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Doing the Undoable: Battlestar Galactica Online

Humor me as I indulge in a thought experiment. Note: I’m NOT working on this. No one I know is working on this. As far as I know, no Galactica game, massive or otherwise, is even in the “gleam in the eye” stage of development. I just like impossible problems.

If you ask any MMO designer (especially ones that have worked on one), MMO games based on movie/TV licenses are hot death. The reasons are pretty simple:

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  • Movies are linear. MMO games are nonlinear.
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  • Movies have a star. MMO games don’t. (Or if they do, they’re part of the scenery.)
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  • Movies are about passive storytelling. You sit there and entertainment arrives. MMO games are about active participation. You make your own story.
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  • Movies have an ending. MMO games don’t.

No pandering to target audience here, nosirree!Even more, the best movies – the ones that play to the strengths of the medium – in so doing, become the absolute worst prospects for becoming backdrops for MMOs. Battlestar Galactica is such a perfect example, it could be the benchmark for why not to do so. Why?

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  • BSG is linear. It tells a single story, albeit one that often jumps about.
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  • BSG is very narrowly focused. The vast majority of the story takes place on one fairly small starship.
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  • BSG’s strength is in its characters – its stars. The backdrop of the series is actually fairly hackneyed, but thanks to the strength of the writing and the interplay between characters, you don’t really notice.

So. Assume you’ve been given $50 million dollars and told to make Galactica Online. What can you do? The strikes against you are pretty heavy. Need I list them?

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  • Science fiction MMOs have not been commercial successes.
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  • MMOs based on a commercial license have not been commercial successes.
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  • The bar of expectations is VERY high among fans of the TV series.
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  • The series itself is an episodic narrative whose conclusion is unclear. An episode next year could neatly make anything you write nonsensically contradicted.
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  • The milieu is limited. How do you cram a million players on one battlestar? OK, some are cylons, but you still have an overly limited number of available slots given the game’s storyline.
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  • Everyone will want to be Starbuck/Adama/Apollo. Nothing new here, but it’s still a problem, especially among players new to the MMO genre.

Saying “Uh, can I take this money and make ‘Orks Hate Humies’, please?” is probably not an option. Assuming you actually want to make a decent game, how could you do so given the many straightjackets listed above?

Here then, a few options.

It Doesn’t Have To Be Persistent: you could make a massively multiplayer space combat game set within the BSG universe that resets itself frequently. It could be set within BSG’s first season, and the Cylon players try to bring down the Colonial fleet through various scripted and unscripted trickeries. At the end of a given short period, the reset button is hit and it all begins again. This may not even be a roleplaying game, but a straight space sim.

Pros: it’s different, it works within the milieu, it meets expectations for the license.
Cons: BSG isn’t really about combat, most people expect character development and persistence as part of an MMO.

Battlestar Atlantia Online: Hey, look, yet another battlestar survived! Wow, those Cylons are awfully inefficient for being maniacal machines. This is the “Knights of the Old Republic” strategy; when presented with canon that makes it impossible to make a good game, leave canon entirely and carve out your own space fifty-seven degrees off centre.

Pros: you have all the wiggle room you need for canon-related issues, you’re within the same world as the TV show but not shackled to it, the gameplay will come the closest to what MMO players expect from the license.
Cons: It’s not GALACTICA Online, you will have to bend over backwards to introduce players to canon characters from the storyline, you’re still faced with the problem of a limited milieu, i.e. one battlestar.

The Battle For Dead Caprica: In the blasted nuclear desolation of Caprica, thousands of resistance fighters struggle on against the implacable Cylon occupiers.

Pros: close to familiar gameplay from other MMOs, seperate enough from the canon story to give wiggle room while still allowing for “walk-on cameos” of storyline characters.
Cons: no actual battlestars or space combat, game concept is really depressing considering everyone involved is probably going to die of radiation poisoning or being hunted to extinction.

There Are Many Ships In The Colonial Fleet, This Is One Of Them: A sci-fi RPG set on a cargo hauler within the Colonial fleet. Players try to survive as Humanity tries desperately to husband its resources on the long voyage to Earth.

Pros: Well, it’s true to canon, until Ron Moore writes an episode where your ship blows up.
Cons: Gameplay is almost as depressing as being stuck on a radioactive Caprica, with a limited area to move around in to boot.

You See Me Now A Veteran Of A Thousand Cylon Wars: Scroll back the timeline just a touch, to when the Colonies and the Cylons are at war. There, game. Done.

Pros: Easy enough to do, ties in to the new Caprica series for a bonus assist!
Cons: People are going to expect to be able to play within the world of Battlestar Galactica, not trading quips with Adama’s grandfather over pyramid games.

Screw All Of You All, I’m Apollo’s Wingman: IT IS BATTLESTAR GALACTICA ONLINE! FLY ALONGSIDE YOUR HEROES ON GALACTICA AND SAVE HUMANITY FROM THE CYLON HORDES!

Pros: It’s the game the people giving you $50 million want you to make.
Cons: You will probably not actually be able to make a good game from this.

Best. Series. Ever.Galactica 1980 Online: Galactica makes it to Earth! Yay! Bad people want to stop them. Time travelling will probably be involved as well as cute space kids going to space camp.

Pros: You can use much of the development budget on drugs.
Cons: Many fans will hunt you down and kill you.

So would YOU do any better?