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Beyond Men in Tights: Genre

At GDC, Jon Wood attended a roundtable led by Daimon Schubert from BioWare Austin.

Beyond Men in Tights
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Yesterday was another great day at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) for MMORPG.com. Not only did the show floor actually open today, but it also kicked off a number of game development seminars. One that caught my interest that I thought folks might be interested in was called Beyond Men in Tights. The session was led by Daimon Schubert from BioWare Austin (I asked, they're still not giving any information about what they're making).

At last year's GDC, Daimon ran a seminar by the same name where he talked about the reasons that the fantasy genre was king in the MMORPG realm. This year, the topic was the same, but the format was different. Instead of standing at the front of the room and talking for an hour, Schubert chose to open the discussion up to a room full of developers. The question was simple. Why fantasy?

The group came up with an interesting list. First, Fantasy is an extremely accessible genre. After all, everyone out there that might be playing the game is familiar with the fantasy genre. There are very few players out there, for example, who don't know that Dwarves are gruff and proud. Similarly, there is also a great deal of information and lore out there that developers can draw upon when making the game.

It's what Schubert called double coded. Basically, that means that it's something that a wide audience can understand while at the same time, it provides something that only a select number of people (in this case, people who are really into fantasy) will get.

Fantasy is also a character-driven genre. Look at something like Lord of the Rings. It's all about putting the focus on people, doing fantastical and epic things. MMORPGs are the same way. By nature, they're character-driven.

Another reason that came up for fantasy's dominance of the MMO industry is that it's seen as a safe bet. Making an MMORPG is not a cheap proposition for any company, especially if you're looking to make a AAA title. When you're talking about an investment of millions of dollars for the production of a game, the people footing the bill often want to be assured that they are going to see a return in the end. Fantasy games have proven to be profitable in the past, so it become a "safe" genre. I don't want people to get the wrong impression, game development isn't all about the money, the fact that a large number of developers were interested in exploring the reasons behind fantasy's dominance, and ways to change it, is proof enough of that. Still though, the harsh reality is that this is a business, and the goal of any business is to be profitable.

So, after talking about the benefits of fantasy as a genre, the group took a few minutes to talk about what is bad about it. First, fantasy is what was described as a "content war". There have been so many fantasy games made that people start to expect more and more content (not just quests, art, zone, etc as well) to the point where it is almost impossible to produce.

In the interest of time, I will jump right to what might be the biggest reason not to create a fantasy game. It's what Schubert called the "800 lb gorilla in the corner". An 800 lb gorilla, after all, is huge, and hard to ignore no matter unpleasant it is or how hard you try. In the world of MMORPGs, that gorilla's name is World of Warcraft. Every fantasy MMORPG that is made (and indeed any MMO at all to a lesser extent) has the shadow of 8 million subscribers hanging over their heads. Generally speaking, the more you distance your game from WoW in people's minds, the less comparison it will draw. Genre is a good way to do that.

That is a brief overview of what I saw and heard in the seminar today. Daimon will be running roundtables like this for the rest of the conference on various subjects, and I will try to make it a point to attend and report back exactly what the industry is saying.