The Long, Hard Road to Console MMOs

Compared to PC gaming, console titles have outsold their more literate counterpart in almost every area but one: MMORPGs.  As consoles basically are specialized gaming computers at this point, with fast broadband access (except for the pokey Wii), the question keeps coming up again and again.  When will we start seeing more MMOs on consoles?

This question is fueled by promises and reports from various MMO developers that say out right, hey, we’re going to put our MMOs on consoles as well.  Without any real proof that they’re doing so, gamers take their word at face value and believe what they want to believe.  And yet we’re in the futuristic year of 2010, well over a decade since the 3D MMO revolution, and thus far we’ve seen (to my knowledge) a paltry three titles released for consoles: EverQuest Online Adventures, Final Fantasy XI and Phantasy Star Online/Universe.

So what gives?  With new MMOs going online just about every day in the PC world, why aren’t we seeing a stampede toward the seemingly more lucrative console market? Is console MMO gaming just a myth at this point, supported by the hopes and dreams of players, yet dashed on the cruel rocks of reality?

Failed Promises

It’s reasonable for gamers to become more than a little cynical when we hear promises of console MMOs — after all, they’ve been trying to sell us on this idea for years, with few tangible results.  I’m going to highlight three examples, ranging from the recent to a few years back:

  • True Fantasy Live OnlineRemember this one? It was going to be the great MMO hope for Xbox players, a title that was in development for over two years.  The developer turned out to be inadequately suited for the task, Microsoft got annoyed, the game got canned in 2004.  At least we got a Penny Arcade comic out of it.
  • Age of Conan – It’s been over two years of hearing how Conan was going to grace the Xbox, and two years of absolutely no visible movement on that happening, to the point where (at least in my opinion) it probably never will.
  • Champions Online – One of Cryptic’s big marketing lines for Champions was that it would be releasing on the Xbox as well, a move that made sense considering how action-based the title is (and very compatible with gaming controllers).  But we’re still waiting, and Cryptic’s being a little mum about why.  It’s possible that, as they said last year, the port is ready but Microsoft is dragging out the process, but who knows?

The Difficulties of Console MMOs (specialized and ports)

Blizzard’s Rob Pardo opened up on the problems and obstacles involved with bringing MMOs to consoles in an interview with Industry Gamers:

“I’d say challenge #1 is the input device. So if you’re going to port a game like WoW how does that work? Do you ship a keyboard and a mouse? Do you try to make a game that [adapts] to all the different controls and buttons? That’s a porting issue. The bigger issue would be things like hard drives… Another big issue is how to actually do patches because the certification process is pretty arduous to do that… Then, the other big issue is the business model. Right now, Microsoft and Sony charge platform fees for retail, but if you do an MMO there and it’s subscription-based, they’re going to want a cut of the subscription revenue too, and so that becomes a hurdle. So there’s definitely a lot of hurdles right now for doing MMOs on a console, but it all can be overcome and I think in the next generation of consoles it’ll be much easier.”

Programmer Joe has a similar list, although with a few additional problems, such as console makers wanting a cut of the profits/subscriptions, a smaller installed base (there are way more game-capable PCs out there than consoles) and duo play.

That seems like a good basic list of issues: input devices, hard drive space, certification, smaller base and the business model.  I know there have been awkward keyboard/controller hybrids created for games like FFXI, but they really never took off.  Some even think that console MMO developers will have to “dumb down” the game to make it playable with the controls they have.  As for the other issues, they seem difficult but surmountable, right?

John Smedley seems to think that free-to-play might be the biggest business model in the console market:

“Getting a console player to pay for a subscription, I think that’s an interesting question. I think it’s about making a great game, but we also believe that there’s a chance, maybe [the games] won’t be subscription-based.”

A much bigger issue is that ports of current MMOs are incredibly difficult to pull off in a timely manner, and made-from-scratch console MMOs demand many years of development, which could work against the game if the console maker goes on to the next generation of hardware (which could also hurt the long-term subscriber base).  From Eurogamer:

“[Turbine] also revealed some of the philosophy behind its new forthcoming console game, suggesting that PC ports to console don’t work, and need to built from the ground up for the platform. This in itself presents a number of challenges. First of all, the tech behind the game requires a 10-year lifespan – it needs to be ultra-scalable to accommodate the creation of additional content. Alexander put a $20 million price-tag on the development of the core tech, before even a penny has been spent on the actual game itself.”

The Advantages of Console MMOs

The biggest advantage is a clear one: a huge, nearly untapped market that represents millions of potential customers for the lucky — and talented — MMO developer who can pull off this hat trick successfully.  From Eurogamer:

“Lord of the Rings Online maker Turbine has revealed the thinking behind its forthcoming console MMO, saying that PS3 and Xbox 360 offer a ‘superior MMO platform’ with an untapped market worth an estimated $2.3 billion.”

Consoles might help to lower the barrier to entry for MMOs, which some players find complex and unintuitive when they try one — yet these same people have no problem grabbing a control pad or remote and getting to work slashing through orcs and ninja robot zombies.

