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Taking an IP and making it your own

Cryptic Studios CEO Stephen D'Angelo on how Star Trek Online changed the dev's approach to licensing, and how that will shape its Magic: The Gathering MMORPG

"I love working with IPs as a developer," Cryptic Studios CEO Stephen D'Angelo told GamesIndustry.biz in a recent interview. "It probably shaves about a year off the development cycle because you don't have to do as much background and story development. That significantly lowers your development costs. It also gives you a core focus of what your game should be and gets everyone on your team really well aligned. It produces a stronger game and produces it faster. That for me is all win."

It's certainly been a winning strategy for Cryptic, which has an enviable track record for licensed games or MMORPGs, never mind the over-stuffed ossuary that is the field of licensed MMORPGs. After building its name on the original MMORPGs City of Heroes and City of Villains, Cryptic has been on an extended tour of other people's universes with Star Trek Online, Champions Online, and Neverwinter, set in the Forgotten Realms of Dungeons & Dragons. Today it announced the latest leg of that tour, an MMORPG based on the long-running card game Magic: The Gathering.

"It's hard to make one product that is everything a great IP is to everybody. So pleasing the fans is hard."

But for all the advantages of working with popular existing brands, D'Angelo conceded there are certain inevitable difficulties. While there's the obvious challenge of working with an IP holder and getting them to sign off on everything the studio wants to do with the game, there's also the fan base of the license, which has its own slightly different ownership and investment in the property.

"When we released Star Trek Online, some people thought of Star Trek as being all the humor of 'Trouble with Tribbles,'" D'Angelo said. "Some thought it was all the drama of their favorite episode. It's hard to make one product that is everything a great IP is to everybody. So pleasing the fans is hard.

"The other part of it is working with the IP holder. It's not just the approvals. When you're making a game as big as an MMO, you are pushing the boundaries of their IP in directions that they did not anticipate going. You're creating dozens or hundreds of characters they didn't have in their worlds, places they never had to go. And that's really hard on those IP holders when you're taking their baby and reworking it. That I think ends up being the biggest core challenge in working on these games, building a relationship where they're ok with you writing and re-writing large portions of their universe for them... The fans have their own view of what the IP is, and the IP holders have their view. It's a little different in that the fans typically embrace some elements of it that the IP holder may not even be thinking about, and the IP holder gets to view their world in a given way."

D'Angelo pointed to Star Trek-owning CBS as one partner that has been very open to creators' attempts to expand the universe, from the wide variety of merchandise on shelves to what they allow authors to do in official Star Trek novels. That open-ness allowed for Star Trek Online to thrive, D'Angelo said. The game is now seven years old, with 13 expansion "seasons" and some 140 or so episodes.

"We like to think we've graduated into the core IP," D'Angelo said, adding, "At this point, we are as much a part of the Star Trek brand as any of the television shows have been. We have at this point close to 20 of the actors that have played roles in those shows, all those episodes, and created an entire new chunk of the timeline. Our relationship with CBS has been fantastic and they've given us a lot of freedom to build out their universe. We certainly view ourselves as being a big part of it at this point."

"My intent is to go forward with a Magic game that is not about the card game. It's about jumping into the world and the fiction of Magic: The Gathering."

That wasn't the original intent for Star Trek Online, but it's formed a template the studio is deliberately trying to follow. D'Angeleo said that has absolutely changed not just the way the games are made, but the way Cryptic discusses partnerships with licensors from the very start.

"In many ways, it's our value sell when we talk with them. 'You've got a world, an IP that has a certain view on it. We want to come in, make it bigger, and bring it to a broader audience than your current channels allow.' That is literally what we go and sell," D'Angelo said.

There were two big factors working in Cryptic's favor when it comes to the Magic: The Gathering deal. First, the card game is owned by Wizards of the Coast, so the two companies had a working relationship from Neverwinter. Second, there's already a very literal translation of the Magic: The Gathering card game in Magic Online, so the only reason to have another game based on the property is if you want to expand on it.

"My intent is to go forward with a Magic game that is not about the card game," D'Angelo said. "It's about jumping into the world and the fiction of Magic: The Gathering. Look at Neverwinter. D&D is a pen-and-paper game where people make up characters on paper and tell stories. We took Neverwinter and we didn't copy the rules from the pen-and-paper game, how a strength stat works and so on. We instead created an excellent video game that captured the feeling of that world, of Forgotten Realms.

"We always try to look for what are the essential or core elements that make that IP sing. In Star Trek Online, it was trying to make starship combat feel amazing and let you experience being a captain. In Neverwinter, it was about being able to take those D&D stories people have heard and those many hundreds of novels out there, and let them jump into that world and be those characters using all the MMO tropes. In the Magic game, our goal is to let people be a Planeswalker, just like it says right there on the back of every package they ever print: 'You are a Planeswalker.'"

Even though Wizards of the Coast's Magic business unit is largely independent from its D&D group, Cryptic has seen some benefit from working with the same ownership twice. It has eliminated confidentiality concerns, so Cryptic has been able to share everything it's done with Neverwinter to help give the Magic team greater confidence in what they do and how they operate. And if Magic comes together well, it would only add to a track record that should give the studio that much more leverage in dealing with IP holders going forward.

"I think everybody has trouble letting go a little bit, so there's definitely a lot of reluctance there," D'Angelo said. "But if we do our jobs right, building prototypes and other previews, we sell them on how amazing it would be to see their IP in more ways and try to get them to buy into the idea that the cost of letting go a little bit has a huge benefit to them and the thing they love."

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