What we want from the World of Darkness MMO
Last week at Fanfest, we got the first real look at the gameplay in CCP’s night stalking, blood drinking MMO. As a long-time, hardcore fan of World of Darkness—I even used to host a podcast devoted to it—I've had my eye on it continually since CCP's announcement three long years ago.
The moonlit, tabletop world of Vampire, Mage, and Werewolf isn't an easy thing to get right in video game form, but it has been done before—most notably in Troika’s excellent Vampire: the Masquerade: Bloodlines. CCP is nothing if not an outside-the-box developer, though, and the no-hand-holding, cutthroat universe of EVE Online actually has some stylistic overlap with White Wolf’s signature setting. I hope this allows CCP to nail this new project, and I've got some ideas on how they can make sure they do.
What we know so far
Concrete info on World of Darkness has been scarce, but a handful of details have crept out of the mist over the last few years.
We know the setting will be based on Vampire: the Masquerade (not the newer reboot, Vampire: the Requiem), which means we'll be living in a world dominated by three interests. The Camarilla is the big, bad vampire government from ancient days, devoted to upholding the Masquerade—they see remaining under the radar of humanity as the best chance for their kind's continued survival. They are opposed by the Sabbat, a generally antagonistic group who believe vampires should rule, and humans exist only to be cultivated like cattle. The Anarchs are a third group that fall between the cracks, but tend to side with the Camarilla over the Sabbat. They're rebels and reform-seekers, scoffing at notions of seniority and other ancient traditions.
We know it will be "a player-driven game with lots of social and political elements." Something along the lines of EVE, but set in a massive, open city rather than the depths of space. It's been suggested that political maneuvering will get you a lot farther than being a combat badass, and factions and territories will play a role in the core gameplay.
We know that PvP will mostly be a free-for-all outside of Elysium—a term that, in the Vampire: the Masquerade roleplaying game, refers to a section of the city deliberately set aside by the vampire Prince as neutral ground. Speaking of the Prince, we also know that there will be one in the MMO, a position a player will have to attain by gathering supporters. Princely powers will include the ability to mark other player characters for perma-death.
Now, onto what we want...
Horror first, action second
The supernatural revival craze of the past decade-plus had the unfortunate side effect of diluting the world’s most famous brooding, nocturnal predators into what a fellow World of Darkness fan once referred to as “superheroes that need a lot of sunscreen.” Don't get me wrong, doing backflips while firing dual machine pistols and jumping off of skyscrapers have their place in vampire fiction. But the key thematic criteria is whether or not the people behind World of Darkness understand the vampiric metaphor. Vampires are meant to be horrifying. And when you’re playing as a vampire, you should be made more afraid of yourself, and the things you’re willing to do, than anything else.
You’re not just a sharply dressed human with powers. You’re a monster. And you should feel like one.
Don't be nice to us
CCP, having crafted the ruthlessly Darwinian EVE Online, is probably one of the last developers that needs a lecture on this. But it’s still worth mentioning. World of Darkness, at its best, is oppressively bleak, paranoia-inducing, and sick-to-your-stomach terrifying at times. If you’re a neonate vampire just welcomed into undeath, you should constantly be on edge that any Elder who takes petty issue with you could make your life (more of a) living hell. If you’re one of those Elders, you should never feel safe from your political enemies. Conflicts should be brutal and punishing—to the victors, as well as the defeated. And the world itself should be a grim, Gothic labyrinth where new and unknown dangers lurk around every corner. As an urban apex predator, you hit the ground running and adapt fast... or you face Final Death.
Most MMOs scale back on consequences to create a more accessible experience. If you take the plunge into the World of Darkness, however, you shouldn't expect that courtesy. And CCP shouldn't offer it. Your characters shouldn't feel safe. Your investments shouldn't feel safe. Even alliances within your own player group shouldn't feel safe. There should be major incentives to put yourself into situations where perma-death is a possibility, and those not willing to take that risk should be actively held back by their conservative ways.
Let us live the vampire lifestyle
A vampire is a creature that can perform superhuman feats, scaling buildings effortlessly and shrugging off gunshots with a wicked smirk. But it also sucks to be a vampire. Just ask one. What really makes them interesting characters are the things they can’t do, and the things they’re forced to do whether they want to or not—a big reason why a certain popular fiction series completely missed the point by allowing them to walk around by day and feed on animals.
