Franchise IP-Based MMORPGs: Good or Bad?

Via Slashdot, an interesting debate over whether MMORPGs benefit sufficiently from being based on major franchise IPs (like Star Wars). Paraphrasing the arguments in favor:

  • It almost guarantees a strong launch.
  • Design limitations required by the IP actually enhance the design process by focusing developer innovation within a narrower subset of possibilities.
  • The popularity of the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies proves that you can create your own vision of a franchise and still make (enough) fans happy.

Arguments against:

  • Players turn away from IP-based MMORPGs because they cannot live up to the fanbase’s expectations. At the same time, original content (which an MMORPG must have) is always at risk of offending sensitive fans.
  • Developers have less flexibility when designing the environment, its rules, and the content that makes the game interesting (or not).
  • With pre-existing protagonists (i.e. Luke Skywalker) running around, players are left to portray secondary bit-players at best. Players want to be heroes, not bit-players.

The arguments against seem more persuasive to me. That said, I think it’s premature to assume that franchise-based MMORPGs can’t work. Many have worried about sensitive fans, and there is real risk there… but on the other hand, fans clearly are willing to embrace new, well-conceived content; so willing, in fact, that they often create their own. I wish I had a dollar for every homemade Star Wars script.

Naysayers generally flaunt Star Wars Galaxies as proof that franchise-based MMORPGs can’t work, but SWG’s failure had little to do with “sensitive fans” or protagonist-envy, and more to do with the fact that SWG was boring. Quoting from the Gamespot review: “…gameplay is generally slow and uneventful, and that once the novelty of the Star Wars setting wears off–and it probably will–there isn’t much of interest to be found in the game at this point.” We’ll never know if most fans would have tolerated much “original” content because of this.

Nor will we ever know if “protagonist-envy” could have been dealt with by simply making it a little easier to become a jedi (as opposed to making it trivial, which is what Sony did with its disastrous new game enhancements). And players were given extremely limited tools via which to enrich the universe with their own content and stories, despite claims that SWG would be a paradise of user-generated content. Players wanted to contribute, but most found the process too unrewarding. And that’s a shame, because capturing that energy is one of the things a great franchise-based MMORPG could potentially do very well.

One response to “Franchise IP-Based MMORPGs: Good or Bad?

  1. One of the concepts I see emerging is the idea that fans want to explore virtual worlds. The real moneymakers in the entertainment industry fit this model. Books, TV shows, movies, action figures, games, and MMO(RP)Gs are all just facets of that world that people can explore. Star Wars and LotR are obivous examples of this phenomenon, but there’s also shades of it in Star Trek, Warhammer, Warcraft, Wing Commander, Garfield, Final Fantasy, and Dune. I guess I’m not saying anything new here — lots of things exist in multiple media.

    At some point, though, someone must be deciding “how can I expand my franchise into different media?” (i.e., games), rather than “how can I make a good MMO?” As far as the decision-maker is concerned, it’s the developer’s job to make the game fun, just like it’s the director’s job to make the licensed movie entertaining. Actually, I guess technically the operative word would be “profitable”, not “fun”.

    As long as decisions like this are made, franchise-based MMOs will continue to be produced. I think the interesting question is how to make a good game out of a franchise, given the limitations listed above.

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