The Digital Continuum: Don't Fear The Re: Console


Massively Multiplayer Online Games have always been the slaves to their PC masters, rarely able to exist on anything other than the PC platform. That isn't to say there haven't been partial attempts in the past such as Final Fantasy XI, but since launch that game has been developed for three different platforms including the PC. Developers still have yet to create a console MMOG that becomes as financially successful as some of the more popular PC titles. In all reality, it still remains easier to make and maintain MMOGs for PCs. The reason MMOG developers find creating and sustaining their games on the PC easier is the very problem with a console exclusive.

When creating any Massively Multiplayer Online Game for the Xbox 360 or the Playstation 3 that problem happens to be that as advanced as those consoles are they do not offer the flexibility of a PC. A large part of Blizzard's longterm success with World of Warcraft comes from the depth of the community tools and game customization. It's the wonderful ability to alter your user interface and the incredibly addicting habit of alt-tabbing back and forth from game window, forum posts or online game guides. I'm personally unable count the number of times I've been playing City of Heroes windowed while listening to various albums, simultaneously browsing news, guild forum posts or maybe just checking my email. You may be able to get a browser onto your PS3 and you might manage custom music on both the 360/PS3 but in the end would it be as easy as a keystroke to flip back and forth between both of those functions?

Typically -- alright most of the time -- a developer knows that people who play their game will do so with other applications running alongside theirs. When it comes to a console MMOG the developer either has to build such functions into their game or just shrug and let the community figure out their own means of getting the same kind of functionality that their PC brethren get. This means that you'll either be keeping a laptop next to you while you play a console MMOG or you'll find yourself moving between a television and computer constantly. Now, there was a time when I lived in a tiny bedroom and my television was very close to my computer desk, but nowadays that just isn't the case. As far as customizing your game goes, well you can forget that one entirely on consoles.

What it all eventually boils down to is that the PC gaming platform is very willing to acquiescent to your personal preference of play. This is the primary reason MMOGs have only primarily existed on PCs since their incarnation as MUDS so very long ago, the platform allows for so many possibilities. Everything from the addition of various download-ready community-created game mods to the little things like deciding whether or not you'd like to play a game in full-screen or windowed mode. Massively Multiplayer Online gamers simply love being able to make all their own choices about how they're going to play their game, especially when they're forking over fifteen bucks a month.

A great example of this is Ventrilo, it allows a guild to create and moderate their own voice communication lines. Lately it's been popular to include voice chat via the actual game client. Tabula Rasa includes this feature and just recently World of Warcraft released it through the 2.2 patch as well. Before that Dungeons and Dragons Online shipped with voice and EVE Online was actually one of the first larger MMOs to patch it into their client. The two main questions are, "How popular will this feature be?" and "However popular the in-game voice chat is, will it be popular enough to justify further inclusion in upcoming releases?"

It really depends on ease of development and demand, but the subject of in-game voice chat is for another article some other time. The importance here is that it's a question of, "Do we include voice?" for MMOG development teams on PCs.

This brings us back to the issue at hand for console MMOGs of the future. Everything that's currently the status quo for a player on the PC platform is a different situation on consoles. Developers have to rethink how and what they add to their games altogether. Unlike the PC side of things, built in voice chat on consoles is an absolute must. So it becomes something of a whole different ball game once a developer decides to publish a console-only MMOG. Traditional combat systems with more actions and hot-keys then you can shake a thirty-foot-long stick at has to go out the door as well, unless you can ensure that your players have access to keyboard and mouse inputs. The list really goes on and on and that's probably the biggest hurdle; addressing that painfully long list line by line.

That isn't to say there aren't some serious virtues of being able to play a MMOG from the comfort of your favorite couch or reclining chair. Although that doesn't mean you can't do the same thing with a laptop or even a PC if you were so inclined. Most of us are probably sitting at a desk while playing EVE Online, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, etc. Still, I'm sure there are lots of players out there who would be enthralled by such a game experience.

The ultimate point is that until consoles become more flexible, which could be a very long time if it ever happens at all, the only feasible solution seems to be a somewhat unhinged breed of MMOG with manageable microtransactions. An online-only FPS with powerful built-in community tools would be an awesome starting point for a good console MMOG. I'm talking guild creation, personal profiles and a ranking system that ships to retail. It'll also need sets of tiered customizable weapons and equipment to earn. The game definitely needs to be free or very cheap to play with optional add-on packs every month or so for five or ten dollars (depending on the monthly fee). The packs could add whatever else the developers and community desire. However, it can't break the game if not purchased and must keep people coming back for more. This concept could easily be applied to generally any genre you wanted to use, the problem lies in implementation. Some games such as Hellgate: London have touched on this idea, but none have taken it to consoles exclusively and nailed said implementation just yet. I think that the first game to do so successfully will be the first of many more.

Whether or not that's a good thing remains unknown.

Every week Kyle Horner writes The Digital Continuum, looking to the past, present and future of all things Massively Multiplayer Online to bring you his take.

This article was originally published on Massively.