I saw an interesting exchange on one of the MUD forums I frequent a few days ago – someone was talking about making a War of the Worlds MUD, and someone, rather waspishly, replied essentially ‘God, why don’t people try to create their own IP any more?’
It struck me as interesting, because ‘Here is my War of the Worlds MUD’ is going to be a far more successful pitch to me than ‘Come see my all original world where martians invade the Earth in Victorian times’. Maybe it’s just me, but I would much rather explore a fictional world based on a well-established premise than suffer through someone else’s overwrought and overblown ‘all original’ fiction. The latter is just far too much like being forced, out of politeness, to read someone’s shitty unpublished novel. There is a reason, after all, why most books never end up on a library’s shelves.
I’m not saying an all original world cannot be good – every successful IP franchise has to start somewhere after all. I’m just saying that the odds are very heavily stacked against it being true of any randomly sampled work of fiction that you encounter. The chances are far greater than you’ll log on and find everything eerily familiar, as if someone had gone into a room you have explored a thousand times and relocated every fifth item.
There is a lot of credibility to be gained for free by appropriating the work of something successful that obviously resonates with people – using existing IP is restrictive in some respects, but there is always, always, *always* enough design space for you to explore. No existing work, regardless how extensive (for comparison, I used to code on Discworld MUD, which has a canon of books that at the time of writing numbers at 38 core novels) can cover everything that gets mentioned. There’s more room than you could imagine around the periphery to put your own creative stamp on things. Sure, the use of a familiar IP can be very limiting (if you create a Simpsons MUD, I sure as hell better be able to meet Marge and Homer), and you always risk your interpretation of the material being dramatically at odds with that of other fans. A Discworld game that was focused on internal politics at the Wyrmberg might be interesting to develop, but you’ll find yourself just pissing off the people who expected to be able to wander around Ankh-Morpork. Presumably though that’s not all that problematic for you – why would you want to implement a MUD based on an IP you weren’t yourself entirely enthused about?
Epitaph, ironically, does indeed have an all original game world, but one that is themed and inspired by a dozen or so highly influential post-apocalyptic works. Much as any modern work is a pastiche of tropes and homages, so too is Epitaph. Not having an actual canon other than what we construct ourselves is tremendously freeing, but it brings us back to the original issue – why should anyone be interested in our shitty zombie fan-fiction when they could be exploring (for example) a game world based entirely on World War Z? Why should people take a chance on our all original game world when the chances are so heavily stacked against it being any good?
I understand the desire for people to create all original worlds, and as a personal creative exercise it is unparalleled – I did the usual geeky teenage thing of creating my own campaign worlds for role playing games. I drew exciting maps and gave things names that were windswept and interesting, and pregnant with promise. It was tremendous fun, and a great outlet. It’s a different thing entirely though to expect my terribly derivative worlds to be entertaining to anyone else.
Perhaps it’s because most MUDs are fantasy based, but after all these years I tend to see all these all original worlds as just a shuffling of scrabble tiles, with various kind of flavourings added to the rack you build. Shake the bag, pull out your two tiles – oh look, our dwarfs are cannibals. Shake the bag, pull out the tiles. Our elves are steampunk. Shake the bag – our orcs are vegetarian. Add the flavouring – look, our world is GrimDark. I honestly believe there is nothing new under the sun in the sphere of fantasy, and I find it tremendously difficult to get excited about which deity in your fictional pantheon did what to which race to create what interesting event. I think at this point you’d need to be a literary talent of unfeasible imagination to do anything genuinely new with fantasy, and so the prospect of taking a deep breath and ploughing through yet another dull, derivative novella of reshuffled fantasy stereotypes is unappealing to the point of harrowing. I’d much rather have something familiar on which to hang my hat.
The same problem exists in sci-fi and space opera settings, although it’s perhaps a little less pronounced because it’s a less drearily familiar setting for games. There’s still room to create genuinely engaging syntheses of concepts, but the exploration space is getting smaller every passing day, and there are already franchises of IP that I’d be more interested in exploring. I’d have no interest at all in your ‘all original space western’,but I could very easily be talked into giving your Firefly MUD a try. I’m not interested in your ‘post apocalyptic western’ MUD, but try to stop me logging on to your Dark Tower MUD.
For our purposes here, one of the reasons we’ve gone with an all original world is simple freedom from consequences – while Terry Pratchett is very accommodating about things that he has no official knowledge of, the sword of Damocles is forever hanging over Discworld MUD because Sir Terry won’t be around forever. If it turns out his estate is less forgiving than he is, then that puts everyone in an unfavourable position. Epitaph is entirely original because I didn’t want to be put in a similar situation by basing it on existing IP. If I want to torture people by publishing Epitaph novels, I want to have the freedom to do that. If I want to publish the Epitaph Survival Guide (which is a MUD development text of 500 or so pages – you’ll find it at http://www.monkeys-at-keyboards.com if you’re interested), then I want to be able to do that without worrying about the bits of the game world I have incorporated into the chapters.
I don’t make the claim that our ‘all original world’ is going to be a selling point, because it might well have the opposite effect. Picking your setting, like everything else you do as a game developer, is a complicated decision, and it’s entirely up to you to work out where the balance between ease of recruitment and developmental freedom should lie.