Blacksmiths of Intellectual Property: The Rise of Originality in MMOs

Original creations in entertainment are hard to come by in our modern world. It seems like every summer movie season is ruled by box office blockbusters that are merely different visions of old...
Original creations in entertainment are hard to come by in our modern world. It seems like every summer movie season is ruled by box office blockbusters that are merely different visions of old properties or sequels to previous year’s ticket smasher… which happened to be a different vision of an old property. The hottest books are constantly those coming from a well received series. Even niche hobbies like pen-and-paper roleplaying games are stuck in a rut, with the bestselling tabletop games continuing to be Dungeons and Dragons and the various iterations of the Warhammer franchise.

MMO gaming is no different. Over the past half-decade, gamers have been bombarded with products derived from established worlds. Star Wars Galaxies, The Matrix Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Warhammer Online, Age of Conan, and others still have bombarded MMO gamers with familiar settings, hoping that the long-time fans will be convinced to buy their game.

But something’s changed. Recently, Blizzard confirmed that their next MMO will not be based off of an existing IP, but be completely original. At E3 2009, upcoming or in-development MMOs based off of original intellectual properties outnumbered those based off established non-gaming IPs. While the big buzz still surrounded games like Star Wars: The Old Republic, the original IPs are slowly gaining ground on their enormous competitors.

Why the sudden and dramatic shift?  

To answer that question, Ten Ton Hammer queried a number of development studios working on original IPs about their decisions to create brand new game worlds and what kind of process they’ve been going through to make sure their games aren’t lost in the great MMO shuffle. Developers from Funcom, 38 Studios, Hi-Rez Studios, Quest Online Studios, and an unannounced company all weighed in on the topic and their answers are quite evocative.

However, it’s always important to gather the feedback from the MMO fans as well. As we try to do in all of our premium articles, we’ve asked you – the gamer –about your opinion regarding original IPs versus licensed worlds and what developers need to do to really get your attention in the growing MMO marketplace. At Ten Ton Hammer our articles are always written with you in mind, so it’d be poor-form of us to leave you out, wouldn’t it?

The arguments surrounding the use of original intellectual properties versus licensed worlds in video games have spanned decades and were spawned well before the concept of massively multiplayer online worlds even began to take shape. Though there were plenty of original and licenses products that brought creative ideas and fun gameplay to the consoles and PC, early gaming history was full of horror stories resulting from early movie tie-ins and other established licenses that were trying to cash in on the early gaming popularity.  

Oddly enough, the MMO industry has followed a similar trend. The successes of EverQuest and Ultima Online brought big money to the MMO table, but everyone wanted to find the quickest way to the fastest cash. At the time, the answer was to look for imaginary worlds with established fan bases and milk those licenses for all they were worth. The development of original IP, for many of the folks with the finances to fund an MMO, just wasn't an acceptable risk.

April Burba, former Community Manager for Tabula Rasa and City of Heroes and now a Producer for an unannounced project, has had plenty of experience with original IPs and the risks involved. She had this to say about the profit potential of original IPs versus licensed worlds:

"If you look at the profit and sales of games with existing IPs versus new IPs, nine times out of ten existing IPs do better. There is a reason EA has released over ten Madden games. The industry tends to rehash these IPs as much as possible to squeeze every last drop of profit from an IP, and rightly so - consumers buy them. They are like old friends that we want to see again."

Over at Funcom, Erling Ellingsen (the current Director of Communications at the company) had thoughts that greatly paralleled what Burba had to say.

“There is simply a lot less risk involved in creating a game based on an existing, popular IP. It's easier for a start-up developers to get funding if they build on an existing IP, and at the same time the owners of the IP often has a PR/marketing machinery in place that the developers can take advantage of. Publishers tend to gravitate towards games based on existing IPs, so I can imagine that it's a lot easier for a start-up developer to break into the business by going for an existing IP - becoming a developer for hire.”

But buying up an existing IP isn’t the failsafe answer everyone was looking for. While SOE's EverQuest franchise enjoyed enormous success, Star Wars Galaxies suffered tremendously and The Matrix Online will see its final days by the end of July 2009. Norway-based Funcom innovated and remained profitable with their sci-fi MMO Anarchy Online, but disappointments with Age of Conan caused the company's stock to plummet. Mythic Entertainment's Dark Age of Camelot was a surprise hit, but the anticipated success of Warhammer Online fell short of what publisher EA and the development studio were hoping.

