Contemplating A .hack//MMO

By Ishaan . November 22, 2009 . 2:38pm

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Namco Bandai are well known for their licensing strategy that relies on spreading their franchises across a variety of media ranging from games to anime to manga. The company’s Gundam property in particular has been at the forefront of this business model, familiarizing consumers of videogames, anime, manga, toys and even theme parks with their name, giving Namco Bandai their place in Japan’s popular culture.

 

While not as widely renowned, Namco also own the .hack franchise, which, too, has spun its tale across several different installments in the games, manga, book and anime space. This isn’t common knowledge, but .hack was originally conceptualized as an MMORPG which would allow players to weave their own stories, presumably depending on what quests they undertook. However, faced with the costs of investing in a vast online multiplayer project and the impending launch of the Playstation 2, Namco and developer CyberConnect2 decided, instead, to create a "mock online game" with a set story that they felt would challenge the RPG genre.

 

 

The problem, though, is that, right from the start, every .hack project has been less gratifying than the one before it. What started with .hack//SIGN — a masterpiece for our generation, I feel — was built upon less convincingly with each subsequent game in the original Morganna saga. //SIGN is one of those anime series that I feel every forum-goer or IRC chatter needs to watch. It’s something I recommend to every nerd I know, and I even remind myself to re-watch it every couple of years. It perfectly portrays the divide between the real world and the online world, and it does a fantastic job depicting how easy it can be for some to mistake one for the other — or sometimes, even substitute one for the other consciously.

 

A former model past her glory days turning to the online world to give her life meaning. A wealthy businessman that helps an in-game guild of law-enforcers during his spare time in between business trips. An author who uses the game as his sole means of communicating with his distanced son. While these characters might sound odd, they’re not, really. Anyone who’s grown up with the Internet knows you run into all kinds of people online, and this is something the anime captures wonderfully. .hack//SIGN’s characters are as real as they come.

 

Unfortunate, then, that every piece of .hack media following //SIGN chose to focus more on telling long-winded stories of in-game urban legends and recycling the same old "players falling into coma" story over and over again. Given how many games they’ve already published in this line, you’d expect Namco to do something more significant with the series. I know, I know…mainstream and western games are what’s on everyone’s minds nowadays, including Namco Bandai’s, and .hack is far from mainstream. But let’s assume for a moment that we aren’t in global recession, and Namco are still interested in doing something in Japan beyond churning out dozens of Tales games that never get localized. Would a The World MMORPG help give the franchise the boost it needs?

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Obviously an MMORPG would be no easy undertaking in today’s market ruled by World of Warcraft and hundreds of free-to-play, microtransaction-based online games. Even more problematic would be creating a game that faithfully captures the spirit of .hack, while giving players the freedom an MMO offers. When you think about it, a The World MMO could either be the greatest advancement in the genre, or a complete disaster. And well, we’ve already had one of those with .hack//Fragment, which was extremely limited in terms of customization options and played more like a multiplayer game than a massively-multiplayer one.

 

Marketing and technical hindrances aside, personally, I’d love to see someone give it a shot. For one thing, there’s an abundance of .hack lore to draw from that could serve as a history for The World and its nuances. Certain remnants of past events like, say, Net Slum, could still exist and offer fans that care for it some fun insight into the development and evolution of the The World. Of course, in order to keep the "cursed game" fantasy alive, it would be important to somehow restrict access to such an area and make sure no one knows how to get there at will — maybe even make it seem like it isn’t a legitimate part of the game — given that Net Slum isn’t supposed to "officially" exist.

 

And what of Helba? Would it be wise to include her in the game? Moreover, would she be an NPC or an administrator playing the role of a information-gathering hacker convincingly? Once you think of any single such example, more start to come to mind, until you’ve eventually convinced yourself that The World would make for a fantastic MMO. There’s something very exciting about the thought of playing a game where apparently nothing functions the way it’s supposed to.

