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June 24 2011

Firefly MMORPG "revived"... without any licensing. A post on links to the site and the press release (pdf), saying DarkCryo "is seeking official endorsement by 20th Century Fox and Mutant Enemy Inc, however it will proceed in the interim under fair use as an unauthorized canonical parody." BTW here's a trailer for a previously announced Serenity MMO that was in development from 2006-2008.

I make online games for a living.

I'd like to make a licensed Firefly/Serenity game.

Projects like this make that less likely to happen. =(
How does reminding 20th Century Fox, who is sitting on the licensing and has been for years, that there is a market for such a project make an official game any less likely? The proliferation of fanmade items, be it games, books, podcasts, etc., is what keeps fandoms alive during periods of studio disinterest...

I can't imagine there would be many gamer fans who wouldn't jump at an official title should one ever appear, regardless of any fan efforts floating around in the interim.

[ edited by hiddenicon on 2011-06-25 04:13 ]
I recently made a video using the basement scenes from the Buffy episode Same Place, Same Time and put them in split screen so you can see to two versions together.

After one week and 50 views it was taken down from infringing on 20 Century Fox's copyright.

If they wouldn't let me have a small video under fair use, this is going to get crushed harder than Wash's ribcage.

@hiddenicon As you can tell from my example, they don't want fanmade anything using there property. There were two videos of alternate openings to the show Lost mimicking the Buffy and Dollhouse openings and those were taken down too. I'm just glad that cool Buffy vs. Edward (of Twilight) yet survives.
In before
, however it will proceed in the interim under fair use as an unauthorized canonical parody

Good luck with that.

Btw have a look at this video.
Maybe they'll secure the rights (hint: nobody hold their breath). Otherwise they'll be landed on from a great height in short order.

[ edited by Saje on 2011-06-25 08:57 ]
Simon, what's most interesting to me is that video specifically says it isn't the MMO announced in 2007, which would be a reference to the Multiverse one. So there were two attempts underway at about the same time, neither going anywhere.

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2011-06-25 09:00 ]
Licensing can be a curse. I added the link to your entry. It's an interesting historical footnote.
My understanding is that Multiverse actually got the license from 20th -- Fox are quoted on their press released. But then Universal got mad, because they had been shopping a similar license for Serenity.

Anyway, parody is not an acceptable legal argument for this. They should not face off to 20th or Uni with that.

HOWEVER they could just make it anyway, and give everything away. Most game licenses are only enforced when a license is sold to a company. Edit: just been looking at their website, it's a paid venture. Nuuuuuuuuuuuurrgh.

[ edited by gossi on 2011-06-25 10:31 ]
This is... interesting.

I'm not very familiar with game development intrigue, being only a mild gamer, but I have managed to become very jaded about licensing and copyright law in recent years. I doubt that these folks will be allowed to continue.

I think this is particularly disappointing because a Firefly MMORPG would be awesome. And it would also probably do pretty well. There is a significant subset of nerds that absolutely love firefly. There is also quite a bit of overlap between these people and gamers, especially online gamers. (Interestingly, I've found that many people who love Firefly have no interest whatsoever in any of Joss's other work.) So I have no doubt that this would be successful.

Then again, the question of quality is a big one. I wouldn't want them to make a Firefly MMO that sucked just because they knew it would sell. That is a fate common of licensed games, and one I would hate to see befall Firefly. Not especially related to the topic at hand, just something that occurred to me.
I got this in my email.

One of the designers at my company (Online Alchemy) created the trailer posted on Youtube a few weeks ago and which you referenced (thanks for doing so). The reasons we didn't post it earlier were stated in the video. In short, while we did a lot of work on this, had a great meeting with Joss about it, and had a strong working relationship with Universal, the rights are tangled between Universal and Fox and that killed the project. Most people would think this would be a simple matter to resolve, but many months and expensive lawyers later, I can say that unfortunately that's not the case.

I'm not going to go into all the gory details (of which, sadly, there are more than a few) about past Firefly/Serenity MMO projects, but will say a few things. First, we worked with Multiverse for a while, and jointly pitched our design to Fox, who were uninterested. Multiverse never secured the rights to the property, press releases to the contrary. They had the right to try to raise funding to secure the rights, but were unable to do so. After the talks with Fox fell apart, we turned to Universal on our own, met with Joss, and pushed the project forward. We never announced it, feeling that it was more prudent to wait until we had something definitive to say. Then the legal issues between Universal and Fox came up, and eventually scuttled the project.

