Perfect Ten: The unique pitfalls of licensed MMOs
Making a list of the “biggest” MMOs currently running is always an exercise in frustration. It’s easy to put a few things on the list – no one’s going to argue with placing World of Warcraft on such a list, for example – but then everything else always gets mired in opinions and controversy, and endless cycles of “why isn’t this game I love on there while another game I don’t like is there?!” I speak from experience.
Still, on our list of the healthiest MMOs at the moment, we’ve got only three licensed games: Neverwinter, Star Trek Online, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Those are by no means the only entries on the licensed game list, of course, but there does seem to be something of a dearth of those. And perhaps that’s more understandable than it seems. For all that we talk about how one setting or another would be perfect for an MMO, there are some unique troubles you inevitably run into when you get into the licensed MMO shuffle.
1. The costs
As we have mentioned approximately fourteen million times, MMOs are expensive to make. Very expensive. A licensed MMO retains all of that cost, but it also adds a new fun cost in the form of licensing fees. That means that however successful your MMO might be, even if it garners universal praise, you are forever negotiating the rights to continue actually operating it while also negotiating the right to do so without ruinous expenses.
The thing is that things like license negotiations are one of the real threats to the longevity of games like Lord of the Rings Online; no matter how many subscribers the game has, exorbitant fees could theoretically kill the game dead almost immediately. Heck, lots of people were worried that Neverwinter would mean that Wizards of the Coast didn’t even give the option of keeping Dungeons & Dragons Online running; all that has to happen is the rights get pulled. Not a fun position to be in.
2. The faithful
Major shock: It turns out that fans of a given property can be kind of zealous about how it’s treated. I do not hold myself as exempt from this, as someone who’s been a fan of many properties over the years. Sure, my time spent with Transformers has resulted in a shrug and a “can we just chill” attitude about most franchise changes, but I’m just as subject as anyone else to having a vision in my head about what a property should look like when adapted.
Pretty much any license-holder is quick to point out that its staff is full of fans, and that may well be true. But the stuff that makes me a fan may not be what makes them a fan, and the result may be a totally different vision about what would make for a fun MMO. And be sure that people will speak out, vehemently so, if you fail to account for literally everyone’s preferred inclusion.
Note that accounting for everyone’s preferred inclusion is a task only slightly less tedious than reversing entropy. Have fun.
3. System functionality
Most licensed products are based on movie and television shows. This is not entirely a problem, but it does bring to light the fact that very few films feature characters explicitly discussing the game system their worlds operate under. Not that I wouldn’t be down for a Star Trek film in which a first officer angrily tells the captain those phaser banks will do 4d6 damage to the shields with each shot, but it seems… unlikely.
Even in the case of games where you do actually have a game system tied to things, that doesn’t mean it’s one that’s helpful; Warhammer Online had a tabletop miniatures game to draw ideas from, but the combat couldn’t simply come down to rolling a die on a chart and seeing how many Wounds you took. So you have to figure out how to make a system that makes sense and is fun to play… while also preparing for the number of fans who will quickly point out that in one scene of one movie something happened that can’t be modeled with this particular game.
4. New projects
For a long while, Star Trek Online had two nice advantages. It took place at the later edge of the main series timeline while the movies were in an alternate timeline, and it also took place after the last series had finished airing. That’s nice. But now there’s a new series set before the time of the game, and thus everything in it needs to be backfilled and explained… and if Star Trek: Discovery ever decides to dive into Iconian lore, the producers are going to have good reason to be distressed.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you’re immune to the other side of things. Star Wars: The Old Republic is the only Star Wars MMO running at the moment, but it can’t even really tie into the events of newly released movies which are doing quite well for themselves. All of that stuff won’t happen for several thousand years, it’s irrelevant at the moment. So new projects are… let’s just say difficult to integrate, yes?
5. The rehashes
All of these problems have yet to touch upon the actual game, which is at least theoretically the end goal of development. But once you start making content for the game, you run into a snag right away when you want to use some of the setting’s most iconic material as the foundation for content, simply because anything that was memorable the first time is likely to be half as memorable each subsequent time.
