Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

9 April, 2007

Licensed game design
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:55 PM

Kelly Heckman (aka Ophelea to many) wrote an interesting post about Stargate World, the upcoming MMO based on the Stargate SG-1 TV show. Kelly is the editor for GamersInfo.net, which is a great site that attempts to reduce the commercial influence on game reviews and journalism. (Full disclosure: I’ve written some reviews for the site to help them along. It’s hard running a site that doesn’t whore out to the large game companies, and I’m happy to help out such a wonderful site.) The new blog section is an attempt to allow the staff more room to editorialize.

Kelly’s article about SGW (not SWG, mind you!) shows the problem with licensing an IP to make a game out of it. It usually boils down to this choice: alienate potential players that aren’t hard-core fans of the show, or piss off the hard-core by not following the IP 100%? Does it always have to be this way? Some of my thoughts below the jump.

Now, Kelly is a self-admitted fan of the TV show. She knows a lot about the setting. Yet, she’s not the typical fangirl; she’s editor of the site and knows an amazing amount about online games. Some people might now her pseudonym, Ophelea, from the old Crossroads of Dereth, an Asheron’s Call info site. So, she’s uniquely qualified to speak to both sides of the issue.

Now,I’m going to pick on the Stargate developers a bit. Nothing personal, guys, just a developer take a look at what has been reported. I could probably do something similar for LotRO, but Amber already discussed some of those issues.

Why use a licensed world? One advantage is the available features of the world; someone else has put in the world to make the world seem real and (hopefully) internally-consistent. But, the main advantage is the built-in fanbase. Now, this works well if you use a game IP. UO and WoW were successful in no small part due to the fans of the single-player games that spawned these games. But, what about an IP from outside the game world? Does that work as well? Yes, you can get the fans, but what about people who aren’t fans of the IP? Sometimes you have to make decisions that go against the setting in order to make a good world, but this could upset the hardcore fans. In general, the Stargate developers made some interesting decisions that will likely affect the popularity and ease of development of the game.

The most interesting thing is that they are not going to use instances in the game. As Kelly says, this game seems perfect for instanced gameplay. Not everything has to be instanced, but let people put together groups to do missions in their own instance. Have shared areas as well where people can interact while in the field. I admit, I’m not the biggest fan of instances, but this setting seems to exist for instances. It seems to be an opportunity missed.

Then, there are aspects of the game design that don’t fit with the world. Archetypes for characters? What kind of archetype is an Asgard? It seems a bit silly to think about an Asgard character to run around with a fighter/soldier archetypes. In fact, it seems a bit unusual to have the Asgards running around in direct combat at all, from what I know about the show. The Asgard were not shown very often, and never in a combat situation that I remember. Further, the whole archetype system seems out of place in the setting. Sam Carter shows that a soldier doesn’t have to be focused on being a soldier; she’s just as much a soldier as O’Neill, but she has an intellectual/scientific side as well. Yes, archetypes (aka classes) are part of our games for a reason, but this doesn’t seem to fit very well within the Stargate universe. If there were no restrictions, everyone would be a tank-mage. Er, I mean, a soldier-scientist.

On the flip side, there are parts of the world that don’t fit within the game. According to Kelly’s article, there will be a PvP component to the game. But, in a world with Zat guns this seems problematic. One shot stuns, the next shot kills, the third shot disintegrates? I guess that’s one way to eliminate the bonuses of a rogue: give the one-shot kill ability to everyone. :) But, this type of weapons is the great equalizer in a world like this, making it easy for anyone to fight anyone in small group combat. Of course, it’s obvious that this weapon was made as a lot device, not with game balance in mind. In most shows you see that rarely does any of the “good guys” use the weapon to kill. Everyone just stuns their opponents; somehow I do not think that similar behavior will happen in PvP in the game, unless there are huge rewards, penalties, or other motivations to the contrary.

