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    Contents Copyright 2009-2010 Arnold Hendrick

Beyond Fantasies & Licenses

Posted by Arnold Hendrick on September 25, 2009

Overdosing on High Fantasy

Once I tried every new fantasy MMORPG eagerly. Lately, however, after a decade of such fare even my legendary patience is wearing thin. It’s a sad fact that too many MMORPGs are fantasy games. After about the fifth new fantasy world nothing is memorable, be it world setting, races or backstory. As I look back on dozens of fantasy games played in the last decade, often the worst are the most memorable, such as the stick-like semi-insectoid Tumeroks and squat, armor-plated Lugians, who lived in Dereth, a continent on the world of Auberean. Class options included “Hive Keeper” and “Feral Intendant.” (The game was Asheron’s Call 2, launched Nov ’02 and closed down Dec ’05.)

Fortunately creative directors appeared to have learned some lessons. Player races and classes now have exciting names and more visual inspiration in their appearance. Nevertheless, high fantasy themes with their predictable “kill ten rats” and “fedex” quests dominate. In close second are science fiction themes whose varied and fantastical premises are more confusing than Anarchy Online’s skill and equipment system.

The problem is that people financing games hate risk. Selling financial backers on overdone topics is easier than convincing them to consider something new. Glib marketers can point to the size of WoW’s fantasy audience (12 million) to justify any new fantasy game. The same marketer needs to work much, much harder to justify a steampunk game. There are no MMO success stories available (there is only one English language server for “Neo-Steam” and a handful of hopeful beta players wandering through “Gatheryn”).The glib marketer must work harder to make the pitch. His or her audience needs to already know Asian anime, where steampunk is strong, and how that shapes global pop culture. The marketer would need to show this influence appearing in places such as Disney’s “Atlantis” movie, “The Golden Compass” books and movie, and ultimately its penetration of into games, exemplified by the dwarves and gnomes in “WoW” and “Warhammer,” or the orks of “Warhammer 40,000.” In short, a simple “sell” suddenly becomes very complicated, with many potential “points of failure” throughout the pitch.

Most of this difficulty and uncertainty is avoided with a license. Once financial backers buy into a license they effectively commit to the game also. In essence, the license justifies the game’s funding. One result is staggering budgets: an estimated $80 million for “Warhammer,” over $100 million for “Star Wars: The Old Republic.” In addition, licenses are a two-edged sword for developers. A licensed IP (Intellectual Property) not only forces design constraints and production complexities, but also brings core audiences that might not match the developer’s game, or any game for that matter. Eric Heimberg discusses this in detail in “Designing For An IP” and  “Star Trek: The Hardest MMO IP Ever?”


Ingredients for Successful New Topics

The alternative to licenses is creating an original Intellectual Property (IP). Maximizing the success of an original IP has its own pitfalls. It is important to select topics with potential as movie, TV, book and toy properties. However, insuring attractive character visuals, or transferable and extendable storylines, puts the cart before the horse. The first goal is to maximize the IP’s success as a game. After all, movie rights to a hit game are worth infinitely more than movie rights to a failure. Having worked on more than one successful original IP, as well as some that weren’t so memorable, I have the following suggestions, followed by a series of examples.

1. Pop Culture Familiarity: The average consumer of movies, TV shows and/or popular fiction should understand the topic before they start playing. For example, in a pirate game a player expects to fight sea battles, have swashbuckling swordfights and acquire chests of glittering treasure. In a superhero game a player expects iconic characters in spandex or power-armor fighting larger-than-life villains who never quite die.

The combination of title and cover art must resonate with the pop cultural knowledge of the target audience. The more people who “instantly” understanding the topic, the broader the potential audience. Incidentally, I cannot claim credit for this insight. It was Sid Meier who explained it as we worked on the original “Pirates” game twenty years ago.

2. Play Expectations Meet Deliverable Gameplay: The game must deliver a play experience that satisfies and delights fans of the genre. Everything from common gameplay activities to visual style to world setting must “feel right” to those familiar with the topic. Cryptic/NCsoft’s “City of Heroes” is a classic example of how a superhero game meets fan expectations.

