License to print money?

For years following the release of Everquest, the prospect of developing and releasing a massively multiplayer online game based on a licensed intellectual property (IP) was viewed as a project fraught with difficulty. Star Trek MMO’s were discussed, development was begun and stopped, a game was never released. Star Wars:Galaxies famously underperformed expectations (although I think they did have some great mmorpg ideas). The Matrix did poorly.

There was plenty of scuttlebutt on MMO forums about the reasons for the failures. People wouldn’t want to play in a licensed IP universe if they couldn’t play Han Solo or Boba Fett. Everyone would want to be Kirk (or Picard, preferably, Kirk’s corset looked uncomfortable in later years), no one wanted to be a red shirt ensign. With the successes of Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, and World of Warcraft, creating and developing your own milieu seemed a much safer endeavor.

The first MMO based on a licensed IP that didn’t seem a disappointment was (I think) Lord of the Rings Online. Turbine has quietly built a goddamn good MMO, and their method of having players shadow (get it? Shadow? I kill myself) the storyline through instanced quests was a great way to make the players feel involved in the unfolding events of the books.

Age of Conan, while not a game that grabbed me out of the gate, certainly has the potential to be another successful MMO based on a licensed IP. Warhammer seems like it also has a lot of potential for success. I know I’m enjoying the heck out of the beta lately. I wouldn’t be surprised if, by the end of 2008, we’ve got three successful AAA MMO’s based on licensed IP.

What’s the difference? Have MMO developers matured, and figured out how to offer players a compelling place in a known universe? This is the second or third trip around the MMO development block for Turbine (Asheron’s Call, AC2), Mythic (DAoC, Imperator…*cries*), and Funcom (Anarcy Online, plus they make great story-based adventure games). Of course, the “we’ve got experience, we can make a game based on licensed IP” argument breaks down with SOE and SW:G. And SOE and The Matrix.

Hmm, trend? Has Sony touched another licensed IP since those two disappointments? Did their failures lead them to only work with new IP, and are they going to miss the boat as three other experienced developers bring MMO gamers into familiar universes?

Another licensed IP that I’m very excited to see is the CCP/White Wolf World of Darkness project. Experienced MMO developer, cool universe…more win? God, I hope so. Someone get Ryan Verniere drunk and make him start talking on camera, please.

Anyway, I hope we’re over the “MMO’s based on licensed intellectual property can’t be successful” BS of a couple years ago. A good game is going to sell, regardless of whether you can actually be Darth Vader or Neo. A good developer is going to let you have fun in the universe you’ve come to love, even if you’re just being yourself

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5 Responses

  1. Good article, but one little thing.

    SOE didn’t make The Matrix Online, that was created by another company under the auspices of Warner Brothers (I think.) When it didn’t do so well, Warners sold it off to SOE.

    The problem as I see it with licenced IPs is that the owners of the licence often put restrictions on what can be done in their games, fair enough too. But sometimes these restrictions hurt gameplay. For instance some of the old Star Trek games were not allowed to ‘kill’ the main characters — Kirk, Picard, etc. This made it difficult to create a compelling result of failure, ie player fails a mission and Kirk is killed. It also made it difficult for multiplayer since players couldn’t do a deathmatch with major characters.

    As you said, both Turbine and Funcom seems to have been able to work with the licensors who allowed them to work in with the main storyline (Lord of the Rings) but still provide something different to fans. That was a big problem with SWG.

  2. Ahh, good catch about the Matrix, you’re right. Thanks! I’m probably too hard on Sony, although now I’m curious and I’ll be watching to see the next time they attempt a licensed MMO.

    Good point about the restrictions. I know Turbine had to work within limits, like not making magic too common.

    It would be awesome if you fail a mission in Star Trek, and your last sight is Kirk transporting out with Scotty’s voice saying “I think we only got one of them!”

  3. Turbine also released DDO prior ot LoTRO, and it didn’t do too well. The setting they were given by WotC (Ebberron) is not a particularly popular one. I would say that and some slightly insane design decisions they made early on pretty much doomed DDO to niche status before it ever launched.

    Great article in any case. Turbine definitely nailed things with LoTRO, and I’m amazed how well AoC is doing. I too am really looking forward to the white wolf MMO that’s coming up. It has the potential to nail a genre that so far only niche products have approached.

  4. True, and DDO was after WoW. I haven’t played DDO. I think the reports that stuck with me make me think it’s not a real MMO. I don’t know if that’s exactly true, that’s just the impression I was left with from the always-reliable forum posts and blogs 🙂 Sort of like Guild Wars, but not as good.

    You’re right about Eberron too. That’s a tough sell.

  5. Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Mastitis!!!

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