While games derived from previous IPs aren’t necessarily doomed to fail, it is important to note that MMOs spawned from existing non-gaming properties are always going to be limited in some way or another. Unlike EverQuest and other original IP products, licensed titles are often - to use the horrid cliché - square pegs shoved into round holes.

And MMO players notice the difference. When asked whether they would rather explore an original IP or an established world, almost all of our polled gamers were in agreement.

“Either original or some unexplored portion of the IP,” Grouchy stated. “Both of these will have more room for creativity and will not need to be constrained. For the game to have appeal there has to be potential for seemingly unlimited growth and objectives that can be obtained through creative means.”

“An original creation,” Bobfish answered. “Part of the reason I enjoy MMOs is the new experience that the game offers, not just from the mechanics or the people that are playing it, but from the new world and interesting fiction that comes to life before your eyes. If I've already read about it or seen it, then part of that new experience is lost.”

“I think it is time for something original,” OneEyeRed extolled. “All the currently created IP's are just s**t right now honestly and have been. I would love to see a world created around Stephen King's Dark Tower or even The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I think because I have been gaming for so many years and I have been grinding MMO's specifically since their inception, I get bored easily and I need that epic feeling once again.”

“I would rather play an original IP,” Martuk commented. “That's not to say I wouldn't play an established IP, but with original, developers have more freedom of creation. Let's take Lord of the Rings Online for example. It's a great game with a solid story and some good mechanics. However, the story may be its biggest bane. I am as big a fan of Tolkien as anyone and I did love running through Moria, but the limitations of the story puts serious limits on where the developers can go with the game. Certain creatures and really big nasty raids aren't going to be something the game will specialize in. Grant it, they managed to get a balrog in, but due to the story itself, there will be serious limits on the type of creatures or things we can see.”

“Look at LotRO in comparison to say, EverQuest,” Martuk continued. “When it came to high end levels and raids there was a lot of room for creative growth. You could raid the elemental planes, engage gods and face creatures that dwarfed your entire raid while trying to whisper in a zone that had a madman chasing bunnies. That may sound cheesy, but it was fun! Now LotRO is a great game. I've enjoyed it since launch, but again, even with the nostalgic areas and the great story, the game is still limited by the already established story as to what it can provide you with.”

“I think there are several factors you have to consider when answering this question,” Protect remarked. “How rich is the information for the IP? Does the game have enough wiggle room to create new ideas and events? Established IP's can have a boatload of information, that can create a beautiful world for individuals to play in, but at the same time not be able to really expand. Take Lord of the Rings for example, everyone pretty much knows the story. To me this can ruin the gameplay because there are set things that we know have to happen, and will happen. If a developer can create a rich background I think I would lean toward a new original creation.”

And for many developers, this sort of thinking is exactly why they decide to create an original property rather than starting with something that’s already been established. This desire to create a world that not only offer a rich background but also fits into the MMO mold is almost an essential part of the MMO formula.  Interestingly, most of the developers relayed that their own desire to create something new and fresh was as important, or more so, than actually having their game fit into some sort of MMO framework.

“I think the reasons for picking an original IP stem partly from wanting to avoid the complications of acquiring the IP but mostly from the desire to create something new,” Burba said. “Yes, building a game from an existing IP can be excessively restrictive with regard to being true to cannon, legal issues, and the money you give to the IP holder but I think these actually pale to the thrill of taking a world from idea to existence. In many ways I think that this 'creating worlds' task is why many people become developers in the first place. There are worlds and characters and storylines fighting to get out and game makers often find the most joy in breathing these worlds to life. It's a much higher level of freedom and creativity.”

Over at the small independent Quest Online Studios, David Allen has a similar sentiment. “We were able to build our own unique world from scratch; something we wholly own and can grow,” he said. “When you purchase existing IP you have rules and restrictions about what you can and can't do. We weren't interested in that.”

