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News & Features Discussion  » General: The Way Back Machine - Licensed MMOs

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Novice Member

Joined: 9/08/10
Posts: 434

OP  2/12/11 5:06:17 PM#1

This week on The Way Back Machine,'s own writer Drew Wood takes a look back on Victor Wachter's article about the state of Licensed MMOs from December 1st, 2009.

One of the core issues in developing an MMO from a license is the relationship between developer, publisher and licensor. There is a definite food chain present, with the licensor as the apex predator. The business of making and delivering the game is dependent on the individual businesses of each party involved, as well as the activities surrounding the franchise. All aspects of a game's design are subject to the requirements of the licensor and poor management of this relationship can cause scope creep, missed delivery dates and, bottom line, cost a lot of money.

Check out the whole article here.


Apprentice Member

Joined: 8/23/05
Posts: 702

2/12/11 5:42:45 PM#2

Lord of the Rings Online is one of the best themepark mmos at the moment. Best fantasy one for my taste, at least.

SW TOR will be the next biggest hit, I'm guessing.

For some reasons such mmos are never sandboxy (SWG only, maybe) and are mostly theme-parks. Maybe it's because they are targeting for a specific playerbase of their own fans who aren't hardcore gamers(yet).

Everything else isn't worth mentioning, sadly.

"Only in quiet waters do things mirror themselves undistorted.
Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world."
Hans Margolius


Novice Member

Joined: 10/19/04
Posts: 221

2/12/11 6:00:09 PM#3

a licensed game does have, well more likely, should have two major advantages for the team of developers and the publishers. first a template to work with and if you are running out of ideas something you can freshen up your inspiration from. second a fanbase, which hopefully equals your initial costs and give you a steady income over the next years. but did developers or publisher made use of these two?


in my opinion within the mmorpg genre aoc, ddo and lotr did quite a good job to adept the original draft for the fans. games like sto and dcuo are nice, but something is missing. the 'feeling' isn't right. for sw:tor i do have high hopes that they don't mess with the content and story. same for world of darkness (based on a really famous p&p game) from ccp. maybe i give ccp too much credit but the orginal white wolf team (inventors of the world of darkness / vampires p&p game) is still on board and does back up the content, as far as i know. (btw ccp had the idea for world of darkness before !! twilight, moonlight or vampire diaries hit the screens).


but this brings me to another point. we all know that p&p games are the parents of the mmorpgs we play today and yet we don't see a lot of the heavy wights of this genre going to be a mmorpg. whats with planescape, shadowrun/earthdawn or sword world (aka record of lodoss war)? are the licenses too weak, too expensive or are these templates such a big challenge that noone does have the courage to give it a try?


p.s.: i didn't play all p&p games or all mmorpgs based on a license to compare all of them

p.p.s: and thanks for sharing your thoughts, drew.

  User Deleted
2/12/11 6:38:21 PM#4

Excuse the phrase: It's because it's a mold that it's not fluid

Anyways, I think what is missing is the way different people connect to the license. The Darkness I would have to say was the best license game. I felt as if I were the story, it all made sense. The right setting, the right story, the right perspective in both view and state of mind.

Tomb Raider games didn't do that, the movies ended up better than the game.

Some folk like the license better for various reason and it may be as simple as sex, sexy, sexiness. A character they really like, or a deed they want to see be done, or want to do. Alot of it ties into the character, their take on life, their beliefs and taboos.

It's one thing seeing and touching human flesh in real life and mentally, than it is to interact with it in digital form too. So because I can play as Batman or the second cousins cousin to Zeus doesn't mean it's gonna be fun because I like them for who they are. AQnd most of the time I'm looking forward to the hot chicks, and my girl is looking for the hot guys, then comes their character and in many cases the ugly duckling blooms and becomes the center of hotness. Ether "yeah, that was cool" from me and "Oh baby! That was hot!" from her.

Y'all still got alot of work to do.

