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MMObility: Mobile and browser face off in School of Dragons

Beau Hindman
Beau Hindman|@Beau_Hindman|January 3, 2014 5:00 PM
School of Dragons screenshot
I was excited to learn about a mobile version of School of Dragons, a browser-based, kid-friendly MMO based on the fantastic movie How to Train Your Dragon. I pictured soaring through the skies and interacting with characters from the movie, all while sitting down with my favorite tablet. Unfortunately, I am not able to play on my favorite tablet yet (my Android), but I was able to download it on my wife's iPad Air.

I didn't have much experience with the browser-based version, so I read up on Karen's MMO Family article, made an account, and logged in. I was impressed by the game's visuals even though they are fairly primitive, as they do a good job of giving a sense of scale and accurately recreate many of the movie's characters. The game is very active, even during odd times of the day, and the chat is filled with players discussing the finer points of being a viking.

Unfortunately, the game lacks in polish. Is it be good enough to satisfy younger, less picky fans? Possibly, but after playing the browser-based version, I hoped that the mobile version would somehow feel smoother and more natural.
School of Dragons screenshot
My first real issue stems from the controls. They work all right, but just good enough to make controlling your character possible. They're not horrible, and it's very possible that the slower turning speed and odd camera controls options (you must hold down two fingers to move the camera around) were built for children, but I wonder whether the developers ever plunked some children down with the game, running on an iPad, to see just how well they got on.

The problem with any mobile MMO, especially one that works like a "standard" MMO with avatars on the screen that are literally controlled in real time, is that holding up the device can be a chore. Even the very light iPad Air or my eight-inch Galaxy Note 8.0 can be tiring to hold after a while. Without a click-to-move option, I find holding a device up off of the floor or counter is the only option. Luckily the developers considered different hand sizes and allowed customization the UI by simply sliding its elements around. I was even able to make a left-handed movement layout, something I have rarely seen in mobile MMOs.

The best control option I have seen for a standard mobile MMO is one that has one stick for movement and another for the camera, along with options for the camera to follow behind the player. I'm not saying that the mobile version of School of Dragons is hard to control, but like many things in the game, it just doesn't feel very smooth.

School of Dragons screenshot
Dragon flight is obviously the big draw of the How to Train Your Dragon universe. In the browser-based version, you can use your WASD keys to fly the dragon around and a series of buttons on the side control different types of flight. There's one for speedier flight, one for a slower glide, and one for shooting fireballs. After a while, the controls feel much more natural, but I can only wonder why the developers made them so sloppy in the first place. The issue is that the core audience for this game is young enough to have never played a game like this before. Why not just make the mouse pointer control where the dragon goes while an arrow or WASD controls the speed?

I figured that surely the iPad version would work more smoothly, being that it could utilize the device's accelerometer for natural-feeling, immersive flying that even a child could work with. Instead, I found more need for tweaking. The controls were too erratic and sloppy. I could see a child becoming frustrated with them, at least at the beginning. Travelling between zones or major areas is accomplished by flying a large taxi dragon. It's a good chance to get a feel for flying, but it's generally such a short trip that by the time you feel as though you are getting used to the controls, the trip is over.

I also tested out the game's ability to switch between the two version on the fly. I signed into the browser version, completed a lesson or two, and signed into the mobile version. For the most part, it works, but it would sometimes place my character in a step or two behind while doing a quest. I finished one quest, for example, only to find that my mobile character (the same character, mind you) was still two steps behind. Instead of redoing the quest, I logged out of the mobile version, logged back in, and found it completed. Syncing obviously needs some work, and loading times on both versions can be a bit annoying.

School of Dragons screenshot
There are a few minigames to keep players busy, and some of them work better than others on the touchscreen. Fishing, for example, is simple enough. You stand near water, click on the fishing icon, attach your bait, and cast. If you hook something, you'll need to reel it in just enough or it will be lost. It's a simple and decently fun minigame that also has utility: The fish you catch become food for your growing dragon. The minigame has large, easy-to-press buttons and works well without fuss. Other minigames, like farming, are passable, but customizing your farm is a bit of a hassle. There are two different modes for decorating, but both are awkward.

As Karen pointed out in her look at the browser version, the game is a nice kid-friendly introduction or extension to the world of How to Train Your Dragon, one of the best family-friendly movies I have seen in a long time. The graphics are a bit primitive, but a scaled-down graphics engine doesn't stop millions of kids from playing games like Wizard101. I'm not sure why, then, both versions of School of Dragons seem to lag and skip. I am playing both on powerful equipment and still get lagged responses and hitching characters. Perhaps it has something to do with the Unity engine that the game utilizes.

The main source of frustration for me came from the sludgy and inaccurate controls. I understand pinching to zoom in and out, but having to hold down two fingers to control the movement of the camera feels unnatural. Driving my character around with the on-screen pad was bad enough to force me to fall off of cliffs or into water.

All that being said, the game is a decent mobile version of its browser-based sibling. It will keep your child entertained while you drive to the babysitter. It might feel better on the iPad mini or smaller Android tablets when available because the control scheme demands holding the tablet upright most of the time. On top of that, moving the camera around to look at stuff means placing the tablet down in order to put two fingers on the screen. It's a silly solution.

I would stick with the browser version for now. If your kid is crying for some sort of entertainment while on the road, have him or her play something else.

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.
MMObility: Mobile and browser face off in School of Dragons