Finally, it is interesting that sometimes an IP like this can lead to trying something different. Even though Kelly thinks it will fail, the idea of encouraging alts in order to allow the player to experience all of the story content in the game is an interesting decision. It seems natural to start accepting alts as part of legitimate gameplay given how popular it is in WoW and other recent online RPGs. If handled correctly, this could be an interesting twist on the game. But, if the game is too much like previous ones where people get very attached to their characters, it could lead to problems if people are unwilling to let go of their older characters in order to roll and focus on new ones.

In general, the decisions I listed above help show how hard it is to work within a licensed game. As I said, do you upset the hardcore fans, alienate other potential players, or perhaps do both with the wrong mix of designs? I wish the Stargate developers the best of luck; I hope I’m not in a similar position in the future. :)

What do you think? Can a game based on licensed IP from other non-game media work? Or will you always end up pissing off part of your intended audience?







17 Comments »

  1. Thanks, Brian, for the mention.

    The hard part about all of this – and I was surprised about how hard it actually was (and still is!) – is that although I may call myself press, there’s nothing journalistic about me; or any other member of the “games press”. Because of this, I need only make angry the wrong/right PR company and my site is dead in the water.

    But, I feel that if I’m willing to talk about how great I think something is I should be willing to talk about my reservations, honestly.

    Cheyenne emailed me the day after it was posted. And I did try, repeatedly, to contact them.

    And yeah, SGW vs. SWG – brilliance.

    Comment by Kelly — 9 April, 2007 @ 7:20 PM

  2. What do you think? Can a game based on licensed IP from other non-game media work? Or will you always end up pissing off part of your intended audience?

    You will always wind up pissing off part of your intended audience, but even non-licensed IP has that problem. It can’t be helped. There was an interview with Peter Jackson where he acknowledged that he simply was not going to be able to appeal to some Tolkien fans. His hope, however, was to make a trilogy that appealed to *reasonable* fans, who understood the strengths and limitations of the film medium. This, I think, is how working with IP in games should work.

    The benefit of using non-IP is that you don’t have to worry about what Peter Jackson or anyone working with an existing IP had to worry about. If you’re making a game, you can build the world to suit the game. I’ve played EQ2, DAoC, WoW, and CoH. These are worlds that have very obviously been designed to be gamed in. The back-story is there to support the game. But Middle Earth (sorry for the Tolkien-heavy examples, I’m not real familiar with Stargate) had to have the game shoe-horned in, because it’s not a setting Tolkien told stories about, it’s a setting that was shaped by his stories. To their credit, Turbine have done a fantastic job from what I’ve seen, but there’s always baggage. (In the Shire, for example, there sure are a lot of elves running around killing pigs and snakes.)

    SGW will no doubt have to work with that same kind of baggage. They have to shoe-horn the game into the milieu, and their success will be determined by how close to seamless they can pull it off, while at the same time taking full advantage of the MMO medium. In some respects, the two goals oppose each other, so they’re going to have to find the sweet spot. And I think SGW has the added disadvantage of being geared towards episodic content, which makes making a persistent world somewhat of a problem. (I think the upcoming Star Trek MMO will have this problem too.)

    I do think there are IP’s that very little shoe-horning would be necessary, and I wonder why these low hanging fruits haven’t been snatched up. The world of Shannara would probably be a good IP since Brooks leaves vast gaps of time in which you could set the game and not have to worry about competing with canon. Alan Moore’s Top 10 is freaking ripe for an MMO, as is Frank Miller’s Sin City. Basically any IP where the setting has been designed loosely enough to fit the game into comfortably should have a decent chance of success. Then again, I would have predicted Star Wars Galaxies to be a solid run-away hit. Just goes to show that it takes more than just a solid IP.

    Comment by Amber — 9 April, 2007 @ 7:55 PM

  3. I just posted about this same issue recently (using IP for MMOs), although not as eloquently as you. ;)

    As for IPs that would make good MMOs, I tackled fantasy book series:

    Wheel of Time & Riftwar/Serpentwar Series – Good MMOs
    Sword of Truth & Song of Ice and Fire – Bad MMOs

    Comment by Cameron Sorden — 9 April, 2007 @ 8:35 PM

  4. Amber wrote:
    There was an interview with Peter Jackson where he acknowledged that he simply was not going to be able to appeal to some Tolkien fans. His hope, however, was to make a trilogy that appealed to *reasonable* fans, who understood the strengths and limitations of the film medium. This, I think, is how working with IP in games should work.

