Just over a week ago, we learned that Star Trek Online had reached one million users right out of the gate – an impressive number and one for which Cryptic should be congratulated. There’s no doubt that STO‘s success is at least in part due to the strength of the Star Trek license, gathering Trekkies new and old alike to live out their dream of being a starship captain. But is STO actually fulfilling those dreams, or are the developers making MMOGs from established IPs missing the point?
Do you remember the famous opening monologue to the series? “Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its ongoing mission: To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations… to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
That’s classic, right? It establishes the exploration and wonder that the Star Trek franchise was all about. Right there in the opening, you know exactly what the series stands for. It’s a bit weird when you think about applying it to the standard mechanic of the MMOG: “To seek out new life and new civilizations, to kill them and take their stuff.”
Death and warfare are something that Star Trek has never taken lightly – the destruction of one colony or one Federation starship is enough to bring tensions close to the boiling point. Captain Kirk rarely beams down to a planet with the intention of solving a problem with wholesale slaughter. In the film First Contact when Picard guns down the Borg in the Holodeck, his act is portrayed as something worrisome and almost reprehensible, a representation of his slide into madness when it comes to dealing with the Collective. In an MMOG, we rack up a higher body count every other mission.
It’s true that Star Trek does have its share of action (albeit no word on if there is a quest to put our captain in a fistfight against an angry Gorn) but the franchise has always relied heavily on exploration and character interaction rather than ass-kicking combat. Unfortunately, that’s what most modern MMOGs emphasize above all else.
Now, in all fairness, I haven’t yet checked out Star Trek Online. Speaking with fellow editor Greg Tito (who has played the game), I came away with the impression that Cryptic was trying to appeal more to the Star Trek fanbase with missions that didn’t involve being told to go kill 20 Romulans and take their pointy ears. But even STO still falls into the same MMOG routines in practice – you may get a mission to go explore a star system, but something invariably goes wrong and you need to go blow up an enemy starship or two. To Cryptic’s credit, he did also mention a mission where you just go down to talk to people in order to resolve a dispute – very Trek.
Still, there’s an underlying problem here: what a fan expects out of a series may not be what a gamer expects out of a game. The owners of some IPs don’t have to worry about this: Warhammer is all about killing your hated ancestral foe, Warcraft has its demons and Alliance vs. Horde – even Star Wars has “Wars” right there in the title. But most characters in MMOGs are effectively mass murderers who slaughter for the slightest material reward, even if they’re just normal townspeople or, as hilariously lampooned by Shamus Young in his “Shamus Plays LotRO,” musicians – and that just doesn’t fit into most IPs.
Let’s refer to the assumed-vaporware Firefly MMOG. Sure, Mal Reynolds and crew aren’t averse to shooting people in the face (or kneecaps) every now and then, but that’s not why Browncoats tuned in to watch. They wanted to see the snappy dialogue and characters they’d come to know and love. How do you replicate the bond of the crew of Serenity in an MMOG? And for that matter, what do you do if your engineer hasn’t logged in for over three weeks?
Harry Potter might have adventures on his own – which is why the single-player games work well – but the average student in Hogwarts probably isn’t sneaking into the dungeons to fight trolls every other week. Living in J.K. Rowling’s world might be plenty cool on its own, but what do you do there? Is there a quest where you pretend to be a Muggle and get terms hilariously wrong? If this MMOG ever materializes, it’d have one hell of a tough job to reconcile the action-packed world of gaming with the interactions that are what people love about the Harry Potter books.
Some franchises are suited for MMOGs and some aren’t – but that doesn’t stop people from trying. I guess the question developers should be asking themselves is not whether a franchise is suitable for an MMOG adaption, but rather, if it’s not, is that a deal-breaker?
Some Star Trek fans may well be able to suspend their disbelief and ignore the fact that their captain would have one of the blackest records in Starfleet after only a few weeks in the game. Others might have a bit more difficulty with the amount of killing. As long as the number of remaining subscribers is high enough to keep the game afloat, Cryptic shouldn’t have much to worry about.
In a world after Warcraft, MMOGs have tended to heavily swing to the Action-Adventure genre, where the draw of the game is to fight and conquer your way through legions of re-spawning enemies. That’s not a bad thing – it works very well for some games, but it doesn’t work for every piece of intellectual property out there. If developers aren’t willing to let go of the established model that worked so well for Warcraft and reach out to consider alternative methods of advancement and gameplay that don’t just revolve around combat, then maybe the world they’ll create will not be the one that the fans have always dreamed of inhabiting.
John Funk would totally play a Harry Potter MMOG. He likes to think he’d be a Ravenclaw.