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Perfect Ten: My mobile MMO experiment, part 1

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I'm often mystified that we haven't seen or heard much about MMOs on mobile devices. You'd think that with such a massive potential audience that studios would be racing to bust this market wide open, but whether it's the limitations of such devices (size, lack of input) or some stigma against developing "serious" games for app stores, we've seen remarkably few of them over the past few years.

I've grown increasingly curious what MMOs, if any, might be out there for my tablet and smartphone. Practically every list I've read begins with both Order & Chaos Online and the Spacetime Studio games (both strong entries) and then quickly peters out with titles that nobody writing those lists have ever played. Search engine inquiries are helpful with that, I assume.

So I decided that I'd undertake an experiment. I would scour the internet and app store for 10 MMOs that have come at least slightly recommended by some list maker, sample them, and see if they compelled me to play more. Will any of these 10 prove to be interesting enough to stay on my phone after this series is done? Find out as I start with the first five of the bunch...


Experiment #1: Armed Heroes Online

I wasn't encouraged to see that the most recent news on the official website was from 2013, but I remained undaunted in my quest to try out this first mobile title. I'll say one big thing in its favor: Armed Heroes didn't bother me with a lot of registration processing; it simply asked for my name and dropped me right into the game. Oh, I had the option to register to save progress online, but I appreciated the get-right-to-it nature.

Actually, the whole game was inoffensively slick but extremely instanced and not particularly memorable. I played a Dream Maker character, which came off as a cross between a generic spellcaster and a summoner. Everything you'd want in a stripped-down and functional MMO was there, from a rather robust inventory system to an autopilot-to-the-quest-NPC feature. Fighting was actually a little tricky, since I had to manually aim my character at the mobs. I kept leveling up like a bunny rabbit breeding; I was level 5 by the time I arrived at the first quest hub.

I was certainly amused by the copious amount of quest text that was thrown my way in this game. As an example, one of the very first hub NPC quest givers attempted to entrall me with three full pages -- multiple paragraphs each -- of the history of this land. I don't care enough about my own very real country's history to read that much of it during a video game. Writers gotta make their pay, I guess.

Apparently Armed Heroes had a bit of legal kerfluffle a while back during which it was accused of stealing Torchlight art assets, and the developers agreed to modify the game in order to avoid a lawsuit. While that's a slight scandal that makes me feel skeezy just playing it, probably the bigger strike against this title is that there's nothing much to speak for it. It's generic fantasy MMO with a cheesy free-to-play model. Deleted.

Experiment #2: Dragon Eternity

I'm fighting in my undies! Just like in real life!

One of the newer releases on this list, Dragon Eternity has a different design style that I like to describe as "graphic menu" instead of a free-roaming 3-D world. Each screen is a location with various interactive elements, including quest givers and fights, and moving between them costs energy. Right away I noticed that there's a glowing icon telling me that the game's going to give me a "generous reward" if I stay logged in for a half-hour. I'm curious, but am I 30 minutes curious -- for a mobile game?

The use of static location screens and turn-based combat does a good job skirting some of the pitfalls of mobile limitations. Not having to fiddle with a tiny 3-D camera was a huge boon, and the location art actually reminded me a lot of adventure games (which could be quite immersive in their own right) and the Heroes of Might and Magic series. Just because it's an MMO doesn't mean it needs to be a full 3-D world is all I'm saying. Combat is also a throwback to an earlier era, with turn-based rounds that culminate in offensive and defensive selections.

There's a lot to appreciate about Dragon Eternity, although I felt as though there's too much UI here for a phone screen; a tablet would be a much better home for this sort of game. Plus, while there might be players in the areas around me, I didn't see them and felt very isolated -- a bad omen for an MMORPG. While I suspect that this may be the best of the mobile MMOs from this experiment, I took it off my phone for now and will consider putting it on my tablet at a later point.