Nathan Knaack, a writer for Hi-Rez Studios' upcoming shooter-MMO Global Agenda, hit this point squarely on the head. "From the very beginning, Hi-Rez Studios knew it would be creating and developing its own intellectual property from scratch,” he said.  “Our Lead Designer, Erez Goren, a big fan of MMOs, funded the studio because he saw an opportunity to introduce a different type of online experience and this vision included the creation of an original world.  Purchasing an existing IP would have significantly inhibited our creative process."

Unlike many other companies, 38 Studios has gone out of their way to ensure that their development of an original world wouldn’t affect their fundraising or marketing efforts. Steve Danuser, Senior Game Designer for the company’s unannounced MMO project had this to say about developing an original IP.

“The reason we decided to create our own IP was based on the fact that we have R. A. Salvatore and Todd McFarlane as our visionaries,” he said. “These guys are renowned worldwide for crafting memorable settings and iconic characters. Combining their talents into an original IP was a no-brainer. With Salvatore and McFarlane guiding us, licensing someone else's IP was never a consideration.”

“In addition, the team we've built at 38 Studios was tailor made to take the framework created by Bob and Todd and bring it to life in a fun and compelling MMOG. Copernicus will be the flagship of our original IP, which will live across a variety of products designed to engage fans of this deep and diverse world and its history.”

However, 38 Studios may be singularly unique in the MMO market. With both Salvatore and McFarlane on board, the game has developed a “buzz” even without having to license an existing world. Their existing fanbase comes in the form of these two well-known storytellers, not to mention the presence of future MLB Hall of Fame pitcher and 38S’ founder, Curt Schilling.

But for the rest of the development teams, creating an original intellectual property – and making it successful – isn’t an easy task. Risks have to be taken, especially in terms of marketing, investor confidence, and public perception. Essentially, an original IP is an unknown entity, a blank slate. So what do the development teams believe is the hardest part of putting together an MMO on an original IP?

“Creating a new IP isn’t as difficult as it sounds,” Knaack stated. “Nobody sits down in front of a blank screen and thinks ‘I’m going to make Star Wars.’ It starts with small ideas, interesting situations, characters, and environments that eventually meld together in a coherent concept. When we began working on Global Agenda, there really wasn’t a story at all, just some ideas floating around about what would make a fun game.  We brainstormed for months and, when the dust settled, some key points stood out as being really definitive of what we were trying to accomplish.  When the time was right to tie all of those ideas together, we worked backwards and the fiction basically wrote itself.”

“Hi Rez Studios has a significant advantage over many other startup game studios:  We’re independently funded,” he concluded.  “That gives us the leisure of working at our own pace on our own ideas.  We never had to sell Global Agenda to anyone, so there were no compromises; nothing was sacrificed to appease our investors.”

But what about those studios that aren’t independently funded? What sort of issues are they forced to solve?

“The main heartache with an original IP is since it can really be anything you have to safeguard against those who want to add the design 'flavor of the month' to it so it will be more commercial,” Burba states. “A rogue investor or producer can decide 'yes, yes, the game is interesting but you should really have X because WoW does.' Bolting on things that work well in other games doesn't always mean it will work well in yours. Sometimes it's nice to have an existing IP to fall back on and wave away insane suggestions as being 'in conflict with cannon.'”

On the other hand, licensed IPs certainly have some distinct benefits, don’t they?

“Marketing people will tell you the advantages of purchasing existing IP, but I think few developers will,” Alganon guy said. “As a matter of fact I've heard of all sorts of problems with existing IP restricting the development of a product. More fingers in the pie. This whole illusion of existing IP making things easier, quicker, etc. is not true. All it brings is potential existing market saturation, which money-makers love, but it offers no other vision except to serve as a vision for those who see to have their vision already established by another.”

Still, no one can deny the fact that original IP MMOs need some way to make themselves stand out from the pack. Whether that’s through high-profile staff members or some other way, it needs to be done. Gamers don’t have any background with the game world, and without some sort of familiarity with the genre or the style of gameplay, they may just look for something more familiar. It’s up to the developers to make those games stand out from the pack.

When asked how they were planning on making their own IP unique among the many games they’re competing with, 38 Studios’ Steve Danuser had a number of telling comments.

