The dreams of an IP, and the inevitable reality

Over vacation I read a good chunk of Vampire Wars, a collection of books set in the Warhammer universe all about the von Carstein vampire counts. Considering I’ve been reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series almost exclusively for the last… well it’s been a while, the change to a different writing style took a little getting use to, but overall I still enjoyed the read, and Vlad von Carstein has always been one of my favorite characters in that setting. But reading the book also got me thinking once again about MMOs and what a great setting Warhammer is for one. Which of course got me thinking about Warhammer Online, and just how far off WAR is from how the Warhammer universe should look and feel.

I think the main issue is that in WAR every player character is playing the role of a flawless hero, which does not work out great in a setting where most ‘heroes’ are ordinary people who occasionally do something special (usually to die quickly afterwards), and the real heroes are not only uncommon but highly flawed. Vlad for example is a great character because he is that rare, very powerful individual who alters history, and those who stand against him are usually ordinary men who just happen to pull off some great feat to stop his terror. In WAR you can roll  someone who is Vlad’s equal, and go off to fight with/against hundreds of others like you. This is how most MMOs function (everyone is ‘epic’ in WoW for example), but it’s not how the Warhammer universe should be, and by changing this fundamental aspect you lose a lot of its charm and feel.

In addition, Warhammer is all about the little stories that add up to write history, rather than a set series of ‘epic’ events (city siege). It’s about a small town in some random swamp dealing with a plague, it’s about some random priest with a secret, and it’s about local lords and counts just trying to maintain their little corner of the world. Of course major events do happen, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And when translated to an MMO, this would work beautifully if pulled off correctly.

But it won’t be, at least not for the foreseeable future, because we already have an MMO using the Warhammer IP. And in a way, that’s almost worst than an IP like Wheel of Time, which again would make for a great MMO setting. At least WoT has yet to be made and the dream of that world remains intact, yet to be shattered by the reality of what is actually created. I know I won’t be able to roll a character in the Warhammer universe and play out some adventure like I just read, while I can still hope for one when I read WoT. I think it’s this fact, among others, that makes creating an MMO based on an existing IP all that much harder. People go in ‘knowing’ how the world works, how things SHOULD be, and what to expect. And almost every time, you are not going to be able to deliver on any/all of that, and regardless of how fun or entertaining your product is, it still won’t be someone’s idea of that world made real. And once the game is out and the IP is used, it’s very unlikely fans will get a second shot at getting what they expected.

28 Responses to The dreams of an IP, and the inevitable reality

  1. sid67 says:

    One problem with converting many IPs to an MMO is that very rarely do IP works have ‘balanced’ characters.

    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.

    Likewise, a Jedi, should be far superior to a bounty hunter, imperial soldier or anything else.

    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 “different but equal”.

    Whereas, with the IP developed for gaming systems (like Forgotten Realms), the class system is inherently more balanced.

    Although — one point about WOT as an MMO. One thing that I think Blizzard does well is that they have “bigger than life” enemies and characters. Arthas, for example, is a very cool nemesis. Most of the good ones all come from WC3 (and they are killing them off) but I think such prominent NPC figures are important to the ‘World’.

    This is something WOT has going for it as well. You have lots of very prominent and interesting characters that would be very useful as NPC bosses and heads of state.

  2. mbp says:

    I think Lotro dealt with the “everyone can’t be a hero” situation pretty well. It is pretty clear when you play the game that you are a fairly every day hero compared to the likes of Aragorn and Legolas but that nevertheless there are lots of useful things you can do to help out the good people of Middle Earth.

    • SynCaine says:

      Yea LotRO IMO is a good example of getting it right. You still get to experience a lot of the world and see it ‘at work’, while also getting involved in the more epic events. I think with LotR though, given how driven the story is, that helps a lot when designing and pacing an MMO. Something like WoT, and especially Warhammer, is just a lot more ‘open’.

