Licensed IP MMOs Aren’t A Bad Thing

Licensed MMOs
I saw a player proclaiming in Guild Wars 2 the other day that he or she would never play a game based on an unoriginal intellectual property. Their reasoning was the usual; since the creators do not “own” the story, they are limited in what they can do with the lore. It also opens the developers up to all sorts of criticism for “breaking lore” (don’t bring up the Rune-Keeper in LotRO global chat; it’s still a huge sore spot in the community over seven years later). As someone who just got back into Lord of the Rings Online for the umpteenth time, I actually disagree with this rather strongly. While ultimately gameplay is what makes a game good or bad, I think a licensed IP can actually be a really good thing for a game.

The License Sells The Game
Let be honest, MMOs are businesses, businesses need to market their products, and brand recognition is huge. I know it’s hard to imagine, but there are people out there–gamers even–who have never played an MMORPG and know absolutely nothing about Guild Wars, EverQuest, or possibly even (gasp) World of Warcraft. Those people, however, can probably identify several super heroes and have seen at least some of the Star Wars movies. Unless this hypothetical person has a friend who plays, there’s not much of a chance a game like Guild Wars 2 will catch their eye at Walmart, but if they recognize a franchise they like they’re significantly more likely to give it a try.

Many Players Already Know The Lore
I still feel fairly lost as to the lore of Guild Wars 2 after playing it for a couple of years, but as soon as I stepped into Lord of the Rings Online, I already knew the world because I had read the books and seen the movies (yes, in that order). The enjoyment in exploring Tyria is discovering new locations, whereas the enjoyment of exploring Middle-Earth is all of the moments that make you say “Oh! These are the trolls that Bilbo defeated!” or “Hey, this is the spot where Frodo got stabbed by a Nazgul!” or “Man, the Old Forest is a huge pain to find your way around in, just like Tolkien described it!” Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but I tend to prefer the latter a little, mainly because I don’t have to trawl dev posts and wikis to learn the lore. The game may have to fill me in on the current political climate of The Old Republic era or the fallout of the destruction of Romulus, but the game world at large is already familiar to me long before launch day.

Storytelling Limitations Aren’t Necessarily Bad
Licensed IPs are like the storytelling equivalent to Twitter; some people prefer it because of its limitations. And really, it’s not that limiting. There are still plenty of stories to be told in the Marvel universe or the Star Wars universe. If there weren’t, there wouldn’t be an ongoing franchise beyond the game. Furthermore, the vast majority of the individual writers, even in a game with an original IP, have a story pretty much handed to them. They may have the freedom to add a few minor characters or create events that change the world in small ways, but for the most part, by the time the game is a few years old the people who wrote the original story likely doesn’t even work there anymore, and if they do, you can be they don’t write every day-to-day quest added into the game. At that point the writers for a game based on an original IP is basically the same boat as someone who’s writing a story for a game whose IP is owned by a major movie studio. Yes, there may be more red tape and approval process for the licensed game, but either way they don’t have total freedom/

All of that said, I agree that there are downsides to licensed IPs. The biggest and most obvious downfall is the license itself. If Lord of the Rings Online was an original game it could go on indefinitely, maybe shifting into maintenance mode at some point, but still there for the loyalists to hang out in. I don’t mean to bring this up every time I post about LotRO, but its Tolkien license comes up for renewal next year, and I think there’s a real question as to whether or not all parties involved will feel like it’s worth their time and money to renew it. The other downside is that, for every player the IP attracts, there will be one more that it pushes away, like the player mentioned at the start of this post. I’ve played some pretty awful movie tie in shovelware games in my day, and I can see why players would associate those games with games like LotRO, SWTOR, or DCUO.

Three Features Every MMO Should Have: Star Trek Online

This is a part of my Three Features Every MMO Should Have series.

