The Future of MMOs: The IP Question
While at the Game Developer's Conference, Jon Wood moderated a panel called "The Future of MMOs" populated by some of the biggest names in the MMO industry. Today, he presents his impressions of the panel's answer to the question of whether or not future MMOs will require companies to use outside IPs.
On Thursday, the fourth day of the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference, I was given the opportunity to moderate a panel called "The Future of MMOs". Over the next few days, I plan to investigate each of the four questions thoroughly, giving my impressions of the responses and the ideas behind the original question.
The panel was made up of some of the biggest names in the MMO industry: Jack Emmert from Cryptic Studios, Matt Miller from NCsoft, Ray Muzyka of Bioware, Min Kim of Nexon and Rob Pardo of Blizzard. My job as the moderator was to run the conversation, and to ask questions of the panel that would not only reflect the topic, but that would also appeal to an audience full of game developers. At first glance, you might say that this isn't really that much of a departure from what I do every day; ask questions of game developers about what they're doing. The catch here is that I'm used to asking questions from the perspective of a fan, and for a player audience. It isn't quite so easy to come up with questions to ask developers for a developer audience. How do you decide what's important enough to spend time on when you are limited to one hour with a panel as strong as the one that sat on The Future of MMOs.
Question One - Can an MMO be successful without an outside IP?
I'll start by offering a little bit of my own commentary on the question and then I'll give you a quick overview of some of the answers:
In coming up with this question, I looked at the most anticipated MMOs that will be making their way to computers everywhere over the next few years: Age of Conan, Warhammer, Stargate, Star Trek (maybe), DC Comics, and more. All of these highly anticipated MMOs are based on popular IPs outside of the gaming world. When you combine those titles with the highly successful launch of Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online in 2007, it's easy to come to the conclusion that outside IPs are becoming more and more important to MMO development studios. I felt that it was an important avenue to explore.
As was the case with many of the questions that were asked at the panel, the responses were varied. Jack Emmert, for example, pointed out that an IP like this is appealing to publishers and investors because you can easily point to it and see the potential revenue that can be generated. Matt Miller really hit the nail on the head by focusing on the fact that players want to play what they know. IPs accomplish that right from the get-go. Ray Muzyka from Bioware pointed out that it was all in how the IP is handled. You know, there was a certain part of me that was hoping that this question would prompt Ray to let something slip about the nature of Bioware’s MMO, which has been the subject of much conjecture, but he didn’t budge an inch. While some of the other panelists seemed at least a little bit mixed on the idea of 3rd party IPs and their importance to the industry, Min Kim of Nexon felt that they served more as a hindrance than anything else for his company, choosing instead the freedom of having his people using their own ideas without a licenser exerting creative control.
Rob Pardo, I think, had the most interesting perspective on this question. World of Warcraft, being based on an original Blizzard IP, had the advantage of being based on a very strong pre-existing video game IP. In the end, that gave them all of the freedom that Kim referred to, with all of the benefits of brand recognition and all of the benefits of having free reign over the IP. Rob also mentioned that the pre-existing game IP speeds up the development cycle, using developers already familiar with the world, lore and other aspects of the universe. I've personally wondered for a long time why no one has been able to use the same method as Blizzard to attain MMO success, taking a previously very successful single player franchise game and turning it into an MMO. If I recall (not being able to take notes while moderating), Jack Emmert said something similar. While some companies have certainly tried, the failed Sims Online comes immediately to mind as a game that had the potential to make a successful MMO out of a single player phenomenon.
Personally, I would like to see the MMO industry move away from relying so heavily on outside IPs, and instead focusing on some of the great franchises that already exist in our medium. Unfortunately, I don’t know if my opinion is feasible given the new markets that outside IPs bring into the game, while video game IPs appeal primarily to people who already play games. In the end, it’s a bit of a tricky question with no clear answer.