Perfect Ten: How to determine whether an IP would make a good MMO

This was a television show.

A few weeks back, fellow writer Justin talked about cartoons from the ’80s that would make for good MMOs. In some cases I agree; in others I disagree. But my objection to picks generally had nothing to do with liking a given IP or not but rather with the nature of these IPs as potential new MMOs and how well they’d adapt.

Sure, some of them were bad, but the reality is that ’80s cartoons were just bad. We all know it’s true.

However, that prompts the interesting question about what actually makes an IP worth adapting as an MMO as opposed to, well, anything else in the world. Heck, whether it’s worth bothering with the IP in the first place. So while I’ve previously looked at the hurdles faced by IP-based MMOs, let’s go the other route today and look at the questions you face to even sell the idea of making this IP-based MMO.

It's Lord of the Rings. There's your elevator pitch.

1. How accessible is the concept?

You all know what elevator pitches are by this point, I assume. The thing is that basically any MMO has to be comprehensible via an elevator pitch because however well-known you may think a property is, I can absolutely assure you that it’s less well-known than you think. And if games based on some of the most popular novels of all time, one of the best-known science fiction franchises of all time, and one of the best-known fantasy franchises that happens to have spaceships can have trouble with people picking up on the background? Your property is not exempt.

The point is that your elevator pitch here needs to give new players an idea of where they’re coming into the game world. “You’re fighting against Sauron in Middle-Earth” is a good elevator pitch, for example. Trying to explain Otherland’s central conceit requires going pretty far afield first, and probably ends with elevator doors closing in your face halfway through the pitch.

2. How much space is there for telling?

I love Power Rangers. Seriously, it’s a favorite franchise. But it wouldn’t make for a good MMO simply because there’s a pretty limited number of rangers and that’s part of the premise. You can’t really have a game wherein you’re one of a few hundred “spare” rangers fighting your own giant monsters, the game world doesn’t work that way. It’d be like having Macbeth Online, wherein you’re all Scottish nobility feuding a few miles down the road and planning to murder a different king at some indeterminate point.

By contrast, Star Trek Online walks into a franchise that makes it very clear that while the Enterprise is the ship we’re following, it’s not the only Starfleet ship heading out and finding adventure. (Hence why following a totally different ship or a space station or whatever doesn’t make a story not Star Trek.) There’s lots of space for additional stories to be told within the same universe.

Oh noes.

3. Can player characters fit in?

This is related to the prior one, but not quite the same issue. The previous point is asking if there’s a story you can tell during a period of history in the world when events aren’t rushing to some sort of conclusion; in a Robotech MMO, for example, you have the central problem that anything set during the middle section of the story has a gigantic ticking clock hanging over its head. This, on the other hand, is about whether or not there’s space for another set of player characters or multiple sets.

For example, while its moment seems to have passed, it’s a minor miracle we never saw a Hunger Games online game… but an MMO for that would always be a bit dubious. Sure, there’s space to talk about other games taking place, but the player characters are secondary to the actual lore characters. Even set it a few games back and you’re basically just pacing time and waiting for Katniss to show up.

4. Can player characters feel sufficiently different?

I’ve seen this referred to as the Western problem in tabletop games. Westerns frequently follow a gunman who is, for whatever reason, the fastest gun in the West; the people surrounding the gunman play off of him for character reasons, but they’re not the ones expected to be competent when bullets start flying. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series has plenty of space for other people to be adventuring around, but people don’t really want to choose between playing Roland the Gunslinger or Several Other Not Nearly As Competent Gunslingers.

Traditionally, this is dealt with via having a variety of different things any given character can do, so you have, say, one scoundrel and one aspiring Jedi and an astromech droid or whatever. But in some settings it’s hard to not have everyone sporting basically the same skillset. Going back to Robotech above, for example, basically every character is some variety of “hotshot pilot” or “non-combat support.” A narrative story can give plenty of support and differentiation for all of the characters; MMOs sort of can’t.

We listen.