Unique space combat
STO Space CombatI know, I know, every game can’t have space combat. What I mean here is that, in a genre where the best way to say what’s unique about a given MMO is to describe how its combat differs slightly from WoW, STO has come up with a completely different (if sometimes a little frustrating) combat system, that is, ship-to-ship space combat. It doesn’t mean you have to throw out traditional MMO combat, but it would be nice to have something different to break things up when combat gets monotonous. The only game I can think of off the top of my head that has done something like this is Star Wars: The Old Republic, albeit a little halfheartedly, with its starfighter combat. I say halfheartedly because SWTOR’s space combat is basically a minigame, but minigames with reasonable rewards are a welcome distraction in my book.

Character creator
Character CreatorI can safely say that Star Trek Online is the only MMO I’ve played where I’ve spent more time in the character creator than in PvE. With enough fiddling on the ridiculous number of face and body sliders, you can make your character look like just about anything you want, especially the design-your-own alien species. I’ve seen some really convincing characters, from various Doctors from Doctor Who to an excellent Na’vi from Avatar to a variety of recreated Star Trek characters, both human and alien. It’s unfortunate that there is a general lack of clothing options for the game. Yes, I get it, Starfleet et. al. are supposed to be military organizations, so realistically there should be one uniform for everyone, the only variance from person to person being maybe a recolor to identify your section, but that wouldn’t go down well in a video game. STO’s sister MMO, the now all-but-dead Champions Online, has a great variety of costume pieces for your superhero (most of the more interesting ones are, of course, locked in the cash shop), but, ironically, I’ve always felt like it could use a little more customization of your actual character. I guess they’re trying to limit your superheroes to human mutants only, but I’d love to play a more exotic-looking hero. Maybe their secret future project will be somewhere in between?

Optional shooter mode
STO ShooterTab target? Action Combat? Why not both? At launch, Star Trek Online’s ground combat was slow, boring, and a bit flaky, especially compared to space combat. Well, it’s still flaky, but when Cryptic overhauled the combat and added shooter mode in 2011 (was it really that long ago? I’m old), it made ground missions a lot more bearable. Since you really only have three weapon skills and a handfull of cooldowns anyway, shooter mode really doesn’t feel like a disadvantage most of the time. The best part is that it’s completely optional, and can be toggled on and off with a single keystroke. There’s even a small damage buff for using shooter mode versus tab targeting, since there’s a chance you can miss targets. I tend to do a lot of combat in shooter mode, then switch to MMO mode when I’m out of combat. It was a little weird when I briefly gave Cryptic’s other MMO, Neverwinter, a try and it was permanently locked in shooter mode. It was kind of a turnoff for me to be honest, but I’m sure there are lots of people who prefer it, and I imagine it makes things easier to develop with one combat mode instead of two.

Side note here: I picked the features I planned on talking about for each game before I even started this series, and, as if they read my mind (or at least my blog notes), Guild Wars 2 has recently announced a system very similar to this one that will be added as part of their Heart of Thorns expansion. I’m excited, because Guild Wars 2 has always seemed like the perfect game for this, since it’s always had something of an action combat flavor to it. Can’t wait to try it out this Friday!

Monthly Gaming Check-In: October

During my blogging hiatus (see previous post), I plan to give at least monthly check-ins about what I’ve been playing lately. Here’s the first, catching you up on what I did in October.

I know this is probably news to you all, but there’s this little-known company called BioWare that makes really good games. What? You knew that already? Well apparently I didn’t. I’ve owned Mass Effect for a while now–I got it and its sequel free for filling out some survey about Origin (summary: Steam is better, don’t bother trying)–but never played it past the opening level. Ever pick up an older game go “holy crap, why didn’t I play this years ago”? That’s what I just did with Mass Effect. I’ve been hearing for years about how it’s the crowning achievement of humanity, but I’ve been told that about a variety of games that I’ve been unimpressed by (Skyrim, I’m looking at you). But a few weeks ago I was bored and looking for something new and different, so I figured I’d give it a shot, and I was blown away. The depth of the story, the quality of the graphics (MoCap!), the voice acting… it all blends together into one incredibly immersive package. Better yet is that they’ve done a masterful job of keeping the gameplay and story feeling fluid, thanks in large part to the conversation wheel. I don’t feel like I’m stopping to watch a cutscene, I feel like I’m there helping make the decisions that determine how the story plays out. And many of the decisions aren’t easy, either; I’ve had to stop and think about what to do, and I’ve even found myself reloading because things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to. I also love the idea that your save from the previous game loads into the next one to continue your story and relationships with your teammates.

