Do MMO Games benefit from existing franchises?

7/9/2017

Nearly everyone has at some point stumbled across certain MMO games based on movies, books, mangas, or video games.

One would think that adapting a hugely successful franchise like One Piece, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones should guarantee a large base of active players.

Unfortunately, the reality is quite different.

Many of them failed to reach their full potential before they closed up shop. Those that did survive so far are now mere vestiges of what they once were.

Jeff Strain, the co-founder of ArenaNet, explains that pre-existing franchises and MMOs do not necessarily get on well.

This statement isn’t just based on his personal analysis but echoes the reality of the market.

Following the disappointing failures of games such as The Matrix Online or Final Fantasy XIV, it’s only normal to question whether franchises and “fan-service” are useful in the constantly shifting universe that is massively multiplayer online games.

Why base MMO games on an existing IP

Tons of massively multiplayer online games were inspired by movies, TV shows, books, comics, and even other video games.

Most people attribute this trend to a pathological lack of originality. However, we believe there must be a deeper reason behind this phenomenon.

A pathological lack of originality?

Let’s take a look at one of the most successful MMORPGs of the last decade - World of Warcraft.

It’s 1994 and Warcraft: Orcs & Humans was just released for PCs and Macs.

The following year, video game press gives Blizzard’s strategy game good reviews. The MacOS version will even be given awards at the 1995 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) and by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.

Even though the game greatly contributed to the popularization of the RTS genre, as did other titles like Command & Conquer, nobody really considered it to herald the future of video games. That’s for good reason, as games like Doom II, UFO: Enemy Unknown, and System Shock achieved better overall sales that same year.Doom II alone sold as many as 1.8M copies before 1999.

In those days, the video game market was still dominated by names like Nintendo, and the Sony PlayStation had only just been released to the Japanese market.

During the next 10 years, the Warcraft franchise has expanded drastically.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos was published in 2002, and was met with great success but failed to gain the upper hand on the competition.

In 2005, Blizzard announces the release of the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Far from being the first massively multiplayer online game, its success wasn’t guaranteed by the “novel idea of turning a strategy franchise into an online RPG. Yet, in only a few years, World of Warcraft went from a video game to a worldwide phenomenon.

In 2010, 12 million active users were playing the Cataclysm expansion.

Analysts and players were all left wondering what led to such an incredible success. Unlike other MMOs of that time, WoW already had a very large audience. And the transition towards an online support was carried out really smoothly.

Ever since, WoW has become the “Holy Grail” of MMO development, and the standard for every new MMORPG.

WoW has become the “Holy Grail” of MMO development

Other studios soon followed its example, with games based on all sorts of existing franchises and IP, hoping to capitalize on the trend.

However, World of Warcraft teaches us an important thing a lot of said games seem to forget: to succeed in catering to a well established audience, a game needs to build onto an audience’s pre-existing passion for a franchise.

What Makes a Franchise Work as an MMO

Inevitably, everyone wants to know what makes a franchise suitable for the “MMO treatment”.

Why a franchise appeals to games developers?

Is it the narrative? The universe this narrative is set in? The fascinating characters or opponents with untapped potential?

Out of all the possible various factors that help a franchise to become an MMO, we’ll take a look at 4:

  • The Audience
  • The Story
  • The Scale
  • The Enemy

The Audience

Obviously, for someone to think about turning a franchise into an MMO, this franchise has to already be appealing. And the best way to measure the success of a franchise is the audience.

The movie, book, or video game that will be converted into an MMO must have reached hundreds of millions of people all over the world. That’s what we would call a big success. Hundreds of millions, and not tens of millions, because we must take into account that the gamer community is a fraction of the larger population.

The Star Wars franchise’s ability to consistently bring millions of audience members out to theaters is a good example of this.

Because of its sci-fi settings and predominantly male fan base, it’s likely that a good share of Star Wars fans will be gamers. As a result, a publisher can invest in this franchise with very little risk involved, confident that millions of individuals will be interested.

The Action-packed Story

This concept is easy to understand. The story needs to be characterized more by action and epic journey.

That’s why epic fantasy stories like The Lord of the Rings (which, by the way, became an MMO) or stories about superheroes, and Japanese mangas (especially Shônen), are perfect fits.

Popular literary or movie franchises that are based around intellectual feats or spiritual tribulations just can’t provide the action-packed stories we’re looking for.

The story needs to be characterized more by action and epic journey

Let’s take the Sherlock Holmes stories and their various adaptations as an example. Even though action takes place from time to time, the story gravitates around the spectacular intellect of the characters. Such a story is unlikely to lead to a particularly gripping MMO.

The Epic Scale

An action-packed story complete with a universe that begs exploring aren’t always enough. We still have the issue of conflict. What the protagonist needs to be overcome in order to succeed in their mission?

Rather than focus on personal accomplishments and growth, MMOs tend to adopt a more epic scale. The fate of all humanity, the world and even the universe rests on your shoulders. And failure is never even an option.

In an MMO, players need to feel that they’re involved in some struggle that goes above and beyond their own problems. Even with the MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) format, the idea of a high stakes struggle is always present in the story offered to the players.

The Brand New Enemy

This point is probably one of the trickiest.

Fairy tales are a perfect example of this principle. With stories like Snow White or Tangled, the issues the main characters deal with are resolved by the end. Of course, there are simple ways to rekindle the story, but it frequently takes the introduction of brand new antagonists.

In a story like Harry Potter, on the other hand, the threat the main character has to overcome remains throughout the entire plot, but it’s possible that new opponents will come and go along the way.

The universe of the story needs to allow for the emergence of new rivals and new threats.

An open ended universe is best suits an MMO adaptation. That way, players can associate the characters they grew fond of in the books and movies, with the avatars they play in the virtual worlds.

