quest text. Is the answer to do voiceover work for the entire game, and only have quest text in your journal once the intro spiel from the NPC is over? That would likely get old fast.
In truth, this is an aspect of Firefly that I'm just not sure can be translated into the Massive genre. How do you cram the kind of humor the show and the movie display into something as narratively dead as a quest in a MMOG?
"Ship like this, be with ya 'til the day you die."
They've got the license, and undoubtedly have the rights to use the likenesses of the protagonists in the game. So, why wouldn't they use them?
The most compelling reason I can think of is that they'd get in the way. If there's one thing every Massive game gets right, it's that the experience should be about the player's story. If Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of the Firefly-class ship Serenity are included in the game (as I suspect they will be), the only purpose they would really serve would be to degrade the experience of the individual players.
What possible purpose would it serve to remind players that they are not, in fact, one of the crew? The very best Firefly game you could make, one that would make the players care about the world they inhabited, would not feature Serenity in any way. Perhaps sidelong mentions of their antics in quest descriptions might be fair, but otherwise I say let them fly alone.
"Does seem like everyone's got a tale to tell."
Whatever direction the Firefly MMOG takes, at the end of the day stories in the 'Verse are about freedom and individuality. It would be hard to find a premise for a Massive game better than that. At the same time, the elements of the Firefly series that make it beloved by its fans would seem to represent insurmountable obstacles to making it a good MMOG.
Fans of the series will undoubtedly find some things to like about the game. It's hard to argue with the intention of bringing Joss Whedon's vision to life as a persistent world. Just the same ... is it still Firefly without jokes? Without storytelling, western accents, and the crew of Serenity, is the 'Verse still a place worth inhabiting?
I wish Multiverse and the folks they'll be working with the best. Through a combination of bad luck, bad timing, and poor decision-making, we've never had the chance to see the totality of what the 'Verse has to offer. If Firefly really takes off, there are so many stories that could be told and plots that could be explored. It makes this particular Browncoat weak in the knees just to think about it.
That said, real life and the 'Verse share one thing in common: the right thing rarely gets done. Let's hope I'm wrong.
[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]
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