The MMORPG License Catch 22

There’s an interesting discussion of some issues pertinent to MMORPGs in the Space Sim thread. One thing that comes to mind is that any MMORPG with a major market license is going to be facing a Catch 22. On the one hand, major licenses are usually based on intellectual property that has a very devoted following. In the case of most genres that would be used for games (sci-fi & fantasy mostly) the devoted following is often very hardcore, to the point I would call them grognards. There are obviously Star Wars grognards, and Star Trek fanatics, and LoTR purists, and so on. So if you have one of these licenses then the hardcore fans are going to have very high, and very specific expectations about how the license is implemented. In the Space Sim thread there is discussion of the Jedi issue. I recall from the aborted LoTR MMORPG that there was a serious issue about limiting magic, limiting the number of elves, and so on. And if you had a Star Trek MMORPG there would be very serious issues about “how to do Klingons right, how to do Vulcans right” etc. So any game with one of these licenses is going to have to deal with some very hardcore expectations and limitations.

On the other hand, (and this is the catch 22) these licenses are valuable (and hence expensive) because they have mass market appeal. Game developers have to fork over a hefty consideration to get these licenses, and then hope to sell enough subscriptions to the mass market to make a profit. However, the mass market subscribers will by and large not be hardcore, fanatical, grognard types. For every Trekker who knows Klingonese there are 1000s of Trek fan who just think Lt. Worf is a stud or who like the “adventure in space” stuff.

And here’s the key to the Catch 22: because these major licenses are expensive, the devs don’t have the option of choosing to make a niche game to appeal to the purists only. They MUST make a game that sells to the mass market. The SWG team has talked about expectations of a million users subscribed - if that happens, I can assure you the mast majority of those paying customers will NOT be hardcore Star Wars fans.

Look at the massive success of the FoTR movie: although many of the viewers were readers of the series, the movie also drew large numbers of non-readers (actually sales of the books have been massively enhanced by the movie: a lot of folks who never bothered to read LoTR are doing it now). All of the non-readers, and most the readers would not count as LoTR purists. BUT when the LoTR MMORPG was in development it was the purist mindset that controlled the initial design. When the companies capitalizing the project realized this, they (wisely, from a market standpoint) pulled the plug.

This is going to be an issue with SWG and with LoTR if they ever get a game going, and with Trek if they ever do an MMORPG, and with almost any seriously successful license.

The devs typically justify their reliance on the hardcore types by saying MMORPGs thrive on community and the hardcore types are the ones who create the guilds, websites, and fora that establish community. That’s probably true but I really wonder what’s going to happen when the “unwashed masses” of SWG players enter these “communities” to be told “hey you cretin, you can’t be a Jedi”. How long is the community going to last then and whats going to happen when hundreds of thousands of players decide that “all this stupid crap” is getting in the way of enjoying their fifty bucks worth of gaming?

I am actually looking forward to being a spectator as SWG release b/c I think as the first truly major mega-license to hit the MMORPG scene, with really heavy backing, it will be a huge test bed for a number of issues. Including this one: how DO the devs integrate the hardcore expectations of the purists with the entertainment expectations of the mass market? Keep in mind of course that b/c these licenses are EXPENSIVE, choosing to just make a niche game with a major license is not a viable economic option.

Daniel Ban aka Sharpe

This is somewhat repetitive of my replies in the Space Sim thread, but:

I don’t think it’s a catch-22, because I think you can essentially have your cake and eat it too. In many ways, making a “hardcore” game that sticks closely to the source material will please both camps. The grognards like it because it’s true to the source; and the casual gamers like it because the end result looks like the movie/book/TV show that they liked. Obviously some concessions are made for gameplay reasons (such as being able to respawn after death in SWG), but the grognards, by and large, understand that and most of them don’t complain very much. At the same time, people can’t all be the hero, but the casual gamers understand that and they don’t complain much, either.

Granted, there may be some people who want to play these games because they want to be a jedi, or captain of the Enterprise, or whatever. And they might be disappointed if they buy the game and realize that no, your character will lead an exciting life, but not a “heroic” one in the sense of being Luke or Kirk. But I think a lot of people – even casual gamers – are going to buy SWG just because they want to hang around the cantina or smuggle guns for the alliance or be a bounty hunter. So the designers can make a game that will please the hardcore audience but still be extremely popular among casual gamers, so that it pays for its license.

