How do you make a Wild West Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game?
August 9, 2006 2:15 PM   Subscribe

What would it entail to produce a MMORPG in the western genre with subtle steampunk and/or horror undertones ?

Ynoxas mentioned this in the Blue the other day and I've found myself dwelling on it but not to a point where I can find an answer on my own. A lot of people have talked about it. Some people have even tried to make it happen. Why are there so many anime, and scifi, and swordplay MMORPGs, but genres like western and steampunk and horror just haven't really been explored? Is there just a lack of interest? Is there something about the mechanics of it that makes it near impossible?

What would it take for a world of this nature to interest you enough to download it? What events would have to occur to make such a thing happen? What would you want it to be like, and how would you get it there?
posted by ZachsMind to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total)
It may not quite make your definition of MMORPG, but you might want to check out Bang! Howdy for a steampunkish multiplayer game under development.
posted by jammer at 2:34 PM on August 9, 2006

The people who are building Bang Howdy (which is not a MMORPG) also built Puzzle Pirates, which is a MMORPG, though not of the questing sort that's so common. Daniel James, their CEO, sits on lecture panels and such at conferences quite regularly, so you might watch for a chance to ask him those questions.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:38 PM on August 9, 2006

Though they're mostly fantasy, the Iron Realms text-based MMORPGs do have pretty standard horror elements (i.e., vampires).

What would it take for a world of this nature to interest you enough to download it?

Quality. I really don't care about the genre, I'll play it if it's good. And I'm intrigued by the idea of a Lovecraftian Steampunk kind of setting. Starched collars, Kafka coughing up blood in a corner, steam-powered automata on the fritz, heavy on the mood. That would entail several kinds of awesome.

IF you've got a good enough idea and the gameplay is sufficiently engaging, that is. Most gamers will play anything if it's fun. You'd have to look at the highest-rated, most popular games, dissect them to see what they're doing right. Otherwise you fall into the neat-concept-but-there's-no-game-there category. Good writing and engaging gameplay are the most important.

What events would have to occur to make such a thing happen?

You need a bunch of top-notch coders, which ain't cheap, and several months bare minimum design and development time. If this is just something for people to work on in their spare time, it could go well over a year or more.
posted by middleclasstool at 2:51 PM on August 9, 2006

In addition to what middleclasstool meantions you needing, you also need some expensive server rooms and bandwidth, and people to maintain them. MMORPGs are the most expensive and complex games to produce and maintain.

The reason you haven't seen a mainstream steamput MMORPG is partly because of that - the margin for profit in an MMORPG is slim, because the setup and maintenance costs are large and ongoing compared to even a AAA title, in turn demanding a larger audience than the usual multiplayer/online games to break even, in turn restricting the games to just a few things/themes that have sufficiently broad appeal to hope to gain that audience. Steampunk isn't big enough. 30 years ago westerns would have been, so were they to make a renaisonce the way pirates recently have, it would be good. The demographic overlap between gamers hardcore enough enough to subscribe $$$ for games, and people into westerns, might not be as large as you hope.

So basically, you're looking for a way to do it on a shoestring, and find a balance between audience size and ongoing costs and subscriptions. Don't expect to make money on this - if you do it, do it for the love, do it for the resume, do it because it hasn't been done, but don't do it for the money, because you'd make positive income flipping burgers at McDonalds, whereas you're very likely take losses on making a game. Even the massive game publishers and big players seem to end bankrupt with depressingly regularity.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:09 PM on August 9, 2006

"in turn demanding a larger audience "

Er, potential audience that is - AAA sales will be higher, but fewer gamers are prepared to pay subscription fees, so it's apples and oranges. I probably shouldn't have put it like that.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:12 PM on August 9, 2006

For me, the one huge thing that'd make me download and play it is a really solid, satisfying non-turn-based combat or action system. If progression was based on my skill as a player rather than increases in my character's stats or gear, and the actual act of combat or adventuring felt like a really good console action game (a Devil May Cry or Resident Evil 4) rather than something dry, distanced and insubstantial like the majority of MMOs and PC RPGs. It's something absolutely no MMORPGs on the market right now offer (D&D Online tried admirably, and failed miserably), and you could sell me a game on that basis alone.

That's true of an MMORPG in any setting, of course, not just a steampunk or horror one.

