Massively Overthinking: When IPs are wasted on mediocre MMOs

Which one of you is the Juno Reactor and which one is the Don Davis?

This week’s Massively Overthinking question comes to us from Kickstarter donor Aldranis, whose query neatly dovetails with the IP-related question we answered on the podcast earlier this week. Aldranis writes,

Do you think IP-based games lead to an oversaturation of mediocre MMOs on the market? It seems for every Marvel Heroes or Lord of the Rings Online, there are one or two Matrix Onlines. I feel these types of games can not only stunt design/developer creativity but also introduce games that no one would really play, wasting a great IP. Similarly, I’m really bummed that World of Darkness didn’t make it to the light of day (pun very intended). That was an IP-based MMO I was really looking forward to, and now seems to be lost, at least in the short-term.

I posed Aldranis’ question to the Massively OP writers, and man, they took the diss on The Matrix Online as fightin’ words!

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Publishers have been funding games based on existing IPs for most of the lifespan of the games industry because it’s a safe bet and almost guaranteed money. You’ve got an existing fanbase who will buy the game just because it’s set in their favourite piece of fiction, even if the game itself isn’t up to scratch. People will even throw money at their favourite IPs in the complete absence of a finished game, as shown by the trend of big-budget kickstarters like Descent, Elite, Bloodstained, Amplitude, Godus, and Star Citizen hanging on the name or design of a classic title.

I don’t think previous games in the same IP stifle creativity as studios seem perfectly happy to reboot games and ignore the previous titles. What I think does stunt creativity is when developers use an IP primarily as content and window-dressing rather than trying to create gameplay that mirrors the feel of the original fiction. Star Trek Online may contain all the ships and characters you remember from the various TV shows, for example, but it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a character in a living Star Trek universe. The Star Trek IP would fit in better with a sandbox game design, and I can’t help but feel that’s a huge missed opportunity. We lament the loss of games like World of Darkness before they saw the light of day, but would you be happy if the IP went to a studio that turned it into yet another level treadmill combat simulator?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think we can all point to MMOs that used big IPs well (Star Wars: The Old Republic for sure), MMOs that were so bad that they may have hurt the IP (Battlestar Galactica, anyone?), and MMOs whose famous IPs were practically irrelevant to the actual game (Star Wars Galaxies!). I’m sure it’s true that while an IP can boost your visibility, it can also put restrictions on what you can do. That said, with sufficient money and skill, it’s certainly possible to put out a great MMO and work a lot of magic inside even the most stifling of IPs — LOTRO being the prime example. No, I don’t think the use of IPs has hurt the MMO genre. I think stale themepark churnware design has hurt the MMO genre, and wasted IPs are just one of the casualties.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I don’t think that an IP really makes a game mediocre or excellent or anything. An IP is just an IP; it’s the use of that IP that determines a game’s quality. Having established fiction that you need to line up with puts restrictions on what you can do, sure, but the same could be said for expansions and patches.

If anything, an IP is a big draw for people who otherwise wouldn’t try a game. I don’t care for Marvel Heroes in the least, but I tried it out because of that IP. I’m sure there are lots of people who tried out both Star Wars Galaxies and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on the two words in the front of the titles. Whatever failings a game with an IP might have, having that IP in the first place gets people coming to the party. The problem isn’t that most IP-based games are mediocre, it’s that most games are mediocre, period — Sturgeon’s Law in effect.

Jef Reahard (@jefreahard): First I need to disagree with the OP’s characterization of MxO. It had a unique combat system, some non-combat stuff, and an immersive world design (you could go in every building in a huge megacity) that did a great job of capturing its source material. It was also one of the few post-2004 MMOs that featured regularly scheduled live events with GMs puppeteering characters all over the map. I didn’t play hardcore, but I still managed to run into a GM playing Seraph and another one playing a minor character from the sequel films whose name I forget, both of whom took the time to roleplay with my group.

As to the actual question, no, I don’t think IP-based games have anything to do with the problem of MMO oversaturation. There are too many MMOs, period, because gamemakers all want to jump on the recurring revenue bandwagon. The relatively small number of MMOs that have been based on pre-existing IPs include some of the genre’s most loved and most notable titles (LOTRO, DC Universe Online, SWG, SWTOR, and even World of Warcraft).

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I’m sure we can all come up with examples of how good IPs can be put to great use in games as well as ones that are wasted. The Star Wars video game franchise has plenty of both! I have always leaned on the side of favoring bringing IPs into MMOs because good franchises have a wealth of backstory and details that can be extrapolated into a virtual world, not to mention the loyalty of fans. Plus, what geek wouldn’t want to game in an MMO based on his or her favorite setting?

Sure, it’s disappointing when a game flops with your IP attached, but that’s the risk you take with anything. I’m a big boy; I will accept my chances. And why are you bad-mouthing The Matrix Online? Players loved that game — and reportedly it was better than both of the sequels anyway.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I think the original question makes an assumption that there are equal or greater numbers of wasted IPs to successful uses of IP. If there is a wasted IP in the MMO sphere, it’s usually closed down before it launches. The two that immediately come to mind World of Darkness (which the poster mentioned) and Stargate Worlds. Although there were some critical failures in MxO, I don’t think it was completely unsuccessful because I’m pretty sure that it made its money back, and there was a group of hardcore fans who stuck by it. If we want to say that it didn’t reach the size of audience that the publishers wanted it to, then we would have to include almost ever IP that isn’t Warcraft. Star Wars Galaxies is a prime example of this. Raph Koster explained that the whole reason behind Jedi was because the game wasn’t hitting the mark that LucasArts wanted, and we all know that’s why the dreaded NGE was introduced. But by itself, I would not have called SWG unsuccessful.

As for the oversaturation part of the question: I don’t think IPs add to the oversaturation. In fact, because there is a strong IP behind those MMOs, I think it drives the team harder to make a memorable and successful game — with one exception: Battlestar Galactica. Seriously, WTF?

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Since I thought MxO was pretty awesome along with LOTRO and Marvel Heroes, I would have to disagree with it being labeled mediocre. I don’t quite understand how it is being labeled mediocre in the question. It was a city you could explore basically anywhere in; in how many other games could you look out a window, pick a random building in your view, and just go prowl through it? Top that with it was one of the best RP-immersive environments ever. Sorry, it was a great game that died too young.

The other major games based on IPs that I can ready call to mind are/were also pretty great; I am looking at you, DCUO and SWG. Those give players the feeling of being in the world, which is what so many folk want. SWTOR is even pretty neat throughout the story lines and the different worlds, although I admit there was more that could have been done with it (as truly with any game). Infinite Crisis also delivers that feeling of playing as a favorite superhero, which is what it set out to do. Of course they each have flaws, but making a world that fans would appreciate seems to have worked. Now look at those against the sheer number of MMOs out there. The fact that IP games have a much higher incidence of being decent games versus all the flops from the non-IP unique games seems to show quite the opposite of the question’s assertion.

Personally I do not think creativity is stunted at all by having a confined problem that must be solved; in fact, I believe just the opposite. Free-form creativity is great and all, but it is when you have to to find a way to make something work within a set of guidelines that creativity and problem-solving really flourish. You have to make it right, not just make it do.

Your turn!

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