On the lack of historical MMOs

So many new MMOs are hitting the scene these days, I’m finding it a tad difficult to keep up. Some glide past like leaves in autumn. Others the crowd carries up to me and throws in my face like a giant prank pie. And then there are those I chase, grab and shake out of disbelief.

Land of Britain falls into that last.

My history with modern MMOs has been somewhat… I can’t decide on the right word for it. Sketchy? For one, I missed many of the mainstream titles, like Dark Age of Camelot, whose lore draws from the same source as LoB’s – a source I am quite fond of. Post-Roman Britain is a place bursting with such opportunity for epic adventure.

I had Albion Online chucked in my face not too long ago, and wiped it off with indifference. Aside from the half of the name that grabbed my attention, its cartoony look and fantasy-lite feel holds zero appeal for me. With that in mind, I went into LoB’s website half-hoping for something better. Something to buck the trend, however lightly. And of course, I started with the Lore tab.

I got a story of magical kingdoms and a great dragon and folklore races and what looks like a promise of knights vs proto-Vikings.

It’a quite excellently written and presented. But what I was secretly wishing for – and know full well won’t fly in today’s MMOscape – was something ‘closer to the ground’, as it were. An MMO set in a Britannia – or at most a lightly fictionalized version thereof – where fae and fay play a distant second fiddle to the earthy mystique of what really happened (or might have happened).

Lately, playing on Storium, I’ve noticed the same… well, I don’t know if trend or phenomenon is the better word. ‘Straight history’ settings seem to gain very little traction in a collaborative writing game where any paying user can spin up their own settings – thus, be a ‘dev’. In the words of a writer I’ve made the acquaintance of there:

It seems like most of the players at Storium want either fantasy or steampunk, or their sense of history is so vague that they insist on anachronisms. “I want to be a female grenadier!” “Will there be flying steam dreadnoughts at the Battle of the Nile?” “Can I play a cuirassier who’s also a fire mage?”

Not that I have a problem with those – quite the opposite, I’m pretty partial to historical fantasy myself. What I do like, however, is more of the historical and less of the fantasy.

Why do MMO devs shun historical fidelity? The obvious answer is that it appeals to far too niche a crowd to be commercially viable in a game. There was Roma Victor, which died an ignoble death, Pirates of the Burning Sea, which is both somewhat anachronistic and geared towards nautical enthusiasts, and now Life is Feudal, the long-term success of which remains to be seen. Far too few.

I used to hold up Kingdom Come: Deliverance as a shining exemplar of a counter-argument. Heck, even the Assassin’s Creed games weren’t quite on the same level of historical accuracy – but they flew because people loved the gameplay and the storytelling.

But I neglected to consider that these are single-player titles. MMOs are a whole different bag of features and mechanics, as The Elder Scrolls Online has more than adequately proven. People came to it because of TES (many because of TESV), some are staying largely for that, and it hasn’t been enough to propel the game to the top. In a solo experience, where there is considerably more room for innovation without cracking heads over balance and network performance and monetization and what have you, a game’s setting can and should stand apart from its other features.

In the jaded, flighty MMO market, not only is pulling that off tough, it’s also a risk few devs can afford. I can fully empathize. Save any ventures into breaking new ground for the gameplay front, which is where the majority of the playerbase dwells anyway, and fall back on the familiar and the proven in everything else.

It’s a supply & demand thing, for which there is no compromise-free solution. Could this be where private servers shine? I’m thinking of a couple of players I once encountered on LoTRO years ago, who talked about their modded Mount & Blade private server and how much they enjoyed Viking roleplay with the small crowd there. A niche answer to a niche question – with hardly any profits to be made.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, in this age of crowdfunded MMOs and novelties, someone is already daring that untrodden middle ground. Maybe it’s even set in the ‘real’ Arthurian period, or close to it. (I’d love to play a Roman during the last, chaotic years of the Western Empire.) What would it take for more such games to emerge? Straight history reaping big at the box office, like Gladiator did 15 years ago? A historical reprise of the Game of Thrones phenomenon? Or just a dev willing to take the plunge?

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