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Khal's Korner

Ranting and raving about this MMO craving. Whether you agree or disagree I just want to get you thinking.

Author: Khalathwyr

Where have all the Dungeon Masters gone?

Posted by Khalathwyr Wednesday December 30 2009 at 6:25AM
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Reading the recent guest article by Justin Webb  about the possibility of a Twilight MMO just hit me with a magnitude that would have Richter scales placed on Pluto registering the seismic energy generated from my keystrokes. Admittedly I have very little in the way of favorable thoughts when it comes to Ms. Stephenie Meyer’s literary works and the subsequent films. She and I have very different views on the entities that are Vampires and I can’t embrace her view.

This isn’t about Ms. Meyer. No, this is about the industry “insiders” that sit around with their iPhones to their televisions locked on any and everything that manages to creep or crawl out of Hollywood. This is about them embracing the urge to try to make an MMO out of everything that is a flash-point fad. This is about the death of genuine creativity in the Massively Multi-player Online Role-playing Game think tanks in the industry. It begs to wonder how many times a Seinfeld or a Friends or an American Idol MMO has been pitched.

Now Khal, you say, what’s wrong with making an MMO out of a previously established intellectual property (IP)? I honestly don’t have an issue with using a pre-existing IP. Such a move worked out pretty well for Turbine with Lord of the Rings Online. I can’t say the same for Dungeons and Dragons Online as it started out as a pay to play game and recently they had to move to a free to play model to try to bring in more players. Solid games that begin pay to play don’t have to make such moves, evidence Ultima Online and Asheron’s Call as well planned/designed games have no issue holding a profitable player subscription number over time and DDO isn’t very old.

No, to use an existing IP the IP has to have certain basic qualities that an MMO needs to work.

Games in this genre in the majority are about adventure. They are most compelling when they are set up so that they are about the creativity of the players. They are about characters striking out in the world to make and leave their mark on the world in some way. The Shadowclan Orcs of Ultima Online. Maggie the Jackcat of Asheron’s Call. The BoB and Goonswarm drama from EvE where it was reported that over 1,800 people tuned in to the player run EvE radio just listen to the two sides’ stories. If those things don’t get a rise out of you, then look to the industry’s 800-lb gorilla, World of Warcraft, which is based on a Blizzard intellectual property and sports the most subscriptions of any pay to play MMO.


Say what you want, but this guy knew how to create a game world.


All of those games were created by folks who understood what it means to be a Dungeon Master and to create worlds and inject the who/why/how questions of the people, places and things they incorporated into their worlds. Those MMOs were created by people who hadn’t lost their creative spark as opposed to those of modern times who have fallen to the sad state of trying to ride on the coat-tails of the flavor of the month Hollywood fad. They find the most popular of the moment hot item and try to convince the CEO’s and shareholders that it would make a great MMO. Unfortunately it seems the creative Dungeon Masters that essentially built this genre of gaming are relegated to a seat at the far back and their ideas, if they are even still trying to promote them, as quietly being swept into a hall closet somewhere.

Just take a look at recent releases and what is coming in the near future. Warhammer Online (EA Mythic), Age of Conan (Funcom), Star Trek Online (Cryptic), Star Wars: The Old Republic (EA Bioware), DC Universe (SOE). I highlight these because they made by some of the, arguably, leading companies in the production of MMOs, personal feelings aside. Turbine is up there as well and their last two titles were of pre-existing IPs (it is of note that they got to be where they are through Asheron’s Call, and IP they created in-house). Yes, there are more than a few small and independent developers creating new IPs. The down side to this is they all too often don’t have the funds to carry fully through with their game development. These larger companies are more able to do so.


"Don't worry. As long as you hit that wire with the connecting hook at precisely 88mph the instant the lightning strikes the tower... everything will be fine."


A large problem with these pre-existing IP games is that today large portions of the target audience are MMO gamers as well as being fans of the IP. If you don’t replicate the world near 100% faithfully, they will balk. If you don’t work in the mechanics that they believe should be in, they will balk. If companies focused back on letting the creative writers create they could avoid one portion of this. They could also possibly rekindle some of that feeling of awe gained from exploring new worlds like Britania, Dereth and Norrath.

When or will these "power player" of companies ever see the light in the freedom's an in-house IP will give them and make the move back to putting to serious use their own creative minds? Will it ever hit home that just because it does well in one form of media it does not translate to success in another?

TJKazmark writes:

Great post, Khal. You really provide food for thought.

Sadly, I think it's more a question of economics. The money for MMOs comes largely from investors who ( generally, I think) aren't gamers. They're money-makers, focused on getting the quickest return possible.

Because of this, I feel creative writers and original thinkers are supressed in favor of IPs that are already popular. "Why make something new when people are already paying for something in the market now?," is the line of thought I see running through their minds. 

In order to get real creativity in game-development process, you'd either have to be a self-funded project or somehow establish a "no touching" policy on investors. They would have to understand that they are investing in an untested intellectual property and that the risks are high on return.

However, I don't think this should scare away investors if they understand just what the MMO really is. It's a long-term investment, and if the project is solid it should yield results in the long run. If you're lucky and have a hit, you may even get a cash cow like WoW is. From where I stand, though, MMORPGs are more a work of art than a monetary powerhouse. They have the potential to be both, but art is appreciated for its detail and beauty rather than its monetary value.

Again, great post. I look forward to reading more.

Wed Dec 30 2009 9:06AM Report
Telonos writes:

Great post! I'd have to echo some of TJKazmark's comments though; MMO developers have by and large seemed to start adopting this "turn and burn" approach where they crank out a game as quickly as possible, rack up as many box sales as they can, and get 2 - 3 months worth of subscription fees out of gamers, then turn to the next thing to repeat the process. 

I'd love to see more developer stories turn out like Bioware: a developer who took solid, existing IP's and brought innovation to them. And when they had established themselves as being the real thing, they were able to branch out and work on their own IP's and (surprise!) they turned out to be just as good or better than what's out there already. There are lots of independent developers out there with this potential, I think, it's just a matter of getting the numbers to jive. 

Thu Dec 31 2009 9:15AM Report
biofellis writes:

There was a time when- to use a computer you had to 'share' the computer 'time' with everyone. The computer was just too complicated & expensive for anyone to really own outright- unless they were the military, a big corporation or school. Well, MMO's are like that- except we skip over the military for the most part (they actually went to personal computer programmers at one point for help with making flight simulators more realistic). No- right now MMO's are pretty firmly corporate only, with a few 'play at home'-ish exceptions.

Access is limited, and investment is only possible when a reward is promised in advanced- and even then sometimes not (Quite a few 'stillborn' MMO's have been made). No- MMO's will evolve when tools become available. Not 'barely works, looks like a lame EQ', but 'simple, solid, understandable and expandable'.

Then DM's can actually make worlds.

And if the world is good enough- he can worry about bandwidth and co-located server costs- investors & such. As opposed to now where he needs... well, to know and be able to do everything & have deep pockets. or have 10x as deep pockets.

Good article.

Wed Jan 06 2010 1:30AM Report writes:
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