5. How much room is there for expansion?

This is more of a long-term problem, but it’s still one you have to contend with, and it’s a problem that Lord of the Rings Online has been fencing with since it launched. Where do you go once you’ve done the first round of content? When it’s time for a major content patch or an expansion, are there new areas to explore? And are these new areas known places, or do you need to conjure them whole-cloth?

Sometimes the answer is that there’s always more places to go. A Voltron: Legendary Defender MMO, for example, could easily expand outward to visit new worlds even if the initial launch covered everything seen on the show. (The idea of an MMO there has different problems.) But other franchises have greater limitations; in an X-Files MMO, you’re basically limited to rolling hills and woods and Toronto suburbs standing in for every part of North America. Anything else stops feeling like that franchise.

6. What sort of opponents can players face?

One of the smartest things Transformers: Prime did was introduce a set of secondary human antagonists early on in the series because that inherently changed the established dynamic of the franchise. Suddenly, the answer to every single problem was not that this must be some sort of Decepticon plot; MECH was an equal threat, and that varied the nature of the series storytelling.

A lot of franchises that even start out sounding like good MMOs have one particularly persistent enemy faction, and that’s all you get. Compare that even to Star Wars: The Old Republic; sure, you have an obvious enemy in the form of the other faction, but you also have a number of legitimate threats apart from your enemy faction even in the base game and on a galactic scale. Narrowing down to the individual planets, you often find serious threats that have little or nothing to do with your main conflict.

Sure, fine, great.

7. How accessible are the IP rights?

Yeah, before you make a game like this you have to ask this question. There are actually two questions here, even. First of all, there’s the question of whether or not it’s easy to figure out who actually owns the rights to an IP (which was the case with the long-rumored Fallout MMO, and while we can’t blame Fallout 76 on that, let’s do that anyhow). Second, there’s the question of whether or not the owner of the rights is inclined to actually negotiate and/or license those rights, much less at a non-ruinous cost.

Sometimes, the answer to one or both of these questions ensure that it’s easier to just make something new inspired by that source materials. And hey, that might be smart anyway!

8. Is the recognition there?

Recognition is not about whether or not the name will sell a game, or at least not completely. It’s entirely possible that the same people who would buy your game when it was named Star Trek Online would still have bought it if it was named Galaxy Quest Online with all the serial numbers filed off. People can draw the comparisons. Rather, the question is whether or not you’re going to get something extra via the license.

This is a complex and multi-variable equation, and it’s the sort of thing that makes you debate if you should finish making your game based on a British tabletop game or you should just go original and label it as its own thing. Then, years later, you wind up with World of Warcraft as a result. The point being that it’s sometimes worth asking if you need the IP for some reason beyond initial name recognition.

Maybe needed.

9. Does this fit into a comprehensible game type?

Here’s the weird thing about Firefly, a property that gets bandied about for MMOs every so often: Firefly, as a series, is about just barely keeping things together. It doesn’t really work as a game because the point isn’t actually landing on various worlds and being a collection of big damn heroes. It’s about that neo-Western aesthetic on top of barely scraping by and usually getting into trouble for bad reasons.

That doesn’t mean you can’t make the game. It just means you need to do extra leg work to figure out how people are actually meant to play and enjoy the game. If you can’t figure out a selling point beyond “it’s like you’re playing the cartoon/show/books/18th century musical,” maybe it’s not actually helping.

10. What’s the Funko Pop ratio look like for this property?

Look, you have to keep your merch options open and we aren’t yet using Baby Groot Funko Pops as currency, so there’s still time for your forgettable mascot design to become the next ubiquitous face of a pop culture engine designed to make everything into a collection scam.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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Nathaniel Downes

The Computer asks Paranoia MMO when, Citizen?

Obi Sean

I once read a book when I was a younger man called Shadows Fall. it was a bout a town were the memory of people who have died go to die. always thought there was a great idea for a game in there somewhere. not only would you be battling old myths and old stories as well as urban legends in game .. but part of the game would be to keep your memory alive in the real world. which could add the non combat element. and the best thing of all. EVERYTHING GOES. you could be from the future or the past. there is no TIME in Shadows Fall .. the other great thing about the book was half the characters were from old comics or books. so you don’t have to be REAL!. you could go anywhere ..

