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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.