“Making a new IP stand out comes down to a number of factors,” he said. “Are you crafting a world in which players can feel a personal investment? Does it drip with charm and danger and drama? Are you thinking not only of cool places and people to put into the game, but also the history behind them and how they relate to the world as a whole?”

“At 38 Studios, we've worked hard to give the Copernicus IP enough depth and detail not only to sustain a single MMOG, but many genres of games as well as novels, comics, and other media that will allow fans to engage our IP in a multitude of ways,” he continued. “This is one of the reasons we're so excited about our recent acquisition of Big Huge Games--it gives us another avenue to let players experience the richness of the IP we've spent the last few years building.”

April Burba’s response to the question was concise and straight to the point:

“What makes original IP games stand out? Great gameplay and originality. It's not enough just to be fun, and its not enough just to be unique - you have to have both to really stand out.”

Thoughts on gameplay definitely resounding with a number of the other developers surveyed as well.

“If you’re currently developing an original IP, our best advice to you would be to really focus on the iconic features that set your game aside from the rest and use the IP to support those,” Knaack said.  “Before you even get that far, however, make sure you start with fun and work backwards from there.  An original IP is worthless unless the end product is entertaining.”

“While IP may "sell" a product,” David Allen stated, “it doesn't keep players. Good games do.”

Of course, Ten Ton Hammer"s gamers had their own opinions, which seemed to at least parallel what the developers suggested. This, in my opinion, is a good, good thing, and the more often players and developers think alike, the more promise there is in a future title.

“By telling us more about what makes your game unique and really allowing people to develop their characters in a way that promotes attachment and personalization,” Yalyss said. “Everyone's doing copycat WoW game mechanics, tell us what you're doing differently and why it's better. Not only that, I challenge game developers and publishers to be more open and honest about the state of their games instead of feeling the need to obfuscate it to sell more copies. Honesty goes a long way and as a gamer, I feel a lot more forgiving toward a publisher that tells me, "Hey, we screwed up and we're trying to fix it, here's what we're doing:" than one who tells me, "That will all be fixed after the beta, when the game is released in a week.”

“It doesn't need to stand out for me, but if they want it to stand out for everyone else, then they need two things,” Bobfish explained. “A unique selling point, something that the game does that no over game does, it can be a mechanic, the game's setting or something else entirely and the other thing is to build a complete game, where every part of the game fits together perfectly. Have a plan and just stick to it and if you do it right, the combine sum of the parts will work so well together that the simple fun factor will be enough to capture peoples' attention. All us gamers want is a well developed product that is fun to play, everything else comes second to that, you simply can't release a buggy half-finished product, cause no matter how great your ideas are, if you can't deliver on the fun part of things it WILL fail.”

“Gameplay, Gameplay, and Gameplay,” Protect exclaimed I would have to say that’s the #1 reason I quit playing games is that they are either don't work right or are just plain boring.”

In the realm of MMO gaming, every online player strives to tell their own personal story through their actions. Some stories revolve around competition where players constantly strive to excel at their chosen venue. Others focus on social interactions, fleshing out their online experience with shared events that resonate within the guild’s memories for years to come. Some players want to imagine themselves as part of the tapestry of the game world itself, picturing their character as a recognizable figure in the world’s lore. Others commit themselves to simply discovering every piece of the in-game content that they can find, feeding their desire each time they open a new treasure chest or kill a novel mob.

However, the one element that every gamer craves is that moment where they feel like a true hero to the world around them. Almost every gamer wants to have that jaw-dropping, eye-popping moment where their character stands in front of a world-shattering monster, laughs in its face, engages in combat, and comes away victorious. They want to step forward and wake the Sleeper, stomp on Magtheridon, or go fist-to-cuffs with the Balrog and lay a smack down of epic proportions. They want to have a feeling that they are actually invested in their world, and through their actions they’ve done something memorable.  To some degree, MMOs are the perfect medium for this sort of gameplay experience. Gamers have the chance to play through fantastic worlds that are created to propel them to heroism or villainy, and every player can feel just as heroic or villainous – depending on their playstyle – as the next person on their server.

