Another day, another MMOG canceled. In case you missed the news, Microsoft recently announced their abandonment of the Marvel-based superhero MMOG under development by Cryptic Studios. Gamespy recently posted a roundtable discussion that speculated on the reasons for the cancellation of this once highly anticipated game. During the discussion, Gamespy staffers cited possible cancellation reasons such as Microsoft's unrealistic monetary expectations (based on the high bar set by World of Warcraft), an unwillingness on Microsoft's part to develop and innovative within the genre, and an inability to implement a successful product on both the PC and Xbox 360. The element of the discussion that intrigued me most dealt with the difficulties encountered when MMOGs try crossing the console barrier. One of the prohibitive elements to a successful console implementation is the incompatibility between PC and console controls.
Most major, mainstream MMOGs like Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcarft, and Everquest have complex interfaces organized in a very flat, context-free structure. Movement, combat and non-combat functions are accomplished via the classic mouse and keyboard control combination. Most functions, especially in regard to combat, are accessed via a string of action functions located on "hot bars" or "skill bars". These functions can either be clicked upon directly with the mouse or bound to specific keyboard keys. Although there are occasional exceptions, each key has only one particular function, regardless of the player's situation within the game. Compare the large number of actions located on skill bars to the number of buttons available on a standard PS3 or Xbox 360 controller and you can easily see where basic interface design decisions just don't correlate well between consoles and PCs. It's not that one interface is better than another; they're just inherently different. In attempting to build a game that works on both PCs and consoles you've got to design to the least common denominator. If the console's controller can't support 50 buttons for different actions or can't accommodate quickly selecting actions via a heads-up-display, then you've got to streamline the experience or make it more context sensitive and intuitive. This act of streamlining an interface can only serve to benefit both console and PC gamers in the long haul.