Hard Project: Firefly
The announcement of Firefly Online way back in the day seemed like a marriage of the most obvious IP in the world to the most obvious game type. A series that’s all about heading out into the great unknown for various purposes married to a genre that loves to send you off and wandering. So when the game was released, it… well, we never got there, actually. It’s been started and stopped so many times that it resembles nothing so much as the engine room of the eponymous ship class.
Weirder still, the franchise has never had any sort of game made, not even the most basic adaptation. That’s odd, to say the least. Maybe not entirely odd given the fact that we’re talking about a franchise only in the strictest sense of the term, but you’d think the number of passionate fans would align to make at least some sort of game come out of this. And yet it’s never happened. The closest we’ve gotten are the many started and cancelled incarnations of an online game based in the universe. Why?
Dependent on one writer
Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first, so we can move on. Talking about Firefly without talking about Joss Whedon is impossible. The franchise is his brainchild, but circumstances haven’t led to it having the same kind of legs that other franchises do.
Case in point: Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry created the franchise, and he was heavily involved with the original series and most of The Next Generation. But there have been more movies and shows made without his involvement than with. A lot of people have done things with the universe created by Roddenberry above and beyond what he dreamed up. I’ll happily argue that Deep Space Nine was the best series of the lot, and Roddenberry wasn’t really involved with it at all beyond a vague notion being tossed around before he died.
Firefly is different. There’s been one person at the helm all the way along. This is something that can be changed, of course, but it’s also something that has in large part defined the series from the beginning. Almost any project involving the universe or the characters would strongly lean toward having Whedon involved, and outside of occasionally putting out another comic book starring the main cast there’s no sign he’s very interested in doing so. Which is understandable, considering that it’s one of those projects that just never seems to work out.
A great way to lose money
There’s a great argument to be found online about how Firefly is not the best thing ever and not something that we want revived as much as we think we do. Which I can certainly agree with on many points; part of the love that the franchise still has is that the movie and half-season of episodes don’t have the time to ever be less than engaging. But the series has turned out to be very good at doing one thing: losing money and failing to find an audience.
The show was cancelled because no one watched it. Then a movie was made, and it failed to even make back its budget. I don’t know for a fact that the comics have failed to make money, but let’s just go ahead and assume they were also a wash. Who in the audience would like to drop a lot of money on this game to see if it succeeds now? Anyone?
Sure, there’s a super-devoted fanbase, but that’s shrinking bit by bit every year. Not because love for the series diminishes, but because there are so many living franchises to be focused on instead. Every year passes and there’s that much less reason to hold on to the faith for a franchise that was great, sure, but it’s never coming back. It’ll never be the same again. There’s that sense that maybe it’s time to move on, let it go, turn away and slam the door, and so forth. And every year the cost of acquiring that IP looks a little higher and a little more pointless.
Uncomfortable in any genre
But let’s say you can circumvent all of that. You’re still left with the problem of what sort of game to make, a problem exacerbated because Firefly is a series in which the main characters lose. Constantly.
The plot of nearly every single episode consists not of successes, but of failures that aren’t nearly as bad as they could be. An entire comic was based around how weird it would be if suddenly the Serenity crew was actually successful, pulling off a heist that nets them more money than they expect… a story that ends with that money specifically taken away. Lose that and you lose something crucial to the perpetuation of the series… but that also makes it harder to put more sandboxy elements into any hypothetical game, because I assure you that players will quickly figure out how to have Serenity flying around with buckets of fuel and money from success to success.
Heck, if a game keeps snatching your victories and telling you that you barely made it over and over, it feels like the game is being unfair. Even if it is a game based on a bunch of losers in a junky ship.
It goes further than that, though. Much like Transformers, here’s a franchise that doesn’t seem well-suited to any game, where the main draw of the series has always been the rich interplay of characters rather than action sequences or anything similar. You could reduce the game to a pseudo-dating sim fairly easily, but that’s not going to make many people happy. Turn it into a third-person sandbox with shipping sim elements, and it’s not really Firefly any more, just a limited version of Elite with some licensed characters in there. Cover-based third-person-shooter? Gunfights in Firefly are quick, brutal, and lethal; mowing down hordes of enemies only makes sense if you’re dealing with River during a rare moment of lucidity.
To be brief, for all the love people have for the franchise, it’s a very character-driven and writer-driven setting that requires fidelity to a series that doesn’t map nicely onto games. Oh, and it’s a licensed property that hasn’t been on the air in any form for years, so that doesn’t help.