Several times, Jeff Vogel has mentioned that the Geneforge games aren’t as popular as his other products. Now that the series has concluded, we can take a closer look at what sets it apart from the typical RPG.
This isn’t high fantasy. There are no elves, no dwarves, no exotic races of any kind. All characters are human, except in the last couple of games, in which the created race Servile was available. Regardless, there isn’t anything that really sets it apart from the others.
The average RPG player is likely to find that disappointing. Human is often the “dull race”, with nothing special about it. No abilities, no bonuses, no magic powers. And everyone (except Serviles) is human.
Further, gender is class-based (or class was gender-based, whichever way you care to look at it). Agents are always female, while Shapers and Guardians are male.
That was extended to the additional rebel classes, with Infiltrators, Sorceresses, and Shock Troopers all women, and Lifecrafters and Warriors being men. Serviles, well, no one knows what’s under that hooded robe.
Naturally, some of that comes from limited resources. Allowing for male and female in each class would double the required art and animation, putting great stress and additional cost on development.
And there are people who aren’t comfortable running a character of the opposite sex. I have a friend who loves Diablo 2, yet he won’t play the Amazon because it’s strictly female. How far such feelings extend into the general player base, I don’t know. But there are certainly some who are put off by lack of gender choice in choosing a character.
The basis of Geneforge is a hybrid of science and fantasy. The Shapers do with magic what we do with technology: manipulate genetic material.
This mix is nothing new. SF and fantasy have been combined before in the Might & Magic series from the beginning, and in the later Wizardry games, to give two examples. It didn’t really work too well in those, and it doesn’t work well here, either.
For all the talk about research, Shaper labs and equipment, experiment notes, machinery, and so on, what really happens? You just wave your hand, and poof! a creation appears.
The only difference between making a creation in Geneforge and summoning a creature in a typical RPG is that the creations hang around until dead or re-absorbed. It’s almost like having a band of familiars traveling with you.
In fact, that may be the best description. In D&D, at least as it used to be (I don’t know what’s in 4ed these days), familiars gained in power as the character leveled up. Creations level up and become more powerful, too.
Additionally, the weaponry isn’t scientific. Items are either ordinary or magical, just as in a typical RPG. So while there may be talk about “scientific” stuff, and even a peek through a microscope at DNA, the science and fantasy aspects just don’t blend together well.
What may be most disconcerting for the average player (though this is my favorite part) is the lack of enforced morals. Gamers are used to being led by the hand and told: This is right, this wrong, these are the good guys, these are the bad guys.
Geneforge tramples all over that, and says: you decide what’s right and wrong. You decide who to support. The ending you get goes along with your decisions, and no judgment is made as to whether or not you chose correctly.
For some, that can be scary, as they’re so used to having it all laid out for them from the start. And others may not want to become so involved; they just want to follow a story, beat on monsters, grab loot, and save the world in the usual Foozle fight. They’d rather not make any decisions beyond whether or not to accept a particular side job.
While there can be a problem with beginning the next game, choosing a starting point from a multiplicity of endings, I don’t consider that a big factor. Avernum is also a continuing series (though due to conclude with the sixth installment), and that one remains popular.
As for graphics, mechanics, and basic gameplay, these are much the same across all Spiderweb products. For those who’ve played several or many of them, the similarity may reach the point of staleness, however intriguing the storyline.
So there are several reasons as to why Geneforge hasn’t caught on. If I had to choose one as the biggest factor, I’d say it was because this isn’t high fantasy.
Almost every RPG is along that line. Players have to come to expect it as a matter of course. They are familiar with it, whatever system may be used. Yes, there have been SF role-playing games, but they were overtly science fiction, such as the Buck Rogers games from SSI.
When you come down to it, Geneforge has neither enough science, nor enough “familiar fantasy”, to engage the interest of a large number of players. It is too much in-between, and that is never a good place for any game to be.