Monday, May 24, 2010

What makes a good IP for an MMO?

Over the weekend, I finished up Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy. If you weren’t aware, Brandon is the author who got the nod to complete the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. 

I’m a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy reader and after hearing that Brandon was the planned author for the WoT finale, I read his first novel Elantris to get a taste of how talented he was as a writer.

I liked his stand-alone book but was still pretty skeptical about him finishing arguably the best and most storied fantasy series of all time. Unfounded fears as it turned out his Wheel of Time novel was one of the best in the series.

All this got me to thinking that as bloggers, we sometimes talk or rate the IP of our MMOs. In this context, we aren't talking so much about the engine or game itself but the actual "Lore" that makes up the virtual world we inhabit as players. This Lore is important because it tells us the story of the world and our part within it.

From one perspective, it would seem like Books and Movies would be an excellent source for Lore in an MMO. After all, here is a story and world that is already developed.

They also have an existing fan base that makes for a great core audience. This approach has proven very profitable in the Movie industry. Comics like Spiderman, Batman, Superman, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk and even Garfield (and soon Marmaduke) are all existing stories with existing fans whose license translates great into Movies. Heck, we are even seeing Video Games like Resident Evil and Prince of Persia turned into Movies.

But there is a problem when applying this approach to MMOs. Balance.

Different – But Equal
The issue as I see it when applying the Lore of a given game to an MMO is that you inevitable need to break or deviate from the Lore in order to make it “work” in the MMO. A game like Warcraft, whose Lore didn’t exist outside of a game, doesn’t have this same problem of breaking Lore cannon in order to make a game more fun or balanced.

The best example of this in action is Star Wars. Following the Lore, the most powerful unit in any Star Wars MMO would need to be the Jedi. Han Solo, super-stud Bounty Hunter that he is, could never kick Luke Skywalker’s ass. Only other characters who also possess Jedi powers are able to face and defeat each other.

In a book, movie or solo video-game – that’s not a problem.

In an MMO, where people may want to choose a class other than a Jedi, it’s a problem.

That’s because it’s inherent to the story that these groups are more powerful than everyone else. Which really doesn’t fit with an MMO where the goal is to provide players options that are different but still equal.

This isn’t true with all the cannon Lore in all books, of course. But it is a common issue. In many ways, it’s far easier to just borrow the parts you like and create your own Lore.

Certainly Lore built for game systems is just going to be naturally much better designed and easier to implement. Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms and Warhammer are all just going to be more inherently aligned with the RPG model. No need to fit a square peg into a circular hole.

The OP is OP (translation: The One Power is Overpowered)
My biggest concerns regarding the upcoming Wheel of Time MMO is that by necessity of game design, it’s going to have to break the cannon of WoT Lore.

In WOT, being able to wield the One Power (Aes Sedai, Ashaman, etc) is a trump card that beats anyone who has a sword. There are very few ways for someone without the OP to defeat them.

A sword wielder just gets wrapped up in Air weaves. Arrows? Air weave again.

I think of myself as a fairly creative guy and I can’t think of a single way to balance the One Power against non-wielders without seriously breaking or deviating from the cannon.

In fact, there are very few non-wielders who have could confront and win against an OP user. And those that exist are rare because they are central unique individuals to the storyline.

I guess everyone could be someone who wields the OP but that seems a little restrictive for a classic fantasy MMO (and a bit Darkfall-esque where everyone is the same).

Bigger than Life characters
One thing I really appreciate about Blizzard’s Lore in Warcraft is that they have some “bigger than life” NPC characters. Say what you will about everyone being a Hero in WoW, but the real Heroes from a Lore perspective aren’t player based at all. Thrall, Arthas, Illidan, Gul’Dan, Medivh, Jaina, Grom Hellscream.

Important People.

That’s one thing I will say in favor of the Wheel of Time Lore. There certainly would be no shortage of high profile NPCs on which to base events, raids, quests and so forth. There are lots and lots of very prominent and interesting characters that would be very useful as NPC bosses and heads of state.

Mistborn Trilogy
Ironically, despite my earlier observation that Books can make for lousy IP in an MMO, I do think that the Mistborn series has some potential.

I don’t want to provide any spoilers, but one of the things that makes Mistborn interesting is that there are lots of different types of talents that have a lot of power in their specific areas.