Speaking of BioWare, Mass Effect reminded me of how much I missed Star Wars: The Old Republic. I played it a lot when it first came out in late 2011. It’s one of the few games I’ve ever actually paid a subscription fee to, and it’s probably the most excited I’ve been for a new MMO launch. Sadly, though, a few months after release, the new content dropped off, and so did I. I’ve never been back since, mostly due to the rather overly restrictive F2P. But there’s been an expansion since then (plus the starfighter and housing updates, both of which sound pretty cool), and another one on the way next month, so I figured I’d give life as an F2P a try. As I mentioned, free game is pretty restrictive, even compared to F2P early adopters like LotRO. Here’s my breakdown of restrictions:

Kind of terrible:

  • A few of the raids must be purchased.
  • The raids that are available are restricted to a few plays per week, as are PvP arenas, unless you buy a weekly pass.
  • Restrictive gold cap with no way to unlock other than subscribe (seriously, I’d gladly pay $5-$10 for this, but apparently you don’t want my money).
  • Must purchase the right to wear purple gear. This one probably bothers me the most. Worth the $20ish to remove it for all characters? I haven’t decided yet.

Not so bad:

  • Can only play as the three most boring races, namely Humans, Cyborg Humans, and Zabrak (aka horned Humans with face tats).
  • Small inventory and bank. Expansions must be purchased.
  • Several cosmetic options must be purchased (hide head piece, unify colors to match chest, etc.).
  • Must pay to unlock hotbars. This one is just silly. Sure, as a preferred player I can have four, which is all I ever used four when I subscribed, but it’s still ridiculous that they expect to make money off of adding a box to the interface.
  • Only two crafting skill slots. You really only need two to craft gear, but to craft augments (not unlike gems in WoW), you need a third.

Note that I’m a former subscriber; many of the restrictions on people who haven’t payed a dime are worse. BioWare will tell you that a lot of these restrictions (most notably the gold cap) are to cut down on gold farmers/sellers/spammers, but it just feels like I’m being punished for not paying the game tax. But F2P isn’t completely without merit; I can play the story to my heart’s content, and that’s where the game really shines anyway.

I had a few Cartel Coins (premium currency) lying around as a reward for subscribing prior to the F2P transition, and, rather than doing something sensible like saving for the epic gear unlock, I bought the Cathar species, because why wouldn’t I want to play as a cat person? I’ve rolled an Imperial Operative, because it’s almost universally regarded as the best story and I never got very far with my sniper last time around, and a Jedi Sage, because I miss wielding a lightsaber (even if I’m mostly a caster, it still looks cool). Yes, both of those are healer classes. Apparently Guild Wars 2’s “everyone is a healer, therefore no one is” policy made me really miss healing. Both are still pretty low level, but I’m having a lot of fun.

Speaking of recent expansions to licensed sci-fi MMOs, Star Trek Online just released its Delta Rising expansion. I was excited about this one, but somehow it isn’t pulling me in the way I thought it would. I was playing it for about a month before the expansion hit (during the bonus XP time), and sadly I think I got just enough of a taste of the game before the expansion hit for the fun to wear off and remind me of the frustrations that caused me to drift away the last time. Star Trek Online is one of those games I can’t seem to get away from for too long, despite its faults, so I’m sure I’ll be back to play the new content eventually, just not right now.

October also saw the release of Super Smash Bros 3DS. My excitement for this game warrants an entire post for itself, but for now, suffice it to say that I’m a long time Super Smash Bros. fan, and I’m absolutely in love with this game. It feels so much more well-balanced than any previous game, and the online play actually works most of the time (as long as the person you’re playing isn’t on the other side of the ocean and/or have really bad Wi-Fi reception). Playing the game on the 3DS’s circle slider and tiny buttons is no substitute for the almighty Gamecube Controller, but it took surprisingly little adjustment. Can’t wait to play the Wii U version in a couple weeks!