Your example of the LOTR movie is a good one. That movie was pretty true to the book. Some concessions were made to turn it into a movie, such as cutting out Tom Bombadil or beefing up Arwen’s role. The grognards didn’t complain too much, for the most part, and the movie was still such a lot of fun that the casual viewers liked it as well. No catch-22 for Peter Jackson.

The thing about the hardcore grognard purists for sci-fi and fantasy (or whatever) is:

They might bitch and moan about their percieved shortcomings of your product, but they’ll buy and play it anyway.

You can safely make a Star Wars, Star Trek, LoTR, Matrix, or whatever other major MMORPG licenced game you want and target it at the casual user. Just make sure it captures the look 'n feel “flavor” of that license, which is generally the easy part because of the volume and quality of source material.

You can get all the specifics wrong, intentionally (to make the game easier on the non-hardcore) or by mistake. And the grognards will bitch and moan and make loud noises with their Mighty Keyboard Powers in forums and email all across the internet. For years. As they continue to play your game.

Well, there is a major caveat. Namely, a poor implementation will receive only marginal benefit from a mass-market license. In fact, if the product ends up being poorly implemented, it can actually devalue the license. For example, take a look at the (cursed?) Star Trek game license.

  • Alan

Licenses are overrated. They help, but the hardcore insists on a good game to go along with the license.

Well, I agree with Rywill, to some extent. Creating the world that the hardcore crowd is looking for will usually please the non-hardcore, too. Usually. I think SW:G will reflect this.

But, as I think the idea of a LotR MMORPG would demonstrate – and the reason that we will probably never see one – is that sometimes, that’s not the case. The LotR stories deal far more exclusively with heroes, while everyone else is just a normal guy. A very normal guy.

In Galaxies, anyone can eventually become a jedi. Or a bounty-hunter. In Tolkein’s world, there are just a handful of wizards, and everyone else…Well, outside of that, what have you left? A bunch of fighters, with the occasional rogue. Not a lot of class variety in Tolkein’s world. Which is why the stories seemed to “believable” for fantasy – society, outside of those handful of “heroes,” was very much like our own. And that’s also what would make an MMORPG with that world very…dull. Too many people playing a “fantasy” MMORPG will want to have some kind of magic powers. That just isn’t possible in Tolkein’s world, without major compromises.

There are two issues here:

First I agree that if you implement the license in an accurate fashion, to invoke the feel of the licensed world and create an immersive environment, that’s definitely going to please both grognards and casual players. BUT, what does that mean? To me that means capturing the look and feel of the license, putting in the abilities we associate with the license, implementing the familiar locations, races, skills, opponents, items, etc. It does NOT necessarily mean a bunch of a restrictions to be “True to the source material”. In other words, a Star Wars game MUST have Jedi but do the Jedi need to be sharply restricted? Not in my opinion, Just make the Jedi cool and immersive and let the players enjoy themselves.

The second issue is the continual issue with grognards of any stripe: why the heck do the grognards care what other people do? The grognards are saying that if too many other players are Jedi it will ruin their own personal gaming experience. Why? I’ve never understood this busybody approach to gaming. I think it may be that I view all these products as games at core where to the grognards they may be considered a world simulation or somesuch. Problem is, they are marketed as games, sold as games, and the vast majority of people who buy them will want to play them as games. My attitude is: play your own character, focus on the immersiveness role playing of your own character and don’t let the other players affect you. So there’s going to be 1 million 15 year old punks playing Jedi in ways that violate the source material? So? Just don’t group with them.

Hehe, now I’m ranting :). But really this busybody mindset just puzzles me. I like Star Wars and all but you know, having a bunch of dopes being Jedi is just not gonna bother me. And I know that if a restriction is placed on the mass market players, there’s going to be hell to pay.

Daniel Ban (aka Sharpe)

An interesting sidelight on grognards, that has some bearing here.

Reading the notoriously hillarious (unintentionally) EB reader reviews on, for Battlefield 1942 specifically, I’ve seen some grog types blasting the game as “unrealistic,” and telling folks to play WWIIOL instead. Now, BF 1942 may well be the most fun I’ve ever had with an online shooter, and I’ve only played the demo. I’m also a long-time grognard from the wargaming/historical world, and a veteran of the first few months of WWIIOL. I can say from my own experiences that I feel BF 1942 is fantastic, precisely because it’s not realistic to an anal degree.

