Tobold's Blog
Saturday, June 06, 2009
License - Help or Hindrance?

Gordon from We Fly Spitfires is asking how important a license to some well-known intellectual property like Star Wars is for the success of a MMORPG. Historic precedence is patchy. Successful games like Everquest weren't using licensed IP. World of Warcraft only used in-house IP from the Warcraft RTS series. And games with big licenses like Lord of the Rings Online or Star Wars Galaxies or Age of Conan or Warhammer Online didn't really outperform unlicensed games.

Not only isn't a license to some very well-known IP not always helpful, it even appears to be a hindrance in some cases. Star Wars Galaxies was torn between everybody wanting to be a jedi, and the lore not allowing thousands of jedis to run around at that point in the timelime (which is why the new games are back to the Old Republic). And some players were disappointed when they found out they couldn't play anyone from the fellowship in LotRO. With a big license, everybody comes to the game with a load of expectations, and you have a lot less freedom for design.

So, what would you rather play, quality otherwise being equal? A game with a big license, or something completely original?
Originality is always a bonus. When a company relies on a popular namesake it usually just winds up being an excuse for the company to make a bad game that people will buy anyway regardless of the genre. There are exceptions but they are extremely uncommon.
If we assume that the quality of lore is also equal, something original. It allows the developers more freedom in developing the story. Licensed games always have to maintain the important events mentioned in the other lore or shove the game events into a distant place/time. In the latter case, the licensed lore just becomes a marketing gimmick.
Honestly? A game with a license I really like will have extra appeal over one with an unknown license. It's to do with the virtual world side of things, I think. You think 'Yay! I always wanted to be a jedi and now I can' (or something along those lines).

But a game with an IP I don't care about or dislike has negative appeal. I don't think I was ever going to like Conan, even if the game had been flawless.

So it's a risk as well as a possible benefit.
Given equally skilled developers, the one with a better IP may produce the better game, for the reasons Spinks has pointed out. Having said that, a good game with obscure IP will always beat a bad one with an established base in the long run. The latter may get more initial box sales, but the players will soon leave. Because of the subscription model, MMO development is a long-term game. Good IP may buy you an advantage in the short term, but that's not where the money is. The situation is reversed for more conventional games that recoup all their costs from box sales.
But I like Warcraft, because I've played previous Warcraft games, I didn't even bother with other MMOs because I never liked the IPs.

Everquest was completely boring, because I knew/know nothing of their story.

I think it's amazingly important to me, for an MMO to have a known lore.
I think FFXI would be a preferred mix. It's a big license that is well known but fans aren't hoping for a specific setting it's more of the feel and style of the IP that draws them in and not the hope of playing a specific character from a previous game.
Original IPs don't have hordes of whiny fanboys pointing out even the smallest discrepancy in excruciating detail. Unless a miracle happens, the Star Trek MMO will suffer a lot from this.
I think it depends a lot on the licenses, WoW worked well because Warcraft has always been an RTS. Players didn't go into it wanting to be Arthas, they wanted to be a bloodelf or a troll shaman. I think Warhammer games work the same way, Yeah Warhammer Online isn't great, But I think I gave it a lot more slack them I'd give a normal MMO just because its in an interesting Setting that I enjoy.
problem with licences is that you already identified with the stuff you like. so the chance of disappointment is increasing, because it's not your point of view towards a licence.

very rarely it has been succesful, the biggest of the all is lotr-movies, which, to be honest, really cut out much stuff, yet maintained enough to make it an original in itself.

for games it is another matter. licences like warhammer/star wars can be good, because you can dive into history and alter it a bit, because of the background.
In general, I'm in favor of original IPs. It gives you a lot more freedom as a developer, and less overblown expectations from players.

But, here's a slight twist to the question: What about an IP that you might not know about? Let's assume you don't hate science fiction and someone announced a game basd on Iain Banks' Culture novels? (

Assuming you weren't a rabid fan of that series already, would you shun the game in favor of a better known science fiction setting like Star Wars? Would you ignore it in favor of an original science fiction IP like EVE?
Existing IPs are definitely an attraction to me. I mean, who doesn't want to be a jedi or command the USS Enterprise? IP MMOs tap into the base instinct of connecting players to worlds they already know and like.

Of course, the downside is that it leads to a lot higher expectations :)
While I'd want to play in a big IP, wanting to be a Jedi or someone of lore importance, that is not possible (okay, possible while remaining good). So I have to go with my less fantastic want of being powerful in a new universe where I don't feel drawn to be a particular character of power. I think WoW has a decent balance between, having a lot of lore behind it but at least for me, there's not the same desire to be the characters we see in lore, but rather to fight with them.
Either can help or hurt you. I will play the old republic and have a geek-gasm the first few times I whip out my lightsabre because I am a huge star wars fan. I also had no desire to try AoC because I did not like Conan. However I believe it is vital to keep it open so your lore doesn't interfere with making the game fun like it did in SWG.
All things being equal, I think the quality of the game matters more. I loved SWG because of the community, not because of the IP. I loved WOW because of its polish, not its IP (I couldn't care less about Warcraft lore). I loved Ultima Online because of the freedom of character progression.