Bloodlines did a decent job of portraying this, but what I’d really like to see is something along the lines of Fallout: New Vegas’ Hardcore Mode (which forced you to eat, sleep, and drink... or drop dead). Except that it should be even more unforgiving. At some point during every log-in, you should spend time occupied finding victims to quench your bloodthirst. And banes such as fire and the killing rays of the sun should be an ever-present concern at the corners of your mind. You should think about your vampire as the unliving, unbreathing creature that it is, not Generic MMO Avatar #27. A vampire game where you only get the benefits of being a vampire, and don’t feel burdened, practically and emotionally, by the drawbacks, is no vampire game at all.
Vampires in the World of Darkness are political creatures, as well. The web of alliances, lies, favors, and grudges needs to be central to your experiences in the game. Those who try to remain neutral don’t tend to make it far. Knowing who to trust, and when to betray, are the way to get ahead. Negotiating feeding rights in certain parts of the city organically should create a draconian, feudal order that punishes non-adherents mercilessly. I expect to see empires built and destroyed, death warrants signed, and blood pacts forged in the chat channels—all without even interacting with the nuts-and-bolts game mechanics.
And, of course, the fight for the office of Prince should be a constant, bloody game of cloak-and-dagger with massive rewards for anyone savage and calculating enough to stay on top.
Don't feel obligated to give us "standard" MMO features
CCP has expressed the desire to offer "theme park" (read: "WoW/Everquest-style") content for those who want it, alongside the social and sandbox elements. I'm not entirely opposed to the idea, but I caution against trying to shoehorn too many MMO mainstays into a game that could be so much more.
Mysterious, unfolding storylines involving NPC interaction fit in just fine in the World of Darkness. Bloodlines proved that. But I don't want to be told to go kill 50 ghouls in exchange for a handful of dollar bills and a nicer katana. Nor do I think the setting lends itself well to dungeons or raids, with some kind of boss baddie at the end. Archfoes in the World of Darkness are far more subtle and dangerous than that. To call back to Bloodlines yet again, the haunted hotel and the manor house of the mad Malkavian are great examples of how instanced content could work—the dread is palpable, and you're driven forward by morbid curiosity rather than loot lust. For the same reason, I don't think repetition should be encouraged for such content.
Progression should be more social than anything else. Neonates who want to play the loner and grind away on pre-made content should find their lives especially perilous and laborious. You should be forced to dip your toe into the social shark tank of Vampire society—at least a little—to attain any kind of real power or prestige that other players will respect. A naturally-talented flatterer and liar should trump the character who looked up the best combat build and can execute a flawless ability rotation. In the world of Vampire, the latter is a tool, wielded by the former.
Preserve the sense of mystery
Shadows are deeper and heavier in the World of Darkness. Most mortals cling to the pools of sanity cast by streetlights and campfires. Vampires have taken one step into those shadows... but there are always much blacker, more sinister depths beyond. Vampires are not the top of the food chain, and they’re far from the most terrifying thing you might run into. A true World of Darkness game needs to include the creeping, unknowable horrors. The monsters that send chills up the spines of other monsters.
And ideally, they need to be presented in such a way that they can’t be classified and put on a wiki within the first week of the game. I want to see rumor threads popping up left and right. Inconclusive screenshots debated back and forth. A whisper here, an unexplained happening there. Was it a glitch in the code? Were you just imagining things? Or is there something out there, coming for us all...
Let us play the other creatures
Vampires are cool. Really, they are. World of Darkness vampires, in particular, will always be the archetypical vampires for me. But they’re not the most interesting or compelling characters in the World of Darkness. You’ve got the Garou—tribal, shamanistic werewolves fighting to preserve the wild places in a world being overtaken by the hubris of Man and his lust for technology. Mages, who can work wonders on reality itself... but are burdened by Disbelief when mortal eyes look upon such arcane creations, unmaking their limitless power and forcing them to work their ways in secret. Wraiths, expelled from life but still bound to this world by Anchors that must be resolved before they can meet whatever truly awaits them on the other side.
And that’s not even mentioning Hunters, the select few mortals who stare the abyss down with dour, dauntless determination, taking flame and silver blades to the lurking monstrosities that threaten humanity night after night.
It’s a weighty and ambitious request, and with the development pace so far, I’m not expecting we’ll see any of this for several years. But please, CCP, don’t tie us down to just vampires. The larger, darker world around them has too many possibilities to be left unexplored.
Let us know in the comments what you'd like to see from the World of Darkness MMO, and be sure to check out our stunning re-creation of the trailer from Fanfest.