MMObility: What needs to happen to make the mobile market shine

Life is Magic screenshot

I've recently written about what the MMO future might look like, but in case you haven't read that piece yet, I can sum it up for you. Essentially I see the new generation being so used to gaming and communicating on portable yet powerful devices that the sit-down keyboard and mouse setup might very well be doomed. Even major PC manufacturers and sellers are noticing the trend. Take a visit to your local Gamestop or equivalent game shop and you will notice that the chains have started to sell tablets as well.

All of this tablet gaming might wound the current style of MMOs. I suspect that within the next decade or two it will all come full circle back to massive three-dimensional worlds on tech that becomes even more powerful and common, so we have to look at what the mobile market can do currently to keep MMOs in the lineup.

Modern  War screenshot

Just for a moment, think about how you play games on your mobile device. Most mobile gamers probably pick up a tablet and play for a half an hour here or there, thanks to games like Angry Birds or Words with Friends. Over the course of a day, that time might add up to several hours. If mobile gamers are anything like the people I know, the time spent on a mobile device is actually much, much greater than the time that would normally be spent on a desktop PC. Why? Because the devices and games can be played literally anywhere and at any time. I have a 3G Nexus 7 that allows me to do almost anything I normally do while sitting at my desk, albeit with graphics that are not as realistic.

Mobile MMOs should take advantage of these longer-but-segmented periods of play. Some mobile MMOs attempt to, but usually the attempt results in an MMO that is more of a pseudo, social MMO with mechanics that do not equal real-time interaction with other players. These social mechanics are great for those who enjoy the style, but for MMO players who are used to logging into a open world with hundreds or thousands of players running around, these social mechanics are far from ideal.

"I'm not just talking about slapping some graphics over a bit of Google maps and calling it an MMO."

We know that tablets and smartphones have the power to run graphical worlds, thanks to games like Order and Chaos Online, Vendetta Online, and Midgard Rising. Then we have games like Parallel Kingdom or MMORTS titles that offer real worlds and real-time interaction but with lower-end or static, representational graphics. Mobile developers would be wise to design games that work with the real world somehow. I'm not just talking about slapping some graphics over a bit of Google maps and calling it an MMO; I'm hoping that mobile developers stop insisting that location-based games need to have real world populations in order to work.

I found that location-based MMOs often falter because most of the gamers I know do not live in large cities and tend to find empty games when logging in. The type of real-world interaction that I would to see would involve a combination of real-world information and gameplay. GPS information might not be accurate down to the square foot, but surely a mobile game can predict or create monsters or goals out of thin air? I'd like to walk down the street and receive an alert that a goblin was literally standing next to me. I would have to break out my phone and do combat or lose the treasure.

Some mobile MMOs like Ingress have attempted to overlay information on real-world locations, but I found the game's dependence on real-world hotspots like the local library and firehouse to be counterproductive. Sure, we're supposed to get out of our house and walk or drive to the nearest portal, but what about those of us who live in typical smallish towns that offer no real reason to go downtown or even across the street? Location-based games need to be more considerate of the player's immediate location.

Ingress screenshot

Mobile MMOs might do better to steer away from attempts at massive, three-dimensional worlds or population-based gameplay and replace them with gameplay that is concentrated on the player's personal space. Why not offer an MMO that creates a facsimile of the player's real house that can be open and shared with other players in a more instanced version of Second Life? The game can still protect a player's personal information like address or city, but it would be a great way to connect with other players in what seems like another world.

Mobile developers need to remember how a player feels when he or she is playing on a tablet or smartphone. These developers need to consider where the player is playing from and how much playtime the player might be willing to invest. When I play a mobile MMO, I am usually reclining on the couch while my wife is watching television. Sometimes I'll even grab my tablet while doing household chores and log in while standing up, just to check in on a virtual castle or turn in a quick quest. This doesn't mean that mobile gamers do not put many hours into a single title at one time. Many of them do; consider as one example Pocket Legends. To spread the mobile MMO market out of the niche corner that it currently resides in, developers need to be aware of the massive market that isn't being touched: those players who have no idea what an MMO is but enjoy gaming on the tablet.

I'm not asking for a watered-down version of an MMO or for a redefining of what "real" MMOs are. All I would like to see is designs and mechanics that take the mobile gamer's lifestyle into account. These players are mobile, and that means that they do not necessarily play the same way as someone who sits down at a gaming PC for a four-hour raid night.

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.