Gameplay failures are not always obvious. A significant problem in “Pirates of the Burning Sea” is the need to understand how sailing ships behave in relation to the wind. Maneuvering is well neigh impossible until a player learns, after which they must grasp broadside gunnery tactics (i.e., you cannot shoot in the direction you’re traveling). Perhaps this was self-evident to the designers, but it’s not obvious to gamers unfamiliar with naval warfare between 1650 and 1850. Even more unfortunately, this hard-won knowledge becomes increasingly useless as you advance in the game. Why? Because once you master the PvE AI, all PvE battles are increasingly easy. Meanwhile, PvP fights are won by whichever player best matches up the latest redesign of high-end special skills with costly end-game ships and their add-ons. In other words, newbies must learn complicated historical realities first. Then they gradually must put aside this knowledge as they “game the system” against AIs and in PvP.

3. Flexibility: Part of the value in making a new IP is its potential for licensing to other entertainment mediums, such as film, TV, books and toys. Of course evocative names and iconic visuals for characters and settings are needed. But even more important is sufficient creative scope and flexibility. Creators in other entertainment mediums also need  “working room” for their own characters, story, setting, theme and/or tone to achieve hit products.

4. Learn from the Past: Avalon Hill released the first modern board wargame in 1958, TSR released the first RPG in 1973, and sophisticated Apple II computer games appeared in 1980. During this last half century game makers have tried all sorts of topics. Hits of yesteryear are useful reminders of what can work, while failures provide insights into what to avoid. Members of computer gaming’s “old guard” (20+ years of experience) can be invaluable consultants or advisors. A few are even available for hire in various capacities!


Original IPs for MMOs


Contemporary Supernatural Fantasy

This is now a hot, mainstream category everywhere except gaming. What began with Anne Rice’s books in 1980s and the White Wolf paper RPGs in 1990s has become a staple of the SF&F bookshelves (Hamilton, Harrison, Meyer, Armstrong, Butcher, etc.), movies (“Blade” series, “Underworld,” “Twilight,” etc.) and TV shows (“True Blood,” etc.).

The opportunity and challenge of this topic is making a game that appeals to its original core audience: adult women. All but one of the successful authors in this field are female. They write about strong female lead characters whose magical/supernatural abilities lead them to face even greater supernatural threats. The truly evil ones are defeated while other “less bad” opponents become ongoing romantic complications. Depending on the tastes of the writer, the books range from sexy and sensual situations to near-pornographic sex scenes. All such material is invariably written by and for women, not men.

Novelists in the genre are varied and creative. Vampires and werewolves are just the starting point. Laurell Hamilton’s famous heroine, Anita Blake, is a necromancer who hunts vampires on the side – her “day job” is raising the dead to testify in court cases! Kim Harrison’s Rachel Morgan is a white witch who works as a supernatural bounty hunter. Kelly Armstrong’s Otherworld series includes a female werewolf journalist, a young witch from a “traditional” New England family, a necromantic medium who does semi-fake séances for tacky daytime TV, warlocks who run secretive mega-corporations, and a half-demon tabloid reporter who thrives on chaos.

Only a few major MMO efforts are tackling this topic, leaving plenty of room for competitors. The best known effort is Funcom’s “Secret World,” rumored to focus on story-driven solo-play typical of immediate successors to WoW. In fact, the varied character types of contemporary novels beg for team play. It is easy to imagine supernatural versions of the classic MMORPG archetypes: tank, damage dealer, healer, nuker, backstabber, crowd controller, kiter, etc. The topic is custom-made for great storylines and creative encounters in urban, suburban and rural environments. Asset construction can be cost-effective on multiple levels. First, the contemporary setting permits use of cheaper “off the shelf” assets. Second, action generally occurs in dark settings, reducing the need for detailed distant scenery. Finally, many supernatural opponents are nothing more than colorful variants of different player types.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Huge, hot topic.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Feasible if designers are well-read in the field.
Flexibility: Moderate.
Lessons from the Past: Gory games that ignore the core audience (adult females) will fail.


