Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What's in an IP?

I've been mulling over the question on whether I not I would be playing, or even interested in, LoTR Online if it wasn't Lord of the Rings. It's an interesting question and brings a larger question to mind: Does the IP have any effect on the success of an MMO? If I answer this question, I'm sure I can figure out whether the IP of Lord of the Rings has anything to do with me being interested in this game. Right?

Well, let's take a look at the current "big" IP MMO offerings that we have now:
  • Star War Galaxies
  • Matrix Online
  • Dungeons and Dragons Online
You might argue that WoW and EQ2 should be added to the list as well just due to how deep their lore is...but those two have only touched gaming and have not branched out to other media forms such as movies.

Now realistically, none of those titles are really doing that well. Correction, none of those titles are doing as well as they should be, given the weight behind the IP. Star Wars Galaxies has been plagued with controversy since the NGE "issue". Matrix Online is dying a slow death with a low subscriber base and lack of new content. DDO, although filled with new approaches, stumbled at the starting block with not enough content, low level cap and a non persistent world. So far, not a very good track record for MMOs with big IPs behind them. They seem to be suffering from the same curse that Star Trek has with single player PC games (...ironically, Star Trek is also getting an MMO...uh-ohhhhh).

Now, let's take the IPs away from these guys and pretend that they are just MMOs with a given set of features and gameplay mechanics. Let's also look at the first three months of subscriber numbers and use that as a popularity or "buzz" measuring stick. This will be rough, but bear with me.
  • Matrix Online: first 3 months: 50, 000 subs
  • SWG: first 3 months: 275,000 subs
  • DDO: first 3 months: 100,000 subs
Of course, these are estimates by looking at the MMO charts at MMOChart.com. Now, if I've read the graph right, SWG is at the top of the "buzz" meter and took off pretty quickly when it was launched in 2003. That makes sense really, since it's arguably the most well known sci-fi IP in existence. DDO is in second place and again, not surprisingly. D&D is a niche market and really wouldn't have the same type of broad base appeal of a Star Wars title. I would argue that a lot more non gamers would pick up a Star Wars MMO than say a D&D MMO. Not sure if thats what these numbers point to, but it would play a factor. I'm not surprised that MxO took third place because I honestly don't think it's a strong enough IP for an MMO. I personally think that people have a hard time getting into playing a Neo like character. The whole Matrix world is a bit harder to relate to from an RP perspective IMHO. I don't know, maybe if Matrix had 25-ish years in the public conscience it would be a better MMO fit, but I just can't see it for some reason.

So, from the numbers I would say that the IP did carry the title during its first three months of release...but then what happens? Well, for MxO and SWG, gameplay issues started to trump the IP. The honeymoon for each of these guys was anywhere between 6-12 months. So the lesson here is that no matter what your IP is, if there isn't a game behind it, you're setting yourself up for failure. We just haven't seen this in MMOs by the way. Single player PC, XBox and PS2 titles are filled with strong IP games that just ended bombing due to poor game design.

Now, I guess for LoTR we can expect the same kind of thing when it hits the market. For the first three months we're going to see the IP carry the game to somewhere in the 200, 000 subscriber base area (my guess by the way). Six to twelve months from then, we'll start to see what people really feel about the game, myself included. At that point though, this is where my expansion theory either sinks or swims. When the honeymoon is over, LoTR has got to release an expansion that sets the tone for this game. It can't afford to release a BC like expansion where it's more of the same...it's got to be something that will grab hold of the players like a vice grip. It's got to be something that will get non-LoTR players involved as well. If it fails to do this, I see it heading the way SWG is right now.

Now, am I playing LoTR because it's Lord of the Rings? Yes. Am I only playing it for the IP? No. Same could be said for WoW...yes I played it because it's a Blizzard game, but it wasn't the only reason I played it. If you stripped Blizzard and Warcraft from WoW, I would have still played it for the many reasons I've already expressed on this site. Quality, gameplay, atmosphere are all factors in the game for me. Seeing Frodo and Strider are really kewl but they're really the nice shiny bow and wrapping paper over a nice box filled with candy....mmmmm, candy.

So, it looks like IP does play an important part in a game's popularity...but a game has to do more in 2007 than "drop a name" in order to be successful. We'll have to revisit LoTR next year and see how the manage what can be described as an IP Curse.

D out.

3 comments:

-Wearfannypacks- said...

I can think of a few reasons why some of the big IPs suffer... it's really an issue.

1. Expectations - If you're going to be bold enough to make a game that has a huge following, you better do it right. SWG was one of those games that had a lot going for it, and captured the Star Wars feel, but they hurt the game by not really developing the gameplay properly and not taking cues from the fans or industry.

2. Most of the IPs weren't constructed to be games - Up until this point, these big IPs did well as other media forms. Other games like EQ2 and WoW were games from the start... their lore, systems, and ideas were shaped around gaming. Developers didn't have to "make things work" so much.

3. IPs suffer from being too good to be games - What we can feel in a movie and what we can feel in a game is only beginning to match. Before developers had budgets for epic soundtracks, lots of artists, and famous writers... they had to make do. Some of these IPs are from that era. When you watch the Matrix and marvel at its amazing nature, then have to deal with the mediocrity of a game that can't give you the same experience, it's immediately disappointing.

Luckily we're in a point where game budgets are growing and Hollywood is taking notice. LOTRO will be a stronger offering because the line between these media is getting blurred and games are much more capable.

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