An Intellectual Property Cautionary Tale
If you've never read Scott Miller's blog, I highly recommend it. Miller is the CEO of 3D Realms and speaks about very interesting, high level concepts of importance to the gaming industry. Some of Scott's most memorable posts touch on the issues surrounding intellectual property. He discusses the dangers Rockstar faced in changing their brand's image and used an example from the cola wars to show how strong branding can make or break a company's image.
A recurring theme in many of his blog posts is the concept of "brand dilution": Once an intellectual property or brand has made successful contact with the enemy (in this case, you), doing more with the brand runs the danger of weakening it. Games have this problem in spades: Sequels, spin-offs and mediocre ports can lay low even the mightiest of gaming icon.
Some of these are easy to point out: Sonic the Hedghog's fall has been well documented. There are other franchises, though, that look to be on the verge of committing IP suicide themselves. For some, it's still a coin-toss. And, of course, there are some games that have decimated once-proud IP. Not all game franchises have the honor of being tarred with the brush of inter-species relationships, but they can still seem really bad through the eyes of a fan.
Forget the weak-sauce movies. The weak-sauce games are far more costly to the future of the Star Wars franchise than Hayden Christensen and Jake Lloyd combined. The reason is simple: Star Wars is incredibly fertile ground for game-making. The bulging "Expanded Universe" content details people and events far beyond the scope of the six movies. From the time of the Sith Wars to the New Jedi Order, there are hundreds of characters, thousands of planets and countless opportunities to tell a memorable story. The fact it's so "easy" to make a game wrapped in the Star Wars IP means we've seen some games that could rattle even the most dedicated Jedi's trust in the Force. The two most recent and frustrating offenders are Sony Online Entertainment's Star Wars Galaxies and the DS/PSP title Lethal Alliance.
Galaxies has been run through the wringer so many times, to beat on it here would be gratuitous. My understanding is, while blame can be placed in many places, LucasArts' queasiness with the MMOG genre caused the most notable problems the game has suffered. This is the most egregious IP blunder ever perpetrated in gaming. The concept of "living your own Star Wars adventure" is so potent, Galaxies' quiet obscurity speaks volumes about its multiple levels of failure. SOE CEO John Smedley himself has said, "Star Wars Galaxies should have hooked a million players"; the frustrating shell of a game players are now saddled with is the tragic consequence of being in the wrong time, and in the wrong place. But the most frustrating aspect of the game is the negative inertia it brings to the massive genre; we're never going to see another Star Wars MMOG as long as SWG is still out there sucking.
Lethal Alliance told the story of a Twi'lek bounty hunter and her droid sidekick. Conceptually, it was a brilliant move and tried to make an important statement: Star Wars games can still be fun, even if you aren't playing a Jedi. Unfortunately, the game was denied the polish it needed to really pull people into its headspace. Not only did it fail as an individual game, but it may make it harder to pitch a non-Jedi Star Wars game in the future. When a publisher says, "No one wants to play a Star Wars game where you can't be a Jedi," this title is where you can start looking for a reason why.
Mitch Gitelman recently appeared on 1up's "1up Yours" podcast, and in an exhausting hour-plus interview, defended FASA's decision to turn Shadowrun into a first-person shooter. There's a certain logic to the move: a thought put forth by Gitelman and 1up's Luke Smith suggests it's paving the way for FPS-loving 360 players to identify with the Shadowrun brand. I'm looking forward to seeing what the game has to offer, and from everything I've heard, there's a lot of fun to be had there.
The question remains, though: Why make a Shadowrun game if you're not going to use the elements that make Shadowrun great? There's certainly no law saying an SR game has to be an RPG. In fact, an FPS in the style of a System Shock or Deus Ex would be a perfect fit for the Shadowrun world. The team-based strategy of a Rainbow Six could also mesh well with Shadowrun; the RPG largely focuses around planning and executing the kind of hard-and-fast raids R6 has perfected. The key to both of these styles is the gameplay would still allow for storytelling. Shadowrun is, first and foremost, a deep world with opportunities for storytelling. The fact the FASA developers wanted to avoid using 20-plus years of backstory in a game is understandable. That said, their total opt-out of the obligations the IP brings with it is, in a word, cowardly.
Lord of the Rings
The upcoming Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) is probably the game we can think about most critically, but it's certainly not the only sore spot in this august bloodline. LOTRO has received mixed reviews from beta testers. Turbine's choice to ape World of Warcraft is a sound financial decision, but may prove the game's undoing if bored WoW players don't like seeing a repeat of what they already gobbled up. As with Star Wars Galaxies, the overwhelming popularity of this brand should make LOTRO a sure thing. That there are still so many mixed emotions about this game this close to launch bodes ill for its future.
Past games set in the world of Middle-Earth have generally been well received, but it's worth pointing out the lackluster response to Battle for Middle-Earth II, on the Xbox 360. Complaints about the game tended to center around the control scheme.
Further weakening the brand was the earlier Lord of the Rings: The Third AgeRPG, which was hampered by EA's movie-only license. Battle For Middle-Earth at least tied the books in with the movies in a compelling way; Third Age was a confused Mary Sue tale that makes it unlikely we'll see another LOTR RPG any time soon.
Many people consider the Halo property sacrosanct, the developers at Bungie a team capable of doing no wrong. Just the same, there are signs that Microsoft's enthusiasm for the title may be allowing the IP to lose focus. Unlike some other IPs that are clearly slipping, I include Halo here merely as a warning: Microsoft is balancing their most popular series on a thin wire, as they attempt to traverse the gap between where they've been and where they want to go.
The Ensemble Studios-developed Halo Wars RTS is due out sometime early next year, and I fear it's going to take the edge off of Bungie's baby. As it stands, Halo 3 is going to be a system seller, just due to reputation and momentum. The completion to the Halo FPS trilogy is going to be a money-printing machine for Microsoft, and may give them an edge over the Wii and PS3 this next Christmas season. Following up that success with a concept-muddling RTS will be anything is bound to alienate a lot of FPS players. Ensemble and Bungie will have to nail that game to the wall and offer something that captures Halo players from the get-go. If Microsoft wants the Halo IP to stay as strong as it is now, they just can't afford a weak link in the chain.
Their forays into other media with the brand are also worrying. The Halo graphic novel, while very attractive and a financial success, met with a critically mild reception from fans. Their decision to extend the story into a monthly comic is further cause for concern.
In the grand scheme of things, though, the inclusion of Brian Michael Bendis on the Halo comic team is a sign that Marvel is taking things seriously. Likewise, Microsoft's hard stance on the Halo movie indicates they're not willing to let their property become a shlock-fest in other media venues. More than any other brand, Halo seems to have a bright future.
Keeping the Message Alive
While I don't paint the brightest future for some of gaming's IP, it's not all bad. Nintendo hasn't dropped the ball with Mario or Zelda, and the Half-Life series is in no danger of spreading too thin. Indeed, what's most promising is the IP native to the genre seems to be the most cohesive. Go figure.