Worlds of Darkness 1: activities

Where are the vampires? There ought to be vampires!
Recently (well, ever since 2006 when CCP and White Wolf merged), I have been thinking about the ways CCP might create an interesting MMO based on the World of Darkness (WoD) brand and universe. (For those who have yet to enter the World of Darkness, check the website.) Lately, these random thoughts have coalesced more and more as I keep playing Eve Online and wondering how some mechanics might translate in a completely different setting.
This post is thus the first one in a series set to describe or rather imagine the shape of things to come. It is an impossible task and I do not seriously believe that my outsider vision is any closer to the truth than your average economic forecast or even old-fashioned futurology prediction. For this reason, I am curious to read other speculations about the World of Darkness MMO. If you, the reader, wish to participate in a constructive manner, please feel welcome to comment.

By the way, why don't we hear more about this game? According to one document, the MMO is due next year. Where are the artwork, the videos and the promotional site chock full of fanged womenfolk? I bet CCP keeps things in development under wraps for multiple reasons. The first one is that they cannot afford to give good ideas to their competitors. Funcom, the Norwegian makers of Anarchy Online and Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, are preparing what really looks like another contemporary horror MMO: The Secret World. This fact is enough to give pause to CCP, until it becomes useful to show their hand. Which leads to another reason for silence: it just does not make any sense to "build the hype" too early. The recent history of MMOs is full of disappointments and suggests it might be technically simpler and commercially sounder to foster the progressive and long-term growth of a community rather than force-feeding the gamers with massive hype and making a one-month hit, followed by withdrawal, hangover and marketing headaches. Plus, it actually takes a lot of work to deliver updates about the work in progress to the community and the press and monitor buzz, and it makes sense to focus one's efforts on the product first, especially when it is still far from being complete.

Humble beginnings and grand destiny
I will draw parallels between Eve Online, the science-fiction MMO, and the World of Darkness MMO-to-be, obviously because the latter is being prepared by the same company which to this day keeps developing the former. CCP has this great MMO technology and they will make sure to use it to the fullest. It means a large part of the technology used to power the games will be the same; and technical constraints inform gameplay choices. "Corification" is something that White Wolf (CCP North America) has been doing for quite some time in their pen-and-paper game lines, what with World of Darkness being the basic rulebook to Vampire: The Requiem, Werewolf: The Forsaken, Mage: the Awakening and the other games. Plus, I see no reason for the designers to change a gameplay philosophy (the sandbox in a single shard) that has proven successful.

Eve Online today is very different from what it was in 2003. Many features have been added to the game since. It means that, instead of trying to propose the end-all of science-fiction MMOs from the onset, CCP did release a game with a limited, yet solid, set of features, and expanded its scope ever since. They keep making their game more attractive to an ever broadening array of gaming styles. And the future looks promising with many pillars of science-fiction literature left to incorporate in their game: planetary conquests, artificial intelligences (rogue drones are basically just mineral-flavoured pirates), aliens, mutants, Space-Hulk style combat, time travel, futuristic cities, etc.
The same reasoning will certainly apply to World of Darkness, the MMO. The gothic horror, or contemporary horror, universe presents us with a dizzying quantity of supernatural races, alternate dimensions and secret powers, even in its new, somewhat smaller, incarnation. CCP cannot provide us with the full content of their dozens of books from the very beginning; they need to make choices and to make sure that what they provide us with is good enough to make us stick to the game.

Now that we're undead, what do we do?
My question is then: what would be the core activity available to players, the main selling point of the game?

In Eve Online, the answer is easy. The core activity around which the game revolves is spaceship combat; there is a proven gameplay model for that kind of activity, with a long list of computer games dedicated to it. Players either fly ships in combat, or mine minerals to build ships, train skills to pilot ships, organise social structures to ensure they field more battalions of ships than the enemy, etc.

What about World of Darkness? Truth is, I have no idea.
I know, at least, what I did in the pen-and-paper version of WoD: I tried to unravel mysteries; I fought for territory and dominance, for elusive freedom and night-to-night survival; I plotted the murder of my enemies and the construction of magical kingdoms; I manipulated and assassinated and booby-trapped my refuge; I fled into basements, and swayed the minds of mere mortals; I spoke to spirits and walked in the land of the dead; I spent considerable amounts of time hiding various dark secrets from the characters of other players. Those were thrilling evenings.
I am trying to find the common points, the one in-game activity which would provide enjoyable and marketable enough for a whole MMO to revolve around it, and I always come back to the idea of combat, more specifically some form or another of player-versus-player combat. When I hop into my Internet spaceships, I know that, given the right set of circumstances, I can find battle quite quickly, get the adrenaline running for a few minutes, and log off. The gratification is not as instant as a first person shooter, but, still, it is a strong part of the appeal of the game. Mind you, World of Darkness and Eve Online, while both set in pitiless universes, may not aim at the same demographics, the same species of players. Physical combat is not the focus of the WoD tabletop roleplaying games (though, as in the immense majority of such games, simulating confrontations is the heart of the rule system); it would rather be the inner emotional conflicts of monsters lost in the dark. Before anything, the World of Darkness is an oppressing setting where kindred spirits gather by necessity rather than friendship. There, you can cripple your enemy by corrupting his friends, eliminating his pawns and exposing his intimate fears. Shooting him in the head comes almost as an afterthought.

I would be mightily interested to discover which proven gameplay model, if any, the developers are using as the basis for their game. For the time being, I leave a big question mark here. Now, it shall not be told that I allow mere ignorance to stand in the way of brash predictions. I will make sure to come up with something in other posts.

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