Mobile and handheld games are far and away the most popular forms of electronic entertainment on the planet. As much as we MMO players might feel smug about World of Warcraft's playerbase, as much as console gamers might like to revel in the trajectory of Wii sales, both markets are peanuts in comparison to the mobile/handheld market. Let's face it: everyone has a cell phone. Even in developing nations, the ratio of people to phones is approaching 1:1. Every single one of those devices is a gaming platform. The handheld consoles purpose-built for gaming aren't quite as popular, but their relatively inexpensive price tags and portability make them far and away the best selling specific-gaming devices on the planet. Every one of these millions of devices is a potential MMO client. The era of handheld MMO gaming isn't a matter of 'if', but 'when'. Let's look at the field ...
The DSi is the newest kid on the block, a significant update to the tried and true DS Lite. The Lite has millions of units in the field today, easily the most popular handheld console on the market. The improvements in the DSi are going to make it even more popular: an SD card slot and built-in memory, not one but two built-in cameras, a thinner profile and (of course) a touch screen. You can see full details of the DSi's announcement at Joystiq, with additional information at DS Fanboy. DSF has a list of the announced games for the DS upgrade as well. Though there are no MMOs on that list ... there are some already on the way.
The catch with currently announced "MMOs" for Nintendo's handheld is that they aren't actually Massive. MMO developers are looking at the handheld as a way to grow their brand without actually providing the Massive experience. Both MapleStory and Ragnarok Online, for example, are slated to be represented in Mini-Multiplayer Online format. These 'micro' MMOs will feature four-player online capabilities, allowing gamers to have gaming experiences very similar to what are offered by their big brothers, only in a format the DS can handle.
Ultimately the DS as an MMO platform is more potential than anything else. Think about Facebook games, though, and you might have some idea of what "Massive" games will look like when they come to Nintendo's little-machine-that-could. The camera and built-in casual audience seems like the perfect fit for a picture-taking social title or a puzzle-and-location based title. Imagine going to a downtown area in a major metropolis and 'fighting' against nearby players by engaging in puzzle games. Combinations of 'alternate reality gaming' and videogaming on the go will (almost inevitably) become very common on platforms like the DSi.
We can't step away from Nintendo's beast without talking a little bit about the ultimate use of the DSi in an MMO context: crafting. If you've ever played a puzzle game on the DS, you already know how much fun the touch screen makes what could be otherwise a very 'rote' process. Now imagine combining that amusement level with a title like Three Rings' Puzzle Pirates, or a title with the crafting depths of Star Wars Galaxies. Imagine a DS client for your favorite AAA MMO that lets you craft 'on-the-go', keeping up with orders and raising your crafting skill while commuting to work in the morning. If it's obvious enough for us to think of it, you know someone is already working on it out there ...
Sony's pet handheld platform is certainly the most tech-heavy offering for a possible MMO market. With the largest, crispest screen and the most advanced processor, the PSP 3000 is going to be the platform of choice for MMOs that try to do something flashy. While the iPhone and DSi are going to have to rely on 'social' hooks to bring in gamers, Sony's machine will be able to offer some of the degree of immersion that gamers are so used to in their online games. Aside from its graphical specs, the PSP 3000 offers similar offerings to the other handhelds: an optional camera, a memory slot, etc. What the PSP has as its secret MMO weapon isn't on the platform ... it's in the corporation.
John Smedley was just recently in the news announcing SOE's intention to bring a portion of the Free Realms experience to the handheld. The SOE San Diego studio is already a prolific mobile developer. It's not one of the company's more 'well known' aspects, but they're the visionaries behind titles like Snoop Dog Cruisin'. It's a small leap from that kind of gameplay to the PSP 3000. With the company's new commitment to 'outside the box' MMO development it's a sure thing that Free Realms is just the beginning of what we can expect from the house that EQ built.
The PSP 3000 may be the best platform to hook the casual MMO market up with the big-spending loose-wallet hardcore gaming marketplace. Like the DS, there are plans to bring MMOs to Sony's handheld in the form of 'micro' experiences. Right now the most visible of these projects is Phantasy Star Universe, a 'micro' multiplayer online game in the same vein as the offerings coming to the DS. Shrinking down these hardcore games to micro size will, without a doubt, prepare the way for PSP acceptance of 'full' MMO functionality when those games hit the market.
If you aren't already an iPhone owner, you want to be one. It's hard not to adopt that posture, given the explosive popularity of Apple's cellphone renaissance. It's a 'perfect storm' of features and technology: a touch screen, a crisp display, the App Store, the iTunes music store, AT&T's email and internet access all combine to offer the ultimate online/offline device. It's a toy compared to the business functionality of a Blackberry, but ultimately toys are what we're talking about here. It's also, without a doubt, the most likely destination for a full-on MMO in the next year or two. Rapid low-cost development is possible for the platform via Apple's SDK. The constant presence of an iPhone in your pocket is a guarantee that you'll participate in any loaded online world.
It should be no surprise, then, that iPhone MMOs are already on the way. Massively's own TurpsterVision just recently did a humorous video presentation on a sort of 'half-way' MMO already on the market. Full MMO functionality is planned for Aurora Feint in the future. EVE Online players already have Apps that allow them to track their skill training - how long with it be before they can actively change their training via the intuitive iPhone interface? Icarus Studios already has an iPhone interface for their MMO middleware, Second Life has been run on the device ... massive experiences are already on the way for Apple's juggernaut.
The beauty of the iPhone as a gaming platform really is its ubiquity. If you own one, you're going to have it by your side some statistically large percentage of your life. Having this device by your side day in and day out changes your expectations of what you want to 'do' with your gaming time. iPhone MMOs, even more than on the DS, will be extensions of our social experiences and real-life interactions. Being able to hop into your gameworld of choice for five minutes on the morning trainride, slipping into a virtual world on your smoke break ... this is the kind of iPhone massive experience you're going to see quite a lot of within the next few years.
Ultimately, while a lot of handheld MMO gaming is still just potential and futurism, the roots of this kind of experience are already here. That is to say, this will happen. This isn't idle speculation: the multi-billion dollar cross-pollination between the mobile gaming and MMO markets will happen sooner rather than later. This three-way fight between two warlords of the gaming world and the world's premier consumer electronics maker will be amazing to watch, but for MMO gamers it's going to produce huge dividends. If ultimately the goal of MMO developers and players is to introduce more people to online gaming, the introduction of an internet-ready device into every pocket in America can only be a good thing.
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