    • sid67 says:

      But the LotRO lore is such that there aren’t specific groups that are much more powerful than the “Ranger” archtype.

      In other words, the lore already supports the everyone’s not a hero idea. Whereas, with WOT, the Aes Sedai are FAR more powerful than anyone else. A non-OP class (like a Hunter) wouldn’t hold a candle to an Aes Sedai in power relative to the lore.

      But in an MMO, the Hunter would need to be equal to the Aes Sedai. Which, unfortunately, destroys the IP.

      • SynCaine says:

        Sorta. Aes Sedai can’t use the OP offensively unless attacked or against the shadow, and *spoiler* until a certain event the OP drove males mad. That could be used to balance things in an MMO if it comes to that, especially if OP users are glass-cannon types.

        edit: and just to add to this, there is a very good reason Aes Sedai travel with Wardens, and why Perrin and Mat are able to do certain things that Rand can not (although in the story Rand is certainly majorly over-powered if we are talking about a game, the guy can basically do anything it seems).

        • sid67 says:

          Perrin/Mat are both special because the wheel (fate) bends to them and they have unique abilities. Perrin has loyal Aes Sedai of his own (bent to his will by fate) and Matt has his own unique protection against the OP.

          I’m also not saying that Aes Sedai don’t have weaknesses. They do, but they just aren’t the sort that work well with class balance.

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

          It would take several sword wielders to overwhelm the Aes Sedai or a situation where you caught them by surprise while they didn’t hold the one power. Hence, there is a need for Warders, but the protection is very secondary.

          I think the best argument for someone who might be a powerful individual that doesn’t wield the OP is Slayer (Luc). And that’s only because he can travel through the dream world to kill people by surprise.

          In any event, I just don’t see any situation where you could have any sort of class balance in a WOT game without breaking from that IP in order to do it.

          It’s a function of “players want fair” but the WOT world is not fair.

          I mean, I guess everyone could be someone who wields the OP but that seems a little restrictive for a classic fantasy MMO.

  3. coppertopper says:

    The most successful at this so far is Guild Wars, but it took a heavily instanced world to do it. DDO also pulls this off via instanced modules. So trying to work a plausible world of mini adventures and story lines while it not looking like WoW quest hubs is a challenge that only instancing has met so far. Phasing is still hitchy.

    • SynCaine says:

      I think those are examples of dev-created mini adventures, I’m thinking more world/player-driven stuff like what happens in EVE or DarkFall. There ARE a ton of ‘grunts’ playing EVE/DF, while everyone is lead to believe they are a hero in WoW/WAR.

      I’d like to think it’s entirely possible to pull off a worldly MMO without having the heavy PvP focus of EVE/DF, where you can have daily mini-adventures that ‘just happen’.

  4. Cliff says:

    It’s funny, because I was completey turned off of Lord of the Rings Online precisely because I don’t think it represents the IP well.

    When I saw hobbits adventuring all over the place (they dont usually do that you know, Bilbo was the exception, not the norm) and when I saw screen shots of a small band of players beating down a Nazgul like he was a boar in Westfall, I decided this game was not for me. No doubt the game gets a great number of things right, but Tolkien’s world is the anti progression based mmo. Everything is getting weaker. The older heroes, the older gods, the older races get progressively weaker as the ages pass. That is not to say that individuals dont get stronger, but the over all flavor is at odds with a progression based MMO. However, I intensely love Tolkien’s works, and that means that i am much more sensitive to the treatment of that work.

    Warhammer is a different animal for me. While I enjoy the books (I really enjoyed the first three Gotrek and Felix omnibuses), and there were things I would have liked to see them do differently, I am not so personnally invested in the IP that those changes are a deal breaker for me.

    I think proximity, or your level of personal investment in the IP, makes a big difference in how you apporach games, movies, etc. based on them. There are many people I play Warhammer with that don’t even know any of the lore, have never played the table top game, or have even picked up a book. I’m sure there are plenty who love Warhammer intensely and were dissapointed with Mythic’s treatment and passed on the game.

