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Editorial: Could the Firefly MMO Make It Into the Black?

MMORPG.com newcomer Jason Creech pens this editorial about the Firefly MMO and what Multiverse might have to do in order to make it successful.

It’s a common thread in the circles many gamers tend to run in; fan finds show, fan loses show, fan starts letter-writing campaign, fan gets feature film.

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Okay, that last part may be the exception, but just such a thing happened to a quirky gem of a Joss Whedon project during the last half decade. For those that missed the massive marketing campaign by the television network five years ago (what, there wasn’t one? That must be why I was watching Enterprise at the time; oh the humanity!) Firefly was a masterful character-driven space western. Sure it sounds cheesy, but oh, how it worked on the screen. Watching gunslingers and rogues drive cattle from the cargohold of their battered freighter one week and infiltrate a 26th century hospital to knock over the pharmacy the next is something nobody should go through life without experiencing. The fans immediately took to calling themselves Browncoats after the disgraced Independent forces of the ‘verse. Represented by the central character of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, the Browncoats of the show were defeated and their war for independence lost at the bloody battle of Serenity Valley in the pilot episode.

When the network cancelled this fascinating romp through a universe of intrigue and antiheroes, the fans responded with enough force to compel Universal to commission a full-length theatrical version. Serenity, the emotionally entangled namesake of the film and beloved home to her crew, flew the Browncoat flag in 2005. While the story engendered some degree of controversy and the box office was somewhat ambivalent, the love for the show could not be denied after such a display.

Fast-forward to the end of 2006. Wired.com ran the story that newcomer Multiverse had reached a licensing deal to bring the Firefly ‘verse to the MMO. Multiverse is a developer of an engine and distribution system for online games. The Multiverse client is touted as a one-stop shop for online gaming with tools for developing and providing access to multiple titles.

From there, the details have been sketchy. Multiverse has stated that they plan to bring in outside developers to work on the Firefly MMO, with no further announcements forthcoming as to who that may be. The Firefly Multiverse forum has sported some great kibitzing on systems and possibilities. Possibly because Firefly was such a character vehicle, Pre-CU Star Wars: Galaxies has been suggested as inspiration for the ‘ground game’ as it were, with (of course) EVE Online as the guiding star for the ‘space game’.

Bringing Firefly to the MMO faithfully seems certain to be a challenge. Even in the glory Pre-CU days, SWG struggled to hit all the right notes to get that “Starwarsy” feel. Firefly is a geometrically more complex beast. Star Wars was a much more black-and-white universe than Firefly. Han Solo may have shot first, but when Jayne sold out the lovable stowaways to the Empire-esque Alliance, the naked drama was chilling. Sometimes bad people do bad things. That’s why it’s called character.

This sort of emotional resonance will be difficult to reconcile to the bloody grind that has all but defined gaming arguably since its arrival in its modern form. The magic of Firefly for many is that gritty, hanging-on-by-bloody-fingernails pathos. The classic bar fights and torture scenes are an exciting diversion, but like the rest of the milieu, they really serve to give the audience some tasty characterization to gnaw on.

Like Star Wars, there’s certain to be a core group that will support the Firefly MMO simply out of dedication to its heritage. What is less clear is if there is room in the market for either a good MMO that happens to have some Firefly skins slapped on, or a faithful rendition of the ‘verse that sports mediocre or foreign gameplay. The Multiverse model may help mitigate these uncertainties if Firefly is allowed to take advantage of the centralized and conglomerated approach to spread out the risk to the game’s investors.

To do Firefly well, it seems likely the development team will have to bring a fair amount of vision to the table. Without further details, it seems safe to assume funding for the Firefly project will be on the low side. Although the franchise enjoys a loyal fan base, it remains fact that the show has been off the air for five years; a large investment in development and marketing is admittedly risky. On the other side of the coin, something revolutionary seems required to meet the expectations of the fans.

There is another quandary to consider when stepping into MMO territory with this property. It seems reasonable to believe interest in the project would be diffuse; not all Browncoats are likely to be gamers, and certainly not all gamers are Browncoats. Even LOTRO, based on possibly the most beloved IP of all time, has demonstrated it’s difficult to leverage fan loyalty into massive sub numbers (although in pre-WoW terms the game is incredibly successful).

Given the likelihood that a Firefly MMO would be unable to displace a significant portion of WoW’s sub base, the developers should probably seriously consider producing a “good Firefly game” as opposed to a “good game about Firefly”. In this case, the big question would be how to translate the dynamics of the series into a compelling MMO.

Once again, EVE would seem to be a logical choice for a model to observe. While the systems would necessarily be different, CCP’s choice to focus on a manageable number of gameplay dynamics and develop them to perfection for their flagship game has borne provable results. If Firefly could similarly ship with a single well-polished set of gameplay systems that would be compelling to gaming fans of the show, it may just gain enough of a toe hold to stay in the race and build out.

Another tack that gained some ground as a possibility on the Multiverse forums was the idea of releasing Firefly initially as a “social sim”. This has the attractive quality of simplicity, freeing early development from the sticky business of combat design and character balance. A possible drawback is, if the game should fail to garner enough financial interest in this stage, it would never make it out of this phase.

Even if it turns out that Firefly is a strategically important asset for Multiverse, and that the company can attract AAA funding for the MMO, the last year seems to have amply demonstrated that money in itself is not the solution to all design problems. The often cerebral nature of fan attachment to Firefly would seem to confer a critical, if not financial, responsibility to the developers and publisher to release a product of appropriate quality. In the end, it will be up to the numbers people to decide if Firefly can make it ‘into the Black’. Some days it feels like a long shot, but Browncoats have always taken pride in being the underdogs and ‘doing the impossible’.

 

Article by: Jason Creech

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