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MMObility: How the mobile market is trying to change MMOs


My brother called me the other day to tell me that he had just beaten me in Real Racing 3, an EA title that has drawn some criticism for its use of microtransactions. I enjoyed the heck out of the game, and it seems that EA is not worried about the criticism thanks to the overall positive response to the title. I asked my brother about the in-game purchases and he didn't really know what I was talking about. It was only more evidence that the rest of the market -- especially the huge mobile market -- doesn't really appear to care about persistent worlds or immersive lore. The fact is that pseudo-MMOs or games that are barely on the edge of MMO are MMO enough for many people, even people like my brother, who is no stranger to MMO gaming and has spent years in and out of World of Warcraft raiding and leveling.

I was going to write about a game called Raft Pirates for this column, but when I started to look at it, I realized that it didn't quite seem like a "real" MMO, and so I asked the developer to define the game for me. The response I got back only added to my confusion about where the mobile market is going. So in today's MMObility, I want to continue the discussion I started last week, but this time I'll like to look at how the mobile market is keeping things muddy.

Raft Pirates screenshot
The experience that my brother had is a good example of how even current MMO gamers see many mobile games. Mobile games are social games thanks to their general always-on connection. If I use even a basic smartphone or tablet and am enjoying a game like Real Racing 3, I can snag a screenshot, challenge a friend, or post about the experience on a social network. What spurred my brother on to call me was the fact that he grabbed the game for free, started a race, and noticed that he was playing with someone named "BeauH." It turns out that after he signed into the game with a Facebook account, it would place him in races with connected friends who might be playing the game as well. Over the next few days, we raced NPC versions of each other. Even though we never raced each other live, we still had a great time.

Raft Pirates description
Raft Pirates confused me because it is described in the Google Play store as a "real MMO." I couldn't see how it was one, and I have seen all sorts of games that toe the MMO line. Players start off with a cute little raft and build it up into a larger boat, complete with guns and divers. The MMOness comes into play when you drag and drop your raft out into the "pirate waters," an area that is supposed to be similar to an open MMO zone. If a player moves to a space and happens to land where another player is, combat ensues. If the defending player is logged in, the attack happens live. If not, the defending player is represented by an NPC. I couldn't tell when I was fighting a live player or an NPC because of the lack of chat.

Here's what the developer rep had to say:
Raft Pirates has some strong MMO mechanisms as follows: There is a persistent world. If the player is offline and leaves their ship in pirate waters, then real attacks will take place and the player will return to see the results of those battles (they will see parts of their rafts destroyed if they lost parts in battle, and materials won in battles will be added to their inventory). When battling, the player will play a live battle if the person they are attacking is online as well.
I asked specifically about persistence because it is the key to an MMO, along with live player interaction. Where the mobile market developers and players are seemingly confused is when we discuss that persistence. After all, if an NPC version of your character stays "online" while you are not actively logged on, isn't that persistence? I tend to use the MMORTS genre as a good representation of MMOness because of its ability to force player towns to stay "online" while the player is away. That's an extra layer of persistence, something that is not possible when a literal avatar in a game like World of Warcraft logs out of the world (although it's something that Age of Wushu is experimenting with).

Raft Pirates screenshot
The key difference between an MMORTS or WoW and a game like Raft Pirates is the world, the persistent playing space that is, well, a world. Just because players can interact with others in some form does not mean those players are participating in a virtual world. Having said that, I can understand why some developers are puzzled by my doubt and questions about their game's MMO qualities. After all, games like Raft Pirates do have a form of persistence and players do interact on some level.

There are a few possible reasons that the mobile market is not erupting with "true" MMOs, despite the fact that it's such a quickly growing market. First, it's much harder to run live, three-dimensional characters (with all of the server stresses that come with them) on a mobile device. (Still, these devices are catching up to real gaming PCs rather quickly.) Second, "real" persistent and massive MMOs and even AAA games in general have recently been witness to layoffs, studio closures, and poor performance. Making a real, live, massive virtual world is expensive to create and to maintain. It's easy to see why a studio would rather make several smaller games with social mechanics that can turn a profit thanks to microtransactions.

Why worry about the defitinion? Well, my job depends on these definitions. Also, I love virtual worlds and always will. I wrote about them before I worked here and will continue to cover them after. While I obviously have few problems with the mobile market and social gaming, I still want to identify and preserve the definition of a "real" MMO.

The fact is that maintaining that definition will become tougher as the mobile market continues to redefine it. We'll see what players prefer in the long run -- and how developers adapt.

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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