Historical Fantasy

Korean and Chinese developers have successfully mined Asian historical periods for hits such as “Silk Road Online” and “Westward Journey.”  Rooting a fantasy game in a specific historic period can be refreshing, especially when traditional RPG classes, equipment, enemies and setting are subtly adjusted to fit an historical period. This approach made the solo RPG “Darklands” successful fifteen years ago. Set in 15th Century Germany, the game used conventional RPG features to represent an era of witchcraft, robber-knights, alchemy and religious miracles. For more on the game and its setting see the wikipedia description and a summary at Game Downloads, an abandonware site.

What makes historical fantasies different from ordinary fantasy is the accumulation of subtle details to invigorate the game. Everything about the game, from character abilities to settings to opponents reflects the realities and myths of an historical era. When done correctly, the game feels fresh and unique to players, yet the historical setting offers familiarity and logic missing from pure fantasies (such as the unfortunate Asheron’s Call 2 noted above). Finally historical fantasies are easy to learn because they reuse many core game mechanics of classic fantasy MMORPGs.

The Dark Ages: In Europe from the 500s to 700s AD, amid the decaying wreckage of the Roman Empire, a fragmented mess of “barbarian” kingdoms slowly and painful arose. Early Christian missionaries and saints alternately accommodated and competed with older beliefs. It was an age of mythic heroes in epic sagas who fought for civilization and order. This era saw the actual historical characters who became Siegfired in the Nibelungenlied (source of Wagner’s famous “ring cycle” operas), “Beowulf” and “The Song of Roland,” not to mention the historical “King Arthur.” 

All these heroes were struggling to defeat chaos and create order – an ideal setting for a “sandbox” MMORPG. Innumerable realistic adventures and opponents can populate the game. Furthermore, all is not lost. By 800 AD Charlemagne formed first great medieval empire, uniting France, Western Germany and Northern Italy. The Carolingian struggle for unification offers many more story and plot opportunities.

Military technology of the dark ages was not unsophisticated. Warriors used iron swords and bows while wearing leather or metal armor. Magical powers can be represented by the miraculous acts of saintly Christian missionaries, of Celtic druids and Germanic shamans calling upon earth, animal and ancestral spirits, or scholars invoking ancient knowledge.

Late Medieval Germany: As “Darklands” demonstrated, the later middle ages in Germany, circa 1450, has many strengths. Although the game’s copyright is ensnared in legal tangles typical of fallen game companies, no copyright exists on ideas. Anyone is free to use 15th Century Germany as a setting for a new MMORPG.

Swashbucklers – The Three Musketeers: Another historical period with possibilities is the swashbuckling Elizabethan era (c.1600 AD). Gunpowder weapons were single-shot affairs, which meant fencing with a sword was essential in a fight. Pop culture expectations, formed by The Three Musketeers, yield fine opportunities for engaging design and stunning visuals. The world really can be full of desperate secret missions, with double and triple crosses amid ancient rivalries and new world treasure. Costumes range from elaborate court dress to the classic back-alley swordsman (or woman) with a feathered hat, long cape and high boots.

In addition to the famous works of Alexander Dumas, a recent series of swashbuckling novels by Arturo Perez-Reverte has gained an international audience. The latest volume in this series arrives this fall in bookstores around the world (volume 5 for English readers, volume 6 for Spanish readers).  It takes very little game design creativity to adapt classic fantasy character classes to the era. Early modern researchers and inventors can have “magical” devices, while Catholic and Protestant clerics can work miracles of faith. If literature alone isn’t enough inspiration, game designers can also look to a little-known 70’s paper and pencil RPG, “En Garde,” still in print today. It has a numerous creative ideas for jaded designers.

The Bronze Age: The end of the Bronze Age (circa 1200 BC) has potential similar to the European dark ages. In this era the “palace” style of civilized kingdoms backed by chariot armies collapsed spectacularly. In this period Troy was besieged and destroyed, the Mycenaean Greek kingdoms fell, and the great Pharaohs of Egypt entered their final decline. Historians cannot agree on what caused this – theories range from economic overspecialization to new military technologies to mysterious “sea people” invaders. Despite this, the great monuments, epics, gods and myths from the era remain with us, from the ruins of Egypt, to Greek myths, to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

Innumerable “sword and sandal” movie epics have mined this period, not to mention the long popularity of the “Xena” TV series. The biggest drawback is that despite multiple valiant efforts, solo games set in the era, like “Titan Quest,” have not succeeded.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Varies, Three Musketeers has very good recognition.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Good – expectations aren’t too high.
Flexibility: High.
Lessons from the Past: Darklands succeeded; Bronze Age games repeatedly failed.


