The western has been limping along for decades now, occasionally rearing its head to produce a well-loved movie or game smash hit before disappearing once more. It’s certainly one of the most-cited genres when it comes to speculating about largely unexplored spaces for MMOs, but how feasible is doing an online western RPG really?
We’ve seen some titles tap into the western feel without being a true period game, such as WildStar and Fallen Earth, but no major attempt has been made to create an MMO in the wild, wild west of legend. Still, you look at how gamers flocked to Red Dead Redemption and you have to wonder if there’s potential there for something more persistent and massively multiplayer.
Today I’m going to mull over the finer points as to why making a western MMO would be an incredibly challenging feat — and why it would be totally worth it if done right. Giddyup, cowpokes!
1. It’s not a major part of the culture zeitgeist
As I mentioned in the intro, probably the biggest challenge to a pure-western MMO is that it’s not anywhere in the same league of popularity (especially in geek culture) as science-fiction and fantasy. That’s not to say that westerns aren’t cherished by some and can be masterpieces when done well (True Grit, Deadwood), just that the genre is quite niche for entertainment in general and gaming in particular.
While this is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for a studio to stake out a field in which there are few direct competitors. If you’re the first, only, and best MMO of that type, then people looking for a western aren’t going to have anywhere else to go.
2. Racial sensitivities
Probably the biggest elephant in the room of the western genre is how modern entertainment deals with historically difficult topics of manifest destiny, how immigrants (such as the Chinese) were treated, the aftereffects of the civil war and slavery, and the clashes between the native tribes and the settlers. Do you really want to toss gamers — some of whom are prone to get racist at the drop of a hat — into such a setting? Can you imagine what furor you’d stir up with a “cowboys and Indians” PvP feature?
So how do you deal with all of this? Unless you’re going for uber-educational with your approach, your best chance of side-stepping these touchy issues is to create a wild west-like setting that isn’t 100% modeled on the real thing. Gamers would accept that because we’re used to that with pretty much everything else (see: pirates, ninjas, chainmail bikinis).
3. Realism vs. Hollywood
Any game based on some historical setting (even very loosely medieval) has to choose where it lies on the spectrum of realism. This would be an important question for a western MMO, as pop culture has certainly wrung history through a revisionist filter to the point where we think that gunfights happened at high noon on a daily basis in every podunk town.
Adapting a more realistic approach would be really interesting and immersive, although it would have to trade in most of its combat to do so (see number eight). On the other hand, a more Hollywoodized version of the wild west would give developers creative license to shoehorn in more movie elements and even cross-blend with other genres (like horror or steampunk).
4. No shortcuts
In fantasy MMOs, players are accustomed to magic and giant winged creatures porting them around. In science-fiction and contemporary titles, there are cars, shuttles, and teleporters galore. But in westerns, travel is pretty much limited to walking, stage coaches, trains, and horses. And there are no shortcuts to get anywhere, unless you’re going to adopt Lord of the Rings Online’s “mapping” function.
Maybe a studio can fudge this by putting locales close together and speeding up automatic travel times, but if it’s a more realistic world, then players will have to accept the tradeoff of slower travel without any of the shortcuts that to which they’ve become accustomed.
5. A lack of diversity
As much as I love a good western setting, I’ve realized that it’s best in short, concentrated doses due to not really having a wide range of variety. There are only so many types of landscape settings. There are only so many models of rifles and pistols. There are only so many frontier stories, building types, and even mounts (horses or get out).
If you apply this to MMOs, how much diversity can developers interject without breaking the setting entirely? You don’t want players to feel as if everyone looks the same, rides the same type of animal, and is doing all of the same things… but you also don’t want to toss in griffyns and mecha-spiders for the sake of breaking up the norm.
6. How sandbox do you want to go?
Probably the best hope for a solid western MMO would be one that embraces a strong sandbox approach while still creating a structured world. Give people who want to quest and experience stories just that while also providing players with tools to create settlements, build train lines, establish the pony express, build mines, and so on. I can see being pioneers and settling an untamed land as being a far more compelling experience in the long haul than shooting up rival gangs on horseback.
7. Capturing the feel
Even if a development studio decided to go for a more flexible approach to reality with a western MMO, it would still be wise to pay attention to all of the little details that take a setting from a parody to a pleasure. Remember how Doc Brown dressed up Marty in goofy ’50s cowboy clothes when he sent him back to the 1880s? That’s the difference we’re talking about here. This is an area in which a studio would have a wealth of information and photographed documentation on which to draw.
Plus, can you imagine how the soundtrack would be? Forget high-fantasy orchestras; this type of game could bring out the best western score that composers have had germinating inside for years!
8. It wouldn’t be all about combat…
Even though you might instantly think of gunfighters and quick draws when a western setting comes up, a western MMO couldn’t be only about the fighting. For one thing, it would be absurdly inaccurate; for another, just how many gangs and wild animals could developers throw at you?
So a western would need to embrace more than just combat, allowing players to be explorers, take up a profession (stage coach driver? bartender? shop owner? miner? train conductor? prostit… no.), and work on crafts. Towns could hire sheriffs, raise posses, elect mayors, and work together for massive projects. So many possibilities.
9. …But when fights do happen, the system would need to be thought through
But c’mon, there would have to be fighting because how disappointing would it be if you couldn’t live out your six-shooter dreams? Once again, diverse options seem to be lacking in such a setting, with only so many types of weapons and combat styles available, but who knows what the imaginations of developers could create?
Maybe it would be best to adopt a flexible skill-based system with plenty of mix-and-matching so that players wouldn’t get pigeonholed into a class (and how many of those can you even think of?). It would be a challenge to handle how a knife fighter could — if at all — go up against a marksman with a rifle.
10. It would be risky on all fronts
Make no mistake: While all of this is quite fun for conjecture in the comfort of our own minds, it would be an extremely risky venture for a studio to undertake. Making the wrong mistake in design choice and how this setting is handled could instantly push away large portions of the game’s intended audience. And players would have expectations that such a game would deliver an “authentic” western experience, however each of them interprets that.
Still, I double-dog dare a studio to make it. I’d love to see it done and done right. Wouldn’t you?