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?
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.
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?
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.