They also come along with slang names which would work great as Classes. For example, a “Thug” is someone who can burn a metal that makes them physically powerful. A “Coinshot” is someone who can propel metal away from their body. A “Lurcher” is someone who can attract metal towards them.

Done right, you could easily have eight distinct classes with various abilities. And at least one ( a “Hazekiller”) which has no abilities.

Abilities also improve with usage and have a “resource” that fuels/limits the user.

I don’t know if I would go so far as to allow player controlled Mistborn. But that’s a possibility – particularly at end-game.


Stabs said...

"I think of myself as a fairly creative guy and I can’t think of a single way to balance the One Power against non-wielders without seriously breaking or deviating from the cannon."

1. Being Taveren. That always beats the One Power.

If all player characters are Taveren then you can justify swordsmen Taveren (like Matt) being balanced against caster Taveren even though mobs with the One Power are very dangerous mobs.

2. Permadeath.

Casters are more powerful but more likely to die. The life expectancy of Ashamen is pretty low. There are no instant heal spells in the game and casters always attract aggro over non-casters.

In a permadeath system it's a genuine decision whether to go for high risk high power or low risk low power. It requires permadeath to make this work though, everyone would go for high power if the only cost was a few extra corpse runs.

3. Screw cannon, make WoW. This is I'm afraid almost certainly the choice they'll take.

sid67 said...

1.Being Taveren. That always beats the One Power.

Agreed. And in all of the books there are only (3) characters who a Taveren. Characters who need to stay separate or their combined Taveren-ness creates Bubbles of Evil.

A world full of Taveren just isn't practical or fit with the cannon.

The life expectancy of Ashamen is pretty low.

Most (all) of the OP channelers have some limitation. I just don't think it's all that strong.

Aes Sedai have the Three Rules. Damane have the Adame. Ashaman will go crazy. Wise Ones are the masters of dreams but lack refined knowledge of the OP. Windmistresses are masters of the large weaves but also lack refined knowledge of the OP. Wisdoms have no training. The Kin have a stockpile of terangreal but never completed Aes Sedai training.

So yes, in theory, you could build some limitations into all of these groups. But again, that's only practical when it's channeler versus channeler.

Even a lowly Kin or Wise One could wrap up a sword wielder in weaves to defeat him.

3. Screw cannon, make WoW. This is I'm afraid almost certainly the choice they'll take.

That's exactly what they will do.

Dagda said...

My take on the balance bit draws on my experiences with tabletop rpg design, which can face many of the same questions.

In the end, the answer's pretty simple. If characters of type A are unquestionably more powerful than characters of types B, C, and D in a given context, then you can expand the context of the game to include aspects of the game/world where character type A is at a disadvantage. Some simple examples for Star Wars could include Leadership, Espionage, and Trading. Instead of Jedi (who dominate in combat while being moderately capable in other areas through alternative applications of their core abilities), characters can play master infiltrators (who can uncover valuable secrets, sabotage technology and evade detection), skilled commanders (whose NPC followers stand ready to assist), and so on. Things get a little trickier in MMOs, because you want to allow each player access to all kinds of gameplay (whereas tabletop RPG players usually welcome a setup that limits their focus to one or two sections of the rules), but it's far from an insurmountable challenge.

tim said...

The Codex Alera is a series that would also make a good MMO. Basically everybody can wield the universe's form of magic. In fact, the hero of the book series is the only human being who can't.

jm said...

That's the best question I've read in a while. The problem with the Circle of Time is that it is more of a homage than a groundbreaking concept. The first things you'll hear is how it's "stealing" from other games' lore.

But it doesn't matter; because the game should be a good mix. The structure of the series (and I'll admit I'm only on the fourth book) is the most well-made of any multiple series I've read (Gave up on Chung Kuo on Boox 7).

But as long as the game is "loosely" based on the book, it should be do-able. Remember, for every 10 people who insist on watching the movie after reading the book, you'll find one who REFUSES to watch the movie as it will ruin the book memory. More and more you're finding that happening with games,too. Whether or not that's a good thing I don't know.

heartlessgamer said...

Not sure how much you've followed Brandon Sanderson, but he believes in creating very technical magic systems and "thinking it out long term". Therefore his books naturally feel like they'd fit into a game as the systems involved are being balanced in his head and are more practical than a lot of other fantasy magic systems.

Elantris for example had a really simple concept for magic that would make complete sense in an MMO for the Wii (read the book to figure it out) :P