 

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We all know you can’t make someone role-play by forcing them into it. The World, however, could perhaps be the first game where you could convince players to role-play effectively, simply because of how easy and convenient it would be. The appeal of The World is that everyone knows it’s a game (including the NPCs) but they roleplay within the context of the game anyway. It doesn’t require you to buy into some make-believe fantasy story involving elves or spaceships. All it does is require you to be yourself within a "cursed" game. One could argue that going, "W00t! I got me some phat lewt!" in World of WarCraft sort of breaks the illusion that Blizzard have worked so hard to build up. In The World, however, saying something to that effect would be completely normal. To put it simply, you’re role-playing by not role-playing.

 

I’d compare it to playing Diablo II on Nightmare for the umpteenth time. By then, no one gives a hoot about Tal Rasha or Baal or any of the game’s lore. You’re in it for the loot and to have some fun with your friends. But the advantage The World has is that it shares a very strong connection with the real world. There’s so much, psychologically, that a developer could do to really make the player feel involved. NPCs, could, for instance, come right out and say they’re AI characters programmed to assist you within the game by providing their services, acknowledging that you’re an adventurer looking for some fun. Subtle cues like those would help reinforce the unique fantasy of The World.

 

Something else that always fascinated me about The World is that, even within the game, mysteries can still present themselves, sometimes with a solution that requires looking to the real world. Something as simple as the mystery behind another player, for instance. Sure, that hot Wavemaster that goes treasure-hunting with me every evening might seem like a completely happy-go-lucky person, but is she really? What’s her life like on the outside? And what’s with that Heavy Blade who’s always harassing other players? What’s his story?

 

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You might say that these kinds of mysteries are present in any online game, but The World isn’t simply a fantasy — it’s a fantasy set in reality. I also feel it would encourage people to act more like themselves, and perhaps bring what makes them likable (or unlikable) along with their avatars into the game. It would make for a far more "real" experience than running around with elf boots on, and as a result, it might even attract older, more mature players to join in the fun.

 

The real world connection brings up another interesting subject: player interaction with the game’s administrators and helping monitor the system. Here’s an example; Let’s say that someone in WoW decides to cheat. What do Blizzard do? They ban him, and that’s that. But The World has the potential for something more entertaining. You could put a bounty on the cheater’s head and have every person in the game trying to hunt him down. And if he’s too unreasonable or overpowered for regular players to handle, well…there’s nothing that stops the administration from using modified characters themselves and PKing him in public. I mean, there’s a reason Balmung had those wings of his.

 

To put it in a nutshell, make a show out of it. Get players involved, maybe even in upholding the laws of the game by forming their own guilds. Sort of like the Crimson Knights. Design the story and content in a way that you play up the fact that you’re in a game where players don’t know what to expect (yes, this would be hellishly difficult from a production standpoint). That’s the fantasy of .hack, isn’t it?

 

I’ve only touched upon a few select points in this post, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. I couldn’t even begin to include some of the streams of thought that run through my head when I consider other possibilities — like how to keep the player involved even when they aren’t playing the game — because they’re so long and there’s so many of them. Once you think of enough little elements of design, they add up and really make you wonder what a .hack MMORPG would feel like and how it could set itself apart from other games.

 

Maybe someday, someone at Namco will decide it’s worth looking into; but then again, given how niche .hack is, I’d expect a Gundam or Tales MMO well before The World.


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  • malek86

    Sign wasn’t bad (though not good either – its saving grace was the soundtrack), but I really appreciated the game quadrilogy more. I know many people didn’t like the repetitiveness, but I liked the random dungeon system. Unfortunately, like you said, every other installment has been less appealing than the other before it.

    Anyway, I’m not sure if I would play a hack MMO. No, wait, let me rephrase it. I know for sure I wouldn’t play it (I never play MMOs). But could it work? Sure, why not. But when you take out the storyline, which really only works well in single player for obvious reasons, you are left with a very standard, run-of-the-mill MMO, with probably nothing to set it apart from the rest. Could it be successful? Maybe, if it found an identity. But i don’t know how.

  • thaKingRocka

    simply put: too much meta for me. no thanks.

