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The Soapbox: Respect the IP (or, why MMOs can't)

Jef Reahard

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

Luke: What a piece of junk!

Han: She'll make point five past lightspeed. She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid. I've made a lot of special modifications myself. But we're a little rushed, so if you'll just get on board, we'll get out of here.

Luke: Lawlz. You can't pilot that thing. It's a YT-1300 and you're a Rebel-aligned Smuggler!

Han: %&*$ ...

Ah yes, continuity. It might as well be a four-letter word, at least when it comes to MMORPGs based on existing intellectual properties. Sure, producers pay a lot of lip service to faithfully recreating beloved works in an online space, but the reality inevitably ends up looking like the love child of Frankenstein's monster and a duck-billed platypus.

Why then do we keep seeing MMOs riffing on Star Wars, Star Trek, Tolkien, and even Battlestar Galactica? Easy money, of course. A better question, and one I hope to answer at the conclusion of today's Soapbox, is why "MMORPG" automatically equals butchered continuity. In a nutshell, why is it so hard to respect the IP?

Homesick elfFirst off, no I won't be spending the entire column ranting about Star Wars Galaxies. For one, that would be too easy, as SOE's sci-fi stinker is the poster child for the worst IP-to-game translation in, well, the history of gaming. For another, it's seven years old now, and even though I'd get a chuckle out of annoying the anti-sandbox crowd with another retrospective, there are newer games that also deserve to be taken to task for their flagrant (and funny) disregard of the properties on which they're supposedly based.
Lord of the Rings Online

Yeah, for some reason that I've yet to figure out, many people consider this game a good interpretation of Tolkien's landmark novels (either that, or they're so busy grinding away on the progression treadmill that they don't care). Really though, Turbine's title is an awful representation of Middle-earth near the close of the Third Age.

Geographically, the devs did rather well. The world is necessarily scaled down, but everything generally jibes with the professor's painstakingly detailed maps, and those areas that weren't described specifically in Tolkien's writings were fleshed out by Turbine scribes in ways that seem pretty plausible (I'm thinking of Archet here, and really any of the lands surrounding the Shire that were hinted at but never detailed).

The immersion party ends rather jarringly, though, when you throw a bunch of players onto the map. Many of them will roll up Rune-keepers, Lore-masters, and Hobbit tanks in heavy armor that are laughably incompatible with anything Tolkien wrote about (to say nothing of the thousands of Elves gallivanting about Moria, the Shire, etc.). Turbine attempts to explain away the fireballs, lightning bolts, and other MMORPG staples by avoiding any overt mention of the word magic. Really though, a fireball is a fireball, and gaudy spell effects are gaudy spell effects, and neither of them belongs anywhere near something that says "Lord of the Rings" in the title.

Gameplay cliches won out over authenticity, though, as you can see by this quote from former producer Jeffrey Steefel. "We're slowly trying new things; the addition of the Rune-keeper in Moria, a straightforward magic-using class, is a pretty big step in that respect. It's not something that a pure Tolkien lore person would accept, it just couldn't exist in Middle-earth. On the other hand, this is an RPG, it must exist," he told Eurogamer prior to the title's first expansion release in 2008.

Really? It must exist? Because it's an RPG? So I guess LotRO wasn't an RPG for the first year and a half that it existed sans Rune-keepers?

Semantics and silly quotes aside, why was this decision made? Well, probably for the same reason that Turbine opted to do away with the original vision of Middle-earth Online and remold LotRO into a World of Warcraft-style themepark: risk aversion. I can't say that I really blame the company; from a financial standpoint it was clearly the sanest choice. From a creative standpoint, though, it leaves a bucket-load of lot to be desired.
Obi-wan's bad adviceStar Wars Galaxies

Before anyone thinks that I'm picking on poor, defenseless devs, allow me to point out that they aren't solely to blame for the trampling of various IPs in MMOland. Players, in general, are quite unimaginative and bent on min-maxing, and nowhere was this more evident than early SWG. Despite a huge game world that featured sandbox play and ample opportunities to make your own content and do something different, the majority of players wanted one thing out of the game and one thing only: a Jedi character.

Most of them didn't even know what to do with it when they got it, as the game lacked meaningful PvP, raiding, or traditional high-level PvE content of any kind prior to the infamous NGE. That didn't matter though. Joe Blow simply had to have his godmode character and his lightsaber of grind-survival +2. Even when the devs attempted to make the skill set inaccessible by hiding it behind the masochistic hologrind (and then the Village grind), people still stubbornly insisted on reducing the game down to the The Force Unleashed Online.

Aside from the player-driven Jedi problem, there was the exasperatingly comical way that SOE (and, I guess, LucasArts) simply didn't care to make the game resemble the Star Wars time period in which it was based. These weren't game-breaking balance issues that required a lot of manpower either, but rather smallish details that -- taken collectively -- amounted to the silliest alternate-universe version of an IP that the world has ever seen. To this day, I scratch my head as to why the dev team seemed to lack even one person who was enough of a Star Wars fan to stand up and say, "Hey guys, maybe we shouldn't have thousands of kung-fu fighters blocking blaster bolts with their fists, Wookiee Imperial Jedi dueling in front of the Theed Starport, or people taking their giant pet rancors out for leisurely walks around downtown Mos Eisley."
Kalanthes liesAge of Conan

I'd be remiss to leave out Age of Conan here, both because it's my primary MMO and because it's based on one of the oldest IPs in gaming (Robert E. Howard's original Conan story pre-dates the publication of Tolkien's The Hobbit by nearly half a decade, for example). To be perfectly honest, I don't know a damn thing about Conan lore. I've watched the Schwarzenegger films (regrettable) and thumbed through some of the original Howard stories collected in a 2003 paperback. Other than that, I'm blissfully unaware of the liberties that Funcom has no doubt taken with the source material, and that's probably one reason I enjoy the game so much.