    • sid67 says:

      Again, lore built for game systems is much better designed that way. For example, in Dragonlance, the “hobbit” equivalent is a Kender.

      Kenders were afflicted with “wanderlust” which explained their adventuresome.

      IP developed for such game systems (Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Warhammer) is just going to be more inherently aligned with the RPG model. No need to fit a square peg into a circular hole.

      • Cliff says:

        Excellent point. After all, Dungeons and Dragons was created to do exactly what you describe: take Tolkiens fantasy world elements and tailor them to a game setting.

        I feel the same way about film though. No matter how true a director or production house claims they will be to the source material, they are going to go in their own directions.

        George Lucas said as much when he was working on the original Star Wars. He had looked into getting the rights to make Flash Gordon, but realized that he didn’t really want to be hemmed in by all the things that he would have to include to make it Flash Gordon. Better to write your own thing if you want to do your own thing or if you medium demands you do you do it differently.

  5. Quietside says:

    About the idea of “different but equal”, Sid’s absolutely right about Aes Sedai crushing your average non-powered character in the novels, but can this be addressed in other ways? Assuming familiarity with the series: Men who channel go mad, which could be handled in very interesting ways, Women are either largely untrained (Wise Ones) or bound by oaths that they are literally incapable of breaking. Both of these lend themselves well to balancing out the OP nature of the One Power (You are badass, but…). The Shadow has special horrors for those who channel as well. Adding more horizontal progression like political power, influence, command of troops would also help to balance that out.

    Warhammer has many of the same valves built into the ip, and a willingness to step away from holy trinity models and use alternate means to create ‘balance’ would serve any game based on an existing IP well.

    The focus on fairness, ‘balance’ and polish that a lot of AAA titles seem to adopt also sand a lot of the personality out of the games. Which is too bad, as sometimes the best way to balance a game or encounter is simply ‘play better’.

    • sid67 says:

      But how do you build out those limitations within the framework of a game that makes sense?

      Male casters can’t go ‘temporarily’ mad, only to return to their senses after a 2 minute cooldown.

      Aes Sedai can’t be all powerful when attacked but ineffectual when not attacked. That just sets up a situation where people force the attack.

      My point being is that — yes, “forkroot” is a weakness for Aes Sedai. But you can’t build out an entire class of players who use “forkroot” as a counter to Aes Sedai.

      Or put another way, I guess you could do all these things. It just wouldn’t fit very well within the scope of the books.

      I guess the DF system where everyone is a magic user to some degree works the best. In that model, everyone would be an OP user.

      • SynCaine says:

        Everyone having access to the OP would work, since you could tie that in to certain penalties (madness, forkroot stuns, burnout, etc), and in order to avoid them you have to block yourself from the OP in some temporary way (kinda like in DF how you can go Destroyer and block access to elem magic, but you can always remove Destroyer and regain your magic). It’s not like being able to use the OP is all that rare in WoT, or that the only ones who have power are OP users.

        I’ll have a post up tomorrow on how I would like the game to handle darkfriends, hopefully it will be interesting.

      • Quietside says:

        Alrighty, scattered thoughts as i am at work:

        Male casters can absolutely go temporarily mad, and there are some precedents for that in the book. Tying it directly to how much to OP is used would work fairly well.

        Aes Sedai oaths would only be effective if there was some sort of faction system at work, or as you said the system would be subject to abuse.

        Forkroot as a poison would be a balancing factor, as would the idea that channelers have to ‘hold’ the power, which may have side effects (such as slower movement, or vulnerability to melee).

        Additionally the OP is described as exhausting, and there is nothing saying that it can’t be a case of rapidly emptying the stamina pool to cast or maintain a few weaves and needing time to recover before being effective again.