Last word of advice, don't try robbing the players, just make a great fracking game gamers will respect and we'll support ya. ;) GL


Novice Member

Joined: 10/25/08
Posts: 245

2/12/11 6:48:40 PM#5

The problem with licenses are they are frequently based on characters like Capt. Kirk or Frodo while an interesting game has to be based on an environment that gamers can go adventuring in.

LOTRo works so well because JRR Tolkien made Middle Earth vast and there's many places to go that aren't in the books or movies. Much as I like Firefly or B-5 I really don't think they have enough real estate for a good game-Buffy even less.

The weekly episode that STo released this morning takes place on a Romulan mining camp which in the recent movie was where Nero grew up but was cut from the film because of time;which is how they're trying to deal with the recent Timelines  problem.


Bitter Vet™

Joined: 9/13/06
Posts: 20137

Fools find no pleasure in understanding, but delight in airing their own opinions. Pvbs 18:2, NIV

2/12/11 6:53:58 PM#6

Heh...if I brought a thread back from 2009 I'd get moderated for necroing.  OK I guess when you own the site though.

Interesting concept, but if you're going to have a way back article, how about actually going back to like 2004?  I actually remember this article, 2009 just isn't that long ago.

Far as I'm concerned, my favorite MMORPG's have never been with a licenced IP, thinking specifically of DAOC and EVE to name a few.

I don't think a licenced IP is any predictor of success, like the OP said, it sometimes places limitations on game design and frequently partners developers with folks who  may not really have much of a clue on how to build a good MMORPG. (make it like WOW, we want you to make it like WOW and make us bunches o money)

In my day MMORPG's were so hard we fought our way through dungeons in the snow, uphill both ways.
"I don't have one life, I have many lives" - Grunty
Still currently "subscribed" to EVE, and only EVE!!!
"This is the most intelligent, well qualified and articulate response to a post I have ever seen on these forums. It's a shame most people here won't have the attention span to read past the second line." - Anon


Novice Member

Joined: 11/01/07
Posts: 234

2/12/11 8:52:21 PM#7

Originally posted by Liltawen
Much as I like Firefly or B-5 I really don't think they have enough real estate for a good game-Buffy even less.

I disagree, but I still think Firefly as an MMO wouldn't work. If Whedon got onboard with the game, they could make it "canon" technically and make it as huge as they want, and he did put a lot of stuff in there that never got explained in the series.

My biggest problem with a Firefly MMO is, as I once long ago explained in my mmorpg blog, that the real reason people liked the series was the moral ambiguity. MMOs by their nature are morally ambiguous (go here, kill 13 sentient creatures), but that aspect of them is never a focus. We've become, as gamers, desensitized to it. I don't think even a really good set of writers (I'd like to think I would be an exception) could pull off encoding that ambiguity into the Firefly MMO in a way that made your moral choices meaningful.


Apprentice Member

Joined: 8/06/08
Posts: 2370

2/12/11 9:35:05 PM#8

The only leg up a Licensed Game has is that it involves a world many of us grew up wishing we could be a part of. Licensed MMOs and even single-player console games capitalize on that, by giving us that world in a way much more interactive than merely reading and dreaming about it. This is especially true for a world like Tolkiens, and a world like those our favorite Comic Book heroes live in.


Otherwise, there's not special about them. They play like every other MMO out there. Level, raid for gear, join a guild/supergroup/whatever. The most original attempt is DCUO, and that's only because it's new ~for an MMO~. That style of combat has been making waves since Dynasty Warriors 2, which came out many moons ago. So really, I don't see how they can save the industry any more than one really good, original idea could.

"Forums aren't for intelligent discussion; they're for blow-hards with unwavering opinions."


Elite Member

Joined: 2/27/07
Posts: 7205

2/12/11 9:54:15 PM#9

A license is a dangerous thing, especilly if the owner is beyond clueless of the new medium of MMO's.   All you have to do is look at the failure of War to realize what a pain in the butt it must be attempt to work with GamesWorkshop.  You have to wonder if that will continue with Warhammer 40k, I expect so.