Castagere Shaikura

I don’t know who owns it but I would love a mmo based on the old Troika Games steam works and Magic Obscura. That’s a huge game world to explore. And its the ultimate steampunk game. Even the soundtrack of that game is good.

Carlo Lacsina
Carlo Lacsina

I object to your Power Rangers point.

Exhibit A
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Fervor Bliss

Man from UNCLE. If you need a IP. Just make a Spy MMO already.

Matt Comstock

Thundercats MMORPG. Elevator pitch done. ;)

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Bývörðæįr mòr Vas´Ðrakken

Technically an elevator pitch is when you talk to colleges at work in the elevator about some new project while still working on a project for another company or corporation. It is not illegal as long as you finish the first project but the rumors of unsolicited designs are almost all just that rumors.

Investors can usually only afford to invest in ideas that do not have nasty legal issues. If you talk to Dramatica and Write Brothers or International Screenwriters Association, they are always looking for new writers and generally most stories fail because they are not appealing, so it requires more than one try for most people who are not already used to writing stories that flow from one point to the next. If you get selected as a treatment or story it leads to companies attempting to produce something. A treatment means a writing style that has a good hook that leads the reader to be in the correct frame of mind. One of my first treatments that got actioned was a fake commercial in front of a TV that when the viewer would see the tv show it was less shock and awe so the viewer still thinking about the shock and awe of the commercial was leaving the channel on and when story was interesting it had connotations in the mind from the header part that get subtle references to the fake commercial that gets buried in between normal commercials paying for the airing of the show, to appear as if the innocent looking content is full of double entendres.

When designing a MMO most of the points above are important but something that people forget is you have to have a target audience, if you do not have that written down every time you go to make a decision your design shifts with the flavor of the month. Then your design looks more like your wall of crazy. A wall of crazy is the development ideas that sound cool but might not be technically even possible.

Currently most of the MMOs, that are struggling, are struggling; because the content they can create one zone at a time over four years a takes about two weeks to go through by leading edge who leak the details of the content so that the new story they got is not what the players that get there a week later are seeing, and those players having nothing else do continue to race through the content and the players that end up grouping with the better geared players are dragged through the dungeons skipping the story to get a chance at better gear.

The future MMO are quiltwork fields of zones that run on their own server rack / blade (blades are tower pc cases instead of racks) that each have an over arching plot line that then allows players to move between zones to find the story they enjoy the dialog the flow of tasks, and there is no requirement to start in zone one and play through the zones you did not like the story in.

Which have zones that are at peace with their neighboring zones, those at war, and those that you have to sneak over the border.

The boring filler quests for players to do between story points those can be re used by filler NPC that suit the story of that area. If the filler quests have to be tweaked in turn of phrase to sound if it is from that zone, the players going up to a cottage in the second zone they are working through and being asked to chop wood or hunt for food for the villager or sit on the roof and watch for monster that only comes out at night it feels more like a daily and gives the studio time to build content to advance the story of the zones independent of the other zones.

That does then lead to players moving to zones that get updated more often, but if the filler quests come from a data base each day and the players might if they bounce from zone to zone see some of the same quests in a two week period, they would more likely only see the random quests based on two levels the quests that take less than forty five minutes, which players run through without usually considering if they have time for and the quests that take longer. So you have quests that take longer than forty five minutes that open up because a player triggered something in that zone, and the next days quests that open up, do so because people are playing in the zone over time. Next never expect your players to do what you want so you need to trigger events based on two paths for each zone, the first trigger set is based on how fast player move through daily type quests and how much time they spend skipping the story. If they skip too much trigger a quest to a different area as messenger quest. The second trigger is based on the type of quest so if you chop wood the next quest is not sitting on the roof looking for monsters sneaking out of the woods, but building a wood timber palisade or a barracks for troops from a city or quest area. Lead the players from one zone to the next with the random go delivery this package for me, not as I am done with a zone but as a change of scenery and a way to move players to areas they do not mind completing daily type quests in while they work on longer story goals.

