Friday, February 25, 2011

Next Gen MMO failure

A term often bandied about in MMO circles is "Next Gen".  I have asked my wife, who has years more experience in MMOs than me, "What makes a next gen MMO?".
No good answer has be produced.  We just don't know.
If any MMO sub-genre needs the Next Gen treatment, it is superhero MMO.  At present I have played 3 Superhero MMOs (I have also played 3 supers table top games and read many more).  Each superhero MMO (SHMMO) has failed on some key point.
City of Heroes/City of Villains (COH/COV) had much to recommend it in character design, especially given its age.  I found the missions to wear thin after a while, however and the template or metaclass system is not superhero appropriate.
Champions had the most attractive and robust paperdoll of any MMO I'd ever played.  A SHMMO needs a vast, and I mean VAST, amount of colors, costume pieces, and body styles.  Super is all about costume and powers.  Champions, however, had uninspired gameplay.  It promised far more than it could hope to deliver.  It originally seemed to eschew the metagame templates, but as of Free-Play it is restricted to the same tired metaclasses.
DCU Online has mediocre costumes at launch and the color palette leaves a little to be desired.  The power sets are not ideal (Superman is an 'ice' hero), but it's choice to separate the 'powers' from the 'combat skills' was great.  DCUO comes closest to the superhero feel by having EVERYONE be a damage dealer, then tacking on the metaclass.
Just to be clear, by metaclass I am speaking of TANK, HEALER, DPS, RANGED DPS, CONTROLLER, etc.  These roles simply do not fit the super hero mold.
Superman is often seen as a PROTECTOR or DEFENDER, which is superhero MMO METACLASS speak for 'TANK'.  He absorbs damage, protects the hard hitters and controllers.  Sure, of course he would step in front of a bullet to save Batman, but he is also a VERY HEAVY HITTER.  Do laser beam eyes and the ability to move the planet not equate to DPS somehow?

Anyone who grew up on tabletop RPG knows that problems are not always solved by simply doing damage.  A thief sees the world differently than does a cleric or a wizard.  When presented with a problem in a tabletop campaign a thief looks at his skills to survive and succeed, while a wizard looks at this spellbook.  Unfortunately years of uninspired MMO programming and dull-witted children playing the games have led to the current state of gaming.  The MMO does not provide multiple solutions to a problem, just multiple classes seeking the same solution: kill it.  The stealther, the tank, and the nuker all need to do the same thing, which is outdamage the foe, they simply approach the goal in predictable, but different ways.  When put together into a group they automatically fall into their role or fail.
Comic readers and fans of the genre know that there is more separating Flash, Batman, Spiderman and Superman than simply strength and roles.  They think differently from one another.  If a smilodon, brought through a time portal, was let loose in THE CITY, each would solve the problem differently.  Batman would use a gadget to capture the beast, then spirit it away to the Batcave's Bat Prehistoric Menagerie Wing.  Flash would use his speed to baffle the great cat, maybe fun off, get some bait, and lead it away from the public, tricking it into a zoo cage.  Spidey would just web it up, but then the writers would forget how strong his webs are supposed to be and the sabretooth would just cut free.  Supes wouldn't even get winded dealing with this.  He'd probably fly it back in to the past as well.
In a standard MMO (fantasy mostly) the nuker would nuke it, the stealther would sneak up and use a set of combos and the tank would take a long time to kill it.  No inspired gameplay.

