The Soapbox: Respecting the IP and why developers shouldn't

Eliot Lefebvre
E. Lefebvre|02.22.11

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The Soapbox: Respecting the IP and why developers shouldn't
Here's how it is: 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.

If you've never heard of Firefly, you're either afraid of things that are awesome or you've had an unfortunate gap in your viewing history for the past nine years or so. If you have heard of it, however, you're more than aware that simply referencing the show is enough to send most gamers and fanboys into paroxysms of quotations and general gushing. To say that the universe remains well-loved is an understatement.

And if you play MMOs, Firefly seems like a setting that's too perfect to be true. Who knows how many moons are out there in the black, how many crews are left to explore the 'verse and make a fortune? The game never went beyond an announcement, and it still topped our list of games that have gone MIA, after all. And the best part is all of that open nature plays right into the structure of an MMO, with no need to change the wonderful IP set forth in the slightest.

Super-respectful handling

Well, OK, that's not entirely true -- after all, the game is going to have to go beyond the timeline of the series, but that's not so hard to extrapolate. There are still plenty of threats out there to face, after all, and no one is seriously expecting the game to just force everyone to play the crew of Serenity over and over again. There's still plenty of cargo to run, some of it legal, and... well, there are always Reavers and Alliance troops out there as an omnipresent threat, right?

Although... the Reavers are presented as something you can't really fight on a pretty consistent basis, and the series features... well... one Alliance soldier getting shot, total. So it looks like those are out, too. I guess you run your cargo from planet to planet and occasionally shoot at some pirates once they board the ship, or get yourself impounded by the Alliance every so often.

Maybe we should take this back a step or two.

Respectful handling

Let's forget that last part, right? So you fight some Reavers and Alliance troops. Sure, it didn't happen as often in the series, but the subtext was there; it's not that big of a leap. And you need something to keep the game interesting, after all.

Of course, that's going to be a bit of a problem. The only combat classes that would seem to exist would be People Who Shoot Things and Crazy Psychic Witch (Possibly in Congress). The former, I'll note, shows up for about five minutes at the end of the movie. Character differentiation is going to be an issue, especially when you're not going to have a Witty Dialogue button on your action bar. Since you're likely to be the captain of your ship to start with, you're going to be a little hard-up to fit characters like Kaylee and Book into player archetypes.

A skill-based system would probably be ideal, but... you're still going to have to give players a reason not to load up on a dozen guns named Vera at all times. (No, naming some of them Saffron is not progress.) A class-based system has its own problems, too, but we're going to need to spread a bit beyond the things on-screen to keep the game interesting.

Pretty respectful handling

OK, the game is a skill-based setup with a number of different modifiers for different guns. Let's just assume that each different choice of weapon specialty will provide enough player differentiation and move on. Obviously, this is going to create a scenario where every character is built to shoot things rather than healing or tanking or whatever, but let's just acknowledge the problem and move on, yes?

We're still not out of the woods of stretching the IP. After all, is everyone going to be running around on the same sort of transport? Making new ones isn't necessarily hard, but it means having to incorporate the in-universe explanation that it's an enormous piece of junk. It would feel a little odd for such an iconic ship to be considered a piece of starter equipment. Of course, locking in to a particular ship would fix that... with the problem that players would grouse about no ship progression despite character progress.

Also, are you going to be shooting in space? We see actual space combat in the movie only, and even then not much of it. There's certainly an implication that it exists -- there are an awful lot of ships that are armed, after all -- but since the Firefly-class transport we saw the whole series through didn't have a single gun on her, it's just an issue that never came up. And space combat is a tricky thing to get right, since you have a lot of subtle interactions to create just the right "feel" in a pre-existing universe. (Star Trek Online's space combat, for instance, feels nothing like the swarms of fighters and swooping assaults in the Star Wars universe.)

Yes, we can take another step down with another permutation off the core IP. But each step is forcing you away from the IP, away from the source that made the game interesting. And the alternative is to make a game that is much, much less interesting.

Design goals and player roles

When we talk about IPs, we're generally referring to the worlds established by comics or movies or books, worlds that exist primarily as a narrative vehicle. That's all well and good, but your goal in a narrative vehicle is to tell an interesting story. It's not meant to provide a framework for a game, where the world is meant to give players something interesting to do.

At first glance, the two are pretty commensurate. If the protagonists of a book had something interesting to do, the players will have something interesting to do as well. But narratives and games can rely on very different things to make events interesting; narratives have dialogue and interpersonal conflicts to generate interest rather than relying on an interesting ability rotation. Those are both elements that don't translate well to actual gameplay. (They translate wonderfully to roleplaying, but give players an empty room to roleplay within and they'll give you a look of boredom and potentially an obscene hand gesture.)

For better or worse, most games are driven by combat. We've developed computers that can't provide stimulating conversation but can do a great job of simulating an explosion, and so the part of the game we can play is the second part. In most narratives, not a whole lot of time is spent on people trading blows, much less with ever-increasing levels of magical spells.

This isn't to say that games can't provide a stirring and emotionally resonant narrative -- they most certainly can, and several have. It just means that they still have to give players interesting things to do outside of watching a movie or players are going to lose interest. Even Heavy Rain, a game with nothing but narrative, took pains to be more than just a movie for watching.

Playing Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek Online isn't feasible from a design perspective -- his strongest abilities are quick thinking and a knack for diplomacy, neither of which makes for good keybinds. Darmok might be one of the best episodes of the entire franchise, but can you imagine actually playing it as a mission in pretty much any game? In games with social framework systems such as Vanguard, would succeeding at a difficult minigame convey the pathos of the episode, the sense of a desperate bid to communicate no matter what the cost?

What makes for gripping television doesn't necessarily make for good gameplay. And in order to give players a world that's entertaining to play in, certain aspects have to be highlighted and others trimmed or eliminated. Maintaining the feel of the world is important, but maintaining perfect devotion to the IP is something that's never been possible for any game -- not just MMOs.

"Respect" doesn't mean "copying"

I've used STO as an example a couple of times because it's a game that's gotten a particular amount of flak for the liberties that it's taken with the existing Trek mythology, despite the fact that it preserves the core of the series. Yes, there is a lot more shooting than in an average episode, and yes, there's a lot more violence -- but at the end of the day, the Federation still wants to make peace, and it sends out ships into space because it's there and it's worth exploring. As Graham Kennedy summed up wonderfully on the DITL, Star Trek's core is the idea that exploration and discovery are good things by themselves, that space is a challenging place to go and that's the great part.

And that's the important part. Lord of the Rings Online takes huge liberties with the details of Tolkien's world, with the fine details of how much magic exists and what else was going on while the Fellowship journeyed, but the world still feels like a baroque environment with ancient forces and grand tradition. You can take umbrage with the number of superhumans and the details of gameplay in DC Universe Online, but there's still the sense of heroes and villains doing battles over ideas, with superhuman characters being almost godlike in power over regular citizens.

That does mean that certain elements of the IP are going to wind up being sidelined, but that's not a bad thing. A good world for adventuring is organic, with more options than a slavish recreation of the source material. It broadens and improves the world, giving players a chance to look between the cracks and beyond where the story went. It catches that same feel and lets us write our own stories in the universe.

And if we ever do get a Firefly game, that's what I'm looking forward to. If I just wanted to re-live the adventures of Captain Reynolds, I already have a DVD player.

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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