Several weeks ago at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) Steve Jobs announced the 3G iPhone. The announcement wasn't much of a shock to industry experts since other cell phones have been using 3G networks for several years. In order to remain competitive, it was only natural for Apple to hop on the 3G bandwagon.
What was, perhaps, more unexpected was the consumer friendly price point of $199.00. Of course there are a few not-so-hidden caveats involved with that sweet price point. First you have to qualify for the subsidized price, then there's the mandatory two year contract with AT&T and an increase in the price of the iPhone's data plan. Regardless, what it means to gamers is a budding mobile gaming platform. The iPhone now has its own software developer's kit (SDK), 3G network capabilities, and is priced to sell. Increased accessibility, higher data transfer speeds, and the ability for developers to conjure up new applications can only mean good things for the future of mobile MMOGs – especially on the iPhone.
Of course, maybe the future of mobile MMOGs seems so bright because its current state is so dim. As someone who has never even attempted to play an MMOG on a mobile device, I'm curious as to what exactly is out there and if anything is worth my time. If you're curious too, join me for some more info on mobile MMOGs after the break. I'll discuss the current state and limitations of the platform, some existing offerings, and take a look at what the future might hold.
Are we there yet?
When it comes to mobile MMOGs, many people aren't even aware of their existence. A primary reason for this is that the technology supporting online mobile gaming is still in its infancy. In fact, according to a survey by M:Metrics, Inc. in January of 2008 only 13.1% of mobile phone users used their phone to obtain news or information via their phone's browser, and only 6% use their mobile's browser to search the Internet for information. As you would expect, that percentage dives lower and lower the more complicated the mobile application becomes. Features like mobile TV and social networking sites are seldom used at all.
If we look at users equipped with smart-phones like the Treo or Blackberry and media rich phones like the iPhone, the numbers take a huge jump. According to that same study, 84% of iPhone users use their iPhone to browse the web as do 58% of smart-phone users. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that this increase in use correlates directly to an improved user interface and the hardware to make it happen. If you're using a flip phone with a tiny display and 12 input keys you're probably not going to be doing much other than making calls, texts, and inputting contacts. If you've got a 3.5 inch widescreen display and a touch based interface, the options naturally expand.
Of course, browsing the Net is one thing and gaming is another. MMOGs are notorious for the large number of buttons required to manipulate actions within the game. That will have to change if an MMOG can be successfully implemented on a mobile device. There was a video making the rounds on YouTube of a guy who managed to get WoW to run on his iPhone. While it looked cool at first, watching him attempt to "play" the game on his iPhone was incredibly painful. It was all this pinching and scrolling and zooming in and out. It looked like an absolute chore just to accomplish the basics. Obviously, developers will have to simplify the inputs necessary to control their games, or make the few inputs available very context sensitive in order to work properly.
Up to this point, we've been discussing the the limitations of mobile gaming devices primarily in terms of mobile phones, but lets not forget that there are dedicated mobile gaming platforms already out there. Nintendo's DS has been around as long as World of Warcraft, debuting in the fall of 2004. It's a Wi-Fi equipped device that already sports online gaming. Mario Kart DS, and Phantom Hourglass are two of several examples of games you can play over the Net with a few friends. As of yet, however, there are no massively multiplayer games available for the DS. It was rumored that the upcoming Maplestory DS would be an MMOG. Unfortunately for MMOG fans, the game will primarily be single player with a limited online component. Likewise, Sony's PSP is another dedicated mobile gaming device with Wi-Fi capability, but no commercially released MMOGs.
Aside from the gaming device itself, what other hardware considerations are there for successful MMOG gaming? Well, assuming we have a decent mobile device capable of providing us with graphics, audio and a decent user interface we'll also need a network capable of zippy data transmission speeds in order to play games with anyone other than ourselves. Latency is always an issue when playing an MMOG and even on broadband networks it can still be an issue in modern day PC based MMOGs. The advent of 3G networks will certainly help in the latency department, but we're still a ways off from true broadband speeds over a cellular network. We're also a ways off from having 3G networks in all cities in the U.S. Depending on your cell phone provider, you may or may not have access to a 3G network. Broadband via Wi-Fi is an excellent alternative, but there's a reason why Wi-Fi hotspots are called hotspots; they aren't ubiquitous. If you frequent a local coffee shop or travel via airlines quite a lot, then Wi-Fi might be a viable mobile gaming solution. If you live out in the sticks in North Dakota – not so much.