However, in those games that are based off of established IPs, you run into elements of the story that just don’t fit into an MMO. Pre-existing heroes are already running around the world, races may seem to strong to optimally balance for gameplay purposes, or any other number of dilemmas. To use Star Wars Galaxies as an example, it’s hard for a player to seriously think of themselves as a hero or a villain when the strongest of these characters already exist: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Darth Vader, and the Emperor.

Therefore, putting together a solid, yet MMO-friendly story should be one of the top priorities for most original MMO studios. I asked our panel of developers what their thoughts were on their own storytelling situations.

“Many gamers are used to story being an afterthought, something that exists only to appease role-players or fans of reading lore,” Danuser said. “We've spent the last few years changing that paradigm. Story is at the core of everything we do. Our story drives the design of our gameplay, which in turn drives our art, audio, and engineering. Everyone at 38 Studios is a storyteller, regardless of the title on their business cards. Every system we build, every piece of art we craft, and every line of code we write is created for the purpose of bringing this IP to life and making it something our players will always remember.”

“I may be biased, but I truly believe that you need that kind of a commitment to your IP to really make it stand out in the marketplace,” he continued. “Players will respond to that love and attention to detail. Make a fun, polished game with thought and heart, and success will take care of itself.”

The response from Funcom echoed Danuser’s sentiments. It seems that backstory is the building block through which all good things come.

“Building a world and making a game at the same time is difficult,” Ellingsen responded. “A game is more than just the game mechanics, it's also about the believability of the universe where the game takes place, the characters you encounter, the storyline you progress through and so on. Being original and creating a believable universe while you're struggling with creating game mechanics and making technology work can be difficult, especially if you work with a small team who might have a few people working on several elements in the game.”

“For Funcom it has always been very important to put a lot of effort into building the game around the universe, instead of building the universe around the game,” he continued. “We spend a lot of time working on the backstory, the characters, the environments and so on before we actually start the development process. We're also blessed with a very talented team of designers lead by Ragnar Tornquist, the creator of the Longest Journey games, and there is certainly no end to his ability to create a believable, original universe!”

On the other hand, Hi-Rez Studios has a different sort of mindset when it comes to story.

“The storyline of Global Agenda has gone through numerous revisions, each one getting closer and closer to the kind of world we had envisioned,” Knaack commented.  “Our “game first” philosophy served as a destination for where it needed to end up, while the world as it exists today was the starting point.  From there, it was a simple matter of connecting the dots in the most interesting possible way, keeping the timeline concise while leaving enough hooks for expansion of the original concept.”

“That being said, the setting is important enough that Hi-Rez Studios maintains a full time writer to bring the project together with a coherent fictional context,” he concluded.  “We provide our community with an engaging back story to get them into the game, but we also rely on our players and the groups they create to provide the interesting narrative moving forward as they cooperate and compete in our world.”

Too contrast the importance – or lack thereof – of storyline, April Burba’s answer to this questions was particularly enlightening. We’ll let her answer speak for itself.

“I worked on both City of Heroes and Tabula Rasa and the differences in the size and depth of the backstory were jarring. City of Heroes (before Villians) had a 300+ page story bible where TR was significantly less even including all the Logos symbols and their meanings,” she said. “I'll let you take from that what you will, however, I think it's important to understand that if you are creating an MMO then you are creating a world for people to spend an enormous amount of time in. Having an exceptionally deep amount of lore for them to discover, play with and play through is not a bad thing.”

To bring it back to the gamers, I had to ask the group what their favorite MMO of all time was. Knowing that they might see through my questions, I was surprised at their answers. Sixty percent of the readers had favorite games that were original IPs, thirty percent enjoyed games that were based on previous gaming properties (like WoW or FFXI), and only ten percent selected previously established non-gaming IPs.

Knowing their favorites, I then asked our Ten Ton Hammer readers what game they were looking forward to the most.  In another shocking moment, I discovered that only 43% of the gamers surveyed were really looking forward to an original IP, while 57% stated that an established IP product held their attention. Not surprisingly, the top game out of those surveyed was Star Wars: The Old Republic, especially after the title’s E3 bonanza.

From these two relatively unscientific statistics, it’s easy to draw some conclusions. First off, it seems that gamers definitely hold original IPs in high regard, considering that majority of the players asked consider a novel game their favorite MMO. While it can be said that these top spots belong to older games, it’s telling that only a small percentage of established IP games hold that “favorite” spot. When you compare games like The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies, and Dungeons and Dragons Online to titles like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, or Guild Wars, you begin to see the difference.

