InterviewsState of the MMO: Industry Luminaries On The Genre, Its FutureInterviews - RSS 2.0
The Intellectual Property Debate
There has also been an uptake in licensed, IP-driven MMOs in recent years. At first, they were almost universally set in original worlds. Now, at minimum, most major MMOs carry a big gaming IP, if not some series of books or movies. This year's three major releases will be Age of Conan, based on Robert E. Howard's novels (and obviously not hurt by the films); Warhammer Online, which is derived from the popular tabletop game; and Stargate Worlds, which has both a movie and two TV series behind it.
"We have seen it in PC games where games were released on an IP and they failed miserably because people didn't really work on the gameplay," said Zuurmond. "I assume that people learned from that and put the work in and not just hope that because some people might recognize the name it will be a success for everybody."
Like any game, it remains all about quality, as Zuurmond points out. Gamers just want good games, but again, is this not the divide between the big and small?
"It depends on what type of market you are trying to hit," noted Firor. "Pirates of the Caribbean Online obviously hits its mark based on IP. Dofus doesn't need new IP, because they have their sights set lower."
Recently, Real Time Worlds announced that they had reacquired the rights to their game from publisher Webzen, partly for this reason. As the costs of developing a AAA MMO went up, investors wanted to make sure the game limited its risk, and there is a pressure to go with an established IP from the money men. RTW felt they could better secure the future of their original IP under their own control and chose that route. However, they had the advantage of $50 million in financing, which likely makes them the exception to the rule.
It is entirely possible that the future will consist of original IP upstarts taking on established IP industry giants. And if one of those upstarts makes it big, well, suddenly their original IP is considered a lot more valuable. Look no further than EVE Online for proof of this phenomenon.
The trick for IP-driven games is to secure both IP worth exploring, but also the freedom to do it properly.
"It depends on whether or not the studio with the license has the cajones to innovate and the ability to project the flavor of the license," said Sanya Weathers. "Not everyone's got the knack."
However, it may be about more than "cajones". Sometimes an IP just doesn't allow the kind of freedom a developer needs, and it isn't always because of the licensor. Stinnett's last project was Star Trek Online, where he constantly marveled at the amount of flexibility they were given to do what they wanted. The question then becomes, will the hardcore fans accept it?
"I like both [original and IP-based MMOs]. Though I think IP MMOs contend with the double-edged sword of familiarity and limitations," he said. "While it is easier for players to get immersed in a familiar IP-based world, I think they can also come with constraints that hinder great game design."
Regardless, as IPs driven become more and more common, they are usually tied to higher budgets and a greater fear from investors that a bad product can not only flop a game, but destroy an entire franchise.
"As a rule, the next releases need to go up and up in quality and big name IP helps keep the bar high," explained Smedley.
Once again, this is somewhere Blizzard has an advantage over most of their competitors.
"The WoW folks have it best of all because they have an amazingly popular IP but they're still the ones in control of it all," noted Butts.
The MMO genre continues to grow, but never in a straight line. Everyone we spoke to sees unique trends shaping the industry, and while they generally got along on the major points, there is still obviously a lot of differing opinions on where things will be in a year, let alone five.
What we do know is that 2008 should be a huge test for the subscription model in North America and Europe. Smedley pointed out that in most territories, online games continue to grow, but even he admits that World of Warcraft is the major reason why. This year, Warhammer Online, Age of Conan and Stargate Worlds all intend to test the theory of subscription models, retail distribution and big IP. Will they be the last gasps at the end of an era, or will they cause us to remember games like Vanguard, Tabula Rasa and Auto Assault as abberations on an unchanged course of development? It's impossible to know now, but as gamers, it definitely will be worth watching.