I was having a discussion on Ventrilo the other day with some folks in my LotRO kinship.  We were lamenting the roughness of the LotRO end-game and were talking about some of the hurdles different IP-based games are having.  (That is to say, games based on a third-party IP – technically, all games are based on someone’s IP.

Blizzard owns the IP related to WoW.  So if they want to add space-ships or player-controlled flying mounts, the lore folks just say it’s possible and then it’s up to the software folks to make it happen.  There’s almost nothing standing in the way of a gaming possibility, the lore creators just have to figure out the story behind it and then it’s ready to be built into the game.

Turbine does not own the IP behind its LotRO game, Tolkien Estates does.  Everything in the game Turbine build has to conform to the lore as Tolkien imagined it.  There are exceptions (like the number of adventuring hobbits running around) but the places, the overall feel of the game and many of the character names and abilities are limited by the IP.  As such, players cannot be wizards (there are only a handful in Tolkien’s world), players cannot ride eagles (riding eagles is a rare privilege); the lore curtails many of the possibilities in an online world in favor of sticking with a set, third-party IP.

The lore of a game is sort of like the net and fault lines in tennis: the net and lines limit the number of possible movements and place restrictions on what the players can do.  Tennis players can’t do a bank-shot off the stands – it’s out of bounds.  They can’t hit the net or go outside the lines.  Tennis is a skill-based game because of its rules.  Without the rules, it’s just a couple of people playing with some paddles and a ball.

The restraints in an MMO can be much more flexible yet they have to exist to give player actions meaning.  In a fairly restrictive IP like that in LotRO, a lot of possibilities get cut off.  No player-wizards.  No flying mounts.  WoW’s IP is less restrictive: in the game now, engineers can build a motorcycle.  The motorcycle exists in a world where gnomes can already build flying machines and a tram, so a player building a motorcycle isn’t that much of a stretch.

All of which brings me to Star Wars: The Old Republic.  Like the Tolkien IP, there is a large chunk of the Star Wars IP that is known.  The movies introduced a lot of the Star Wars history of a certain time-period.  But The Old Republic is set in a time-period about which much less is known.  Bioware has a great deal of freedom to make a game which is both Star Wars in feel but where they can open up a lot of possibilities without having to adhere to what is already known.  They don’t have to tap-dance around the issue of Jedis; there are a lot of Jedis in their world.  They don’t have to worry too much about Darth Vader; the game is set well before his time.  Since less is known, they are free to implement some things that would make for an exciting MMO and introduce storylines which place the player at the center of the story instead of playing second fiddle to NPCs.

I’m too jaded to say “this is the game we’ve all been waiting for,” I’ve seen too many new hopefuls crash and burn or turn out to be less than spectacular.  SWtOR seems to have a pretty even chance, if it actually gets made, of being a decent MMO; its IP is known (bringing in the fans) but flexible enough that they could do some really cool things with it.  Also, it’s Bioware, a company which has a reputation from creating really good games.

For now, Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game worth keeping an eye on.

Check out a movie about the worlds of SWtOR.