Friday, June 06, 2008

more on IPs

Expanding on the topic of IPs, MMOCrunch wrote a brief article asking why WoW and Lineage 2 sold so much better than MMOs based on LOTR and Star Wars. I appreciate how the writer is careful with his conclusions, since it's definitely not a clear issue. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject, in response to MMOCrunch's article.

Using a film / book IP and using a game IP are different. The Warcraft RTS games had millions of fans, and asking them to try a Warcraft MMO was like asking fans of the Star Trek TV series to go see the first Star Trek film. The mediums are close enough for the audience to feel a relatively smooth transition, whereas book-to-game or film-to-game is generally not as fluid a transition. It's easier for a game to hook fans of a game IP than of an IP of another medium, because audiences don't participate in other mediums in the same ways they participate in games. There are similarities, certainly, but a game is a fundamentally different type of experience.

It's also significant that Blizzard has become a highly respected brand. A lot of gamers who would not have normally looked at MMOs tried WoW, or payed attention to its marketing, primarily because it's a Blizzard game. Company brands have much the same marketing effect as established IPs. WoW particularly benefited from this because Blizzard was made so important in Asia by Starcraft (which has whole TV channels devoted to it in Korea). And if Asia has more potential MMO customers than the Americas and Europe (I have no idea if that is so, but it's worth considering), then Blizzard's brandname takes on even more significance.

Yes, there's a difference between initial sales and continuing sales, but a significant portion of late sales are directly and indirectly consequences of initial sales. First, you have word-of-mouth. The greater the initial number of customers, the greater the spread of interest and the faster it happens (talk of any product spreads more quickly when that product is new than when it is old news). Second, retailers are encouraged by a product's strong sales to increase advertisement and availability of that product. WoW dominated a lot of shelf space and Walmart advertisements mostly due to its strong initial sales.

Another possible reason for LOTRO's and SW:G's lesser financial success, despite being based on more popular entertainment IPs, is likely due to the IPs focus on specific and individual characters. Sure, Warcraft III has interesting characters, but the Warcraft RTS games are more about armies than individuals. Though LOTR and Star Wars involve wars and other huge struggles, the emphasis even in the battle scenes is on the particular heroes who dominate the narratives. We follow Aragorn, Legolas, and Theoden through the battle at Helm's Deep. We follow Luke and Lando through the battle against the Death Star. Incidentally, the success of Stargate Worlds is likely to be limited by the same effect. The Stargate TV shows (I'm a fan of the Atlantis series) focus on specific heroes... the humor and choices that result from the interaction of those specific personalities.

Which is why Raph Koster and SOE made the right choice to make SW:G about the Star Wars universe and not Star Wars characters, and SOE was foolish to add so many jedi and interactions with famous characters later. That probably sounds like an odd thing to say, after just explaining that the heart of Star Wars was the characters. But what I'm saying is that the heart of the Star Wars movies and books was the characters, while the heart of a Star Wars game must be the world... because the players are the main characters in any game.

On the one hand, that means that, no, the developers cannot count on the films' success to equate the same degree of success for the game. The IP cannot be wholly transferred across mediums. But the game does receive a boost from the films, as it is an extension of the same experience. The IP offers the game an elevated starting point. Then the derived game IP can be developed into a new foundation for future games. The derived IP is, in some ways, separate from the original IP.

So, for example, (1) the LOTR books and films magnify my interest in LOTR games. If two games, one based on LOTR and one not, are designed with the exact same systems, I'll enjoy the LOTR version much more. I've played a couple LOTR-based console games before, but none impressed until Battle for Middle Earth 2 (now one of my all-time favorite games). (2) BfME2 has reshaped my interest in LOTR, helping me to reimagine LOTR as a gameworld apart from the novel / film characters. Legolas becomes less important than elven archers in general. Aragorn fades back into a mass of Rohirrim and Gondor pikemen. Experience with a great LOTR game has helped me make the transition to focusing on new characters in a non-linear adventure apart from the linear mediums. The derived IP has, I believe, made future LOTR games more compelling by separating the LOTR universe from the story's main characters to a degree, thereby enabling greater emphasis on my (the player's ) choices and adventure.

