The rise and fall of adventure games is one of the great mysteries of video game history. Myst sales figure rival any blockbuster, proving there is a market, but no one seems quite sure who that market is. Since then, The Sims has claimed the crown of non-violent champion. Again, copies of this franchise sell faster than The Bible, but despite this, the non-violent game market has never taken off.
In MMOs, there have been three notable attempts. EA figured they could cash in with The Sims Online. Unfortunately, they forgot to make a game that Sims fans actually liked, and that blight was more recently shut down. SEED was a futuristic sci-fi society builder, but holds one of the fastest launch to shutdown records ever. Only A Tale in the Desert has met any success, but while it no doubt keeps creator Andrew Tepper clothed and fed, it likely will never help him buy a helicopter.
Despite these three tales of woe, I ask today why there is not a mystery, non-violent MMO?
The Sims Online no doubt set non-violent MMOs back by a decade, at least. If the biggest fish in the pond can fail, anyone can, right? And if that’s not enough, URU Live (the Myst MMO) was also DOA.
The problem is, both tried to adapt a good single player idea for the online market. Neither made a game that truly captured the benefits of being an MMO.
MMOs are online, they’re social and they’re competitive. A mystery/adventure MMO could benefit from all these things and maybe, just maybe, it’s online that this strangely dead genre can find a second chance.
Combat has become a crutch. It’s an accepted, traditional MMO convention and it’s become the core of every game from super heroes to space monsters. Without it, a game would be forced to invent mechanics that might make the genre as a whole far more compelling.
What’s more, since no one has made a truly successful adventure game in a few years, maybe, just maybe tradition in that genre can be tossed out as well. Tradition is a powerful force for gaming executives and players. There are fantasy games, because fantasy games sell. With the passage of time, perhaps, someone, somewhere would be open to a new way to do something very old.
So how would a mystery/adventure MMO work, anyway, you ask?
Think of Clue. Not literally the board game, but a scenario like it. It’s a simple murder mystery that six people can play in under an hour. They can work together and share information, or deceive and mislead. It’s a perfect social bubble played around the kitchen table.
It’s a real world instance.
In my dream mystery/adventure MMO, players would be brought into instances, and instead of shooting each other in the face as most games require, they would be out to solve a crime, mystery or riddle.
The characters would need to talk to NPCs, gather information, look for clues and most importantly, stay one step a head of the other investigators as they solved the crime.
These scenarios could come in all forms. From simple mysteries that take 30 minutes to get through, to big, epic (dare I say, raid sized) ones that can last a few hours. They would match wits, and get players to genuinely read dialogue, look for clues and properly navigate chat trees to find the information they need.
Eventually, the mystery would be solved, and a winner declared.
On a larger scale, the game could also have meta mysteries. These would be the events of the mystery MMO. No game could live off these alone, especially since by its very nature only one person could win, but in a world with lots of content to consume, having a larger theme to try and sort out each month would be a spectacular challenge for the hardcore.
Now, obviously, walkthroughs and the Internet could make this kind of game tough. Yes, people would undoubtedly be able to cheat and ruin the game for others. This is especially true in a competitive situation.
There are solutions though. For one, just because one person in your instance has solved the crime, it shouldn’t necessarily preclude the other players from going through to the end for bonus points, if they like. The race against the clock is a nice element, but when someone is unnaturally fast because they’ve just rolled their 8th character, it would get annoying.
The fact is, in most MMOs, a great number of players play their own way anyway. How often does the average player know exactly what’s going to happen in the next quest? It doesn’t matter that hundreds of players have done it before, it’s usually a surprise unless they themselves go out of their way to get the answers in advance.
No doubt, in a game where the answers meant a lot more, this would be more of an issue. And the only real defense against this is clever design.
For example, in each scenario, the designers would need to craft them with great care to ensure that there is more than one route to success. This would increase replayability. Sure, it might be on the web that if you walk to the third room on the left, talk to the Butler, look behind the copy of The Great Gatsby and then clap four times, the cellar door flies open and a photo of the killer falls out. Yes, you can look that up and ruin your day, but a well designed scenario would have a couple ways to solve the crime and that kind of discovery would be key to the kind of player attracted to a mystery game.
Look at Clue. That game is well designed so that there is not always one right answer. A company that could develop several kinds of games, as well as more directed experiences, might well have a gold mine on its hands.
There are sea of gamers out there. They have nothing to amuse them these days. As a more casual MMO, a mystery game would be a great chance to step in and really capture that under served market. I don’t believe that every adventure gamer ceased to exist in the early part of the decade. They’re out there and they all still have a copy of Myst.
So, as unlikely as it seems, I ask again: Why not make a mystery/adventure MMO?