So we know that mobile gaming hardware either already exists (in terms of the DS and PSP), or is rapidly evolving to better suit mobile gaming (in terms of smart/media rich phone technology). Despite that, we haven't seen much in the way of mobile MMOG development. So what's another hindrance to mobile MMOGs beside the hardware itself? How about time to play? Most modern MMOGs are huge timesinks requiring months, if not years to reach maximum level. Typically users will play for several hours at a time while striving toward that goal. For most of us, gaming on the go occurs in those small random bits of time while waiting for something to happen. We might be waiting to go home while riding a bus. We might be waiting for our food at a restaurant. We might be waiting for our doctor in a waiting room. We might be waiting for our boss to bust us for goofing off at work. In each situation, the gaming typically occurs during a short time span which could be easily interrupted. There are other instances when we're gaming away from home where we might have an extended period of time to ourselves. Perhaps we're staying a night in a hotel, or we're visiting relatives for Christmas break. In those instances we may have several hours of potential playtime. For the most part though, the playtime is likely to occur in short bursts.
That doesn't necessarily mean that it's impossible for a mobile MMOG to work. In fact, it might be an excellent selling point. Imagine working away at a character for several months in those little bits of free time. Instead of just a high score in Bejeweled, you've got a swanky little warrior with some neat goodies that you've gathered over those little bits of playtime. You've got a feeling of progression and accomplishment that comes from stacking up all those little bits of playtime. Of course, the developers would have to adjust their tactics to suit this play-in-bursts mobile mentality. It wouldn't be reasonable to expect players to group up for dungeons that took a half an hour to complete. However, it might be possible to have a short, ten minute dungeon; or give players the ability to save progress and come back to the game later – essentially pausing the game until everyone can regroup.
So what's out there now?
Thus far I've identified a few key components necessary to the success of a mobile MMOG in terms of hardware, user interface, network availability, and time available to play. So you've got an iPhone, Blackberry, or Treo, a PDA or maybe even a Sony PSP or Nintendo DS. The next question – what's out there to play?
Unfortunately right now, the answer is simply not much. Fortunately for those of us addicted to MMOGs, there are ways to get a fix while on the go. In some instances there are full fledged homebrew MMOGs out there developed by fellow gamers. In other instances there are ways to access a few existing MMOGs and interface with them in limited ways. Without further ado, here are a few mobile MMOG options:
Shadow of Legend: This is an original 2D, fantasy MMOG that can be played via mobile devices with Windows Mobile operating systems such as smartphones and PDAs. It can also be played on PC. Players pick one of two factions, Alliance or Chaos, to experience SoL's combat, questing, PvP and market systems. There are four races and four classes to choose from. According to the developers there is no difference in the quality, content or interface between the PC and mobile platforms. The game is free to download and free to play. You can learn more by visiting the Shadow of Legend website.
Ragnarök Mobile Mage: Another 2D, fantasy themed MMOG that has some very attractive screenshots, this mobile MMOG lets users play in the Ragnarök universe while on the go. Details of what you can actually do in game are somewhat sketchy on the website. It appears as though it offers a simplistic combat system and you can get a feel for it via this YouTube video. Apparently you can earn in game Zeny and transfer it back to your online account, and its free to play. The game is apparently supported by ad revenue.
Second Life: A developer called Vollee has created a client for mobile phones that allows Second Life players to experience the game via a small client download called the Vollee Player. The Vollee Player does require a mobile device with 3G or Wi-Fi connections in order to work. Vollee claims that they're working with other developers to implement similar solutions for existing PC MMOGs. It may be possible that we'll see something similar for other popular titles in the near future. Although it hasn't been officially announced there are rumors that Vollee is working with Blizzard on a mobile client for WoW.
Eve Online: Eve Online's "Eve Mobile Skill Planner" (or EMSP) by Jaabaa allows Eve Online players to monitor a character's skill training, edit character implant information, track corp members and corp wallets among other things. It runs on smart phones (e.g., Blackberries), provided that they support MIDP 2.0 and CLDC 1.1.
A few other interesting mobile MMOGs to note include Ellark and a possible id Software mobile MMOG. Ellark is being developed by Square-Enix and is currently available only in Japan. It uses a uses a microtransaction system. Although we may not see this game in the U.S., we may see something similar if it's successful. There has also been some press about John Carmack's desire to produce a mobile MMOG for a number of years now, but whether any progress has been made is unknown. Apparently he's currently interested in iPhone development which may indicate a renewed interest in a mobile MMOG.
Now that the iPhone has a more consumer friendly price and developers have the tools to create applications for it, it's very likely we'll start to see more and more games developed for it, as well as other mobile devices. Hopefully we'll see more MMOGs developed exclusively for mobile platforms as well as an increase in applications that allow us to interface with our current desktop locked MMOGs.
For the time being though, there simply isn't a whole lot out there. One thing's for sure though, the more mobile our culture becomes, the more likely we'll see a demand for ways to kill time while on the go. Even if it's gaming in small segments of time, there's a market for mobile MMOGs. Here's to the future!
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.