Anyhow, while Jason has a point that grogs will often bitch but still buy, that’s not always the case in war/military games. Often, they see a demo or steal a copy of the game, spend ten minutes with it, and rush off to Usenet to flame it. From there, they continue to carp, never buying or playing the game. You see, while some grog-types are compulsive buyers of everything in their genre, many others are such self-perceived perfectionists that they won’t buy anything that’s not perfect. Therefore, they never buy.

And, it should follow, designers of games and publishers too should pretty much ignore grogs, because they are totally irrelevant commercially. In specific niches, I might add–Star Wars may well be completely different.

I suppose the reason I deeply support SWG’s decision to keep Jedi limited is because there’s no way, seriously no way, playing a Jedi would feel a bit like playing a Jedi if it were a common character class that had to be play balanced against every other class. If you manage to get to be a Jedi in SWG you are a potential killing machine that outclasses just about everyone you’ll encounter. And that’s cool so long as it’s hard to get to be one and the population is kept low. This way if someone manages to pull it off they’ll have the real deal not some watered down version that wouldn’t please either grogs or the ‘I-wanna-be-a-Jedi-or-I’ll-hold-my-breath-till-I-turn-blue’ crowd either.

Will some folks complain? Sure. But as others have pointed out there are plenty of other reasons to play and other very ‘kewl’ elite classes like Starfighter Pilot, Bounty Hunter, Commando or Teras Kai martial artist that, with effort, anyone can become. Maybe young Skywalker wants to be a Jedi but perhaps he’ll settle for being a cool looking Zabrak, Darth Maulian look-alike, with a big gun? What other game can offer that? And it should keep Junior entertained while he dreams his dreams of one day becoming a Dark Jedi as he buys his monthly lottery ticket.

You’ll never satisfy the self-appointed subject matter experts, period. They aren’t that large a group, but they know how to argue, :D. It is one reason MMP sims, especially WWII and vehicle sims, have such small audiences; these guys (along with the griefers and vultchs) simply drive customers away. They’ll argue everything and, if you do try to satisfy them, they’ll just dig up something else to complain about; it’s part of being an SME.

I remember one argument at an Air Warrior con in 1989 that nearly came to blows over whether the top speed of some German fighter in an unbraked dive was the speed it was in AW or 5 KM per hour faster. We had to literally separate the two guys physically. Of course, the next day at the Houston Air Show, they sat together and had a great time. Of course, the next week, they picked up the argument in the message boards and proceeded to get themselves banned for making RW threats against each other. One was a lawyer; the other one was an instructor at Miramar (Top Gun).

There is no easy solution to the SME situation. You just have to do what is right for the game and the bulk of the players, and know that some SME’s will insist on making your life a living hell. At least with SWG, LucasArts can take the heat for Verant, :D.

Obviously, though, if I’m playing my true-to-Star Wars bounty hunter, and I go wandering into the cantina on Tattooine, and the bar is jam-packed with jedis, that is going to affect my gaming experience whether I group with them or not. I do not want to walk down the street and see 50 folks swinging lightsabers around. I do not want to go into one of the game’s PvP “battleground” battles and have every other player wailing on me with their force powers. I want a game where I can go and it looks and feels like the movies. That means a game with few jedi.

And that’s true of other licenses as well. If I’m playing a LOTR game and every town is jam-packed with elves or wizards, that’s a problem. Even if I don’t group with them. Because they’re all there wandering around doing their stuff, and it breaks the immersion.

Can we have the gameplay vs. immersion argument again?

You know, I think you just made my point (unintentionally) :). Think about the example here. You are one guy walking down the street, and you see 50 players, all of whom are obviously playing the game, (which generally means they are enjoying the game) and they are enjoying being a Jedi with their little virtual lightsabres, and their enjoyment of the game ruins your enjoyment. Of course if you take away their Jedi status that would ruin their enjoyment. So on the one side we got 50 paying customers who all paid their money to be Jedis vs one guy who paid his money to be a participant in a virtual science fantasy world simulator. 50… vs… 1… – paying customers.

Now maybe during the design phase the dev team is favoring the minority of one – but I feel fairly certain once the execs who made the decision to fork over the big $$ to Lucas for the license start seeing those numbers they are going to mandate favoring the 50.

You see the point I was making about the Catch 22 is that what the hardcore fans of any license really want a niche game tailored to their exacting standards. The problem is, these licenses have too much mass market economic value, and nobody is going to use a major license to make a niche game - corporations buy these licenses for their mass market appeal which means they have to deliver a mass market game. I predict, for example, that there will not be (in the near to intermediate future) a LoTR game that purists will care for - the license is too damn valuable for a niche game and making a mass market game will violate too many purist rules.