I think the one major thing in the way of a horror MMO is the playerbase - horror games (look at the Silent Hills, Fatal Frames and so on) rely entirely on the building of tension and atmosphere, and the placing of the player in that tense setting. It's hard to reconcile that sort of atmosphere with some moron stripped to his underpants, jumping around like a loon and screaming LFG HAUNTED HOSUE, which is what I guarantee would happen fairly regularly. You'd have to have a bulletproof way of preventing players intentionally ruining the atmosphere for each other and making the scares look ridiculous, while not overly limiting communication, and I'm not sure how you'd go about it.

As for steampunk, I think it's a great idea. It probably hasn't been done because a new MMO (particularly in the shadow of World of Warcraft) is a hell of a big and expensive proposition for a developer, and when compared to sci-fi or Tolkienesque fantasy the appeal of the setting is a bit of an unknown quantity. I suspect the value of having such a relatively original setting has been balanced against the risk of offering players something unfamiliar they may well ignore in favour of getting to be Aragorn or a space marine in many a boardroom, and the decision's been made to go with the hackneyed but tried-and-tested. That's not to say it wouldn't take off, of course. I certainly hope it would.

As for getting it there? Apart from really solid skill-based mechanics (no auto-attack, no hidden to-hit rolls), which would require testing and testing and testing, I'd make it 2D, with an isometric viewpoint. But not low-res or cute. I'd find and hire a really talented artist online to draw up a heavily stylised, stylish, artistic 'look' for everything in the game, then get loads of people in to create high-res hand-drawn graphics based on that. Have it look like a really gorgeous comic book. Actually get a solid writer in to create and flesh out the world. Make it original and interesting at first glance, and make it look significantly different to all the other generic-looking 3D MMO wannabes out there. I'm sure there's a lot more to say, but that was the big thing that came to mind.
posted by terpsichoria at 3:21 PM on August 9, 2006

terpsichoria: The main reason MMORPG combat sucks is lag. In order to embrace the largest possible user base, the game play has to be playable on crappy network connections. I may be a bit partial, but I think City of Heroes has more action-based and immediate combat than say World of Warcraft. But, as a consequence, CoH isn't playable well on certain network connections, and we lose some customers.

With regards to the western/steampunk setting, it does in fact come down to audience. When selling any setting to a publisher/financer it's more or less a necessity to be able to point at some successful, existing property that at least shares the setting. It DOESN'T have to be a computer game, though. If you bring up the setting of wester/steampunk, the only property anyone remembers is Wild Wild West, and that's not the kind of association you want people to make. I'm trying to think of a single successful (financially) game/movie/show in that genre over the last 20 years, and failing.

Frankly, I think for a steampunk western MMO to get made, you'd either have to aim for a small niche and self-finance, or wait until it's a more successful genre. However, some of the ideas will definitely show up in other games. WoW already has a bit of a steampunk flair to it, and I'm sure a more traditional horror MMORPG will come out eventually, because that genre is more proven.
posted by JZig at 4:13 PM on August 9, 2006

You're absolutely right - most modern MMOs are hamstrung by having to work on slower connections. Heavy instancing of action or combat areas is the most obvious way around it, I suppose. Phantasy Star Online used to manage press-button-to-swing-weapon combat on a 56k Dreamcast modem by having absolutely everything outside of the lobby area instanced and limited to four players. I think there's a great amount of scope for a developer to find a happy medium between a PSO-like level of isolating players in action areas for the sake of immediate combat and something like WoW's extremely bandwidth-light combat system, and the ability to have everyone in the same world all the time that comes with it.
posted by terpsichoria at 4:23 PM on August 9, 2006

I think it's just a "what nerds are into" thing. Consider:

1. You have to be a huge nerd to play MMORPGs.
2. Nerds mainly like ye olde dragones stuff and sci-fi.
3. Nerds are not so much into Westerns and horror.

Basically, it's like asking "why is there no MMORPG set within the world of Jane Austen?" There's no target market there -- no-one would play it. They all want to be either brave adventurers of yore or Darth freakin' Vader.
posted by reklaw at 4:23 PM on August 9, 2006

Horror is a peak emotion. It's not a sustainable feeling. Grab some random horror novels from popular and not-so-popular authors, then flip through. You'll find that the actual horror bits are fairly sparse and what you have is dark supernatural elements in an action story, or dark science-fiction elements in a dystopian story, etc. You just can't stay scared for that long.

My guess is you could work with despair, suspense, dread, and the occasional bit of fright, along with healthy doses of surrealistic and gross-out. UrbanDead is a very low-tech MMPORG and it isn't particularly scary.

I suspect you would be constrained to something graphics-heavy to increase the submersion of your player into the world enough to induce the emotion.