SHMMO deserves a next gen treatment.  Looking at the older DDO we saw a game where, through instanced gameplay, the DnD 3.5 classes actually used their 'skills' not just their line of damage abilities to solve problems.  There were also puzzles that the player actually had to solve or suffer.  There were traps for the rogue to disarm and locks that required a specific 'stat' like Charisma or Wisdom to undo.  All of this made for a 'tabletop' experience.  Bioware's Neverwinter Nights was capable of the same through networked play and modding.
SHMMO deserves such a treatment.  Certainly the popular image of comics is the 4 color slugfest.  Muscled men and buxom women duking it out in mindless violence.  Every true comics fan knows that this image is false.  Comics are varied and exciting with characters who eschew violence as much as bellicose pugilists glorify it.  Shouldn't the Next Gen MMO be the SHMMO?
At present the SHMMO has fallen into the same boring MMO rut as the extant fantasy games.  The metagame is still the same, with the metaclasses unchanged, save for the names, and no hope of inspired gameplay waiting in the wings.  Things are looking grim for Star Wars: The Old Republic as well.  SWTOR is being produced by Bioware, the company that brought the world two iterations of Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.  SWTOR deserves to be THE NEXT GEN MMO, but will it?
According to my sources, no it will not.  Success in this business is determined by subscriptions.  Bums in seats.  Thus the designers must give the people what they want.  The sad truth would seem to be that the people say they want fresh, new, and Next Gen, but demonstrate through forums, beta tests and their purchasing dollars that they want more of the same.  If it ain't broke, don't fix it; what if it never worked in the first place?
The first MMOs grew from the love of the (tabletop) game, yet computers were just too limited to provide the full tabletop experience, which is one of possibilities and human interaction.  The tabletop game featured game controllers who could and would fudge a die roll to save the story, who could adjudicate a situation not covered in the rules book (programming), and who were capable of shifting the pre-programmed adventure to suit the needs of the consumer.  When presented with a cat that needed skinning, the tabletop GM could be convinced that perhaps the cat didn't need skinning after all.  When presented with 4 standard ways to solve the problem the human GM could handle that new, innovative and slightly insane 5th way.  None of this is part of the MMO.  To make it mass market and profitable the designers needed to focus on doing one or two things well.  Those things were combat related.  Since that time MMOs have been defined by COMBAT and the esoterica of tabletop, such as Stats, Skills, and Choices have all given way to an action bar full of ATTACKS, SPELLS, and BUFFS.  This is great in a wargame sense, but is not good enough for SHMMO and certainly not the path to Next Gen, unless, as failed evolutionary science teaches us, the Next Gen is just more of the same, parent to child to grandchild.
With such a shallow and polluted gene pool as we currently have in this post-Blizzard MMO world, how can we expect Next Gen to be any different from This Gen?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The relationship between Sci-Fi and Horror: The Creature

Recently I have been pondering things like the fact that Jaws is still a great movie and how much Science Fiction and Horror go together.  Going back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and possibly before, there has a been a relationship between Sci-Fi and Horror that works well.  The two genres are not, I believe, wholly distinct from one another.  If we look at them as existing on a spectrum there is significant overlap.  Consider the aforementioned Frankenstein.  Written using the science of its day and possessing social commentary aplenty, the story was also a Gothic ghost story of great skill and interest, spooking readers then if not now.  In the 1950s in the United States comics, magazines, films and television shows all got into the Sci-Fi game, leaving behind the thoughtful writings of Wells and Verne for the Atomic powered horror of giant bugs, alien invaders and pod people.  Still the science was contemporary (for popular purposes) and the subtexts were apropos.  Overt alien invaders from Mars stood side-by-side with allegorical Communist Pod People in the cinematic worlds.

Into this new era of Science Fiction stalked (and swum) the Gill-Man, or, if you like, The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

The eponymous Creature (who I will refer to as Gill-Man for the remainder of this article...probably) is a pre-historic throwback, a leftover missing link between man and fish.  Obviously there is no such thing, nor would there be, but this does not stop Gill-Man from being one of the best Universal Monsters of all time.  This is very important, actually, because Gill-Man is a Universal Monster.  If you do a quick Google search for "Universal Monsters" you will see that the classic team lineup is Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy (in bandages), the Bride of Frankenstein and the Creature (from the Black Lagoon).  Save for the Wolf Man and the Creature, all of these classic monsters come from the 1930s.  Wolfie was 1941 and Creature was 1954.  What is especially telling is that the Gill-Man is considered one of the gang despite his younger age, lack of 'historical' or 'literary' basis and despite the fact that his movie is really more Sci-Fi than a 'monster' film.

I love the film and I love the character.  The film marks a departure from the norm for a 50's film from a company like Universal, in that it freely speaks of evolution.  The leading man and leading lady, Richard Carlson and Julia Adams, respectively, are a couple, but unmarried and living together, a not uncommon reality any time in history, but not something shown often on the big screen, save when viewing morally inferior 'villains'.  The film was not a typical alien invasion movie or supernatural thriller, but a script about a fish-man that falls in love with a human woman and is attempting to protect its home from invaders.

The Gill-Man is a great movie monster, plain and simple.  An anthropomorphic fish, or a hybrid fish-man, either way the creature is an imposing figure with claws (not present in any known fish), fins and a bass-like gaping maw.  Admittedly his head does appear a bit like a middle-aged dude with a 'skullet' but let's try and remember that he is a fish-person.
Fish people are an interesting choice for movie monster because they automatically look alien to land bound mammals like ourselves.  Consider Admiral Ackbar, everyone's favorite lobster man, or Kit Fisto, whose creature shop genesis is anybody's guess.
Seriously, what the fuck are you?  Squid eyes, catfish chin tendrils, lobster hands...orthopedic shoes...seriously, WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU?
"Yeah, mon, me gots the Space Rasta ting goin on"  Head tentacles.  This is all so wrong.

See, the aquatic provides a sense of alien mystique and cool points.  Except for the lobster man.  There is nothing cool about Mon Cal.  Ever.  And they have breasts.  Mammaries?  On a lobster-catfish-squid?

