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MMO Ethnography

Herein lies some thoughtful ruminations on MMO's.

Author: cygnetsong

To IP or not to IP

Posted by cygnetsong Wednesday February 3 2010 at 11:30AM
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Star Trek Online (STO) looks to me like a big disappointment.  I looked forward to this game because of the setting and the IP, but after a few hours of beta, couldn't bring myself to log in.  It was just so... boring. 

No, I've never worn Vulcan ears or a Federation uniform in public (only in the bedroom, thank you very much).  I do like the IP, and enjoyed The Next Generation (TNG), but it was like any fictional IP to me:  mutable for the purposes of adapting it to another media.

So what did the developers do, and why did it go wrong?

The Star Trek universe is a compelling one.  But terrible for the purposed of creating a standard MMO.  First, the uniformity:  uniforms and ships are all variations on a theme.  There are only two weapons in the federation's arsenal.  The phaser is the main one for both land and space, and photon torpedoes are the other.  There is a formula for RPG's and MMO's.  That formula is variety.  Maybe it is only perceived variety using skins and different graphical effects, but imagine playing through fifty levels of your favorite fantasy rpg/mmo with a steel longsword and only one or two attack types. 

"But hold on," says Cryptic, "we can get around that snore-fest while staying true to the IP by having you get new better versions of phasers!   We will call them 'phasers mk.1', 'phasers mk.2', etc."  Wow, my imagination is running wild with the possibilities!  A whole new weapon with the same animation, effect, and name... only 10% better so I can better kill the enemies which are... 10% stronger.  Somehow, I think this seems repetitive. 

Second, as has been thoroughly discussed, the IP wasn't about fighting hoards of enemies.  It was about unique solutions to difficult problems.  Here is how it works:

Comm officer:  "Captain, the <choose enemy race from list> is hailing us!"

Captain:  "On screen"

Enemy Captain:  "We'll destroy you because of <random grievance>!"  (battle ensues)

Military Officer:  "Captain, we <random dilemma>!"

Science Officer:  "If we <random science verb> the <random science noun>, we should be able to <random science fix>."

Captain:  "How long will it take, man?"

Science Officer:  "Three years."

Captain:  "You have 3 seconds.  Make it so!"

Science Officer:  "OK!  You're a great captain!"

Now that's a formula for a great show!  But how on Earth or any other class M planet can you put that into a game?  If you did, it would have to break the MMO mold, which is very risky and takes a great deal of thought and development.  So Cryptic could either alienate all the IP fans by completely breaking the canon, or spend years (beyond the years already sunk into this game) to develop a deep and truly novel (and risky) game mechanic.  Cryptic chose to stick with their "re-skinning factory" approach to software development, staying mainly true to the IP by simply not implementing the variety traditionally seen in an rgp/mmo.  I can't say I blame them.  With an IP like Star Trek, they're bound to make a few bucks no matter what kind of stinker they put out there.  So there you have it.  repetitive game play that focuses on the small portion of the IP that was amenable to an MMO:  shooting stuff with phasers.