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The Feasibility of Horror MMOs

Updated Sun, Jan 13, 2013 by Xerin

The Feasibility of Horror MMOs

Horror is one niche genre that has grown considerably over the years from its roots in the original Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark titles. Game after game is carefully crafted to play against the player’s mind to make them feel the utmost sense of dread and scream at every twist and turn, yet it's one genre with a lacking presence in the MMO world. There are only a few MMOs that can fit within the horror genre, with The Secret World and Requiem being the most notable. We’ll go ahead and remove Requiem from the discussion since I feel that it’s more “fantasy” with “creepy monsters” then it is actually “horror” since horror implies that the game wants to horrify you.

Secret World mission

The Secret World uses lighting and special effects to horrify their game.

The Secret World on the other hand attempts to take the “horror” MMO concept to the next level. “Everything is true” when it comes to TSW, zombies, vampires, mummies, and everything else that you’ve heard of is true and out to get you. Of course, TSW isn’t survival horror like Resident Evil is but instead dark fantasy, a genre used to place games like Diablo, Blood Omen, Devil May Cry, Legacy of Kain, Sanitarium, Vampire: The Masquerade, and The Witcher.

Fear Factor

The question that I want to pose is why aren't there more horror MMOs? Is it because you can play with others negating the fear factor? Well, Left 4 Dead is plenty scary with others playing along with you. DayZ and Killing Floor are rather scary as well and also involve friends. There are ways to make something horrifying while letting you share the adventure and TSW fixes the issue of a monster can’t jump through a window while 100 people stand around by forcing much of the main storyline into solo instances.

Left 4 Dead Promotional Screenshot

Left 4 Dead is multiplayer and still brings the horrifying isolation to the players.

Fear factor, or suspense, is a great point, honestly, because TSW isn’t that scary to me. Now that it’s free-to-play, I’ve gotten a lot more time in playing it and it becomes more and more difficult to feel anything scary or creepy. The very first mission in the outside world involves hoards of zombies rushing you, but these zombies are nothing like zombies in ZombiU. They casually scream and run at you while you expertly deal the killing blow thanks to magical bees.

TSW isn’t hilariously funny like Lollipop Chainsaw but it’s not Cry of Fear either. It works hard to make the entire world creepy, but falls short. I wouldn’t blame Funcom, masters of world / story creation (see The Longest Journey), but the genre. It’s difficult to make something like Dead Space have the mass market appeal that MMOs need to thrive.

For instance, you can tell situations where the “horror” or overall suspense could be cranked up a bit but is instead cranked down. In Vampire: The Masquerade you enter a hotel where there are copious amounts of just “creepy” and jump scares early on. In TSW, you hop into a rollercoaster that for all intents and purposes should scare your socks off but falls short at the predictable jump scare and random monsters you’ve seen already crawling around.

Maybe it’s difficult to add horror into an MMO which is why the genre hasn’t made a big move yet. It has to have the mass market appeal and make it friendly for those who aren’t all for that heart pounding moments where you scream like a little girl. Dead Space has sold roughly 1.29 million units so far, Dead Rising bringing in 1.92 million units, and Resident Evil 6 comes in at 2.27 million units. Compare that to Dishonored which sold 2.09 million units. So there is an appeal to the genre, so the translation might be where developers sort of decide to go an alternate route.

Crafting Horror

I think the hardest part of crafting a horror MMO is the “fear of dying.” You need to be afraid that your character could, at any second, parish and you are helpless to stop it. In Alone in the Dark there are endless amounts of events that could result to an instant death. ZombiU makes death twice as horrible because not only is it incredibly easy to get infected from a single bite, but once dead you return and have to kill your former self to recover your stuff. Yet, MMOs are afraid of death penalties. They are fearful of even considering pushing it back into what might be considered hardcore territory. Permadeath is the death of any MMO and games like Allods Online learned the hard way of a community’s feedback to harsh death punishments. Maybe Wizardry Online will fare better in that regard.

ZombiU Promotional Image

ZomibU doesn't have a co-op mode, but has a severe death penalty. Die and you must kill your zombified corpse to re-obtain your stuff. Other player's corpses can appear in your game.

So far we’ve gone over the two key components of any horror game – creepiness and fear of dying. How can we get these two components into an MMO and play nice with the MMO formula? I’m not exactly sure, to be honest. TSW falls short in so many of the categories, but that’s alright since it’s “dark fantasy” like Bayonetta, Diablo, etc. where just blood and gore and a general dark fantasy setting is good enough. How can we get screaming monsters jumping out of cupboards and put them into an MMO setting?

That’s a question developers should continue to ask themselves as they conceptualize their newest MMOs. There will come to a point where the fantasy formula just won’t work anymore. As it stands, many developers feel that leaving the fantasy formula results in permadeath for whatever MMO. That’s not true, just look at the success of EVE Online. On the flipside, fantasy is safe and in this post-recession market every business is about “safe” and less about “innovation,” with the exception of games like Guild Wars 2 of course.

To answer the question I posed earlier, I think that's why there is a lack of general horror MMOs. It's something different and not yet widely accepted. It’s a lot safer to make elves instead of zombies, orcs instead of vampires, and werewolves instead of, well, werewolves, but you get my point. Making something to scare your socks off isn’t a priority for a lot of developers, making something that’s both fun and successful is.