If you write down the beginning middle and end of each MMO plot line, you find that you can break down what goals in each part are supposed to do, you can find that the quests that you are given a task with limited ways to complete it.

The steps you take to complete each step are heavily scripted so that the player can not accidentally do the action and have it count ahead of time, skipping content or not triggering the next script to have the quest fail to load the content you need. When you move away from do ab then cd then ef then gh, to triggering the quest based on did someone turn in the item or did the target enemy die you find players killing the wrong enemy and ruining playerʻs story, so you have to because it is not a single player flag what players are in range of the event that triggers as complete. So as the story says player is granted item and is tracked to the delivery point how much is tracked by what server database gets interesting.

So you treat the filler quests as dailies that the player has to spend some number of hits cutting a tree to deliver the log by spawning a log over the playerʻs shoulder or in their inventory and they carry to a drop point that can be tracked. You leave the quest up and running until a player interacts with it then trigger a counter that counts down to thirty minutes at which point the reaction to what the players did is triggered. This means that the player can see when the next part triggers based on their quest log and if they are not in the same zone when the thirty minutes are up, it changes to hidden event return to zone to see event and if no one shows up before daily reset the next event does not trigger, if the player returns or another player shows or or is there to advance it they see their quest change from cutting wood to delivering it or building with it or tracking down a player or npc crafter. At which point it feels like a world quest yet it is only a boring filler quest because the player feels like they made and impact on the world. The longer quests are longer because they have parts that need to lead to other parts but the player can see the difference and the player with only 45 minutes to two hours to play at night is logging in and seeing events play-out while they struggle to find time to be part of the larger story. Some zones then have story lines that are not advancing because the players are unlocking the triggers and others are happening slower by design and players moving around are talking on forums in the in game chat interface because if developers forget that MMO are IRC chat rooms first and not single player games then they may as well build the single player game with multiplayer support.

The IP is the canvas on which the story is told yet most of the time studios try to boil it down to a dichotomy of red verse blue, and in doing so burn the rice, pasta or soup in which the large majority of events happen that need to be there own small stories to make them feel like accomplishments not steps to the larger story.


I don’t think the problem is the IP, i think the problem is the genre.

You can make anything with zombies these days, but not an MMO, MMOs are stuck in the model of the most popular games in the genre, and even though it looks like that model is no longer popular (or as popular as they want it to be) they insist on it.

When the makers of the blueprint can’t make anything new using that blueprint and keep rehashing the past, it’s probably time to move on.

In the end what we are really discussing is whether to use existing fantasy IPs or create new ones, this genre can’t get over the obsession with elf posteriors.

Notice that the only ones trying to do superhero MMOs are the fans of an old superhero MMO, there’s very little interest in new things in the world of MMOs.

Just because an IP has a limited setting it doesn’t mean you can’t expand it, as long as you keep within the spirit of the IP, most IPs were smaller when they launched and got bigger over time as more things were added to that initial smaller pool.

Jim Bergevin Jr

Problem is though, whenever someone tries to break the mold when making a new MMO, it falls flat on its face and either shuts down or limps along after a couple of years before fading into obscurity.

The problem is the gaming community. All we do is constantly pine for someone to to something different in the Triple A MMO space, when all we really want is an upgraded version of WoW. You can’t make a Triple A MMO a niche product and expect it to survive. The costs of making it to the expectations we have as gamers today cannot be recouped by the niche-sized audience.

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7. How accessible are the IP rights?

You missed a big corollary: How difficult is the rights holder to work with?

Lucasfilm, GDW, and Hasbro/WotC have some very poor reputations when it comes to developing content based on their settings. Had Interplay not stuck to their guns when Steve Jackson Games objected to the game they were developing Fallout would have been a much different, and I’d say poorer, experience.