As I’ve said before, I’m not just a cyberpunk aficionado, I’m also an MMO developer. These two interests intersect in interesting ways. There have been calls for a cyberpunk-themed MMO from many people, but it hasn’t happened yet. Why?

Let’s take a look at some reasons why cyberpunk is a terrible genre for an MMO.

Dystopia is a hard sell

Noted MMO designer Damion Schubert advanced the “corner bar” theory, stating that players want to spend time in a space that feels inviting. The most popular western is MMO a brightly colored fantasy world of high magic. Even though the world is supposed to be torn by war and they’ve promised a world-shattering cataclysm, the world is still fundamentally inviting to players, particularly new players. Being a welcoming world has frequently been mentioned as one of the biggest reasons why World of Warcraft has been a success.

Contrast this to the typical feel of a good piece of cyberpunk. I mean, would you really want to drive through the streets of the world of Strange Days? Driving in large cities is bad enough without having to deal with burning cars and continuous police checkpoints. This is before we consider the horror of racial anger and the problems the SQUID technology has caused. Or, consider Blade Runner, while it might be interesting, nobody in the movie really looked at ease with where they were. It’s hard to make a home in a place that is pretty much unfriendly by definition of the genre.

Cyberpunk themes don’t work well in games

One of the major themes in cyberpunk is control. In most cases, the protagonists get a false sense of control over their future, only to find that they’ve been played like pawns in a game of chess. I’ve advocated that the most important aspect of a game is interactivity, where the players have control and their input alters the game. These two philosophies seem at odds with each other.

Or, take the theme of technological dominance; in many cyberpunk works the protagonists bend technology to suit their whims. In MMOs, however, you generally want a fairly restricted technology on the client side. People who alter the technology of an MMO game to suit their own purposes have a special name, “Cheaters”. Having a game that encourages cheating isn’t a good thing.

Finally, consider the wide-eyed excitement about “cyberspace” you see in a lot of cyberpunk works. MMOs are essentially the realization of the dreams of cyberspace from decades past. You’re not going to get that spark of excitement about cyberspace when many MMO players have seen it for over a decade now. “Been there, done that, got the +1 chain shirt.”

It has been done before with little success

There have been a few attempts to create cyberpunk-themed MMOs in the past. The Matrix Online was launched to a tepid reception. It was acquired by Sony Online and became one of the few games they’ve ever actually shut down. (Keep in mind that the original EverQuest, a game over 10 years old by now, is still being run and played.)

Another game generally in the genre of cyberpunk is Neocron, by German developer Reakktor. One could argue it’s not strictly in the cyberpunk genre given the in-game history involving elements like colony ships and nuclear war, but it maintains a lot of the trappings of the genre. Although the game received a lot of negative comments for its gameplay style, the fact that it’s a fairly obscure title doesn’t bode well for cyberpunk as an MMO genre.

Finally, there was an attempt to license R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 as an MMO setting. For whatever reason, this project never became a reality.

Three games with three discouraging histories. Not exactly encouraging to those that want a cyberpunk-themed game, is it?

What do you think? Is cyberpunk a hopeless genre for an MMO game?