So cool is the Gill-Man that Macfarlane toys, the experts in when too much is not enough, made not 1 but 2 different sea-creature toys.

Here we see the first one, part of a series (two series to be exact) of monster sets.  Each featured a monster, a setting and either a victim, opponent or supporting cast member.  This was perhaps the most 'high concept' of the monster sets as the "playset" portion uses "wooden" poles to support a plastic 'water' under which the sea creature can be found.  The old diving helmet and diver, armed with a harpoon, completes the scene.  This creature is definitely human in design, evoking the Gill-Man imagery, but is oddly draconic as well.  It is a fine sculpt.

Here is the later sea creature from the later, larger scale Macfarlane line.  This line features sculpts that 're-imagine' the monsters even more, including a very batlike vampire and the most grotesque werewolf sculpt in the history of toys.  Another fine sculpt, this time with hints of alligator in the face and a translucency to the fins.  This creature is also huge.  The severed human head on the hook gives a sense of 'scale' to the beast.

There are many reasons to like the Gill-Man, not the least of which is the fact that I just really dig sea monsters.  Of the classic Universal Monsters, Gill is a great example of what a classic Universal Monster was all about.  He's sympathetic, frightening and photogenic.  The Gill-Man's story is one of doomed love, with his motivation being not the destruction of life, or the unnatural prolonging of his undead existence and in this respect he reminds us of the Mummy Imhotep who sought to bring back his reincarnated love.  Yet Gill-Man is somehow purer than Imhotep.  He only wants the human interlopers to leave his world alone until he meets the girl of his fishy dreams, and it is this smitten fish boy that is the tragic hero of the piece.  Still, he remains a monster through and through with his alien body and mind.  He thrilled audiences for three pictures before leaving the scene for good at the end of The Creature Walks Among Us, but his legacy lives on.  Among the U-Monsters he is unique, for while Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula demonstrate great physical strength and the Wolf Man demonstrates savagery, it is the Gill-Man who alone resides in the water.  He is like the Aquaman of the monsters, but is not the butt of lame jokes on websites the world over.  He also received his own pinball game and was a feature member of the Monster Bash pinball machine from Williams.
Monster Bash backglass

In the Universal Monster band Gill-Man plays saxophone and you will note is the only member with a groupie.  Even in the pinball game the Creature displays his aloof and alien manner, turning down multiple requests to join the band.

As a character that is both a Sci-Fi classic and a Horror icon from the Universal stable, I think that the Creature (from the Black Lagoon) is the perfect iconic figure to represent the genre overlap at its best.  Of course, he is one of my faves, so I'm biased.

Creature from the Black Lagoon available on DVD, 4 stars, go watch it today.
Until next time, keep your Tiki lit.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Damn it's cold

As the actress said to the bishop...

But seriously, folks.  It's cold.  I don't like it.  I'm sick of it.  I want to be somewhere warm, beachy, drinks with umbrellas in...

Not happy.  And for the record, neither is the wife.  She, despite being a native of Virginia and having lived here nearly all of her life, is so over cold weather.  We aspire to move south a bit, Gulf Coast perhaps.

The Caribbean.  Swimming Pools.  Pirates.  Drinks with umbrellas in.

So today I decided that I feel sci-fi nostalgic again.  I was going to talk about The Creature From The Black Lagoon and how much I enjoy that film.  But really, sod it.  A bloody classic that manages to be both a sci-fi classic and a Universal monster classic.  Yep.  Fish man.

Why is it that fish men, clearly lacking external genitalia, are so keen to mate with human women?

I bet Admiral Ackbar would taste yummy if boiled alive and dipped in drawn butter.  In fact that is probably the best way to torture a Mon Cal for information: dip him in drawn butter and then watch him try to eat himself.  (Lobsters are highly cannibalistic, and I don't care what the name is {Squid Man...Mon Calimari} those guys are bloody lobsters)

Many Mon Cal ate themselves to bring us this information.

I mean, if you had four Mon Cal stuck on a life raft together after a shipwreck they would waste no time getting to the part where they eat one of the group.  Probably before the supplies ran out.  Because they are going to need drawn butter.

This marks the fourth time I've used the words drawn butter without any clear notion of what makes it drawn. Butter I understand, but the rest of long as I get to go to Red Mon Cal for dinner.

"Would you like to hear about our specials today?"

"Shit.  Why not, sweet cheeks?"

"Today we have potato bisque for soup, a lovely Ceasar ranch salad.  Our fresh catch is Mahi."

"How's the Mon Cal done?"

"Boiled alive and served with drawn butter.  A dandelion green salad on the side."

"How is it caught?  Humanely I hope."

"Oh, it's a trap."