Covert Operations

A great MMOFPS/RPG hybrid could be made from Rainbow Six style clandestine military teams. The concept of small, convert military teams performing everything from surveillance to counter-terrorism “hits” is as old as military institutions themselves. Most western countries field such groups, such as the American Delta Force and SEALs, British SAS and SBS, Russian Spetsnaz GRU, etc. While a licensed approach is also possible, it is quite likely that Ubisoft’s “secret” re-entry to MMOs will use the Tom Clancy Rainbow Six license that proved such a strong earner in the past.

There are already numerous MMOFPS gams in development, starting with “CrimeCraft” released earlier this year. These products appear to emphasize traditional shooter gameplay: fast movement with quick, accurate shooting. They also emphasize PvP over PvE and generally use fictional urban jungle crime (“CrimeCraft,” “APB”) or science fiction (“Global Agenda,” “Huxley”) settings. To stand out from this crowd a successful Covert Operations MMO must emphasize character development, teamwork and tactics. For longevity as well as originality it can emphasize PvE over PvP.

In real life proper military covert operations are rehearsed in advance, then executed on a strict timetable. An MMORPG can be handle this by giving teams a missions with a practice area before they enter a challenging PvE instance. Conversely larger battlefield environments similar to conventional MMORPG “zones” can represent wartime environments with solo fighting and pickup groups. The real world today has such environments in Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia, to name a few.

Military-style teams offer numerous opportunities for character roles and abilities. Area-denial weapons like machineguns perform a unique type of crowd control, while standard infantry arms (assault rifles and sniper rifles) are classic single-target killers. Combat medics who patch wounds and dispense “keep ‘em going” drugs are healers. Grenades and rocket launchers are AOE attacks. Flash and smoke grenades “debuff” enemy attacks. Choosing your body position trades off between speed (running) and defense (prone).

Best of all, the topic of covert military action is well understood and perennially attractive to the prime demographic of online MMO players: males between 12 and 35. A successful game has obvious opportunities for licensing into other entertainment mediums. However, dealing with conflicts straight from the daily news runs the risk of hostile attention from “special interest” political groups.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Good.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Challenging – many other MMOFPS titles.
Flexibility: Moderate – real world military themes have limitations.
Lessons from the Past: PvP-oriented MMOs have great difficulty holding large audiences over the long run.


Secret Agents

Secret agents fighting clandestine wars, from James Bond to Jason Bourne, offer many possibilities for MMOs. I only know of one such game in development (SOE’s “The Agency”), whose development as been long and ill-starred (see a Wired news report for its difficulties earlier this year).

Unfortunately, secret agent games have technical issues. Vehicle chases and combat are an intrinsic part of the genre, including motorcycles, cars, boats and helicopters. Many of these mount weaponry, from smoke screens and tire-slashers to machineguns and rockets. In addition, stealth is a critical part of the game and difficult to portray well via game mechanics. The game settings need a “real world, globe trotting” feel. As a result, game development means expensive design and engineering work combined with a great many art assets for worldwide locations.

Enemies in secret agent games can be agents of hostile government, mega-corporations, international mafias, or terrorist groups. The beauty of secret agentry is that players cannot fight all-out battles. The goal of a secret agent is to remain secret!  Players can be penalized for too much carnage by escalating police and military NPC intervention. Players need to be rewarded for stealth and silent fighting, such as hand-to-hand combat, silenced guns, etc. The mission-oriented nature of secret agent activities is ideal for PvP play: PvP missions can be rigged so players or teams of equal level are pitted against each other.

While MMO secret agent games are extremely rare, innumerable licensed 007 console games have come and gone. Those which concentrated on shooting failed, while those with good stealth mechanics were far more successful.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Excellent – many famous movie series.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Technically difficult; expect large design, programming and art costs.
Flexibility: Good.
Lessons from the Past: Great gameplay is vital, as many failed 007 games demonstrate.


