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The IP Advantage in Virtual Worlds

July 19, 2007

While I’m still thinking about the benefits of being a 3D virtual world and whether or not developers have taken full advantage of the medium, I’m going to turn my attention back to how a well-known IP/brand can be extremely advantageous.

I’m talking about BarbieGirls.com and Nicktropolis specifically here, the former claimed to have 3 million sign-ups in its first 60 days of existence and according to Raph Koster this claim is grounded in fact! The latter, according to this rather good piece in the Guardian, has over 4 million users (I’m assuming this figure came from the Wikipedia article) since January this year, although the beta was around from 2006.

Presumably the key to these virtual worlds’ success is that they are very, very well known and very, very popular brands for their demographics. What they certainly are not is groundbreaking, they could well be based on the same software for all their similarities, isometric virtual worlds, limited avatar customisation, earning virtual currency through games and of course socialising. To be fair, the audience probably don’t want and would struggle to cope with ‘groundbreaking’, I imagine that this is most users first virtual world experience after all. But rather than seeing their simplicity as a problem perhaps it is actually key to the success of a virtual world based on an IP; as much as I hate going over old territory would Star Wars Galaxies have been more successful if it had simply followed the Everquest MMORPG model?

I haven’t seen any figures for Lord of the Rings Online although it’s clearly sold well, and there is much debate about Jeffrey Steefel’s quote that LoTRO is “…probably the second highest volume ever for an MMO”, but so far it seems to have been received far more positively than both Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online despite being described as little more than World of Warcraft in Middle Earth’s clothes by many of its detractors. Maybe when it comes to well-known and well-loved IPs it’s enough to give players the opportunity to interact with their favourite world and be part of the story without complicating things too much or taking away from its ‘spirit’, to use the fanboy term.

It will be interesting to see how forthcoming IP MMORPGs such as Age of Conan, Warhammer and Pirates of the Caribbean work out. The first 2 are less well known IPs than say Lord of the Rings or Barbie so it may be that they can innovate with less to lose. I know little about the Pirates of the Caribbean MMO, but as it is Disney produced I’m expecting them to take a fairly orthodox approach, backed by shitloads of marketing of course.

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