Turbine had a very hard time with Atari making DDO.  It is amazing Turbine produced the decent game they did, of course it had to go f2p for people to find the gem hinden under the silly D&D ruleset that Atari was very reluctant to change.

Turbine also had a lessor problem with Lotro as there really was not any pvp that could be included in the design in the books and it is hard to make a big budget MMO today without it.

Kind of like the developer tying a large weight around their necks before they even start.  All I can say is the licensee had better have a mallable licenser or they are asking for huge problems.  

That is why I am a bit skeptical when it comes to MMO's that are built on a license.  So far I have only seen Turbine negociate the lambyrinth with any success...well the original SWG did a pretty nice job of implementing the license, but of course a clueless licenser took care of that.


Novice Member

Joined: 3/17/10
Posts: 2943

2/12/11 9:56:35 PM#10
Originally posted by sudo

Lord of the Rings Online is one of the best themepark mmos at the moment. Best fantasy one for my taste, at least.

I'd hardly call it an MMO. It has far too much immersion breaking instancing and promotes way too much solo play.

Also, Turbine developed Middle Earth Online for a good 3-4 years billed as a sandbox MMORPG, attracting a massive following, before pulling an NGE in alpha testing and changing it into a shameless WoW clone, and renaming it to LotRO. The majority of the fans were PISSED and quit. 


So no, I wouldn't consider LotRO good. I'll never forgive Turbine for that.


I'd say the best themepark MMO right now is either EQ1, 2, or Vanguard.


Novice Member

Joined: 7/22/06
Posts: 59

"Yeah, fuck that shit."

2/12/11 10:30:07 PM#11

Licenses rarely work I think mainly because the licesne chosen doesn't mess well with the MMO market, isn't the right aspect or isn't possible.


Look at STO for instance.  When STO was announced I told my friends, who were like "ZOMG STAR TREK!!!!", that the game wouldn't be a success. It wasnt, not even close. this I attribute to being a poor choice of an IP for a MMO. Star Trek is about tech and drama not about action and character development. It can make a decent RTS and it could be a great P&P style license but it just doesn't hold enough attention to be a MMO powerhouse, not to mention it is at best a niche license. The type of people you're going to pull in are either going to be uber-fanboys who expect you to follow the technical detail of the franchise to the ltter or people who just occassionally watch star trek, you know the "part-time trekkies"

Age of Conan as very eloquently and astutely put was a very highly recognizable but very weak IP.  If this were the early 80's and Shwartzeneger were still popping out Conan movies then sure.  But aside from some comic books what have any of us really heard about Conan the Barbarian? AOC was 20+ years too late and we didn't have MMOs back then anyway.

Lord of the Rings I feel made a mark I can find just as many people who enjoyed the game as those who say it was terrible. But it's failing lie in the impossability of portaying the IP. The movies were awesome but to be quite honest the beauty of sets like those in New Zealand and other such places will never be translated properly to an MMO. Likewise we'll never see such dramatic large scale epic battles where teh forces of good and evil are amassed in tremendous armies to decide the fate of man in an MMO not with the development tools we have right now.

Warhammer was another such title where I have to sit back and ask, "What the hell was the developer thinking?"  Clearly Warhammer 40k is the most popular of the two. When was the last time any of us saw any kind of video game set in Warhammer's fantasy age?  Never! At least none that I can remember being mainstrem.  40K would've been a much betterchoice for EA/Mythic but ultimately I'm glad to see THQ and GW working on that one.

As for SWG, you can blame SOE completely for that. It wasn't through fault of design or a terrible idea for a licensed MMO. SOE has this reputation to destroy any game it touches and I'm beginning to think they do it on purpose, as if someone at SOE has some sick sado-masochistic desire totake ideas that people love and destroy them because that's exactly what they did there and with nearly every MMO they currently own.  It isn't that a Star Wars license can't translate easily to a MMO but poor decisions and a terrible MMO stable owner completely ruined what chance it had.  Had SWG belong to some one else it might have turned out a lot different.