The game is what sells the IP for me, not the other way around.
I can't think of a single license I'd be anymore eager to see than original IP. One of the issues is that I don't ever expect a game to really live up to a book or movie I love. Books and movies are about being told a story and having no control over that narrative, and games are all about play -- radically different.

I also think it can hamper. The jedi example Tobold mentions clearly was a thorn in the side of SOE.

And I think Warhammer became a problem for Mythic because the Warhammer lore only supports two sides (I'm guessing), and clearly in retrospect, three sides would have been better for the game, ala Dark Age of Camelot.

I don't consider the Conan IP to be all that restrictive. It's pretty wide open. It's low magic, but there isn't anything wrong with that. And as a developer I'd feel free to reshape the lore in small ways, and even disregard anything not written by Robert E. Howard himself.

In terms of marketing, it does get you more attention. Had both Conan and Warhammer been original IPs, it's possible the initial sales wouldn't have been as brisk as they were.
@ Mark Asher

The problem with Warhammer is there aren't really sides to begin with. The Empire of man retains good relations with the high elves and the dwarfs, however the elves and the dwarfs hate each other. Chaos doesn't ally with anyone, same with the Orks. And the dark elves are open to manipulating other factions, but wouldn't be caught dead actually working with them openly. And your absolutly correct, 3 factions would solve many of mythics major problems.

My experence in Warhammer is on my server destruction greatly outnumbers order, When I played DAoC Albion greatly outnumbered both Hibernia and Midguard, however in response to this, Miguard and Hibernia basically signed a cease fire and united against Albion, occasionally they'd backstab each other but all this made for a much more interesting setup then just 2 sides going at it, and the biggest side winning all the time.
Personally, I'd love to see a steampunk original IP that has the vibe of this one game I remember called Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magic Obscura. :D
Well in terms of popularity, Warcraft was not exactly an new IP when WoW came out. It had an extremely huge fanbase (essentially anybody who's ever played a Blizzard game (e.g. every PC gamer out there)). It's not like WoW just came out to the market and nobody had any knowledge about what this IP was about.
It seems that everyone is forgetting one important item here:

Owning a license is hugely different from owning an IP.

The majority of companies who acquire licensing rights do not(in most cases) ever own any control over the IP rights of what they have licensed, and most companies are severely limited as to the freedoms they can take with the content and lore as it is usually already well established, and thus very limiting from a design standpoint.

Blizzard is in the unique position of owning the IP they are developing games for, and that goes a long way in determining how much freedom the developers have when putting together the design document for the game.

There are also other choices to be made, as in which game engine does the developer use. Do they also license a scalable prebuilt graphics engine or do they spend the development time and money on developing their own?

What this all boils down to is the development cycle of an MMO and how many steps the developer takes to minimize cost. Acquiring licensing rights to an IP introduces some obvious limitations in the design process, as does choice of game/graphics engine, net code...ect.
I view MMO's very similar to console games, when it comes to intellectual property.

I always go in with a cautious mind, and low expectations. It's helped me more times than I can count.
I tend to find most IPs selected for MMOs, aren't really conducive to the type of game they're trying to make. It would be like trying to adapt a Steven Segaul movie to novel, you can do it, but you'll be fighting with the source material rather than working with it.

Having a lot of lore to work from is less than half of creating an MMO. You need so much more in terms of game play design, character progression mechanics, and most importantly social dynamics, which aren't really things that most of the licenses I've seen picked up really gave developers. Social dynamics especially is an area that tends to come up anemic. Lord of the Rings only informs us how a very few adventurers fit into the world, Star Wars tells us a lot about how people who don't spend most of their time interacting with other people live, but almost nothing about those who do spend all their time interacting with others.

But I'm not sure who would really be at fault in that one. After all, the Warhammer license had at least some foundation for social dynamics, but was completely ignored in that aspect. In many ways it seems as though developers aren't really looking to explore the possibilities of how a license can attribute to their design, making them almost purely marketing gimmicks and writing aids anyways.

All things can't really be equal and my have a preference either way.
I'd much rather prefer to play an original franchise than a licensed IP game.

Simply because licensing and IP looks to me like you are just milking the fans of a different product (movie, books etc.) for cash and you know you can't deliver something equally entertaining.

Also, when you license and IP, there always a big risk that it will be a non-gaming IP (book, movie) and it should be plain obvious by now that translating a good movie in a good game just never happens (especially in multi-player games).

Big IP books and movies are always about heroes. Successful multi-player games cannot be about heroes, but exceptional persons in a more realistic sort of way.
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In terms of what would I rather play, I don't know what I would really care. Personally, story has never been a huge draw for me in games so I'd rather just play whichever game has mechanics that I enjoy more.

As a developer though, known IPs have both advantages and drawbacks. The biggest advantage - a lot of decisions are made for you. Will the main character in a Star Wars game be a medieval knight? I suspect not :) Constraints need to be laid out for any game (is it sci-fi or fantasy? Will the main focus be on combat or crafting?) and an IP is simply a pre-existing set of constraints.

One of the largest disadvantages of developing a game with a licensed IP is that things need to be run by whoever actually owns the IP to get approved. Speaking from experience working on an art team, this can be a huge pain in the butt. So in terms of developing a game, I don't know that using a known IP is necessarily better or worse, it depends on the needs and desires of the team.
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