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Wastes of Licenses Past, Present, and Future

What the hell is it with game developers who have no idea about the power of a license? Off the top of my head, I can think of three games from past, present, and future that serve as prime examples here.

Past: Star Wars Galaxies

Here is a subscription-based game that tried to deviate from a license and ended up, tragically, losing most of its subscription base in order to correct for their mistake.

The Star Wars movie series is one of action, adventure, and with a certain feeling of childish delight over seeing revealed the wonders of life across the universe. Star Wars Galaxies was released as an economics game. The action and adventure aspects were weak with the combat being heavily underdeveloped at the time (something they would spend the majority of their post-release time fixing). The only working activities at the time of release were socializing mechanics and trade skill. There was a fair variety of land to explore and creatures to meet, the "world" aspect was there, but there was for most there was no Star Wars-like activities they felt like doing.

After two years of this, the only players who remained were people who were genuinely interested in an online economics game, and indeed, Star Wars Galaxies was an excellent one of those. However, the number of players interested in that kind of game apparently fell drastically short of the management's subscription expectation in the first Star Wars massively multiplayer online game - and rightfully so! Even prior to the NGE, they were down to under half a million subscribers, while the movie had captivated hundreds of millions of moviegoers.

The "New Game Enhancement," or NGE, was an attempt to radically revamp the graphical user interface to better suit the kind of action adventure game that would suit a Star Wars license. However, it was too late, most of the players remaining weren't interested in that kind of game, and the engine really wasn't built for it. The NGE (and perhaps the Jump to Lightspeed expansion before it) only ended up shooting themselves in the foot.

It was already a bit of a risk in bringing Star Wars into a massively multi-player environment because the movies revolve around a few select individuals making a big difference. However, if they had placed the players in exciting roles and provided a string of equally exciting activities for them to participate in, perhaps this would have worked. My heart goes out to both the developers and the players, but lets face it, now this game is just my first example of a waste of a license.

However, despite the harsh lessons learned by SOE about the misuse of a license, the game development community as a whole has apparently not learned their lesson.

Present: Shadowrun

Developed by Microsoft Game Studios and FASA Studios, Shadowrun is based off of the somewhat outdated (probably out of print) roleplaying game that combines a fantasy setting with a cyberpunk one. The resulting fusion proved to be a fertile ground for the imagination, as you could be a modern day cyborg warrior known as a "Street Samurai," a hardcore technophile who hacks into corporate mainframes known as a "Decker," a modern-attired but fireball throwing "Mage," an axe-slinging Dwarf on a motorcycle, and many other fascinating things.

Released recently and exclusively for the XBox 360 and the Windows Vista comes a game simply called "Shadowrun." Naturally, we're going to assume that this is a roleplaying game that embodies the same spirit of freedom that governed the pencil and paper game. Think again: it's actually just a Counterstrike clone.

As far as Counterstrike clones go, Shadowrun isn't bad, it's about as good as any in the genre that you'll find on the XBox 360 and is one of the few games that are actually compatible with Windows Vista. Yet, for most anyone who actually had prior knowledge of what Shadowrun was supposed to be about, this game is no less than a total travesty:

Over a decade without an electronic Shadowrun game - the last ones we saw were for the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis - and this is what those sons-of-bitches hand us? Maybe if this were subtitled, "Shadowrun: Tactical Combat" then that would be acceptable, but calling such a thing simply "Shadowrun" demonstrates absolute lack of respect. We know what Shadowrun is and this isn't it.

Future: Fallout 3

After the fall of Interplay it seemed likely we were never going to see a sequal to the 2d isometric perspective role-playing games of Fallout and Fallout 2. However, it seems that Bethesda Softworks has picked up the license and is developing no less than "Fallout 3."

So, given that details are sketchy this early into development, what have we learned about the game? Only this: Signs indicate that Fallout 3 will be a first person shooter-like interface in the same vein as the Elder Scrolls series. Confirmation on this is sketchy, but what we do know involves many supporting details:
  1. The same team that made Elder Scrolls IV is working on Fallout 3.
  2. It's using a version of the Gamebryo engine, the same used for Elder Scrolls IV.
  3. They're developing for the PC, XBox 360, and PS3 - the same platforms Elder Scolls IV was released on.
  4. In a Gameinformer interview it was indicated that "The game will use both first-person and third-person perspective." This, too, is a description of the way an Elder Scrolls IV-like game works.
(Source data: Wikipedia.)

Much like the previous two examples, the name "Fallout" carries certain expectations on behalf of the players who are familiar with the name. That expectation is that it would be an open-ended post-nuclear-based roleplaying game that involves turn-based tactical combat and quite possibily the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. role play system. Instead, from the sounds of things, Bethesda Softworks' developers said, "Well, we don't know how to make one of those, but we do have all this nice Elder Scrolls IV technology laying around so lets turn Fallout into an Elder Scrolls game."

Would a game the plays like Elder Scrolls IV yet has you running around in powered armor toting a laser gatling gun and gunning down viscious postnuclear mutants automatically be a sucky game? Hell no. However, Once you take it into a first person perspective and make it play entirely differently, it isn't Fallout anymore, it's something else entirely. I wouldn't have minded if they called the game, "Fallout: The First Person Perspective" or even something else entirely but taking place in the Fallout universe. However, they're calling the game "Fallout 3" as in "This is the next Fallout game after Fallout 2." Lies!  This is yet another total waste of a license.  

The Moral

I understand that it's becoming an increasingly postmodern world and under this is an important sentiment that, "There is more than one correct way to look at things." However, an equally important sentiment in true postmodern thinking is, "It is incorrect to assume that anything goes." Regarding the use of licenses, this should be common sense: If you take a license then you are attempting to market to the people who already are involved in that license. That being the case, you develop the game for them that fits their expectations. If you attempt to radically change the genre to something else than you are alienating against the very audience you are trying to sell! A license may have marketing power for a game, but it is also is a limiting factor in the type of game you can develop, as you need to meet corresponding expectations for that appeal to work. I'm getting really tired of this. The developers who do not realize this either need to get a clue or only develop games not based on existing licenses. [/rant off]
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