Saturday, April 28, 2007

Star Trek Canon vs. MMORPG Gameplay 1

One of the most-debated questions about Star Trek Online was whether it needs to copy many of the conventional features of existing MMORPGs in order to be successful. I can't come right out and say it shouldn't, but I think that's at least as debatable a business strategy as excessively radical innovation.

In terms of winning significant market share, there are basically only two effective approaches:

  • be the first to make one product that combines the best features of other successful products
  • define a new market segment by being the first to offer a product with a desirable new capability
That first approach is what's usually called the "second-mover advantage." It's the notion of letting other people take the risks of trying new ideas, watching what sells, and then grabbing the best-selling ideas and combining them into a single product.

The first to do a good job of this often wins big. But there's a hidden corollary: there is no such thing as a "third-mover advantage."

Once the best ideas from a broad range of related individual products are combined into a unified product, that product will usually dominate its market segment. Attempts to copy that unified product usually fail, however, since why should anyone switch to it when what they've got already supplies most of what they want?

Fortunately, that still leaves innovation as a viable strategy. So rather than trying to achieve an illusory third-mover advantage ("just like WoW, only better!"), there is at least a plausible business justification for looking for opportunities for new forms of gameplay beyond copying World of Warcraft (which IMO locked up the second-mover advantage in Achiever-oriented MMORPGs).

That doesn't mean a Star Trek MMORPG must discard every single convention of current MMORPGs regardless of utility, and no one has suggested any such thing. What it means is being willing to question specific conventions, and, if there's an opportunity to try something different that could be very popular with the target audience, consider how it might be integrated into the overall game.

This could be exactly the right moment -- and Star Trek could be exactly the right license -- to move the MMORPG market past the XP/loot-centric games currently dominating it. Not to "totally change the genre," but to advance the art in several places in order to make a game that's successful because it's more than just a clone.

Which brings me to:

Originally Posted by Mountainforest:
In my experience games (in general) that have tried very hard to stick with their canon have failed enormously. ... A lot of people here believe that STO needs to take huge steps away from it's genre towards canon in order to succeed. I can't name one game that tried to pull something like this of and succeed.
In a lot of cases I'd actually agree with you here, but I think a Star Trek MMORPG is a special case.

In making a MMORPG from a second- (or lower-) tier license, the MMORPG formula clearly has to predominate. The number of likely players from the MMORPG world is vastly greater than the number of people likely to try the game based on the strength of the license.

But Star Trek is one of the Big Three first-tier licenses. (The other two being Lord of the Rings and Star Wars.) Even taking into account the growth of MMORPG subscriber numbers, even taking into account Asian games/gamers, I believe that there are still many more fans of Star Trek around the world than there are current players of MMORPGs. Not all of these fans have computers and modems, but I'll bet that plenty of them do. (They are Star Trek fans, after all. :) )

This means the Star Trek fanbase can't be ignored as an important driver of game features for a Star Trek MMORPG. I agree that a slavish adherence to canon in making a MMORPG based on most licenses would be a mistake... but that's not the situation we have here. For the many Star Trek fans, canon matters. As I said above, that doesn't mean throwing out everything that makes a MMORPG a MMORPG -- it means recognizing that you cannot fail to include features that allow players to experience key aspects of the license. If that means shedding some now-conventional MMORPG mechanic like the utterly brain-dead tank/nuker/healer+aggro model of combat, then so be it.

For a game like Star Trek Online to maximize subscriberships, the canon is going to have to yield a little bit to MMORPG conventions to help it appeal to current online gamers. But MMORPG conventions are going to have to give way in some places to Star Trek canon, too.

In short, I don't believe anybody thinks Star Trek Online should be either a pure Star Trek simulator or a copycat MMORPG.

What's needed is a game that smartly balances (if I may say it) the Best of Both Worlds.

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