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MMObility: Mobile devices might breathe new life into older MMOs


One of the greatest things about the mobile market is the reappearance of older, single-player titles that are now being introduced to a new generation. Tablets and smartphones are quickly becoming go-to gaming devices offering not only more powerful processors and bigger screens but access to the internet and huge stores of digital goodies. Recently, I've been playing through titles I've missed, like Broken Sword, a point-and-click adventure game from 1996. Touch devices are proving to be perfect for many older-style games. We're simply replacing the mouse with the finger, and the move feels natural.

When I interviewed the Ultima Online team during a livestream this week, I asked Producer Bonnie Armstrong about a mobile version of the game. After all, I've played games, like Conquer Online, that look almost identical to Ultima Online, so I know it can be done. Her answer?
I would love to, personally. I think it would be pretty cool. I think somebody kind of joked around and said you know when somebody's 90 years old, they're going to be in an old folk's home playing UO on their phone. [...] That kind of sums us up.
There are many MMOs that I could see offering a mobile version. Would it be better or worse for these classic titles?

Horn screenshot
The first issue we'd have to figure out would be hardware. Could a modern-day tablet run an older MMO like EverQuest or Asheron's Call? It's hard to say, especially when you factor in the possibility of large groups of players, groups that constantly shift and put pressure on hardware. Sure, one of the newer quad-core tablets could probably crunch the graphics needed to take us through a one-on-one fight with a mob, but what would happen if we were joined by a handful of friends and ran into a dungeon? Heck, lag happens for a number of reasons, even on modern, powerful PCs. Some of that same, annoying lag could shut down a tablet.

I'll leave the techy nit-picking to those smart people who do the real work at a gaming studio. But essentially, the proof already exists that tablets can successfully transport us into massively multiplayer worlds. There are simpler titles like Warspear Online that feature basic graphics, and at the opposite end, we have slicker titles like Order and Chaos Online. Sure, the latter is not going to win any awards for originality, but I've always enjoyed Gameloft's ability to push mobile tech further even while essentially cloning other titles.

"How long have tablet computers been a common device? Not for long, but look at how far they've come in that time. Now imagine them in just five years."

As I mentioned earlier, an Ultima Online mobile version pretty much already exists, at least graphically, in a game like Conquer Online. The next step would be slightly more intense, 3-D games like Dark Age of Camelot. I've no doubt that these titles could somehow become mobile titles, run successfully on mobile hardware that continues to become more and more powerful. The fact is that mobile gaming does not really differ from gaming on your desktop. Sure, the desktop can still produce more realistic, fancier graphics, but tablets and smartphones are very quickly catching up. Check out a game like Horn on the Nexus 7 tablet or Lili on the iPad -- games built using the Unreal engine -- and you might think that it's the PC whose graphics and specs are lacking. How long have tablet computers been a common device? Not for long, but look at how far they've come in that time. Now imagine them in just five years.

Just as I have been enjoying standalone titles that came out when I didn't have access to a PC, I can see the current younger generation of tablet and smartphones players downloading a game like Asheron's Call onto a mobile device and exclaiming, "Wow, this came out years ago!" The gameplay is still great, but many MMO gamers who played it way-back-when have since moved on. Like a teen discovering the music from her parents' childhood, the next generation might rediscover the MMOs from our younger years, thanks in large part to a new range of devices.

One of the main hurdles to this mobile MMO dream will likely be the developers themselves. I've been covering and playing a lot of the pre-World of Warcraft MMOs lately because of my personal wave of nostalgia, my love for gaming's past, and my general unease with the current state of AAA MMO development. Many of these older MMOs haven't really budged from older designs. These titles are continuing to be developed to varying degrees, but they still feature the same subscription models and archaic websites from years and years ago. If a developer is unwilling or unable to change to a more modern payment model, it's very possible that the title is never going to step into a more modern world of mobile gaming. Heck, I asked the Ultima Online team and got my answer, both about a mobile version and freemium payment model.

In other words, these older titles are generally happy where they are, thank you very much, so why develop something like a mobile version?

"To see what I mean, try to explain the difference between the warmth of a vinyl record and the tinniness of an MP3 to a 15 year old. To him, it's not about the music but about the delivery method."

The real hope lies in changing technologies. We've had mobile PCs for a long time, but pocket-sized mobile PCs and tablets are just now catching up to the demands of some of the titles I've mentioned. There isn't much difference between gaming on a desktop and gaming while standing in line at a movie, but there is one key difference. Just ask Apple! Mobile gaming is slowly churning out more and more business, becoming more of a lifestyle born out of convenience.

To see what I mean, try to explain the difference between the warmth of a vinyl record and the tinniness of an MP3 to a 15 year old. To him, it's not about the music but about the delivery method. He can lie down on his bed, download or stream an entire album in a few minutes, and fall asleep to the sounds of something new. Sitting down at a PC, I predict, will be seen like playing a vinyl record before too long. Entertainment will always remain, but how we access that entertainment has changed.

A new line of Windows-based mobile PCs and tablet computers might be a sign of the new normal. I can picture only a few years down the road when it will be more common to hold your entire digital life in your hands. At that moment, will older MMOs fit into our mobile lifestyle, even though they refused to adapt? From the perspective of a game like Ultima Online, nothing will have changed, so what's the harm in trying?

We might be running out of time in some cases. City of Heroes is shutting down soon. We've lost Star Wars Galaxies, and I can only imagine other older titles will eventually be lost. Unlike a single-player title, MMOs rarely come back. If we want to ensure that these older gems pass on to a newer, more mobile generation, the developers will need to step in to speed things up when technology is taking its time. It's very possible that going mobile-friendly will breathe new life into many of these older games. But are the old-school developers willing and able to make the leap?

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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