Let’s take a look at the current and future horror offerings and then think about what a good horror MMO would need.

Current Horror MMOs

The Secret World

As mentioned continuously throughout this article, TSW is the first major horror MMO to hit the market. Funcom did a great job with making a game with a compelling world and an overall dark fantasy theme, but falls short in being scary. Some many disagree with me, but I’ve never really felt “scared” in my entire playtime through the game. There has never really been a point where I’ve had to take a break or my heart began to race, outside of a few of the instanced areas.

Suspense is where most of the fear comes from. In Dead Space it isn’t about the horrific monsters attacking you that’s scary, it’s those silent moments where nothing is happening and your imagination runs rampant about the possibilities. In TSW, the suspense does arrive in a few of the instanced areas, and I give them big props for that, but the mechanics (such as no lighting/faulty flashlights) get reused a bit too much.

If anything, it teaches us that a good horror MMO may need to be greatly instanced and/or phased in order for it to pull off the atmosphere and triggered events. The instanced areas in TSW is where it shines the most, but most of those are solo only and solo isn’t in the spirit of “MMO.”

Dead Frontier

This browser-based MMO tries to be the “first survival horror MMO” and it pulls it off well enough. It’s an MMO, there are zombies, and you have to manage your health, food, and more to survive. Playing Dead Frontier can be a challenge though; the starting area zombies can easily be defeated by circle strafing large groups of them and jabbing them with melee. It plays the survival bit rather well, the further from safety you are the harder things are and death is harsh, losing your cash and having a respawn timer.

Dead Frontier Screenshot

There are some interesting takeaways from Dead Frontier. That intense feeling of “oh no if I die” is there but for survival horror, there isn’t much “surprise” when it comes to the monsters attacking. There are just hoards and hoards of them and melee seems to be the preferred way of assaulting the undead. Actually, I hate to change the subject real quick, but melee is becoming the de facto method of dealing with the undead in most modern games, due to ammo scarcity. ZombiU for instance pretty much forces you to melee as much as possible.

Requiem

I don’t know much about this title, but I really just see it as a fantasy MMO with horror monsters. I don’t really feel that there is a huge market for this. Most fantasy games include a veritable cornucopia of monster types, from the ultra-cute to the utter dark, but focusing on just horror monsters leads to the same situation TSW suffers from where OK, that looks pretty creepy, but it’s just kind of walking back and forth in a field of 20 of its friends.

Requiem Promotional Image

Requiem: Memento Mori is horror themed, but not necessarily horror.

Upcoming Titles

In all of my research, there is only one horror MMO on the horizon: World of Darkness.  Tough gritty and delightfully spooky, it will probably scratch every horror itch, but there simply haven't been enough details released yet to know for certain. That’s sad to say, really, because Vampire the Masquerade is the ultimate roleplaying main stream horror setting which also sounds great for “winning MMO formula.”

Exanimus disappeared off the radar, sadly. The War Z is supposed to be an MMO, but it's kind of like saying Minecraft is an MMO to me. It's going to be an open world sandbox game, but I haven't had the chance to play yet, after all of the drama going on with Steam.

What Does a Horror MMO Need?

Two things: atmosphere and suspense. It needs to make you scared that any second your character might die and you need an atmosphere to reinforce it. To that extent, it may be hard to translate that into an MMO. Throughout this article, you’ll see mentions that TSW is only really “horror” when it comes to the solo instanced areas. That’s because those areas can provide suspense and atmosphere. Wandering hoards of zombies waiting to be pulled, tanked, and defeated aren’t suspenseful nor are they really that scary, no matter how much flesh is falling off of them.

I think a good horror MMO could be made with enough phasing and enough work put into it where the players would be on their toes 24/7, but at the same able to cooperate without ruining it. Just because you have fellow allies doesn’t mean the hordes of scary creatures are going to stop from clawing your face off, it just means you have company while they do it.

Let’s hope that moving forward, more games will take risks and expand into different genres like The Secret World did and let’s hope that these game makers continue innovating. What are your thoughts on horror MMOs? Let us know in the comments section below.


I think for it to really work it would have to have permadeath

I disagree with permadeath. Sure death is seem as an inconvenience at best and a quicker means of travel at worst in several mmos. But to suggest permadeath is like realizing there are a couple of ants in your house and going straight to fumigating the house. EverQuest are a nasty biting death penalty, where you had to go loot your gear and lost like 1/4th of a level, with the possibility of deleveling. That kind of penalty, even with clerics who could restore most of it, made people a touch more careful.

Permadeath though no one would bother with raids, or when they died many would drop the game out of frustration on the time it took to max out a character. Plus if it wasn't a game quitting loss, if maxing out didn't take long, permadeath loses its original purpose.

As for horror, its a tad hard to do. I mean, and sorry for using EverQuest again, but Kithicor was a tad scary at night. Sure you could hug the walls and usually avoid death, but again, that was usually. Though even that isn't really horror like you're getting at.

Permadeath can be pulled off. Wizardly Online does it. You die, you soul continues to live on and each time it becomes easier and easier to get roughly back to where you were. Games with permadeath though are different beasts and for different audiences with different mechanics.

Otherwise, I agree with you that it's hard to put permadeath into a game and have any progress be meaningful.

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