Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO ColumnOriginality in MMOs: New v. Existing IPJonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column - RSS 2.0
After posting the last column, an interesting topic arose about originality in gaming. So, I'm pushing my next topic back to spend some time on this issue, particularly as it relates to the use of new or existing IP (intellectual property). There are merits and drawbacks to both types and I will attempt to address the major ones here. I will admit from the outset that I generally prefer new IP though I have enjoyed many games of the other variety.
Originality is a hard concept to measure because it is a subjective idea. Two people discussing a game, book, or movie may have different perceptions on the roots of certain concepts. It also depends on where a particular person wants to start their timeline. For example, one could argue that the Warcraft world is not original because it draws inspiration from Tolkien. Consider the concept of elves. Prior to Tolkien, elves / fairy folk were generally considered small (often miniscule) such as in Celtic and Nordic mythology. It was Tolkien who first made elves taller than humans. Therefore, since Warcraft has tall elves, rather than small ones, it is building from Tolkien even if its Night and Blood Elves have many distinct differences from Middle Earth's Noldor, Vanyar, and Teleri. But elves aren't original to Tolkien either. He borrowed from various mythologies which borrowed from earlier mythologies and so on into pre-history. Everything that exists, both in fiction and in reality, has links to what has come before so nothing is truly original. The adage "there is nothing new under the sun" holds true.
In order to achieve something that is measurable, as I mentioned above, I will investigate originality in the sense of what is commonly called new IP. Intellectual Property in games generally refers to world concept rather than game mechanics and I will hold that premise here. That is to say, is a world distinct (if not entirely original) from any previously existing one. Azeroth is distinct from Middle Earth is distinct from Norrath while Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights are drawn from the same root IP: Forgotten Realms.
There are several obvious benefits to using preexisting IP and the greatest is economic. One of the founding principles of advertising is name recognition. People are more likely to buy a brand name they are familiar with than something unknown, even if the unknown is better. Since game companies are in the business of making money, it is natural for them to use popular IP. Even before they've begun designing the game, they've already achieved name recognition. Money is a powerful motivator and for this reason alone, existing IP will usually trump what is new.
In addition to money, existing IP offers the comfort of familiarity. For an example, let's step back to eight years to the early days of MMOs. If you were going to purchase your first MMO in 2000, you would have only three to choose from: Ultima Online, Everquest, and Asheron's Call. Of these, only UO was drawing from existing IP. If you'd ever played a prior Ultima game you'd have a feel for what the world would be like, what kinds of monsters, factions, history, and geography you would encounter. EQ, on the other hand, was new IP though it did offer familiar concepts like dwarves, elves, and dragons. On the furthest end of the spectrum lay AC which was not only new IP, but also much further removed from familiarity. Not only was Dereth unknown, but also were the creatures that inhabited it: three-legged shreth, monolithic lugians, and so on. All other things being equal (which they admittedly weren't), a gamer making a product decision at that point with no other information would have been more likely to go with the familiar.
The benefits and drawbacks of new IP lie almost diametrically opposed to preexisting IP. There is no economic sure-thing when pitching a new game in a new setting. Yet there is hope here. New IP that catches the target audience's imagination is generally far more likely to achieve blockbuster appeal than a mere sequel. The problem is just getting there. MMOs are a new enough industry with only a few generations of game design so we haven't seen this phenomena in a profound way yet. The closest we get is EQ's success, though it initially only had one competitor. One of the appeals of RPGs in general and MMOs specifically, is the ability to explore a game's "sandbox." When dealing with old IP the only thrill is finding in the new game what has already existed in the old. New IP is on a completely different level because what lies beyond the far horizon is truly unknown. Even the past is often shrouded in mystery. Past and present are ready to be discovered while the future is an unwritten page (at least from a gamer's perspective, if not the developer's). This allows for an open ended world, the discovery of geography, history, politics, and culture. The world's story is only now being told. So in a purist sense, new IP is better. Yet what if the world designers have bad taste? What if the stories are stupid, the monsters uninteresting, and the politics dull? It's a risk. Hence the appeal of existing IP.