    The problem is that the game medium is quite different. Gamers have much different expectations because it’s interactive. As a LotR fan, I wasn’t too disappointed that Tom Bombadil wasn’t in the movie. But, if he isn’t in the game I’m going to be disappointed. A movie is mostly a way for me to see how someone else imagined the world that I grew so fond of. If they don’t cover something in the movie, I still have my own interpretation.

    In the interactive setting of a game, expectations are different. I want to interact with the parts that I am fond of. If something is missing, then my experience is incomplete. Because, in movie terms, I can move the camera around and see what’s going on outside of a carefully laid path, I expect to see more. So, expectations are higher in games, even for “reasonable fans”.

    Of course, the biggest sources of discontinuity isn’t the game….

    (In the Shire, for example, there sure are a lot of elves running around killing pigs and snakes.)

    It’s the other stupid players. :P

    As for what makes a good IP for an online game, I think that’s a good topic for next week’s design challenge. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 9 April, 2007 @ 11:09 PM

  5. You build off an IP in hopes that you can create a hardcore audience that no one else is fighting over – instead of dickering over hardcore MMO fans that are being competed for by WoW, Vanguard, and EQ, you instead try to build a different hardcore base that no one else has the potential hold over as you do.

    The trick is, you have to be able to turn these guys into evangelists, which means (a) keeping them happy by being faithful to the lore or at least explaining why you diverged, and (b) making a game that they feel comfortable inviting people who are not SG fanboys to.

    A major part of my AGC presentation last year was on this very topic. One thing you didn’t mention was the ‘archaeologist’ problem – the fact that of the four main characters in the TV show, two of them are pretty much defined by never fighting (the archaelogist and the … doctor?). How you build character classes around an experience defined by people who huddle in the back until there’s an urn to decipher is something even their designers have confessed will be a real challenge.

    As a LotR fan, I wasn’t too disappointed that Tom Bombadil wasn’t in the movie. But, if he isn’t in the game I’m going to be disappointed.
    Okay, you’ve just confirmed that you’re a freak even beyond my wildest expectations.

    Comment by Damion Schubert — 10 April, 2007 @ 8:25 AM

  6. The problem is that the game medium is quite different. Gamers have much different expectations because it’s interactive. As a LotR fan, I wasn’t too disappointed that Tom Bombadil wasn’t in the movie. But, if he isn’t in the game I’m going to be disappointed. A movie is mostly a way for me to see how someone else imagined the world that I grew so fond of. If they don’t cover something in the movie, I still have my own interpretation.

    No worries there. Tom’s all over the game. Why just last night I saw ToomBom, Bombadealio, Tombommbedil, and Goldberrey. They were all killing pigs and snakes iirc. :) (/sigh this is why we can’t have nice things…)

    Comment by Amber — 10 April, 2007 @ 8:44 AM

  7. Too many cooks…

    I’m pretty sure that large scale roleplaying, or ever good narrative, will never work in a large MMO. It might work in a small niche game, but the larger your playerbase, the more opinions you will have on how the game should be played and to what degree aspects should be taken. To some people those names Amber listed ARE roleplaying. They don’t see a problem with it. They want to be Tom Bombadil, the game won’t let them, so they are going to get as close as the game allows. And more importantly, they think YOU are the freak for having a problem with their style of play…

    Comment by Jason — 10 April, 2007 @ 10:34 AM

  8. Damion Schubert wrote:
    You build off an IP in hopes that you can create a hardcore audience that no one else is fighting over – instead of dickering over hardcore MMO fans that are being competed for by WoW, Vanguard, and EQ, you instead try to build a different hardcore base that no one else has the potential hold over as you do.

    I disagree. The goal is to get a critical mass of players faster and easier. Most licensed games still want to attract some of the “MMO hardcore”, because they can still influence a significant amount of people to play the game. But, even if those hardcore players don’t give your game the time of day, you can still hopefully survive on the fans of the show. It’s cheap marketing because you can just use the name to appeal to a segment of your intended audience, basically.