Now the next big deal is SWTOR. Unlike SWG it 's a Themepark, not a Sandbox. Because lets face it the only successful sandbox to date is EVE.  One reason this game might succeed where other have fails is because of it's developer. Star Wars is an Epic, its viewed by many as a cinematic masterpiece, as a spiraling saga of space and fantasy. Bioware are arguably the masters of cinematic storytelling in the gaming industry.  

Unlike Lord of the rings Star Wars has never been presented (on film at least) in such a grand scale that a MMO couldn't portray it.  Unlike Star Trek it isn't so set into it's drama and tech that it holds no action, quite the opposite. It's relatively fresh thanks to the release of the prequels and the on going Clone Wars series on cartoon network and there is no better half to it.

One reason it could fail:  Bioware has been toting their "fourth pillar" all along during teh development of this game.  They may very well focus so much on telling the story and "forget" to include the more important aspects of an MMO.


SWTOR could break the losing streak for licensed titles, then again it could be a colossal failure and be a huge black mark on Bioware's track record. Time will only tell.


One thing is certain however, eventually someone will get it right.


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Joined: 1/14/10
Posts: 243

2/12/11 10:47:47 PM#12

  For me its all about if its a good IP with lots to offer.


  I am not a big Star Trek fan, I probably have a good understanding of the Deep Space 9 cannon (in that it appealed to me) and far less of the other ones with almost no understanding of the orginial series. But as it stands STO and Cryptic have a wealth of lore and concepts to draw from. And this gives a great advantage to the writers and developers in that they need a new bad guy they just have to dig out their Star Trek Wiki and say this group fit the bill nicely. Same can be said for ships or weapons or aliens, and all of it has that traditional star trek feel that makes it easily recognisable.


  In the article it mentions how will they be able to keep up with the JJ version of Star Trek, but I'm not sure if thats a good thing. Obviosuly the films are good for PR but going back to the days of flaired trousers and red jumpers meaning your going to get shot soon isn't necessary good for the game. By going into the future you have almost unlimited licence to make things shinny and new and thats what trek fans love. Any time you go back in time with an IP you have the problem of contenuity and not being able to tell certain stories cause you are tied into cannon and a pre set time line.


  Similarly for Age of Conan the choice of IP was great in that it is easily recognisable but then left the developers a lot of freedom and the crack pot author touched on things but didn't commit. Though sadly for these two games it wasn't the IP that caused them problems but more the game play. Age of Conan went for a dark dangerous fantasy world and it suceeded only it was too hard for a lot of people to enjoy the work involved wasn't equal to the pay off. Likewise STO launched with only one fully fleshed out faction and a far too small design team.


 Now thats not to say that I don't think IPs always help the game. For a start don't do prequels, when you know how a story is going to end its a lot less fun. But also it causes massive problems for the writers, often the midle part of any trilology is the hardest to write cause you have a starting point and and end point and you have to join up the two dots. And this really cuts down on your freedom of what can be done. As if everyone knows how its going to end up it means there are no big surprises along the way. I often envy kids that have never seen the orginial Star Wars films so they can watch them 1 to 6 and find that Anakin Skywalker is Darth Vader as the story unfolds rather than to know exactly what is going to happen from the moment the opening credits start on Episiode 1.


  So if played right an IP can be great, but if it becomes a constraint and makes for a limiting factor in what the dev team can do then it is likely to cause problems for the title.


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Joined: 3/25/09
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Give me sparkly, twinkly...

2/12/11 11:07:10 PM#13

That was a very good article that contained some insight into the mmo developement industry that I did not know about. What is funny is that a franchise has to reach the level of hyper-popularity before it even gets considered to me created into an mmorpg. In my opinion, some franchises should just be left well alone while some not-so well known franchises should be considered.