Steampunk as an element seems a lot more reasonable, in that it doesn't require a sustained freakout. Plus, a BFG in Doom or whatever (never played it) is just a widget like anything else - just make it look steampunky. You'd have to make it something a character could tinker with on some minimal level to preserve the feel of steampunk. My brief foray into first person shooters left me with the sensation that, short of jumping on things or shooting them, I could not interact with my environment in an intelligent fashion. Being able to take already useful objects and combine them into still more useful items might lend the game the Do-It-Yourself feel of steampunk.

So, given what you're looking for (steampunk and horror), and your resources (relatively cheap and easy), consider something like Urban Dead, add some more text, more randomized text, decrease the combat fixation, and then make an inventory of Terribly Clever Combinations of standard items. I don't know if you played Magic: the Gathering, but certain combinations of unimpressive cards suddenly packed a wallop. Similarly, make doofy weapons (like the mostly harmless but entertaining AirGun) out of ... compressed air cannisters and megaphones.
posted by adipocere at 4:49 PM on August 9, 2006

3. Nerds are not so much into Westerns and horror.

I know many a nerd who would refute that claim. I know lots of nerds who are into Deadwood and classic Eastwood and Wayne films, as well as horror. Hell, for that matter, Firefly was essentially a western, and that fact was one of the things the fans loved about it. Nerdistan still hasn't gotten over its death.

I guarantee you that if it's a good enough game, there'd be a sustainable market for it. Convincing investors of that fact, though, is a different matter, because investors don't like going against trends.

My guess is you could work with despair, suspense, dread...

I thought the original Myst game did an excellent job of that when I first played it. The abandoned island, the total lack of human contact, hollow echoes, burned libraries, the torture devices, the crazy man in the book... I'd never played anything like it before, and it totally sucked me in.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:39 PM on August 9, 2006

I'm a professional MMO designer, and I've been involved in game pitch discussions for more than one major publisher. Every time we debated potential genres, Western came up, and every time, it failed to make the cut.

There are a couple of big reasons why you won't see experienced MMO developers tackle a traditional, big-publisher MMORPG with a Western theme. Bang! Howdy is a smaller, non-traditional title, so I'm not counting it. (Great guys over there, though, and I wish them the best of luck.)

The first and biggest reason: Western doesn't lend itself to progressive gameplay themes. We all understand the fantasy progression: you start out killing rats and you work your way up to the dragon. In a Western game, you kill ... bigger bad guys with blacker hats. Or something. In fantasy, you start out with a burlap shirt and a rusty sword; you end up with the Shining Metal Bikini of Righteousness and a big-ass zweihander. In a Western game, you get ... shinier cowboy boots.

Combat is also likely to be boring, because ranged combat is usally pretty lame in MMOs. Current technical limitations prevent designers from doing much more than target n' shoot. If you could only shoot people with guns, your game would probably be boring.

If you add steampunk or horror, you get the benefit of varied enemies, and maybe more believably progressive equipment. However, you lose out on the potential market of older guys who like Westerns. My dad's a big John Wayne fan, and he just might be interested in a Western game, but he's right out if you mention zombies. I bet a lot of other people's dads are the same way. The MMO market skews older than most people would think, so don't totally ignore this point.

Another reason: a good MMO is one set in a world where you want to hang out. World of Warcraft's massive success is partially due to the bright, colorful, and inviting setting. Can you make a Western world that's bright, colorful, and inviting? Will it appeal to a broad audience?

What about varied environments? Fantasy is great for MMOs because you can have zones set anywhere -- forests, ice zones, volcanic wastelands, whatever. Your Western game can really only be set in a desert (or Italy, I guess). You cannot get away with a single zone type in a game where players are supposed to play for hundreds of hours, especially if it's boring. (I admit that space sims are something of an exception to this rule.)

And another reason, albeit one I can't back up with links at the moment: Western games nearly always fail on the market. An MMO is a long, expensive investment; publishers thus tend to play it very safe.

For more thoughts on shaking up the MMO formula, check out discussions about licenses. The "would Firefly/Buffy/The Surreal Life make a good MMO?" question nearly always comes down to the same questions. Build an Experience, not a Genre is a great summation (something like a self-link, as the author is both a former coworker and my fiance). Also see a recent discussion of why Battlestar Galactica would be a bad choice for an MMO. I recommend both Damion and Scott's blogs for more thoughtful MMO design discussion.
posted by liet at 11:28 PM on August 9, 2006 [2 favorites]

UrbanDead is a very low-tech MMPORG and it isn't particularly scary.