    One thing you didn’t mention was the ‘archaeologist’ problem

    I didn’t want to pelt the Stargate developers with too many criticisms, especially ones that have been mentioned before. But, yeah, assuming that the game is heavily combat-based, this is going to be yet another problem the setting imposes on the game.

    Okay, you’ve just confirmed that you’re a freak even beyond my wildest expectations.

    I blame your coding for ruining my sanity. :P But, I don’t quite understand this. The movie had a limited amount of time to show the story, and Tom Bombadil was a nice diversion and a fun glimpse into the magic of Middle Earth, but there are primary story bits that were more important than that character. So, I understand why it was left out of the movie.

    Yet, in a game, I want the full experience of exploring Middle Earth. This includes running into little bits of flavor like Tom Bombadil. Further, this is a nod to the fans that have read the books, not just seen the movies; this would be nice given how heavily the game’s visual style is obviously influenced by the movies.

    Amber wrote:
    No worries there. Tom’s all over the game. Why just last night I saw ToomBom, Bombadealio, Tombommbedil, and Goldberrey. They were all killing pigs and snakes iirc. :)

    THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!!! ;)

    Have fun,

    Comment by Psychochild — 10 April, 2007 @ 6:00 PM

  9. Some types of large scale roleplay works, the ones I have experienced myself are things like the orc clan in UO and their antagonists, roleplaying extortionist by “selling peace” to the enemy side in AO. Then you got all those rather large scale political roleplaying scenarios which sprout within the guild sphere of all these games. All roleplaying in an mmorpg probably needs to be free form tho, very little ludological rules so to speak.

    Comment by Wolfe — 11 April, 2007 @ 1:14 AM

  10. For my part, I do think licensed IP can work, but I think the most successful examples will be those where people are drawn to the setting, as opposed to the characters or the story. It’s a tricky distinction, admittedly… do the fans dress up to be a Klingon, or Worf in particlar? Is the fan-fic about the Doctor, the Time Lords in general, the Tardis, or what?

    LOTRO has a chance here, I think, simply because the setting _was_ so fully fleshed out by Tolkien, and because Peter Jackson put a great deal of effort into that aspect as well: “Middle Earth itself is one of the main characters in the movie”, as he said in one of his interviews. There is a significant draw to the concept of hiking thru the Seven Circles of Minas Tirith, visiting Thranduil’s court in autumn, gazing upon the ruins of Isengard… tho the Aragorn-wannabes and Frodo-Nine-Fingers-clones as well.

    On the Tom Bombadil point: it seems to me that one of the greatest advantages of the MMO format over something like a movie is that there are far fewer time pressures (on the player side, at least… the development side is a different question). The MMO does not have to shoehorn the entire experience into 90-120 minutes, over even 3 times that. PJ didn’t have time to introduce Bombadil in the 7 hours of our attention he had to work with… LOTRO has no such limitation.

    But just out of curiosity: if they did give us Tom Bombadil, what exactly would people _do_ with him? ;)

    Comment by Craig Huber — 12 April, 2007 @ 3:43 AM

  11. Craig Huber wrote:
    But just out of curiosity: if they did give us Tom Bombadil, what exactly would people _do_ with him? ;)

    Well, this depends a bit on the developers. What could developers do with him? He was an enigma in the original stories and didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book. He did obviously have some measure of power, though, so he’s more than just a random lunatic in the world. A few ideas off the top of my head.

    The obvious thing is to have him be a source of easter eggs. Have him do something unusual, perhaps present a puzzle for people to figure out with the reward being an obscure bit of knowledge about the game. This relies on his role as being seemingly “outsider” to Middle Earth.

    Hook Tom into the dialog system, but have him respond in bits of poetry and song lyrics that Tolkien wrote. A nod to the obsessive fans and a nod to his outsider status.