        As for arrows and attackers, if you can only effect what you can see or see coming that handles half of it. The rest can be handled by how the power is advanced, how easily/quickly are weaves learned and improved.

        Keep in mind that in the series we primarily see the most powerful channelers in the world. On one particular occasion many experienced Aes Sedai are attacked and captured, and while the OP is used in the attack it is definitely implied that several are captured by mundane means.

        • sid67 says:

          I guess..

          The problem as I see it is that you are shoe-boxing something into the lore (and breaking that lore to make it work).

          The whole idea of a “forkroot stun” is absurd in the extreme.

          It strikes me as more likely that the “Game” bears little in resemblance with actual Lore than some common naming conventions.

          As for the actual “characters” in WOT and associated politics, that’s not my concern at all. In fact, as I said above, I think the ‘larger than life’ characters really present some possibilities. There are also plenty of untold stories related to the forsaken that would make for a great PvE backdrop.

          I just think the focus on the OP is at odds with any game mechanic you could come up with for a “game”.

        • sid67 says:

          Case in point — I don’t think anyone would argue that Lan or Gareth Bryne are badasses.

          BUT — neither one could defeat even the lowliest Aes Sedai if facing them at 1:1 odds.

          So I think the challenge is: How do you make them equal? You can’t. Not really. Not without really stretching the Lore to make it work.

        • sid67 says:

          *aren’t badasses, I mean.

  6. Quietside says:

    Oh, and @Sid, check out the D20 WOT adaptation, they seem to have done a very good job of translating the One Power into something that works around the dinnertable.

  7. Dril says:

    I agree somewhat with Cliff; I don’t really think LotRO is especially good at it, however it is better than WoW. Having said that, comparing the two starting experiences, LotRO makes you (at least for Men) the runner boy for a Ranger, and I actually found it made you feel more like the hero. Conversely, in WoW you’re killing boars for the local Priest. Obviously, it switches later on, but I think looking at the game as a whole at least merits some thought.

    On WAR: I actually don’t feel like the hero when I’m playing; I just feel like the rank and file of the military (albeit with shinies.)

  8. Jomu says:

    heh; i read that book too :)
    Just don’t read the Warhammer book Genevieve… not so good

  9. Der_Nachbar says:

    Just gimme a “A Song of Ice and Fire” MMO with the Mount&Blade combat engine, a sandbox world and enough tools already ^^

    • sid67 says:

      LOL. Any book in this setting should feature permadeath…

      Brutal series.. But one that I do agree could be well adapted to an MMO.

      • Der_Nachbar says:

        Agree on the permadeath there, protagonists dropping like flies ^^ I cant wait for the next book (and also the HBO tv-series that is in the making).

  10. […] up on some reading, I came across this post by SynCaine. I agree with it wholeheartedly, both as a fan of the Warhammer universe (though […]

  11. Sean says:

    Pre-NGE SWG says hi. The mainstream public, or at least the 18-24 male subset of it, does not want stories about the local political machinations of a Warhammer city lord or the life and times of a Tantooine barkeeper. They want Jedis and Orcs with armor so big it clips through their body.

    I hope a smaller studio will take WoT (or more realistically their own IP) and deliver a considerably less epic MMORPG.

    • SynCaine says:

      Pre-Tram UO says hello as well.

      All of my most epic MMO moments have had nothing to do with anything a dev put in to be ‘epic’. Sad that so many never get to experience such things.

      • Cliff says:

        It’s interesting timing that the comment “that was one of the greatest moments I have had in this game ” when playing Warhammer last night and we were engaged in a truly pulse-pounding clash of arms defending a bridge underground against a literal horde of Orcs, berserkers, and dark elves. Not only did our smaller band hold, we pushed back, broke them, and sent themy flying so fast that some of them leapt to their deaths off the cliff edge outside the tunnel! This was not a scripted event, but damn was it cool, and damn did it feel like I was a soldier in the glorious service of Karl Franz!

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