Dark or Light

Licensed MMOs

Victor Wachter Posted:
Columns 0

In discussing the successes and failures of Marvel Comics movies, Stan Lee once remarked that the ones that miss are those that don't dig into the heart of what is special and unique about the property. I think that the same is true of games, but the challenges are greater. Movies and TV are able to better represent all the elements of a franchise into an experience that doesn't have to consider the viewer's role within it. A really good license has many facets to it, but development and playability constraints make delivery a challenge.

Although this week's column talks about some of the challenges inherent to developing an MMORPG from a an existing license, I don't mean to seem cynical about them. I think that the ability to step into a world you've grown to know and love as a fan is awesome. I've worked on a several licenses and been near a few more. Each time, my inner geek was all a twitter in spite of the obstacles.

And, oh they've had their challenges. Middle Earth Online went into development at Sierra in 1998. It took nine years and a change of developer for Tolkien's world to finally emerge as Lord of the Rings Online. The Marvel Comics license has been through at least three developers and two publishers officially, and several more unofficially. Contention exists even among the creators as to whether or not StarGate Worlds will ever ship. And it seems like years since the Firefly MMORPG was announced, but since then FOX has said they'd rather see a Buffy game.

Even when they do ship, the light is not necessarily there at the end of the tunnel. In 2003, the hype around Star Wars Galaxies predicted that it would be the first million-player MMORPG. It didn't even hit half that number, as it was hammed by pre-launch criticism by gamers disappointed by its execution. Age of Conan (which I always felt was a highly recognizable but weak license) was the third best selling game of 2008,but dropped from over 700,00 subscriptions to under 100,000 in the span of a year.

So why even bother with a license? Choosing an existing property inherently places constraints on a developer, as they must adhere to the mandates of the licensor and the existing fanbase. The general idea is to boost initial box sales. This works great for standalone console products. But it runs contradictory to the MMO business model, which depends on retaining customers and maximizing subscription life-cyles. People may buy your box because it has Spider-Man or Hannah Montana on the box cover, but it is still beholden to the same fact as every other MMO: if the in-game experience is poor, your business will suffer.

Watching a licensed game's development cycle is a roller coaster ride, from the initial announcement, emerging details on what the gameplay will actually be like, and news from the business side. More than half of the licensed MMOs that enter development never get shipped, and rarely from the first developer to hold the license.

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.

All of these parties have goals independent of the other. A licensor has to protect the integrity f their brand and manage multiple relationships across the entertainment world. Games may not be its main priority for its brand strategy and this will be reflected in the requirements they place on and support they offer to the developer. The amount of bureaucracy one has to go through working with a licensor can vary from rubber stamp to red tape. And it's not always business getting in the way. Developers and publishers have been chasing the Harry Potter license for years, but the personal priorities of J.K. Rowling (family and philanthropy) have been said to occasionally interfere with negotiations.

A game's hype is also dependent on where the core franchise is in its own lifecycle. The Matrix Online went into development when the first Matrix movie was riding high in its awesomeness and the franchise was still highly regarded. Unfortunately, the game shipped after the two sequels were released. After those movies were released and were not well-received, enthusiasm to enter the Matrix was not what it once was. The Star Trek franchise had also been weak for a few years early in the decade. Had Perpetual managed to release their version of the game before the movie was released, I doubt the hype surrounding it would be close to what we have today.

Canon can present some issues for the licensed game as well. Fans have expectations and encyclopedic knowledge of their game universes. No matter how much a developer researches this background, there are always bigger fans and alternate interpretations of the lore. A simple screenshot of a squirrel in Lord of the Rings Online sparked a long and heated forum controversy over what squirrel breeds should exist in Middle Earth.

Since game canon is secondary to a franchise's primary platform, it is beholden to the directives from higher up. Star Trek Online is set many years after The Next Generation, but the current movie franchise has shifted Trek continuity into a new alternate reality. Cryptic has already released an explanation of the alternate reality's relationship to their timeline in authentic Trek technobabble, but will they be able to leverage developments from this and future movies into content that makes sense in the new context? We'll have to see.

Comic book franchises present a challenge all their own. It's been stated before that DC Universe Online would take place in current DC continuity (this was to be the case with Cryptic's Marvel Universe Online as well, but since Gazillion has acquired that license, details are still scarce). While it would be great to participate in crossovers like the Blackest Night storyline, how will arcs like Batman R.I.P., in which Batman is currently presumed dead, affect the general storyline of the game? With Gotham City as one of two major hubs in the game, adhering to ongoing continuity will require major elasticity of story-telling and quest progression.

When I talk about a license, I'm referring to games that have their source material outside of games. Games like Ultima Online, Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft are not licensed, rather they are extensions of an existing game franchise. Games like Warhammer Online and D&D Online straddle a line but are more like licenses to me, as they are usually developed by third parties. But these games have a distinct advantage over licenses, as the expectations are formed out of previous experiences with the franchise's gameplay.

Each title of a new license, on the other hand, is a new game. Elite Force, Birth of the Federation and Bridge Commander are all Star Trek games but their gameplay shares little in common. They each highlight aspects of the franchise as it best fits the game genre the developer chose. But an MMO (if the contract is written right) is usually the only title of its sort for a particular license, and they have to deliver as much of the experience as they can to capture their audience. Some would have STO be an MMORPGRTSTacticalSim sandbox, but developing that game would be much more than a five year mission.

Game developers stand fast in the face of all of these challenges though and I admire them for it, even the ones that fail. Once you get past the claptrap of the Hollywood licensors and Silicon Valley venture capitalists, you have individuals - people who are trying to deliver an experience that recalls what they love about the franchise. They may get it wrong in your eyes, or even the entire gaming public's eyes. But behind the scenes, there is passion for what they are trying to bring to life in the way that only an MMO can.

How about you? Are there licensed that you think have really hit the nail on the head in delivering on fan expectations? How do you think the licensed games in development will turn out?


Victor Wachter