Take the Magic of Xanth series of novels created by Piers Anthony. Not very well known but the framework within the series of novelsthat are now over 34, would make a terrific mmorpg. There are many different creatures, races and storylines to choose from to build an incredibly immersive and fun world but instead they would rather chase Harry Potter because everyone wants to be him or like him. Face it Harry Potter sells and the game industry is becoming like the movie industry, apprehensive on taking risks and just wanting to go with what they think will sell. 

The problem with some franchises or licences is that the story focuses around one character or group of characters. The world is built around them to accompany them, unlike The World of Darkness MMOG that is in developement over at CCP. That is a successful tabletop pnp game that is built as a world first, characters second, because they are built by the players themselves. We need more world building and less mimicry, this will create better and more innovative storylines for players to dive into.

I have never really enjoyed any game that was created on a major license. Maybe thats just me but I would rather jump into something more original. 


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Joined: 3/26/06
Posts: 1269

2/12/11 11:46:19 PM#14

 When I first heard that a company called Multiverse was going to make a Firefly MMO I was pretty excited, despite the fact that I had never heard of them. However after I heard what they were planning (starting it off at launch as a 2D flash game and then later turning it into a standard 3D MMO while still keeping the 2D flash version), I put that title into the vaporware category. Several years passed and we heard nothing about the Firefly MMO.


Finally in 2009 we heard that Multiverse was going to do a Buffy MMO, and tucked into the press release was mention that the Firefly MMO was on indefinate hold. Here we are several years later, and you can't find anything solid on either franchise on Mutiverse's website. In a similar vein, the Marvel MMO has had so many changes and false starts over the years (although to be fair, it seems as if it may finally see an actual launch).  Add that in with all the problems other franchise MMOs have had, and is it any wonder that people are so jaded when it comes to established I.P. MMOs?

"Oh my, how horrible, someone is criticizing a MMO. Oh yeah, that is what a forum is about, looking at both sides. You rather have to be critical of anything in this genre as of late because the track record of these major studios has just been appalling." -Ozmodan


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2/12/11 11:55:06 PM#15
Originally posted by Ozmodan

A license is a dangerous thing, especilly if the owner is beyond clueless of the new medium of MMO's.   All you have to do is look at the failure of War to realize what a pain in the butt it must be attempt to work with GamesWorkshop.  You have to wonder if that will continue with Warhammer 40k, I expect so.

 Absolutely will the WH40K MMO have the same problems; you need to only look at their initial announcements (especially the Order vs. Chaos bit) to see GW's influence mucking things up. I understand that the I.P. is their baby, and they wish to protect the integrity of it, but they need to realize that what works for a tabletop wargame doesn't automatically translate well into a MMO. GW has a long history of deliberately ticking off their own fanbase, and I do not see that changing anytime soon.

"Oh my, how horrible, someone is criticizing a MMO. Oh yeah, that is what a forum is about, looking at both sides. You rather have to be critical of anything in this genre as of late because the track record of these major studios has just been appalling." -Ozmodan


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2/13/11 12:02:51 AM#16
Originally posted by Haven2035


Warhammer was another such title where I have to sit back and ask, "What the hell was the developer thinking?"  Clearly Warhammer 40k is the most popular of the two. When was the last time any of us saw any kind of video game set in Warhammer's fantasy age?  Never! At least none that I can remember being mainstrem.  40K would've been a much betterchoice for EA/Mythic but ultimately I'm glad to see THQ and GW working on that one.


 Actually, there have been several over the years; from the early ones (Shadow of the Horned Rat) available on the early consoles and PCs, to the newer one (Mark of Chaos) released just a few years ago.