Experiment #3: Animas Online

One of my long-standing complaints about mobile MMOs is that their UIs are too cluttered, the result of trying to pack in all of the "standard" features of a PC game onto a much smaller screen. Animas Online is the first portable MMO I've played that puts only what's absolutely needed on the screen and not one whit more. Look at that picture up there; that's simplicity in action. Love it.

Actually, there's a lot more to love about Animas if you're willing to get over the theme of anthropomorphs fighting off the "evil humans" invading their spirit island. If I wasn't going to learn anything else from this game, at least I'll walk away knowing that cats, when made into people, will eagerly wear stockings and garter belts. Anyway, it's a simple, visually attractive title that utilizes the same hub-and-mission-instance format that I've seen in many mobile MMOs. There is a nice option to team up with either a friend or a random stranger on missions to get some co-op love going on.

The furry scene isn't mine, and while Animas does have the clean look I've been seeking, I'm far less impressed with its used-car-salesman business model sleaziness. It has energy mechnics, it has lockboxes, it has a premium currency that's used for just about everything, and it is so clearly aimed at younger kids that it terrifies me what might happen if Junior puts this on his very first iPad and proceeds to drive his parents into bankruptcy. Another pass for me, but at least a regretful one!

Experiment #4: The Infinite Black

Immediately after I created an account, The Infinite Black dumped me into the above screen. I may or may not have made a desperate, strangled cry at feeling momentarily overwhelmed by this brutal interface. It didn't end up being that bad once I started fiddling with it, but first impressions do matter to an extent. And the fact that there's no tutorial is another strike against newbies (the help menu does have a brief guide tucked in there).

Basically, The Infinite Black is EVE Online without the visuals, right down to different security levels of space, corporations as guilds, and the focus on cutthroat capitalism. I spent my time jumping between board game-like spaces looking for interesting sectors and finding nothing but empty systems, weak pirates, and other players with much, much bigger numbers than mine. I don't know why space strategy/sim designers can't get more imaginative than the vast cosmos as a backdrop for fighting and trading, but that's all that's here. And considering that combat is a whole lot of waiting as your and their ship trade invisible blows, there's not even the thrill of things going boom among the stars. A big, hard pass.

Experiment #5: TibiaME

No mobile MMO marathon would be complete without the purported first of its kind and a spin-off of one of the oldest graphical MMOs, so I made some time to get acquainted with TibiaME. I did get a good laugh at a somewhat bizarre rule that players weren't allowed to make "extreme right-wing names." What about extreme left-wing? Or just Mountain Dew '90s-style eXtreme?

TibiaME gets major points for offering both landscape and portrait options (the action and controls/inventory will each share half of the screen), which is not something I've seen in other mobile MMOs. At first glance, it's a cutsey 16-bit anime RPG that gave me strong SNES feels. Compared to its silent older brother, TibiaME gets even more points for a cheery soundtrack and actual noises.

But then the points start coming off, beginning with the slippery virtual D-pad that constantly had me overshooting doorways and NPCs. The tutorial stage kept skipping lines and thrust me into combat before I even had a chance to talk to the shiphand who was begging for help. Perhaps the game gets more complex later on, but my Wizard (one of only two classes in the game) was limited to the good ol' "bump into enemy mob to do damage" move. Doink. Doink. Doink. Doink. I dutifully killed several hellspawn, but after seeing them respawn just as fast as they died, I ducked around them and jogged right out of the area.

It's an older game, and it shows, both in a cruder design and in a richer array of potential features (such as pets and guilds). While it is free-to-play, there's a strong push to "go premium" in order to access more areas and get more buffs. I then spent a lot of time imagining the types of gamers who would actually go for this, a more enjoyable experience than playing the game.

We're five titles up and five titles down, and nothing's wooed me yet. But there's always the remining batch! While I give those a try, let me know in the comments if you have a particular favorite mobile MMO and what drew you to it.

Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at justin@massively.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.

All products recommended by Engadget are selected by our editorial team, independent of our parent company. Some of our stories include affiliate links. If you buy something through one of these links, we may earn an affiliate commission.
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