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Dana Massey Asks Why Not?: Why Not A Survival MMO?

Column By Dana Massey on August 13, 2009

Of all of the untapped genres out there, Survival Horror is best suited to an MMO, but for whatever reason has never been tried. A true sandbox MMO that throws out many of the assumptions of these types of games would be the perfect way to recreate this popular genre online.

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Movies are what make this genre, and each entry in it follows a pretty similar script. A group of ordinary people start out, pushed together by proximity to defend themselves against a mystery plague that has turned everyone bitten into a zombie. They have to adapt, learn new skills and defend themselves.

Games like Left4Dead have captured that climatic shoot 'em up experience beautifully, but that's just the climax of these films. How did those four people get there? A sandbox MMO could explore that beautifully.

In my ideal Survival Horror MMO, players would start just like the movies. Alone, scared, no skills and surrounded by zombies. The first mission would be a simple one. You've heard about a safe haven and know where it is. You just need to fight your way there.

These are the places where survivors tend to congregate at the end of these movies to rebuild society and defend themselves against the mindless hordes. Typically, that's where the credits roll, but in a Survival Horror MMO the character's adventure would just be the beginning.


Some Survivors will be useful

Once in that safe zone, the players would find other survivors and quickly realize that the area they found is not the paradise they were led to believe it might be. The NPC founders are drunk with power and little better than the zombies outside the gate. Quickly, players would be encouraged to set out on their own.

From a mechanical perspective, these cities would be safe zones. They'd have only the most basic resources, but they'd enable players to learn how to play the game and acquire some basic skills before going out into the world.

The goal of the Survival Horror genre is two parts: survival and rebirth. Most of these movies have an underlying theme of "we deserved it" and the characters learn through the cataclysm how to make a better world. Once in the world, each player would be in search of how to build that new life.

By definition, the larger game would have to be somewhat group oriented. Survival Horror is also about interdependency. Each person contributes something that keeps the entire group from getting eaten. While it might be viable to play the solo zombie hunter, Rambo-type, they would eventually be encouraged to join a group, or guild of survivors to contribute toward a greater goal.

Survival Horror begs for a skill based system. The very premise is basically an MMO already. Totally unprepared, totally unskilled, a person acquires what they need to survive as they grow into something more. The game would be the same and encourage people to specialize into specific roles.


Others, not so much.

These would include non-combat roles, such as builders (defenses need reinforcing, or houses need built), or the more prototypical combat roles, like the bad-ass, shotgun wielding slayers.

The idea behind this system is that while everyone would need some combat skills to survive day to day, larger groups would value the non-combat roles as they try and carve out something more permanent.

Games like Left4Dead largely ignore half of the genre. That game is the ten minutes at the end where the group goes on a rampage. The first half of the movie is largely about waiting around, fear, group dynamics and learning. Players might enjoy slaughtering zombies, but by definition, they're an overwhelming tide. The whole point of the MMO would not be to wipe out the zombies, but to create a safe place for you and those you trust to live, grow and, of course, kill zombies.

Essentially, what I have in mind is a player-run city, territory control dynamic. Players would need to group together to reclaim sections of the world as their own and give them a safe place to sleep. To do this, they'd not only have to fight, but undertake missions to claim precious materials and advance their city. Obviously, each trip outside would provide stiffer and stiffer zombie competition. Mindless as they may be, they know a tasty morsel of living brain colony when they see it.

Through the advancement of these player cities, players would uncover more story, more missions, bigger guns, and stronger defenses.

Once into these colonies, this is where the sandbox parts really come into play. Sure, many people are able to kill some zombies, but if all hell broke loose around you, would you? The world is filled with defenseless people and as bad-ass survivors, it would be up to you and your people to help as many as you can.

This can include NPCs, and players.

Last week, I talked about a sandbox experience and how it is about more than just combat. This remains true of this kind of Survival Horror sandbox. There's no point in survival unless the world you survived can live on. Eventually, cities would want to rescue and recruit useful, but defenseless citizens. Want to learn to play the guitar? I hear there's a musician walled up downtown. Clearly we need to learn how to farm, right? Out in the countryside, see if there are any survivors who can teach us.

As a colony, groups would need to find and save NPC survivors who could advance the colony's skills. They would then teach players how to do things, and even contribute themselves to the colony. A good farmer, for example, provides better food, which gives the players more health and fitness to defend everyone.


But they all have to
face the hoard

This is the trick to my ideal Survival Horror MMO. To truly advance through the game's skill system, players would not just need to repeat the same actions, but actively work toward the greater good and find NPCs and players that can help them get there. Eventually, even if your first colony gets overrun, the players in it would have acquired specific skills that can help future colonies.

My Survival Horror MMO would definitely force grouping up, at least in some ways. Day to day, players would be free to fight solo, but they'd need larger social bonds to survive.

There would also, undoubtedly be competition and limited resources. It's one thing to send a raiding party to save that farmer the colony needs, but it's another when a neighboring colony shows up in search of the same guy. Through limited resources and mutually exclusive goals, colonies would have some tough decisions to make. Do they declare war on their neighbor and kill even more humans or do they work together, share what they can and hope for the greater good? Both would be viable options and both would have risks and rewards.

The game world itself would be in a constant state of change, but the genre suits that perfectly. Over time, developers could easily add new lands and new skills and it would all make perfect sense within the logic of the genre. Survival Horror may be the most perfectly suited of all pop-culture genres to being an MMO. It's time someone gives it a proper try.

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Dana Massey Asks Why Not?
Dana Massey is the former Editor of MMORPG.com and The WarCry Network. He recently returned to MMORPG.com as its PR Manager. Dana was also the Co-Lead Game Designer of "Wish."

Each Thursday, he asks the question "Why Not?" about some element of MMOs.
Recent Articles: More Dana Massey Asks Why Not? Articles...

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