It's too bad too; IMO there are few TV or movie properties better suited for an MMO (and I have surveyed literally thousands of such properties). One of my designers has said this is the only canceled project that has made her cry. Having projects die is commonplace in the games industry; this one for some reason was special. We've all moved on now, but we're still sorry we weren't able to bring this one to fruition.

This latest "revived" project is just more evidence of the depth of feeling for Firefly among the Browncoats. Unfortunately, starting a project without the legal right to do so (to say nothing of not having an experienced team or funding) only guarantees heartache and failure. I'd wish this new team the best with their dreams, but I know where this train goes. Putting up the website is fun, gathering the team is heady, and dreaming about what could be is glorious, if premature. I still hope that someone will revive the TV series itself and/or make games about it, much as other science fiction properties have been revived. It could happen, someday. But this project isn't it. Never lose hope -- but hope in the right things.

Here's the original press release from Multiverse, back from 2006 (the same day Flanvention collapsed, I think), where they claimed to have "optioned the rights from Twentieth Century Fox Licensing & Merchandising to develop an MMOG based on Firefly". It went out in the trades and quoted the VP of New Media Enterprises at 20th Century Fox Licensing & Merchandising, so if they didn't actually have the license Fox probably should have put the record straight.

I actually suspect the idea Multiverse didn't have the license is misinformation.

PS: I agree with the closing sentiment of the email Simon posted. If this was a fan thing which was going to be posted online free, I'd say knock yourself out. Fox or Universal would only really push matters if they sold a license to somebody. But since this is an MMO based on a paid model, it can't actually, you know, happen.

I still think a big budget Serenifly game by somebody like Rockstar could tell amazing stories. "Red Dead Redemption" proved video games can hire actual writers and make emotionally compelling stories and worlds -- that game hit me like a punch to the liver -- and L.A. Noire proves you can bring in actors to epic effect.

[ edited by gossi on 2011-06-25 17:34 ]
The mail Simon posted above was written by me (this is my shiny new account here).

Gossi, what I wrote is accurate. The quote you provided says essentially the same thing, though the press release slightly overstates the case: Multiverse "optioned the rights" -- that is, they had a limited time in which to raise money to secure the rights. This is a significant distinction, but one which is often glossed over in the popular media.

In any event, it never came to be. We kept hope alive on our project for a long time -- hoping we'd get to press Wash's miracle button -- but ultimately this proved impossible. For the future, who knows?
Multiverse came to speak to us at B3 (which replaced Flanvention of course) and it certainly sounded as though they had the rights but did say that it was going to take years to do properly.
Optioning = calling dibs. FYI. Doesn't mean the rights were purchased.
This is setting me up for one more big disappointment.
Oooooh. Thanks, alchemist, IrrationiTV. I did not realise this. I gather Multiverse is now a couple of people sat in an office somewhere trying to get more funding. A lot of people there got laid off. Their software development kit hasn't been updated for years, so I guess the Buffy MMO is dead too now.

[ edited by gossi on 2011-06-25 21:19 ]
I don't have any inside info on how things are there now, gossi, but I believe what you said is accurate. I don't think a full design for the Buffy MMO was ever produced, much less any other work on it (FWIW, I did do a design overview for that game as well, and for a couple of other properties owned by Fox).

Fortunately, there are more games to be made than time to make them, which takes the sting out of this one... a little anyway.
As long as I'm talking about all this, I figure folks here would like to know the Joss angle: Aside from this project having a special place in my heart, I have to say that our meeting with him was one of the highlights of my career. He's as sharp and hilariously witty as you'd expect. He's not a gamer, but he got right away what we were doing (our one sentence overview of the game: "it's about personal stories -- with shooting"). He's extremely creative but also open to others' creativity, and isn't full of himself or anything like that. We really had a great time; our meeting was scheduled for an hour and went almost three.

And, as so often seems to happen in the Whedon-verse, it was after that pinnacle that the wheels kinda came off the project. So it goes.
...our meeting was scheduled for an hour and went almost three.

It's funny how often I've heard someone say essentially this.
alchemist, I've met joss a few times for weirdly reasons -- your description is indeed correct. He's a really great guy. He also has a lot of knowledge of replatforming things (movies to TV, TV to movies, TV to comics, comics to movies etc) so, ya know, I still hold out hope for a joss involved game at some point. It's still very much a developing area, but I still think 'Red Dead' showed the possibility to realise a whole other hand-to-mouth open world, and tell compelling stories in it.