  • http://gameplay.pl/keii Keiician

    Well, I would love to play The World, but unlike the author of this article, I see the whole .hack franchise more as a wasted potential. The anime could’ve been interesting (because the idea was great + the music + character design) and the games could’ve been good (but the repetition killed them imo). Nevermind that.
    Ishaan, you seem to be forgetting one thing – “The World”, as presented in the .hack world is not a MMO where NPCs go around shouting that they’re there to help users in the game. No, it’s basically the same as any other MMO – it’s got lore, real role players who act like fantasy characters and so on.
    What you are describing here is the sort of “underground” activity, which (in my opinion) requires the “normal” to exist as well, just to be more convincing. Being a .hacker when everyone else is one too doesn’t sound THAT great.
    Still, it would be great if Namco-Bandai decided to make a .hack//MMORPG.

    • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

      Yea, I understand “The Worlds” in the .hack anime and games have had a lore and all of that, but it’s really never been touched upon, so I can’t imagine too many people would be upset if they took a few liberties with a real The World game in that regard. Something I constantly kept thinking back to while writing this post was the way all real world scenes in //SIGN were presented in grainy black & white with no sound, while everything that took place inside the game was in full colour.

      I agree, from a production pipeline standpoint, it’s going to be hard to do it right and make more than just a handful of players feel special. I would imagine a lot of trial and error and focus-testing being involved, and that alone would add to the cost, technical issues aside.

  • Pesmerga00

    I don’t play MMOs. While I love .hack. It’s unlikely even it would get me to play one.

    For me .hack is all about the characters and story. Get rid of, or downplay them, and your not left with much. Most players in an MMO with a story tend to ignore it in favor of a grind/loot fest(ie:PSU/WOW). It could work, but I don’t think there’s much demand for one. As you mentioned Fragment bombed. In part because, without all the story layers you’re just left with a generic MMO.

    If theres one thing that truly ruins the online gaming experience, it’s the people.(Could you even imagine a player enforced law system with the average gamer? It would be chaos.) So, for the player aspect, simulated ones are just fine. Even at times, preferred.

    I do however think it would be fun to have say, a console trilogy (That looks like the G.U. movies.) Where you could play Crimson VS online, with a ranking system. Even online Co-Op could work. Here you could do random dungeons or quests together. But leave it a pseudo MMO with the option of playing it with a friend.(My ideal setup.) Though if that does do really well, then maybe they could take the plunge into a full MMO world.

    Slightly off topic. I keep hearing people saying that the PSP game .hack//Link will be the last game for the franchise. Anyone know why people think this? (Possibly a developer quote?) It would be pretty disappointing to say goodbye to the series with a handheld crossover game. I find it hard to believe that they will stop making games if a profit can be turned. I think Tri-Ace said something similar about SO3, and well “points to SO4″.

    So, in short. No to MMO. Yes to online Co-Op.

    • http://gameplay.pl/keii Keiician

      >I keep hearing people saying that the PSP game .hack//Link will be the last >game for the franchise. Anyone know why people think this? (Possibly a >developer quote?)

      In the //Link trailer it says “The World’s last battle” (「The World」 最後の戦い).

      • nonoko

        Yeah, they said that .hack//link will be the last game in the series. I read the information off of .hack// wikia.

      • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

        What they likely mean is that it’ll be the last game in the .hack Conglomerate project, which basically revolves around the G.U. events and other stories in The World: R2. Don’t be surprised if they announce a new .hack saga next year. ;)

        • http://gameplay.pl/keii Keiician

          Don’t forget that //Link isn no less connectet to .hack//Conglomerate than it is to .hack//Project – Kite and other Quadrology//Sign character also make an appearance there and “The World” Tokyo is playing is a new version of the game again.

          • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

            This is a good point. Perhaps it would be better to assume, then, that this is their final nod to both Project .hack and .hack Conglomerate? Or perhaps a sign that they intend to keep that lore even going forward into new revisions of The World. You’re right, it’s hard to say. I don’t think they’re going to stop producing more games though.

        • malek86

          That might depend. Was GU more or less successful compared to the original saga?

          • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

            I’m not sure how successful it was compared to the dothackers trilogy (//Infection has sold over 254,844 so far) but all the G.U. games did over 150,000 in sales, which is a good enough reason to keep doing more. Also, keep in mind that this is a property that encompasses games, manga, anime, novels etc., which means they’re not just going to stop producing it all of a sudden.

          • http://www.siliconera.com/ Ishaan

            Er, dothackers quadrilogy. Sorry, Disqus won’t let me edit.

      • Xien12

        About .hack//Link… I honestly despise how they made the tone of the series look all bright and cheery compared to G.U and the first four games.

        • http://gameplay.pl/keii Keiician

          I just hope it’ll be less repetetive than the earlier games. But as for the story, it’s pretty shounenish, at least in the manga. And some of the villains just look plain stupid.

  • http://twitter.com/nameoftheyear Elliot T.

    What made .hack// interesting wasn’t really the gameplay or the in-game world, but the meta storytelling that happened around it.

    In short, I don’t imagine a .hack// MMO being very interesting unless they combine it with a very well-tended ARG. A game where your progression in the game world lends to an unfolding mystery in the real world. That would be amazingly creative and unique, but not surprisingly, it’s also so ambitious as to be impossible.

  • speedstersonic

    If the battle system would be anything like G.U. or improved upon I would most certainly play it!

  • Kris

    Wouldn’t an MMO based on an MMO in show about an MMO that puts people into comas be insanely meta to the point of ridiculousness?

  • Xien12

    The World would not work unless it was a virtual reality game. That’s how I feel. They already tried an MMO with Fragment and frankly, it turned out pretty bad.

    • http://gameplay.pl/keii Keiician

      Well, yeah – to tell the truth it’s the VR which made “The World” stand out from all other MMOs.

  • holyPaladin

    If there is .hack MMO, I will play it for sure

    • ZammZoo

      I wish there weren’t so many negative comments about this. Basically the G.U. combat system with the idea of going on different quests to go about branched storylines that all come out to probably some 8 different endings involving allying with the avatars for some story driven reason (still the players choice but they would probably be more geared to go a certain way due to the way they played) And it could expand from there.Including the dungeon system and your hacker/juggernaut hunting idea along with events and lore from the shows and whatnot would make a great MMO. Not AMAZINGLY different but hell I would DEFINITELY pay for something like that.Think about it;s A .HACK//MMO just spit that for a while and you’ll get hype.

  • seink

    the anime’s .hack mmo is something way too complex to be created right now. its not about you choosing an option from a list when talking to an npc, all npcs have ai and are almost as humam as anyone of us. The game play would surely be not the “click and kill” you play in so many others MMOs, it would need to be something more like a fighting game mixed with action game (something like the last prince of persia game, but with multiple enemies at the same time and no imortality). Another thing that would be nice is the new XBox360 accessory, project Natal, be used as a mean to interact with the game, so that the caracter wouldn’t only have a few preset actions/moves, it would move as you do, than again, this may be a ***** to players like me who do no sports. there are other thing too, but I will stop now as there is too much to think….

  • theworldofnoboundries

    Well if bandai could improve the .hack MMO far better than the . hack fragment i will be sure to play that game (like giving almost uncountable list of avatar to made on a char eyes,eyebrow,nose,breast,muscle,chin,teeth,hair,and the others part too,also the character face which is difficult to find same between each player like Shino and Atoli remember??)

    If it is about the story Bandai should made the story to advance between the .hackers era. They could also spread two types of NPC one which is under the direct command by the GMs(Bandai’s employes) and also the other group which is the group which had connection to story(Kite,Tsukasa,BlackRose and lots others) They should also be played by the employes from Bandai so they will not be like monotone because of NPC.
    Lastly we should have some kind of unanounced event too not only from the C.C Corp(Bandai^^) like when “The Wave” show up in some middle of field or even in the middle of city terrorizing us then the GM’s will come to save us from their attack.

    With all of those aspect according to me the .Hack MMO wont be as boring as all of you guys said then.

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