However, I DO think there is a solution in the long run. In the long term, there will eventually be enough competition in the market (and the biggest licenses will all be used up) that niche games, with niche licenses will proliferate. And, it may well be that some of the “niche” licenses will be sub-sets of major licenses. For example, D&D has its many different game worlds, all licensed to different developers. I could imagine in 10 years that there will be a “purist” version of Star Wars, based on a subset of the Star Wars universe, which will have the kind of purist environment that the hardcore types want.

But for now, SWG is gonna ship a million copies or more, based on the power of the license. And of that million, there are gonna be six figures worth of paying customers who want to be Jedi, and who won’t tolerate a bunch of arbritrary restrictions. If the devs go ahead and impose restrictions I can guarantee you that a year after release we’ll see the devs talking about how “the Jedi debacle” cost them six figures worth of lost subscriptions and a high churn rate.

Its the 50 vs 1 in your example :), and the market follows the math.

Daniel Ban aka Sharpe

I figure the market’s idea of the population of SWG closely resembles the costumed people in line for Episode II. Lots of Jedi (them being the heroes and all) with a good percentage of Fett-style bounty hunters thrown in. Is there a race that resembles dogs? I’m going to be that, and name myself Triumph. :twisted:

To me, it is not satisfying the hardcore or the casual players. They all are drawn to the primary figures of the source materials. The designers need to figure out a way to have thousands of Jedi or Frodos, or they will have a lot of disappointed customers leave. Everyone who purchased JKII got to be a Jedi, and they will expect the same in SWG.

This is not a new concept in MMORPGs, though–or in any online game. The fact that you are playing this game with other people means that some people are going to enjoy things that ruin the experience for others. And ultimately, the developers must make decisions that might be unpopular–even to large numbers of people–for the good of the game as a whole. There are lots of people that enjoy griefing, too, but I don’t expect the developers to provide them with more ways to do it.

The Jedi issue is even trickier–everyone THINKS that they want to be a Jedi. But what they really want is to be a Jedi in a world of non-Jedi–they want to play a special character. If you make everyone a special character, however, then it’s no longer special. The Jedi are supposed to be very rare in the Star Wars setting. If you make it easy to be one, if you have 50 Jedi running around swinging lightsabers, you lessen the experience for all of them.

but I feel fairly certain once the execs who made the decision to fork over the big $$ to Lucas for the license start seeing those numbers they are going to mandate favoring the 50.

And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that Lucas will say “no.” It’s their property, and everything that the developers choose to do in the game has to be signed off by them–Sony paid for the license, but that doesn’t give them carte blanche to do whatever they want with it. And I’d guess that Lucas isn’t going to sign off on anything that significantly alters the nature of the Star Wars setting (like having a universe teeming with Jedi), no matter what the marketing weasels at Sony want.

Not to be repetitive (but here I go), I don’t think those 50 people would enjoy playing jedi with everyone else. As Ben said, what they want is to be a jedi like the ones in Star Wars, but those jedi won’t exist in a world where being a jedi is easy.

How many times have you seen people complain that the leveling process in MMORPGs is too difficult and it takes too long to get to the really high levels? Well, someone finally decided to do what the masses “wanted” and throw together a game with really easy leveling. See the threads on Earth & Beyond for the results.

Hmm, now I think you are using any example that will fit your pre-conceived bias as a role playing grognard. It is my understanding that Earth and Beyond had a large number of problems: thin and repetitive content, boring combat, and also despite being a game about space combat, very limited space sim aspects. It was essentially a fantasy-style MMORPG set in space with ships instead of armour, and the translation just didn’t work well. As such, I think E&B will not do well, but the levelling issue has nothing to do with it.

I remain firmly convinced for a game like DAOC for example, faster levelling would significantly improve the game.

On the Jedi / Star Wars license issue there IS a wild card: Lucas, as pointed out above. It may well be that Lucas will eschew profit and stick to the purity of his concept, assuming he has enough control over the license. In which case his game will please the grognards greatly.

Also I notice someone was talking about how Jedi are not just “cool” but should also be the most powerful characters in the game - a “machine of death” with super special powers. Above and beyond anything else I’ve said, if you make Jedi the most powerful characters in the game, then restrict who can be Jedi you are going to piss off the user base something awful. Especially for the PvPers - if you cannot be a Jedi on the Dark side and you have to face light Jedi who are much better mano a mano, then you are going to get pissed and quit.

