Wednesday, 30 December 2009

MMOs: Stargate Worlds

As this title changes direction I find myself nodding at their good sense.

Stargate Worlds has been in development for some time as a MMO. However they have been plagued by financial problems with reports of staff not getting paid and so on. Time after time they've lurched back to business, clinging on by their fingernails.

Recently they've announced that instead of launching a MMO in 2010 they will instead be producing a shooter. I applaud their wisdom.

2010 will see the launch of Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The subset of Stargate fans who do not prefer one of those IPs must be absolutely tiny.

Watching Stargate Universe over the holiday period made me think about how weak the IP is as the basis for a MMO.

I'm not saying Stargate is not entertaining, it is - as a TV series.

As a MMO IP it has serious drawbacks:

Uneven characterisation

Stargate Universe has some very well-acted strong characters that are interesting and memorable. Robert Carlyle is mesmerising, David Blue is great. But most of the actors are just bland. In scene after scene we see some big emotional drama played out and Carlyle is the only person whose face moves. It looks bizarre. Like everyone except Carlyle and Blue went to some acting school where you are told to act every part stoic and impassive. It undermines Carlyle's acting because it makes him look hammy when he is acting with a wide range of visible emotions and no one else is.

Carlyle's acting does not suit his part. He has created a strong character of great integrity and personality. Yet the script is clearly written on the assumption he is an unlikeable nerd. He keeps suggesting things in a highly convincing way and everyone rejects his suggestion because it comes from him. That doesn't make any sense, he is clearly an authoritative charismatic expert who is the only person who knows that the hell to do. They should have got Rick Moranis to play Dr Rush, not Carlyle.

The soldiers don't act like soldiers. They are continually ignoring orders and doing what they feel like instead. They act like teenagers, not professional military men and women. They are also particularly wooden. I don't believe soldiers are so impassive in combat situations, particularly not American soldiers. Kelly's Heroes is a much more convincing picture of how American soldiers behave under stress.

The home visits from outer space are ridiculous. Chloe visits her mother and Colonel Young visits his wife. Nice for drama but daft in the context of a mission in crisis. It's as if Picard popped back to London for a pint in the middle of Star Trek.

The IP is too like Star Trek

- the guy who can fly the ship has a Scottish accent.

- a major character is brilliant but can't connect to others emotionally.

- the plotlines are resolved by "leadership" which consists of impulsively ignoring your experts, telling people to pull their fingers out and reminding everyone that "we're all in this together". This is portrayed as opposite to and superior to actually knowing what the hell you're doing.

- a perky medical officer who asserts her rights as ranking medical officer to do things the leader doesn't want.

- ship-based with away teams.

- a high emphasis on emotional interaction between the characters no matter how inappropriate to the situation. All this Eli-Chloe-Scott love triangle business. I can see it makes the show more dramatic but sometimes you really think there's something better they should get on and do rather than fixing the shower.

Stargate really is just Star Trek with different uniforms. Wait, what's that? "Ah but don't forget the stargates," you say, "they're unique!" A mysterions device that can transport people across space. Yeah right, that's never been done before. Beam me up, Scotty.

Continuity breaks

In addition to this Stargate Universe breaks its own continuity all the time. In Episode 3 an away team goes to a planet to search for cleaning powder (an exciting story if ever there was one!). First Dr Rush, who is supposed to be the unemotional genius gives his water away to Lieutenant Scott in an emo moment. Then Scott orders Sergeant Greer to keep Rush alive. Then when they're alone Greer refuses Rush water, an action likely to kill him, and hits him and pulls a gun on him. Why doesn't he follow orders? Then they get back to the Stargate and a guy is trying to get through. Rush tells Greer to shoot him. He does, and asked why he shot him "because he told me too". So he doesn't follow his own lieutenant's orders but he jumps to follow Rush's orders despite hating him and having just hit him? It's nonsense. And once they get back up to the ship Rush blames Greer for shooting the scientist, telling Young "Greer, Greer shot him!" And this doesn't get followed up. Does the Colonel just forget that one of his men is running amuck shooting civilians?

In another scene Chloe attacks Dr Rush after her father dies heroically. Carlyle acts out a brilliant and moving scene where he explains on his knees how much he regrets the death and how committed he is to saving the ship. The rest of the cast looks on woodenly. A little later Colonel Young asks him if he cares about saving the ship. Hello? As far as the audience knows Dr Rush is the only person who cares about saving the ship. Everyone else seems about as interested as teenage boys helping their mums go grocery shopping. What the series is showing to the audience is wildly at variance to what the characters are reacting to. (This is because Carlyle is too sympathetic).

Implications for game-making

The series is fine for a shooter game. It's sci fi, it's full of soldiers, tech is shown clearly and is interesting as far as game weapons go. It's more like real soldier weapons (pistols, machine guns) than phasers and light sabers which a lot of people will like.

For a MMO which requires considerably more depth the cracks start to show.

First the lore is weak. It's a fairly transparent Star Trek rip-off. Worse a lot of the story contradicts other parts of the story and the science is non-existent. For example to find lime on the planet they go running around on foot despite having telemetry on the ship that can measure chemical composition and which they use at other times to detect breathable atmosphere. Why can't they just scan for calcium carbonate with the thing that tells you the atmosphere is 88% nitrogen and 12% oxygen?

