All I Want for Christmas is a Steampunk MMO
It's always fascinating to see trends come and go in geek culture. Usually one trend gets flaming hot for a few months or even a year or two, but it then usually sputters out. One trend that has shown no signs of disappearing is steampunk. In the last decade, steampunk has grabbed and maintained a hold on geek culture that has defied the odds. Probably the main reason why it has continued so strongly is that it never became a huge mainstream trend but kept to its niche roots, thus allowing it remain healthy and vibrant. If you go to any gaming or geek convention, you're sure to see a ton of people in steampunk cosplay, but there's one area that steampunk hasn't conquered - that of mmorpg games. I find this situation depressing, and as I tell all my friends, all I want for Christmas is a steampunk mmo.
Now I understand that quite a few people may not exactly understand what steampunk is. It's a relatively new term, coined in the late 1980s, that normally encompasses science fiction set in the Victorian era (mid to late 1800s) where the predominant energy source isn't oil, but steam. A good rule of thumb is to consider the writings of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as steampunk. With those stories, you have fantastic tales that feature technology, but also a mix of lost civilizations and races (or even dinosaurs!). Steampunk can also contain elements of fantasy or horror, but the normal depiction is of an alternative history in the Wild West or Victorian England.
So why do I want a steampunk mmo so badly? The answer is that I'm enthralled with the entire notion of steampunk in general. It mixes together high adventure, a dash of mad science, and a several pinches of what-if in the form of finding some lost city or the remains of a long-dead civilization. It's sci-fi, but with a healthy dose of romanticism. Men are gallant gentlemen, erudite but deadly, while women are ladies of intrigue and adventure. Imagine sipping tea before heading out to face the gibbering hordes of an alien tribe on a colonized Mars. It's a heady mix of civilized culture with fantastic action. A steampunk mmo should be easy to create just by its very nature.
I know that some people will point out that there are some mmo games that can be considered steampunk. I'm talking about City of Steam: Arkadia and Black Gold Online. While I understand why they could be considered a steampunk mmo, let me tell you why I don't. The main reason is that, to me, the steampunk look and ascetics were grafted onto a fantasy base. Both games do have steampunk elements, but it takes more than a pair of goggles and an industrial-looking motorcycle to be considered a true steampunk mmo. Each game features standard fantasy races, as well as classes found in fantasy games. Steampunk doesn't have wizards throwing fireballs at one another. Steampunk may have crazed scientists shooting ray guns but not fireballs.
What exactly do I want from a steampunk mmo? To begin with, I want it to focus exclusively on the sci-fi elements of the genre. It needs to be set in an alternative history setting, which could include space travel. (An excellent steampunk-style pen-and-paper rpg is Space: 1889.) I want armored dirigibles that belong to a crime lord floating over a heavily-industrialized London. I want lost civilizations, both on the surface and below it, and expeditions to alien worlds to claim dominion over them for Queen and Country. I don't want orcs or elves or dwarves. I want humans from a variety of nations seeking their glory, either on this world or on another. You can have alien races, but they would have to be akin to the native tribes encountered by the colonial powers in the mid 1800s in the far corners of the world or perhaps the remnants of a dying civilization.
A steampunk mmo shouldn't have baseless violence. There has to be the mix of willingness to fight to the death and the horror of not practicing your drawing room manners. After all, a true gentleman knows how to properly address a lady just as much as he knows the best way to bring down a charging rhino with his Steiner-Krupp 4000 Mechanized Rifle. A duel of honor between players should be high drama in the form of pistols or rapiers at dawn.
Another facet that would have to be beefy in a steampunk mmo would be the crafting. I normally abhor crafting in mmo games, but I would gladly make an exception for a game such as this. Science, even if it's actually pseudo-science, is a higher calling in steampunk. I want the ability to have my own lab filled with fantastic devices that allow me to experiment and create wondrous items. Weapons, vehicles, prosthetic limbs...the list is almost endless. The weird scientist is a mainstay of steampunk, as seen by Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the time traveling scientist in The Time Machine.
The main issue with creating a steampunk mmo is that steampunk is still a niche sub-genre of science fiction. As any online gamer can attest, the number of straightforward sci-fi mmos, such as Star Trek Online, are vastly outnumbered by fantasy games, such as World of Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls Online. My honest opinion is that the genre isn't mainstream enough to warrant a fully fledge steampunk mmo. Which I find rather sad as I'm ready to strap on my goggles, adjust my derby and waistcoat, and strap on my weapon belt, with my Colt Peacemaker on one side and my dueling saber on the other. For Queen and Country!