With that in mind, it’s astounding that the majority of gamers polled still hold games in established IPs as their “top” upcoming game. This just goes to show that established IPs can definitely attract an audience, even if the end products don’t live up to player’s expectations. But who knows? Maybe the next crop of established IP products will change that statistic.

However, it’s also worth noting that the *vast* majority of cancelled MMOs have been original IPs. To my knowledge, only ONE MMO that belonged to a previously established world has been cancelled, and technically that one isn’t even shut off yet. In a shocking move last week, Sony Online Entertainment announced that they would be closing the doors on The Matrix Online. Compare that to the closures (and re-openings and re-closings) of Fury, Shadowbane, Ryzom, Tabula Rasa, Auto Assault, Meridian 59, Asheron’s Call 2, Earth & Beyond, and a whole host of others.

The risks equal the rewards for original IP creators. For every two, five, or ten failures, one original IP title moves to the upper echelon of gaming and becomes a standout champion. April Burba put it best in this comment:

“That 1 time out of 10 where you really hit it out of the park with an original IP is pretty much the best feeling in the world. It's how true stars of the industry are made and it means you get to make more games based on that IP and run your own money machine into the ground.”

So will the use of horribly limiting IPs to create MMOs ever disappear? Probably not. Internet MMO communities are constantly creating lists of the "best untapped properties," which leads to even more fascination with the development of MMOs in known worlds. With worlds like those found in Harry Potter, the Wheel of Time, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Forgotten Realms, Dune, Pokemon, and so many others, we will always have development studios striving to find the sweet spot that really calls to MMO gamers.

In an almost laugh-inducing moment, while I was writing this article, I found a piece of information that was truly intriguing. Ironically, the first true graphics-based MMO was actually developed around a licensed IP. The original Neverwinter Nights (available on the early AOL) found its way onto store shelves due to the fact it was based on the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game. With a foundation built squarely on the back of a licensed IP, these MMO blacksmiths have certainly come a long way in stretching the minds of gamers into realms that are not only perfect for MMO gaming, but also full of ways for gamers to become the hero.

To end this article, I’ll let your panel of developers give you their closing comments. As my final question to the panel of developers, I asked them all what they’d like to tell the gaming public about original IPs. I’ll let the developers speak for themselves.

Steve Danuser:

Making an original IP from the ground up is not for the faint of heart. [Developers] need a strong guiding vision and a talented team capable of turning that vision into something tangible. [The team should] identify the pillars that the IP is built upon and use those as a razor to determine which ideas fit and which need to be cut away. Most of all, remember that there is no detail too small to ignore. Attention to detail is what separates excellence from mediocrity.

April Burba:

Play more games! The original IP you play today may be the Halo of tomorrow.

Erling Ellingsen:

Embrace them. Give them a try. To me, games are sort of like wine. There are several well-established brands, and whenever I sit down for a nice meal at a restaurant I have to admit I often go for that Chardonnay I always enjoy. Sometimes, though, it can be hugely rewarding to try something new, something I've never heard of, and suddenly the whole bottle is gone! It's the same with games – often there comes a long something that you've never heard of before, but then you decide to give it a try and you end up playing it into the wee hours of the morning.

David Allen:

Everything at one point or another was original IP. It all has to come from somewhere. What happens when we simply sublet all of our future products based on the focused creations of others? We lose our sense of creativity and innovation IMO. Don't get me wrong; you can take other IP and do something unique with it, but that's more the exception than the rule. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with taking something people like and giving them a way to experience it in a whole new way. But creating something people have never experienced before also has its value.

Nathan Knaack:

We would like to remind the general gaming public that some properties are easily converted into online games, but some are not. Instant recognition brings with it the shackles of cannon.  Global Agenda, on the other hand, was built from the ground up to be an enthralling, entertaining, and rewarding experience for its players, not an homage to finicky fans of some existing intellectual property.

However, we do reserve the right to contradict everything we just said in this interview in the indeterminate future, singing the virtues of using well-developed, existing IPs if we ever announce Global Agenda 2!

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