The problem, in short, is that any story arc in which you play a Federation ship facing down the Doomsday Weapon is fundamentally going to be the same as the first episode in which a Federation ship faced down the Doomsday Weapon. It’s a story you’ve seen before, and in all likelihood it was a story resolved then; STO had to invent additional such Weapons to justify them becoming an adversary. It’s all of the mechanics of the original story, but at best it’s just with a dearth of characters who have the same emotional attachment. At worst, it’s a matter of pretending you don’t know the answer to the problem because you saw the original.
6. The rehashes-but-twisted
Of course, there’s no law saying you have to just rehash content; you can also take old plot elements and put them together in and new and interesting ways. Except that here, you run afoul of a different problem.
From a narrative standpoint, the individual pieces of the world are tools, not fully separate components. That seems vaguely wrong, of course; you don’t think of the Chiss as a tool, for example, even if you first saw them in the Expanded Universe novels (that are no longer canon) and then in SWTOR. But from a narrative standpoint, the Chiss exist to provide an interesting counterpoint to existing enemies in Star Wars. Adding them into the game doesn’t just require you to ignore their later absence, it also strips them of the unique context where they made sense.
So when the Chiss show up and have new things to do, you wind up in an odd place where you can’t really change anything about the Chiss in the large-scale, but you still need dramatic tension about what happens next. It can work, but it can also leave the game’s setting and overall flow feeling vaguely off, like professional-grade fanfic. You have to work extra hard to make sure that the remixed material still feels like existing material.
7. The original stuff
Obviously, original content doesn’t have any of the above problems. Anything whatsoever could happen right from the start when SWTOR launched Knights of the Fallen Empire; this was all new material, after all. But then it has a different sort of pressure to be judged against. It has to feel like a legitimate extension of the existing world, and it also has to feel as if it’s every bit as important as the old stuff, not supplanting it or somehow derailing it.
This is one of the reasons STO’s general philosophy has been to mine out every bit of Star Trek, however obscure, rather than to create a lot of new stuff. It’s all well and good, but eventually the vein runs out of ore. I’m not sure if there’s a better or worse option here, just that new stuff can provide its own problems.
8. The jumping-on points
Here’s another problem with remixed material and original material. SWTOR is not set during the era of Star Wars that the movies cover, but at launch, it at least felt somewhat familiar. However, explaining “well, the Empire and the Republic are both beaten by another Empire that isn’t related to the Sith or the Jedi but they’re still evil” is the sort of thing that prompts some weird looks. It’s convoluted, it’s overly ornate, and perhaps most importantly it makes the whole jumping-on point feel weird. You showed up to play something recognizable as Star Wars, and this isn’t.
MMOs always have to struggle to provide good points for new players to jump into the game, of course; this particular case just compounds the issue. The big advantage of having an MMO based on a known property is that it can be picked up and played by fans without needing a huge amount of backstory, and this goes right back to creating a need for backstory and preamble.
9. The life cycle of an MMO
One of the things we don’t really mention about online games is that they do have a life cycle that’s often shorter than the actual lifespan of the game. You can still play a lot of games right now that have nonetheless been left behind in terms of active consideration by most potential players. Age of Conan is still running, but it’s not really what people think of when they put “Funcom” and “Conan” together in the same sentence at this point.
This is even more of an issue when you consider those licensing fees. If you know that a game is going to be culturally relevant for five years, for example, how long do you keep the servers up? If players can keep supporting it, “indefinitely” makes sense, but what if you’ve got an additional charge on the books from licensing fees? For that matter, what if part of the license agreement requires an ongoing development cycle and budgeting for that?
10. Legacy issues
Last but not least, here’s the real kicker at the end of the day, people will think about it as a licensed game first and as the developer’s game second. For various reasons, most people tend to think of games as being more “a Star Wars game” than “a BioWare game that happens to be using the Star Wars license.” So all of those problems, and you are still fundamentally just either improving the legacy of a property you don’t own… or being forgotten.
That’s not to say it’s not worth it or no one cares. It’s just to point out that, you know, it’s complicated.