"Oh my, how horrible, someone is criticizing a MMO. Oh yeah, that is what a forum is about, looking at both sides. You rather have to be critical of anything in this genre as of late because the track record of these major studios has just been appalling." -Ozmodan


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Joined: 6/02/09
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2/13/11 12:26:48 AM#17

The problem with Licence games is that they try and make you be part of the lore through the popular eyes, Star wars jedi, Star trek federation capt, Lotr play as one of the races of middle earth, Why not try and use the lore in a another way like Star trek would have been awsome to play in the very far future as a new federation, Or LOTR play before the books and movies. The reason these games fail is you throw us into the middle of lore we have seen and have read, Reason wow was a success is you picked up right after warcraft 3 with new lore and old to see the end of the scourge, UO was a sucess cause it took place once british was old and The avatar was gone it added its own lore things we had not seen or been a part of, SWG was a sore spot some people thought Jedi was a bad idea they were destroyed from order 66 how could that many edi survive but they made jedi at the time so powerful everyone wanted one. So when you mess with lore that has been seen or done it is hard to mess with it change it to suit a games needs. So in closing if you make something like a harry potter mmo should be hogwarts 50 years after potter and voldermort should be lore that can be made to suit a games needs.


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Joined: 1/17/06
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pen and sword in accord

2/13/11 12:57:57 AM#18

Shadowrun online would be great ....i know  you want to scream CYBERPUNK! at the mention of that but. it has magic elves trolls guns cars tanks aztecs the confederacy dragons hackers etc.

A little more intresting  world  ppl can actually relate to and have the fantasy crap the money ppl think is required on an mmo.

I found it pretty brutal trying to play shadowrun on pen and paper because you were figuring your mods most of the time for all your implants and range mods. So it would work on a computer while being unknown enuff to most ppl that they dont have to worry about breaking the gospel of Cyberpunk etc.


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Joined: 11/26/07
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2/13/11 1:08:19 AM#19

The advantage of the licensed game is perception to joe public, a licence provides the developer with pre exisiting audience that an original IP has to earn. However that is a double edged sword, as stated in the article, fans of your license have preconcieved notions of what "their" game should be. Looking through the forums here it is easy to see that pleasing everyone in a licensed game isnt easy and rarely done.

Having played WoW, DDO, LOTRO, EVE and Conan. My own personal favourites have been WoW and LOTRO. LOTRO gets some stick, tbh fairly, but I still enjoy it and some of the decisions in design (no PvP) dont bother me.

The biggest disappointment was, and still is DDO. As an avid 1st and 2nd edition player what was released just wasnt what I wanted, most of my issues are actually with the setting, it just doesnt gel for me at all.

I am surprised that certain franchises, book and film, have never been "MMO"ed, such as, James Bond, and Dune as examples.

Licensed games will always exist, the fact that soem are crap is no surprise, licensed games in general have always veered towards the crappy side of the scale so it is no surprise MMOs will do to.

In the end you cant please all of the people all of the time, but DDO is still a wasted opportunity! 8P


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"Racing to endgame is like racing to the end of your vacation."

2/13/11 10:38:09 AM#20

This article was great in 2009, still relevant today, and should have been written 10 years earlier.

IMHO, licensed IPs really put developers at a disadvantage.  The only thing going for them is an allegedly "built-in" audience.  But, the list of issues disadvantages painted in broad strokes.....License owners protecting their IP, sales expectations, perceived expectations by gamers, just to to name a few.

Look at SWG -- it's setting was the galactic civil war that we know in the original trilogy.  That there ties the hands of the developers because the timeline is relatively locked: certain events must occur, often by the hands of the key franchise characters; and, even if you do want to move the story forward (in the game), it can only go so far.  Consider pre-conceived notions: some people were asking what Teras Kasi brawling was because it was really only introduced in a bad playstation 2 game.  The 800lb gorilla was whether or not to incorporate Jedi, which should of all been dead or in hiding, yet players could eventually have.  And then, there were the sales expectations:  SWG was intended to be the first 1 million subscriber game, as mentioned.  And when it didn't happen, with WoW really taking off, the game got utterly changed.

LotRO works a bit better only because Middle Earth was so large and, although Frodo was the star, concievably your little ragtag fellowship could make small differences without compromising the overall lore.  In this light, I think a Dragonlance MMO could work, but if certain licenses are to be leveraged in an MMO, they need to be more open-ended like a Shadowrun.

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