Oh well, we’ll see :)

Daniel Ban (aka Sharpe)

To be fair, the fast levelling is the least of E&B’s problems. It’s also dull and ugly, two not-so-great tastes that don’t go great together. I gave up on the beta before I could even find out how fast the levelling goes at higher levels, so I’d say it’s sort of a moot point.

I think the problem with levelling, and with games that focus on levelling as their core mechanic, is that it’s ultimately a fairly pointless process. As someone pointed out in the E&B thread, experience penalties force you to fight stronger monsters as you level up, so any advantage that you gain by becoming more powerful is rendered mostly irrelevant. You get some new skills and fight different creatures, but while the specifcs change a bit, the actual process of playing the game remains essentially constant at every level. I think this is why I inevitably get bored with MMORPGs at around 10th level or so. I simply come to the realization that, at a fundamental level, I have already seen all there is to see.

DAoC tried to stir things up a bit with the realm vs. realm stuff. In my opinion, it’s not enough. Games need to take the spotlight off the levelling treadmill altogether, and put it somewhere else. They can still feature levelling, or not (I don’t have any strong feelings on the issue), but it shouldn’t be the core focus of the game either way.

I’d like to see these games focus more on getting the players to interact with each other in interesting ways. Here we have this huge new genre that sets itself apart by putting thousands of players into the same game world, and what kind of games do we get? Single-player RPGs with less story and more lag. With the exception of DAoC’s realm combat (which has some different problems, but that’s another debate), most of these games focus on players interacting with the game. The fact that there are a thousand other people online with you is nearly irrelevant, because the ways in which you can interact with other players are strictly limited and mostly uninteresting. In most games it boils down to partying with people and selling items, and since most games require partying in order to make headway at higher levels, that particular interaction feels more like an obligation than an interesting decision.

To bring us back on topic, I think all the attention that people lavish on levelling (Fast or slow? Easy or difficult? Large rewards or small?) is mostly wasted, because I don’t think any levelling scheme is going to make any of these games more interesting. Many of the things that intrigue me about Galaxies have noting to do with levelling. Provided that an online game gives you fun stuff to do, they could yank the whole levelling structure altogether and I doubt I’d miss it (see Battlefield 1942).

Sometimes I’m too tired and irritable to put together an articulate response, and too tired to consider not posting entirely, and what comes out sounds like obnoxious, arch, and patronizing. Hence my previous post.

Had I been a little more clear thinking rather than hipshooting I probably would have said something a little more along the lines of what Rywill and Ben are saying. There really does need to be some new thinking to take advantage of the unique opportunities of the medium. The problem could be called conditioning or simply habit - we think about online roleplaying games in 70’s D&D terms. That’s not even where the cutting edge of face-to-face gaming is nor has it been for a very long time. In fact, the entire dynamic of DM and small party doesn’t translate very well into a massively multiplayer environment. We need to lose the scripts and figure out ways in which normal behavior, with the proper incentives, can propel a dynamic experience. SWG seems to be doing just that. Every sort of player will find a role and a style of play to enjoy that SWG supports - and the fact that they’re all interdependant encourages the sort of interaction Ben refers to.

The Jedi question, while honestly a good one, is a sidetrack. There are folks that want to control The Deathstar or build their own Empires in the SWG forums. There are simply limits to what can be done without harming the environment - and playbalanced, nerfed, Jedi would be one of those things. Yes, I don’t like the idea of a million Jedi running around because it would break my immersion, in this period there simply aren’t many and the few remaining are in hiding, but I can’t imagine a Jedi player liking the idea of being just another character class where a ‘higher-level’ Ewok explorer can cream them without a second thought. Frankly, I’d be fine if Jedi weren’t in the game at all but they are and if somebody’s life will be made complete by the opportunity to play one - go for it. It just has to be handled carefully, which I believe it will be.

Don’t bother Ben. I already posted something almost identical if less verbose in another thread. The MMOG crowd can’t agree with that. Levelling is all they have. I think it’s really a question of wanting to learn a game and acquire a skill rather than rote memorization of specific character build paths. It seems to me that most MMOG gamers don’t want to do anything other than be better than the next guy but by better, it means put in more hours and become more stat-worthy than the next guy. It’s like a big badge of honor they wear on their sleeve. The games are ultimately competitive but yet you can’t directly compete. It’s really just a fashion show for many.