Hence, the first game based on IP should, in my opinion, be used as a stepping stone to a greater work. IPs coming from films or books into games run into big snags, but the transition can be very successful if the story world can be gradually divided from the characters. Just look at the success of the first Star Wars: Battlefront, which almost completely excluded the IP's main characters from gameplay.


  1. Blew my original article out of the water. :p

    Seriously though, you bring up a really good point and one that was largely neglected in my original article. The advent of specific heroes in these worlds may have outlined some sort of auto-failure within these IPs. Lord of the Rings, Matrix, Star Wars, and Pirates of the Caribbean were all largely character based.

    Although, Final Fantasy was also largely character based, but that might be a whole different prospect altogether seeing as how the series' characters change so often.

    Good write up!

  2. Using existing IP's has to be a rough endeavor when it's based around specific characters. SWG and LOTRO are both perfect examples of the simultaneous pro's and con's of finally meeting one of the IP's (in)famous characters. First, we're delighted because "hey! it's so-and-so, I love the books/movies, yadda yadda, this is too cool!" Then we click on them, and the disappointment of them being diminished to mere static NPC's truly does them an injustice.

    As an aside, SWG was my first MMO subscription, and I'm going to agree with the crowd who thinks Koster and the boys chose the wrong timeline for the game. Of course we want to be Jedi! But there weren't supposed to be any during the time the game was set other than Skywalker... but I digress...

    But in both cases, since we're talking the MMO genre, we can't have thousands or millions of players being Luke, Han, Chewie, Frodo, Gandalf or Aragorn. That only works for single-player games.

    In LOTRO we know how the story begins, progresses, and ends. Our little character we created was not a member of The Fellowship. So we have our own adventures which will eventually lead to us playing our own unwritten roles in the fight against Sauron and occasionally our paths cross that of The Fellowship. Interesting design choice by Turbine.

    Another interesting choice (and this is probably going off-topic) is constructing the world chronologically as The Fellowship progresses through the books. Currently we're still in Eriador because The Fellowship has not yet entered Moria and came out on the other side of the Misty Mountains. Which means we're in a part of the timeline when much of Eriador had no idea war was imminent and Sauron is on the move. Hence, a lot of our "adventures" are decidedly tame and we feel more like Pest Control keeping Eriador's populations of bears and boars under check. I can't help but wonder if that design and sticking to the IP has already come back to bite them when players from high fantasy, high action games come into a low fantasy environment and because of the point in timeline it's also very low action and low excitement?

  3. Exactly. The problem with including characters from the film/novel IP is that every player wants to meet them, but it feels contrived when that happens... regardless of how depthful those characters are. When everyone in Middle Earth has received a "vital" mission from Aragorn himself, the link to the original IP is ripped to shreds and no longer provides the thrill that was the point of using the IP.

    If the correct time period had been chosen for SW:G, then there could have been jedi without breaking the bond. But even then, allowing every player access to a jedi slot would have destroyed the lore connection and made the game silly (like it is now).

    LOTRO's gradual following of the LOTR plot makes no sense to me. On the one hand, dragging it out disappoints, as you've experienced. But when it gets to the end, what do they do? reset?

    I respect both games in ways, but they each include some terrible(!) decisions.

  4. I can see where it makes sense with respects to introducing content. There's no way they could have created the entirety of Middle Earth prior to launch, so following the story lets them introduce new areas from a lore perspective.

    Right now, we're in happy go lucky Eriador and it's mostly when we start getting near the Misty Mountains where we see the overall "mood" of the zones decline as Sauron's influence is felt more. Ever notice how the zones have their own moods? That's also a pretty cool design feature, really helps with the immersion.

    What I'm hoping (and I'm sure I'm not alone) is that once we get into Moria and *especially* out on the other side, the action and danger will be kicked up several notches so we're not just grinding bears and boars again. /crosses fingers


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