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Jon Wood: The Word of the Day is Adaptation

Columns By Jon Wood on January 21, 2010

The Word of the Day is Adaptation

I know I've been writing a lot about Star Trek Online these days but playing the beta and reading all of the comments that people have been posting, both positive and negative, has managed to get the creative juices flowing and so this week, my column will focus once again on thoughts inspired by Star Trek Online.

This week's topic is going to be: Adaptation. In the entertainment industry, that term has come to mean the movement of an IP from one medium to another. Most famously this tends to be novels or other book to movies, but it applies across the board and has started to filter more and more into the MMO industry as time has gone on and more and more developers are looking toward established IPs as a means of drawing attention (and more importantly, paying customers) to their virtual worlds.

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Every time that an IP based MMORPG has launched or even been announced in recent memory, there are always threads upon threads of people complaining about the development company's complete inability to capture the essence of the book, series, TV show or movie in question. Tell me if this sounds familiar and you've heard it once or twice before surrounding the launch of a few different games:

"I was really looking forward to being able to play in the X universe, but because Company B got hold of the IP, I won't play it. They don't care about X, all they care about is making a cheap buck."

While there is no doubt that in some cases, the developers of these games do indeed miss the mark of the IP, I think that there is also a great deal of confusion over what exactly people should expect from an adapted piece of work.

Too many potential players go in thinking that they're going to get a virtual tour of their favorite IP, that it's going to be (and actually has to be) structured in exactly the same way as the original work. Unfortunately, that's almost never the case. Certain changes will always have to be made to the original piece in order to adapt it for the new medium. Sometimes, the changes are slight and sometimes they're major, it all depends on what needs to be addressed and what the goals are for the new medium, the audience for the new product, how much time has passed in between and other considerations.

Let's take a look, as an example, at the Lord of the Rings franchise. First, you've got the original IP stemming from the novels. From there, we've seen adaptation for both film, and MMOs (we'll ignore, for the moment, the countless other adaptations that have been made of the franchise).

The films, while staying fairly true to the original IP as possible, still had to be able to present their story not in the hours or even days long form of the novel, but in comparatively bite-size movie chunks. As a result many readers' favorite scenes were cut or re-worked, including the entire Tom Bombadil character. This alone was enough for some fans to declare the movies "not really Lord of the Rings."

The MMO, because of the confines of its medium, had to likewise make changes. While books are meant to be enjoyed by one person, with a single linear story, an MMO is meant to entertain thousands. While the books were able to concentrate on a small number of primary characters, the MMO had to do something that made a cast of thousands feel like important characters. While Turbine was mocked heavily for not centering their story directly around the adventures of the Fellowship, they had no choice but to focus on the things happening in the background of the story. In short, they adapted the franchise to better reflect the needs of an MMO, and adapted and created a new story in the same, familiar universe. So, in that case, Turbine took the required elements of an MMO, and bent the IP to it that mould.

So, then when examining other adaptations, we're forced then to ask what elements of an MMO need to be addressed when adapting an outside IP? The first one that comes to mind is combat. Like it or not, combat is the number one activity in any given successful MMO. You grind their bones to make your XP. Great MMOs find other things for players to do as well, but in the end in the world of MMOs and I would argue video games in general, combat is king.

That is the problem that was faced by Perpetual Entertainment and later Cryptic Studios when looking at adapting Star Trek for the MMO space. Star Trek, at least on the surface, has a reputation for being about diplomacy and the peaceful ideals of the Federation.

So, the developers were left to ask themselves how they could create an MMO with a combat focus (which again, is a necessary main ingredient) in the Star Trek universe. While I wasn't in the room, and this is only conjecture, I'd say that someone probably had a good hard look at the Star Trek IP, and found that there was a precedent for a heavy focus on combat when the Federation was at war, whether it was with the Klingons or the Dominion, there exist examples in Trek lore history of times when diplomacy and exploration went out the window in favor of grinding their bones to make XP.

Captain Picard lamented this hard truth in dialogue in Star Trek Insurrection (during the Dominion war) when he said, "Can anyone remember when we used to be explorers?"

So, in adapting Star Trek for use in a commercial MMO, the developers chose to set the game during a time of war (in the future so they weren't too overly restricted by "current events").

Sure, there are right ways and there are wrong ways to adapt an MMO and some companies do it better than others. Still, in the end, there are difficult decisions that need to be made along the way and developers really just have to hope that the decisions they make don't alienate too many of the fans that they hope to attract to their games.