Adipocere, you clearly haven't been a victim of the most recent zombie onslaught Big Bash or the Caiger Mall siege. There's nothing more terrifying than desperately searching for a VS+2 or weaker barricade to sneak by as your AP start to plummet towards zero and you've got zombies on your tail.

Play UrbanDead for a bit, and you start to get pretty jumpy. I've tried WoW, I've tried City Of Heroes, I've fooled around in a lot of MMOs for a couple of days here and there, but after a year of playing, I still log in to UrbanDead every day. Best of all, you can't play for more than ten or fifteen minutes a day because it won't allow more than a certain number of hits from each IP address. It's the perfect casual MMO for me at least.

I'm just saying that there's lots of different ways to tackle the MMO. Flashy ain't necessarily best.
posted by incessant at 1:28 AM on August 10, 2006

Response by poster: All VERY good answers. Thanks everybody. Sounds like it boils down to a concern over the fact that the western genre doesn't lend itself to the medium as well as other genres, and there's no real room for character growth in the same sense that other genres have. There's not much difference between being a lawman, a ranch hand, or an outlaw, and a level one outlaw wouldn't look much different from a level fifty outlaw. Maybe the level 50 would have more wealth, and more scars, but that's about it.

Still, it'd look purty. If one's into southwestern desert landscape art.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:47 AM on August 10, 2006

Tales of Alvin Maker is not so much Western as pioneer, and not so much steampunk as supernatural. But it's probably the closest thing to what you're looking for. The last article on the IGN site is dated January 2005, but I'm fairly sure the game is still in production (I play on eGenesis's other MMO, A Tale In The Desert, and so hear bits and pieces about Alvin Maker occasionally).

The differences between A Tale In The Desert and other MMOs may give you a hint as to why steampunk/western MMOs haven't really been pursued to a great extent: current conceptions of how an MMO works don't work very well in such a setting. liet's done a way better job than I ever could of explaining some of the reasons why.

Of course, this merely says that the traditional quest-based combat MMORPG model is unlikely to work well, but there are other MMOs that work on different paradigms: Planetside, for example, is only somewhat persistent and bases its gameplay on first-person shooter game mechanics. The Sims Online and Second Life are giant sandboxes. There are any number of possibilities for a Western MMO that have nothing to do with the World of Warcraft model; for example, focus on the pioneering aspects of the Wild West and make the MMO about colonizing California. Allow people to play all different sorts of roles, from camps of bandits to pioneer families building their own homesteads to the town sheriff to whatever.

The problem with new models, however, is no one's worked out the details, and as mentioned above, MMOs are expensive propositions. So Gold Bandits Online might turn out to be the next World of Warcraft8212;or the next Motor City Online. Until someone figures out the details that make a good concept a good game, no one's going to fund it; and until someone tries making this game (which would require funding), no one's going to figure out those details. Basically you need an indie developer or a renegade publisher willing to take chances. Which is sort of how the MMO market got started, no?
posted by chrominance at 9:36 AM on August 10, 2006

I wanted to chime in because I did think it was a good idea and it needed more refinement. I've never played an MMORPG, so you can take my opinion or leave it.

I took a class on popular literature in college and it taught about political/social undercurrents in popular culture. Much of the popular low culture was created by the same people that were considered part of the high culture.

Much of what we focused on were how particular themes found popularity during different periods of time and what the different genres were portraying in culture.

A couple of themes that are easy to detect are that of the western and the detective story.

The western has tones of the frontier, an unknown challenging environment, pioneers choose to live in the frontier because they are either rejecting society (criminal element, starting over) or society has rejected them and they choose to create a new society. Issues (such as justice) that haven't been properly addressed in the old world can be readressed in the new. The western became very popular after WW2 for a variety of reasons: the horror of the war caused some people to reevaluate their beliefs about a just society, framing the issue in the western allows people to create a 'what if' scenario that didn't pertain to real life. Another reason was the new space age. The pioneer spirit needed to be expressed, but space was completely alien to most people so you can express that feeling in something that Americans have an idea about and take pride in and that was the expansion into the west.

Think about steampunk, what does it represent? I don't have a total understanding of it myself and can only give a surface analysis. Is it about rejection of technology? Rejection of our current society? Are there any themes of morality (because of the Victorian setting)? Are the conflicts in the stories usually bad men with superior technology? Unfeeling technology? Or are the characters using their technology to explore an unfriendly world?

I think in order to create a good game, especially an MMORPG, you have to have a good story. Understanding the themes that you are trying to weave together will help you understand which elements or themes are going to be heightened by the genre that you are choosing.
posted by kookywon at 9:59 AM on August 11, 2006

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