I held together the Browncoat community for Universal between 2004-2006, and I know they really did want to sell the rights for video games. They asked me about it. And then I never heard about that again after a certain point.
Seeing this MMO effort soldiering on, albeit in highly likely copyright violation, the thing I keep thinking is how... utterly crappy a job I've always thought 20th and/or Mutant Enemy and/or Dark Horse and/or Joss has done with licensed merchandise for "Buffy" and "Firefly". I mean, bajillion dollar statuettes, ouija boards, tarot decks, these are all really cool, and would sell really well if maybe there was a Joss-inspired version of Cracker Barrel to sell them in. But I've wanted some sort of nextgen console game or an MMO for a while, I would have actually bought bona fide action figures for my nephews to get them into it.
Let me toss in a tiny bit of "I've been making licensed games off and on since 1998" into my prior comment.

In the end, it comes down to two things: love and money. If you have enough love, as expressed through your designs, the talent you've acquired and the ability to impress the creative side of the license, you make it past the door. But to actually get out the door with a license, you need money. You need to have a plan in place that gives your company enough money to exist while also compensating the license holders enough to make it worth their while.

And, in this case, you would almost-certainly need to compensate BOTH Fox and Universal. Instead of the 5-15% royalty rate, you're now talking 10-30%. In most game license deals, that money comes right off the top -- oftentimes after taxes but always before everything else.

(I was involved in a deal where our game paid a lower royalty percentage on the first [x amount of dollars], a highest amount on the second [x amount of dollars] and a middling amount on the rest. The smaller the companies involved, and the fewer lawyers involved, the more creative and flexible the deal can be.)

So, to sum it all up for anyone who wants to do a Firefly/Serenity game:

#1: Be absolutely sure you involve both studios, or have the greatest plan ever to make it clear that your game is based on ONLY Firefly or ONLY Serenity. (The Serenity paper RPG did this, and I don't know how they got away with it.)
#2: Do not announce anything publicly until something is signed in stone. Ever.
#3: Be prepared to be able to prove six-figure upside for each studio.
#4: Don't be a new company. If you are, partner with someone who is not.
#5: Be a company. A group of fans might be able to do something interesting under the radar, but if you actually intend to get size and make money, you need to be an actual company.
#6: I know nothing of the behind-the-scenes of Browncoats: Redemption, but it is for sale and is nearly-canon. On the other hand, it is nonprofit and for charity, so... depending on your goals those lessons may not apply. If they do, maybe go ask them how they did it.


- Andrea
Andrea, good stuff - I agree with your numbered points. I'd add that you should never assume you're small enough or that the studios are benevolent enough to let you continue with an unlicensed effort, no matter if it's a commercial project or not. Sometimes they will, for awhile. At least until their lawyers turn their gaze toward you...

I have to say that if this situation was as simple (!) as going with only canon from the movie (Universal) or the TV show (Fox), or compensating both studios, in our case that might have been possible. As it was, the situation was more complicated and eventually intractable. I don't feel like I can say much about the details though, even at this late date.

Maybe someone someday will have better luck!
The licensing situation with Fox/Universal has historically been, well, a nightmare. It might actually be a tad easier now as a number of years has passed, and I gather Universal have let certain rights (e.g. new motion pictures) expire.

The reason that I say studios often turn a blind eye to small fan efforts is because they often have. E.g. fans spent years making a Halo RTS game (which never got released), then Bungie squashed shortly before the RTS game license sale (leading to Halo Wars) was announced.

That model doesn't apply here regardless though, due to the MMO aspect. And the parody thing doesn't work; it isn't a parody.

[ edited by gossi on 2011-06-26 00:53 ]
A Firefly parody MMO would be quite something though.
I am not a lawyer. That said, it would be very hard to use the parody defense on any project that is a derivative work from one medium into another. A parody Firefly movie? Sure thing. (If one can make Scary Movie why can't one make Big Damn Movie?) But an MMO based on someone's work? Nuh-uh.
It's not so much that it's changing media (political cartoons have no problem with this) or derivative (most parodies are to some extent), it's just that as gossi says, it's not actually a parody (which is
1. a humorous or satirical imitation of a serious piece of literature or writing: his hilarious parody of Hamlet's soliloquy.
2. the genre of literary composition represented by such imitations.
3. a burlesque imitation of a musical composition.

It's not satire or reportage either (and probably not art or 'transformative' either).
Someday, some game designer is going to try out that transformative-use defense. It is not going to be me. (Well, it won't be me for anything Buffy/Angel/Firefly/Dollhouse, anyways. =) )
I'm late to the ball on this, but I wonder if Alchemist could share what he saw of the Buffy MMORPG?

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