Alien Invaders

A variant approach to conventional secret agents is “X-Files”/”Men-in-Black” style secret agents, who defend the Earth from alien invaders. The “X-Com” solo PC games of the early 1990s had a very attractive contemporary rationale. Small fast-response teams were dealing with alien invasion scouts landing around the planet. Operating from secret high-tech bases, their goal was to capture aliens and their technology as well as kill them. As characters gain knowledge of aliens and their technology, they acquire new weapons and equipment.

Alien technology can be cast to fit all the needs of MMORPGs, not just shooting weapons. For example, defense “force shield” technologies could reduce damage from various attacks, rapid medical reconstruction can “heal” wounds and even resurrect the dead. Various forms of mind control permit the equivalent of “mez,” “fear” and “charm” magic. As characters advance they are sent on more challenging and important missions. Later they can engage in large battles against aliens on earth, on board invasion motherships, and ultimately on other planets.

In the past the primary cause of “alien invasion” games failing is uninspired gameplay. Innumerable action and “shooter” titles bear witness to the truism that nothing sinks a game faster than no game to play.

Pop Culture Familiarity: Good.
Meeting Fan Expectations: Fairly easy – but do not insult the intelligence of fans.
Flexibility: Good.
Lessons from the Past: Deep, engaging gameplay is vital to success.


The Role of Originality

“Original” Intellectual Property (IP) is never totally original. Familiar pop culture provides “boundary points” beyond which originally hurts rather than helps a product. The art of designing within this medium lies not in total originality, but rather evoking what people already understand in new ways. A successful “original IP” begins with a well-known topic rarely or never portrayed in MMOs. The game translates that topic into well-understood play mechanics, with careful attention to “realistic” details. The resulting “new” game world is easily understood, yet seems novel to gamers who have fought too many dragons with broadswords and fireballs.

4 Responses to “Beyond Fantasies & Licenses”

  1. A brilliant article, I ODed on fantasy over a decade ago (even before MMORPGs appeared), and I would dearly love to see something new. I really think that Steampunk is another genre that could offer a great possibility of revitalising the hobby (you mention it in the introduction, but do not do a more in-depth analysis of it)

  2. Tesh said

    I’ve written about wanting a good Steampunk game before. Curiously, I almost always manage to tie in Battletech. The “giant robot” genre is represented by Project of Planets and a few other titles, but nothing really significantly successful. That’s a bit of a surprise for me, especially considering the potential in a BT title. (Or a Gundam title, or a Heavy Gear title, or an Armored Core title…)

    Now, mix steampunk with mechs (like the tabletop Warmachine), and you could craft an original IP with enough familiar elements to be accessible.

  3. Stabs said

    Very insightful.

    As you say, the goal isn’t total originality. I could come up with a game idea where the players are sentient atoms, pursuing various goals to combine and conquer to create molecules and incorporating the latest quantum physics but it would be a complete headache for most people to try to play.

    Recently I’ve been playing my MMO while chatting to a friend who is playing the latest Total War. The contrast in game design between a historical simulation and a MMO is quite astounding. For instance his game “learned” from him playing the British that landing in France and burning territory is a shrewer move than trying to hold it so now his client’s AI does that when he’s not playing the British.

    Can you imagine WoW if Onyxia reacted to player tactics and adapted her behaviour to counter the way most people beat her? It would certainly get raiders thinking rather than learning strategies.

    I strongly suspect (having read your equally outstanding blog post on historical perspectives) that big MMOs will start looking to what other games have done before. Sid Meier for instance solved many of the problems that modern designers seem stumped by.

    Let’s hope for some creative recycling not only of genres but also of game mechanics in the future.

  4. Ulf said

    Although I am a big fan of dark historic settings, I always wondered why the WW2 era setting seems to be underrepresented in MMOs, especially since it seems to meet the 4 criteria you introduced in the article pretty good. But then again, it makes sense if the target audience is “adult women”. If you can’t put Tom Hanks and Matt Damon into the MMO, it will probably fail to attract a lot of attention from the key audience – that’s at least my prediction, based on the gender distribution I see in the usual (WW2) FPS games, or even in (WW2) tabletop wargaming.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts, I think I gathered some insight from the article.

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