At this point, I should take a step back and clarify one major point about existing IP. My statements above do not mean to imply that creativity and originality are dead in games that use worlds that already exist. Some worlds are broad enough to have plenty of room for new things while other games are set in different time periods from what is already known. In fact, existing IP can be broken into two distinctive categories that have a major impact on the level of their originality. These two sides are what I would call Story IP vs. World IP. Story IP includes all of the qualities of World IP, but not vice versa. I shall explain. In the term World IP, I refer to the use of a preexisting world. Its geography, history, peoples, and culture are known. But within that world, there is no distinct singular plot. This is where Story IP differs. Story IP has its geography, history, peoples, and culture too, but all of them are fundamentally linked to a single overarching plot that gives that world its purpose. Middle Earth is Story IP while Forgotten Realms is World IP. An easy rule of thumb as to which category preexisting IP falls into is the nature of the source material. If it's a game, odds are you're looking at World IP whereas if it's drawn from a book or a movie it is almost always Story IP.
When Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings, he wasn't trying to create a broad world full of diverse kingdoms, concurrent events, and intermingling politics. Quite the contrary, everything that is encountered in the books leads toward one overarching purpose: the war of the Ring. There is no room for another epic plot. Sure there can be side stories of Boromir's travels or the Gaffer's potato growing troubles, but there is no place for another world-shaking plot to exist alongside the ring. (As a caveat, the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were not initially part of Middle Earth whose true basis is told in Tolkien's opus, the Silmarillion. There is a little more room for other plots in the First and Second Ages, but the Third Age is all about the ring, though one could argue that the First Age is equally dominated by the Silmarils.) This is not to say that the Middle Earth doesn't have an incredibly rich history, it most certainly does. But the one war of the ring drives all of its momentum.
In contrast, the world of Forgotten Realms was created for the opposite purpose. It is not a world fixated on a single plot that gives the universe its shape and character. Instead, it is a world of possibility, specifically created to allow the potential for thousands of independent and interdependent stories. As an aside, I find it interesting (and rather logical when you think about it) that Story IP generally makes for a better novel, but World IP almost categorically allows for stronger games.
Both of these forms of IP exist in MMOs and the type has a powerful impact on what the game can and cannot do. Examples of each are abundant with games like WoW, WAR, and UO fitting into the World IP category and those like LOTRO and SWG falling into the Story IP. I suspect that LOTRO could have minimized many of the drawbacks of Story IP had the designers chosen to set the game in the First or Second Ages. Of course that would have increased risk of failure because of the shift away from the familiar war of the ring. Yet the Knights of the Old Republic games proved just such a thing technique possible for the Star Wars universe.
Story IP's unfortunately will almost always be the easiest economic sales. Everyone wants to be Aragorn or Legolas or to fight Smaug and the Nazgul. Unfortunately, I would argue that these are empty ambitions because the outcomes are known. In an MMO you can't play the epic heroes and you can't kill the epic foes. Bard is the bane of Smaug while the Witch King falls to Merry's dagger and Eowyn's sword. The other eight nazgul are all destroyed with the unmaking of the ring. No one can change that. The story is done. All the plot that matters exists in the book. One of the great appeals of MMOs is the sense that you are part of a larger world and can impact it. Games that draw upon Story IP can only offer this in an empty guise. You can watch the big events happen, but the best you can do is fool yourself into thinking you matter. World IP can take involvement a step further, but often they are bound by other products in their preexisting IP line. Games Workshop will never permit EA Mythic to allow the deaths of Tyrion, Teklis, Malekith, or the other great heroes and villains of Warhammer Fantasy. It would disrupt all their other products. Blizzard has a more room with Warcraft since the MMO is really its only evolving plotline aside from a handful of novels and comics. Yet only new IP is free of all fetters and allows past, present, and future to achieve their greatest potential within the game experience. That is its great strength, even though economically it is also the greatest risk.