When MMOs copy the movies

Among the franchises turned into MMOs, some extremely successful blockbusters stand out.

It’s impossible to undertake a serious analysis without talking about titles like Star Wars, The Matrix, or Star Trek. Even if these are widely loved movies, the MMOs based on them received a very lukewarm reception.

The Matrix Online

The Matrix Online

The Matrix Online (MxO) was developed by Monolith and released in 2005 by Warner Bros Interactive Entertainment.

The ambition of this game was extraordinary. No expense was spared in an effort to try and make it a success. Not only was the universe extremely popular, but a weighty infrastructure addressed players’ needs and resolved all the problems encountered.

A sandbox model was chosen, where players could act freely with a team dedicated to bringing main characters like Morpheus to life. Players could interact directly with this team or receive clues or warnings to progress.

Even with these assets and one of the most interesting plots in the history of modern MMOs, MxO shut down only four years after its release.

MxO’s problem was, partly, its own nature.

The game immersed players in events that took place immediately following the conclusion of the last movie. To give players something to work with, they had to constantly create new plots - obviously a colossal task.

Rather than allowing players to reach certain stages one after the other (to beat a boss, finish a dungeon, etc.), MxO’s “quests” were made up of unique events where all players were welcome to participate.

Even if this concept is interesting, maintaining it proved an almost impossible task for the creative team, which had to continuously produce content without ever losing sight of the codes and paradigms of the Matrix universe. This being said, during its short lifespan, the game did make quite an impression. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that some people are still trying to revive it.

Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online

The game was released in 2010 in order to capitalize on people’s growing interest in the franchise. Developed and published by Cryptic Studios, Star Trek Online was intended to be an all encompassing immersion into the infinite universe of Star Trek. In hindsight, we can see that the developers’ ambitions were set too high.

The game offers a set of repetitive missions. It’s not really possible to explore the planets players can land on. And neither the sequences in space nor the TPS offer any real immersion.

Yet, beyond those handicaps, the graphics of the game are certainly among the most beautiful ever created.

Once again, the connection between the game and the franchise aroused the interest of players. In 2013, the project could count on 2 million active users, with a peak of 4,000 players active at the same time. But once players realized there was a big difference between the idea they had of the game and the content actually being offered, the traffic dropped.

Today, the number of players active in STO peaks at around 1,900.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic

When you talk about the a Star Wars MMO, you immediately thinks of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR). Some others exist, though they aren’t as popular, like Star Wars Galaxies and Clone Wars Adventures.

Unlike The Matrix Online, which included well-known characters from the franchise, The Old Republic chose an approach similar to that of Star Trek Online. The difference is in the substance of the universes themselves.

Even though the Star Trek universe is rich and dynamic, choosing a sandbox style for the game was detrimental to the immersion. On the contrary, Star Wars offers an experience based on a theme park.

Everybody agrees that SWTOR’s story is really immersive and inviting. But none of the movie characters are really there. Those purists who read the books and the comics will recognize some names and events that took place 4,000 years before the movies.

Here, we reach the heart of the problem. When one decides to base an MMO on a pre-existing franchise, you’re risking upsetting an audience with sky-high expectations. An audience who already has some idea of what events should happen and what the gameplay should look like. It goes without saying that it’s impossible to satisfy everyone and, as a result, the developers are clearly risking alienating their audience right from the start.

The solution here is for your game to be grounded as closely as possible in the universe of the movie / book / manga without trying to dictate the future of the characters or the places and events the fans are already attached to.

The same goes for MMOs inspired by games that already exist. When you have some continuity in development, e.g. The Elder Scrolls and The Elder Scrolls Online, players are inclined to accept changes and explore what’s new.

But, even in these scenarios, some bad implementation can lead to disastrous results. A perfect example of this would be Final Fantasy XIV of Square Enix.

FFXIV has become a textbook case of a player’s commitment in the massively multiplayer online games’ industry. After the flop of the first version, Square Enix did some soul-searching. The publisher assessed the game’s performance by comparing the goals set with the results achieved.

The Japanese publisher quickly identified the heart of the problem, enabling them to set more realistic priorities. When the first FFXIV was putting more emphasis on graphic effects than on the game mechanics, the new FFXIV: A Realm Reborn put the player front and center.

This new online version of Final Fantasy was met with great success. Agreeing to break the codes of the online franchise and refining the gameplay of the MMO, Square Enix managed to get back on its feet and recover all the work and the resources invested in the former version.

The Limitations of an IP-based MMO

Developing an MMO based on an existing franchise is a 100% efficient method for attracting a committed audience.

However, it’s not a shortcut and does not guarantee success for any MMO game. And for good reason since the creative team will have to work to try and meet the irrational expectations of the fans - not an easy task!

Try and meet the expectations of the fans

If, by chance, the developers decided to choose a sandbox world, they’ll need to be sure that the narrative and the franchise universe are able to be easily adapted.

As we’ve seen before, no franchise can is safe from this rule. Not books, comics, or mangas, and movies and established video games even less so. Deciding to go with such an approach represents an inherent risk that publishers and developers will have to thoroughly study.

Another problem for any development studio interested in an existing franchise is the question of the intellectual rights. The development studio or publisher has absolute freedom over their game, but when the game in question is an adaptation, the rights won’t necessarily go to the developers, but possibly to the author or the publisher of the franchise. That’s why lots of movies or mangas that could make excellent MMOs, even as sandbox, are not likely to emerge anytime soon.

But that doesn’t mean this trend has to be forgotten. Quite the opposite! The appeal of an MMO based on a franchise is that of offering players a multifaceted immersion that goes beyond their original experience.

But without a willingness to sacrifice resources, and develop a game world that will build on the world of the existing franchise, these projects are better off not being realized.