Next what's interesting about the show is to a large extent the drama and the characters. That doesn't translate. Instead of playing out a dramatic scene with Robert Carlyle you interact with nerds who tell you to go to X for a 3.4% speed buff. Instead of a romance with Medic Johannsen you get asked "wanna cyber" by some big-breasted avatar that likely belongs to a 40 year old basement dweller called Bert.

The technology is not sufficiently interesting. The gates are the only really iconic tech but you can't do much with them in game. They're essentially a load screen between instances. The ship looks cool but you can't fly it. "Ancients technology" is just lumps of rock with glyphs on them that work like mobile phones or whatever. The weapons are apparently standard contemporary US Army issue - great for a shooter but very weak for something more story-based.

The characters don't lend themselves to obviously exciting classes (as compared with say Jedi). You got soldiers. A medic who is kinda crap - her best medicine seems to be apirin or something similar and her main treatment is telling people to get some sleep. You got mad scientist that everyone hates. You got college dropout geek. You got crap scientists who are useless. You got politicians who just whine at the soldiers and occasionally use their Leadership powers to calm everyone else. And you got everyone else whose only plot function is to panic and need to be calmed down. None of these make interesting MMO classes. From what I vaguely remember of the film they had a few archaeologists too. Whoop de doo.

The look is sometimes self-defeating. They have these great access corridors on the ship, reminiscent of the Nostromo in Alien. In fact I found myself waiting for the alien to jump out then thinking "oh shoot, it's Stargate, relax, nothing exciting is going to happen". The problem with using everyone else's tropes is that by and large they did it better.

Anyway that's something of a snap judgment, I don't know the IP well, just watched a few episodes over Christmas. What I saw does not make me think, wow, wish I was a character in that universe. In fact it makes me think "they were planning a MMO? Wow!" Sometimes it really is better to just write your own stories.


  1. A shooter... yawn. What might work for Diablo goes MMO, seems incredibly far-fetched for Stargate. They are in desperate need for money, oh my.

  2. I would contend that Stargate Worlds was intended to be based far more on SG:1 than on SG:U, which later is unmitigated shite that isn't even redeemed by the presence of Hamish McB-- Trainspott-- err, Robert Carlyle.

    Atlantis was kind of crap too, in comparison to the original series. Personally, I don't blame the acting as much as the networks' not understanding why, if one group of 4-6 people can make a great show, you can't just throw another 4-6 people together and get instant success.

    Hrm... I feel the need to expand on this and shall do so on my own blog. :D Note however that viewing a few Stargate Universe episodes over the holidays will really not give you an accurate picture of what was being aimed at with the MMO.

    I think this makes me one of the few who would much rather see a Stargate IP than ST or SW.

  3. Yeah I just watched the original movie and really liked it. It does prompt several thoughts with regard to SG Universe

    1) The military bullying civilians was in that first film but then was worked through and beyond. James Spader was a dweeb who by the end of the film became a respected peer to the soldiers he saved. They've resurrected the bullying meme without (so far) the redemption. Based on a number of military people I've worked with and known as friends it doesn't fit for me. Those guys don't need to bully civilians, it would be like me bullying a ten year old.

    2) Kurt Russell does the stony face acting for the first half of the film. It's convincing and he is introduced as a father in mourning. Later in the film he lightens up and his facial muscles move. Again SG U has lifted the look (Russell's face not moving) without really understanding why it was there or making it work dramatically.

    3) It's a very good film and in some ways quite distinctive as an IP. Which has me puzzled as to why SG U was bad Voyager. Honestly if SG U was photoshopped with Federation uniforms over the soldier uniforms and called Star Trek Universe no one would question it. It's actually closer to the original Star Trek than TNG or Deep Space Nine.

    I really don't remember SG-1, if I saw any it was late at night after the pub shut. Look forward to reading your blog post.

  4. Picard was French not British. He'd be dropping in on France and having some wine if anything, not London. :)

    I think SG1 does actually provide decent fodder for an MMO. There are some iconic weapons such as the Zat gun and staff weapons which should work well. I could see something like a guild wars skinned differently and less emphasis on loot possibly working. The SGC(Stargate Command) as the city and NPC or real players filling out your team before you go to another planet(instanced). Teams from SG:1 consisted of an archeologist, scientist, leader and Jafa badass warrior. The intent was to locate and bring back advanced technology to Earth. All these elements seem like the could be integrated into an MMO. I'd strongly recommend checking SG1 out. There's much more entertaining characters, fun dialog, lots of explosions and the show doesn't take itself too seriously at all.

    SG:U is a particularly bad way to examine this considering the game was in production prior to Universe even being announced. As for your review of Universe you are spot on. All the characters combined don't have half the life of a damp washcloth.

  5. "SG:U is a particularly bad way to examine this."

    I accept this and confess a fair amount of ignorance of the franchise.

    I would ask though - how many people are going to judge SG by SG:U considering that's the series that's on TV now? Possibly quite a lot.

    I'll try to find some dvds of SG:1. I feel unlettered.

  6. SG:U is utter trash. It's also not the IP that the MMO was based on. That said, yes, many will associate the "Stargate" IP with SG:U, and it's a travesty.

    The SG-1 universe could have worked fine for an MMO, especially an instanced, mission based one. It had action and puzzles, and a strong lore to base exploration in.

    I tend to think they were a victim more of the economic meltdown than bad IP or game design. Their timing stunk, in other words. (And yes, they couldn't compete toe to toe with Trek or SWTOR.)