    Have Tom talk about the latest events in the game. Perhaps have him recite a list of the “firsts” on the server. “Did you hear about Legomylas, the first Elven Hunter to attain the greatest stature in the land?” He always hears the interesting bits of information on the wind, you know. :)

    Have Tom act like one of the reflecting pools in LotRO. Or, maybe people could decide to “leave” an event with him so that others could view it. (I didn’t get to use the reflecting pools in the stress test, so I’m not 100% sure they work as I think they do.) Again, being a source of knowledge.

    Have Tom give out special quests. The quests should feel whimsical, of course; for example, Tom could send someone to pick a flower from a distant area and bring it back within a certain amount of time. Some of the quests could be reserved for high level characters for when the max out and otherwise get bored. Great for the “Chinese menu” type of quests because you don’t care of the quest seems nonsensical: it’s Tom Bombadil! This capitalizes on his whimsical aspect.

    I think any of these would make me happy as a player and would add a nice bit to the world overall. But, ideas are cheap. ;)

    My thoughts,

    Comment by Psychochild — 12 April, 2007 @ 4:16 AM

  12. Original Intellectual Properties

    [...] Here’s the tangent-starter: Psychochild’s Blog: Licensed Game Design. [...]

    Pingback by capnjosh — 12 April, 2007 @ 6:43 AM

  13. All great ideas, of course… and few of them would need to be limited to Tom Bombadil, altho he is tailor made for some of them.

    I was more hinting at what the prototypical player might do, or try to do, tho, especially if he was implemented as just the stereotypical vending machine, or worse, pinata-style NPC. I’d prefer he was just scenery, a point of interest, or omitted entirely, as opposed to the latter.

    Hopefully someone at Turbine is/was thinking on the same wavelength you are…

    Comment by Craig Huber — 12 April, 2007 @ 9:07 AM

  14. Just Don’t Forget the G

    [...] Earlier this week, Psychochild drew my attention to a very nicely written article on the GamersInfo site. Entitled Stargate Worlds: Looking into the Wormhole, it grapples with author Kelly ‘Ophelea’ Heckman’s reservations about the SGW Massive game currently in development. It struck a chord with me because, well, I’m feeling reservations about a game I’m looking forward to as well. [...]

    Pingback by MMOG Nation — 13 April, 2007 @ 12:24 AM

  15. Weekend Design Challenge: Licenses for MMOs…

    So, based on one of my comments in my last post (http://www.psychochild.org/?p=288#comment-115221), this challenge will be about licenses for MMOs. What makes a good license? Oh, let’s also talk about the potential trainwrecks since those are fun to…

    Trackback by Psychochild's Blog — 13 April, 2007 @ 3:53 PM

  16. Homework: Game Licenses

    [...] Yay! Easy homework this week from Psychochild: So, based on one of my comments in my last post, this challenge will be about licenses for MMOs. What makes a good license? Oh, let’s also talk about the potential trainwrecks since those are fun to laugh at. [...]

    Pingback by MMOG Nation — 14 April, 2007 @ 9:23 AM

  17. WoW Does Not Control The (Virtual) Universe

    [...] Emphasis mine, because that’s really the point I want to focus on. Brian Green wrote a really good piece on licensing properties for MMO’s, and what some of the advantages and disadvantages are. One of the pros: a readily built in audience. I’ve previously taken the position that in the case of LotRO, neither traditional gamers nor Tolkien fans would be served well by this game. I think to some extent I was wr-r-r-r-ong. The Peter Jackson movies have certainly created a very large following, and this mob might even rival the size of the pre-Jackson Tolkien audience. Furthermore, this audience doesn’t carry the baggage that the older crowd carries. They feel no need to genuflect whenever the Professor’s name is mentioned in hushed, reverential tones, and they’ll stare at you slack-jawed as you lecture on about the star-crossed lovers Luthien and Beren, or about the goddamn Silmarills, etcetterah etcetterah etcetterah. But they do think it was fan-fucking-tastic to see Legolas snowboard down a staircase at Helm’s Deep while dishing out hot death 3 goddamned arrows at a time, and they wouldn’t mind playing them some of that shit. [...]

    Pingback by Amber Night — 16 April, 2007 @ 6:16 AM

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