Approaching an online world devoid of pre-conceived notions does wonders for one's level of immersion, though I will say that the game's tired take on the hero storyline is annoying, even to the lore-ignorant. Yes, yes, I'm "The One," along with the 1500 other people who happened to roll a toon on this server, so don't look too closely at those "unique" marks of Acheron on their chests. AoC attempts to bolt a single-player RPG storyline onto a multiplayer game, and frankly, it only works if you're really good at ignoring the second M in MMORPG. It doesn't help matters when everyone is on a first name basis with not only King Conan, but also Kalanthes, Valeria, and various other Howard celebrities who likely wouldn't give a foul-smelling Tortage newb the time of day.

All that said, if there are any Howard fans in the audience, I'd love to get your general take on how Funcom has handled the license. Just don't get too specific, as I'd like to continue enjoying the game!
The MMO Prime DirectiveStar Trek Online

Our own Ryan Greene tackled the continuity issue in STO a couple months back, ultimately concluding that Cryptic's title, while deeply flawed in some respects, doesn't completely betray the spirit of Star Trek. For my purposes, I've never been much of a Trekker (and am thus inclined to take Ryan's word for it), but it is hard to ignore the level of sustained outrage expressed by longtime franchise fans when it comes to the game's lack of exploration options, combat-heavy gameplay, and MMO-driven focus on materialism and acquisition. This last bit is directly at odds with the utopian ideals of the Federation, by the way.

The good news is that the game appears sustainable despite the outcry that began at launch. Whether the game retains its current subscription model or goes F2P/freemium, Cryptic has a lot of time to add some more Star Trek into the proceedings and perhaps throw a few bones to the die-hards who didn't want to go where every MMO has gone before.

"Lore Nazis" or fans with common sense?

Anyhow, I bet some of you are warming up the flame cannons right now, preparing your "lolzors, who cares about continuity you silly Lore Nazi" comments. I'm also anticipating a few variations on "fun is what matters!" I have one question though (or actually, several iterations of the same question).

Why is deliberately groin-kicking the established continuity "fun?" Whom is that fun for? Doesn't it stand to reason that these IPs are/were popular because of the various canonical idiosyncrasies that made them unique in the first place? Isn't that part of the fun (if not all of it)? If MMO development teams are going to routinely ignore things that make an IP an IP, why use them at all (aside from the obvious ease of securing an audience)? Is making yet another DIKU-retread more fun than creating a new type of game using a well-established backdrop?

Assuming the majority of gamers doesn't care about canon one way or the other and simply wants to go in and blow stuff up, those gamers won't care if the game world is accurately presented, right? So long as they get their fix of violence and progression, everything else is theoretically window dressing, yes?

Similarly, if a certain subset of gamers does care about the canon, those gamers will care if it's inaccurately presented, right? So if one group doesn't care either way, and one group cares a lot (and the costs for both avenues are equal), logic would dictate that you appease the group that cares, and the group that doesn't care will enjoy the game regardless. Everybody wins. This doesn't seem like rocket science to me, but to date, no dev team or publishing house has managed to figure out a way to make it work.

In conclusion

So why is that? Why have all these games (and many others I couldn't include) consistently screwed over the continuity on which they were supposedly based? Because, for all their expense and lengthy development times, MMORPGs are extremely limited and simplistic beasts. Yes, they require highly refined programming, database, and project management skills, but all of this expertise goes toward making a very closed, very specific, and very unimaginative box (in most cases). Here is what the recipe on the MMO box says:

Money stackEveryone must be the same or be running along at different points on the treadmill towards the same goal (levels/gear/whatever). Everything must be repetitive and therefore easily maintained in a relatively hands-off capacity. And of course the most crucial design directive is that everything must take a very long time.

So what's an IP-focused MMO fan to do? Well, in the near future there's a bit of hope in the form of The Old Republic. BioWare has already proven itself smarter than both SOE and LucasArts by setting its Star Wars opus in a portion of the timeline that allows a lot of wiggle room (and that its writers helped to flesh out way back in 2003). It also doesn't hurt matters that TOR is far removed from the stuff George Lucas a) cares about and b) likes to retcon. Similarly, DC Comics lore fans have reason to be optimistic about DC Universe Online . Though the game looks to be 99.9% combat-focused, the devs have taken pains to create a plausible backstory and reasons for the explosion of player-controlled superheroes soon to join the fight against Brainiac.

In closing, all this is not to say that you won't have occasional spurts of fun in hacktastic titles like LotRO and SWG, provided you can appreciate AAA MMOs for what they are and get over the fact that they've basically ceased to be virtual worlds. As an example, I still log into my LotRO lifetime accounts on occasion, just to gawk at the scenery, play music, and think wistfully about what might have been. My desire to see Middle-earth brought to digital life died a long time ago, though, and I'm under no illusions that most of the IP-based games coming out in the near future will be markedly different.

That's a story for another Soapbox though, and until then, I bid you blue skies.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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