This week, Dan Fortier waxes poetic about bringing a truly scary MMORPG to the market and what that might entail from developers and players alike.
I'm a bit late for Halloween, but that won't stop me from donning my 'provocative journalist' costume for one more circuit around the block in search of more goodies. In the spirt of the season I wanted to explore the concepts behind making a true Horror MMO, if such a thing is even possible. Last week I briefly mentioned a few things that could be done to improve immersion and it got me thinking about ways to turn even a multiplayer environment into a playhouse of terror. Tuck in the kids, turn out the lights and ignore the occasional suspicious sounds coming from outside as you read along.
One of the most important elements in any horror game is atmosphere. It's hard to be scared by a movie if the lights are on and some guy is munching on popcorn in your ear. The reason this is hard to achieve in a MMO is simple: Information overload. A typical MMO has hotbars, HP, Mana gauges and floating maps which are generally essential for standard gameplay, but would be completely out of place and ruin the all-important feeling of 'being there' that is a requisite for a Horror game. Well made games in the genre like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame achieve a lot of atmosphere with a minimalist interface that allows you to focus on what your character is seeing.
One way to achieve this in an MMO would be to remove most of the elements of the UI as we know them and stick with contextual menus based on the object you're clicking/interacting with. It should go without saying that all name tags and life bars should be nixed, but I would go a step further: Remove the ability to tell the difference between players and NPCs. Clever use of this along with a robust and well designed NPC populace would be an interesting step toward creating the proper mood for a Horror game.
Taking full advantage of the multiplayer element in a scary MMO would be much more difficult, but not impossible. Judicious use of instancing (although I despise it) might be in order here to preserve some of the tension that would make quests so much more appealing. Another must would be some kind of highly dynamic mission/progression system that kept players guessing about the true goal of their quest even while they were completing some of the objectives.
For example: Players are given a task to investigate the cause of supernatural activity in a nearby location. Once the mission is started, the game would select several objectives in different locales that players would need to complete before the true nature of the place is discovered which opens up the final battle/puzzle sequence. The process behind this would have to be well thought out and varied as well as making sense at the end when the task is completed.
Some of the things we take for granted in most MMOs would have to be radically altered to achieve the proper mood. Removing global chat windows and 'quest giver dudes' and replacing them with a newspaper format that would allow players to find quests or receive messages by simply picking up the local paper. Keeping chats local while still allowing telegrams/phone calls, etc would be a nice touch if players were willing to sacrifice convenience for immersion.
Combat is also a tricky proposition in the face of the modern expectations. My best suggestion would be to once again keep numbers behind the scenes and develop a system where players are never sure what they are facing or even how to kill it. A simple way to do this would be remove target reticles and the /consider system so popular today. Shooting a gun with real recoil without an aiming icon would go a long way to keeping combat frantic and heart-pounding. If you combine this type of system along with a non-linear and stat free advancement it would go a long way to preserving the delicate balance between measurable progression and min/maxing.
PvP would have to be extremely structured and probably only take place within an objective based arena type battle. These wouldn't have to involve combat pre se, but could have players competing by virtue of opposed objectives. One group is given the task of stealing a valuable tome from a museum within a certain period of time and the other player attempt to stop them any way they can by either staking out the target or planting incriminating evidence at the player's safehouse. These types of scenarios could be further enhanced by adding a rogue element to each of them played by NPCs that have their own secret goals that make them a threat to both groups.
All in all, there is no magic recipe for making a compelling Horror MMO but the above suggestions might be a good start. Funcom is currently developing The Secret World which is supposed to be a next-gen Suspense/Horror title but little else in this vein is in the works. Lets hope more thought is put into it than *shudder* Dark Corners of the Earth or any of dozen other crappy Horror titles that are burned into my memory.
There are a ton of systems and angles I didn't cover that I'm sure you thought of. What aspects in modern MMOs could be used in a Horror title and what new ones would have to be invented to make it work? As always, feel free to enlighten us with your prospective and we'll promise not to laugh. Salutations!