In a way, Xbox Live has set the foundation for console MMOs through their persistent achievement system and their buddy system — two features that are quite common to MMOs these days.  Players want their victories to persist and they certainly take a shine to titles like Team Fortress 2, which incorporates many MMO elements, such as buddy lists, loot and customizable avatars.

Console MMOs Supposedly On Deck

With all that said, myth though current console MMOs may be, it definitely looks as if developers are pushing hard to expand into this market soon.  It even looks a bit like a race to be the first “big” MMO hit with this current generation of consoles.  So what are we looking at?

  • Turbine’s upcoming console MMO, which they’re “very committed” to bringing to the PS3 and perhaps the Xbox.  How committed?  Try $20 million worth.  We might be seeing this in 2011.
  • SOE is eager to jump into the console MMO bandwagon, promising to bring two of its upcoming titles to both PC and consoles on the same day: The Agency and DC Universe Online.  Free Realms is also scheduled for a console launch.
  • Depending on who you listen to, Blizzard’s next MMO might be released for consoles.  Or not.  They’re cagey that way.
  • Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XIV is both eagerly anticipated by fans and scheduled to be a PS3 exclusive for consoles (it’ll come out on PC as well) — but word is that Microsoft is still hacking out the details with them about how it might work on Live.
  • Former ArenaNet developer Jeff Strain is working on a zombie MMO with his company, Undead Labs.
  • Last year, CCP announced that their MMOFPS title Dust 514 would be console-bound as well.

Ironically, it could be a fairly non-traditional MMO — depending on how you define the term — to take the next step out into the cosole arena.  MAG for the PS3 is scheduled for launch in a couple weeks, a massive FPS setup that incorporates skill trees, loot and other MMO elements.

11 thoughts on “The Long, Hard Road to Console MMOs

  1. Damn keyboard! Retyping.

    My console MMO credentials include, and are limited to, EQOA for a few years. It was a great little title that entertained me and some friends for quite awhile.

    MAG is an interesting case. I believe they are going to support 256 people / map. While this is a very large increase from the standard map sizes we have now (32/64), it still looks like mostly just a large FPS match game. Much like CoD, but bigger.

    I was actually a little saddened when I first started looking at Global Agenda and found out that they are not planning on a console version. Out of most MMOs, that one seems to be the best one set up for a console market. The heart of the game is a third-person shooter and they have already mapped the controls to a 360 controller. They have voice already integrated into the game though it would probably preclude the XBL voice system so that cross platform chat would work correctly.

  2. I have .. erm .. dexterity issues (Ok ok – I’m an unco-ordinated moron) with the controllers. This more than any other reason is why I continue to buy my games for the PC instead of my XBox.

    If I could get a keyboard and mouse combo for it, I’d play any game at all on it in preference to my PC and I’d shell out a lot more for ‘official’ type DLC instead of user made mods like I can on the PC.

    But I’m not aware of any such beastie for my XBox so Dragon Age and whatever else comes along will continue to be PC purchases for me – even if they are availalbe on the XBox as well.

  3. The Guild Wars business model would work beautifully for a console MMO. Just sayin’…

    I’m not sure that I’d bother with a console MMO, though, even if it did use the GW model. The console I spend the most time with is my DS.

    Also, console gamers are used to owning the games they buy. As in, they can keep playing them indefinitely. What happens when a console MMO shuts down the servers?

  4. There have been more console MMOs, but they just haven’t made it here. Front Mission Online and .hack://fragment are two.

    Pardo is an idiot, virtually every console now comes with USB ports to hook up an external keyboard, and when they didn’t third party companies made keyboards and keyboard adapters. It’s no issue at all.

    The reason why they don’t make it is because they aren’t console developers and have no idea how to make a decent game on the consoles. The mmos that did came from people with a strong console presence, like square, sega, and sony. They want the cash but don’t want the risk of making a console game.

  5. I just wrote a similar article to this and was very surprised to find your post 😛 Stop hacking into my WP admin account! 🙂

    I think in the past console development hasn’t been very appealing to companies for a lot of the reasons you mentioned. One factor to consider as well though is console longevity.

    Tradtionally, consoles only had a lifespan of 5 years and most tended to be a lot less than that. MMORPGs however demand long lifespans and are expected to run for many, many years to come after they are first released.

    Think about it this way: Everquest is still running and it came out when the N64 and Dreamcast were about. Now EQ is still doing well but how many people still own a N64? 🙂 Even WoW was out in the days of the PS2 and original XBox and they are pretty much completely dead too.

    Is it really worth a developer investing time and money into making a console MMO for, say, the PS3 when it could be obsolete in 2 years?

  6. @We fly Spitfires

    Most consoles allow you to play previous generation games on them as well, so I don’t think longevity is that huge of a problem.

    I personally think that Microsoft should develop their next line of consoles with online gaming/mmos in mind. I think it would help the transition to MMO’s on consoles and really give them a competitive advantage if sony/nintendo do not do it!

    Maybe even hype a big MMO title to be released with the next X-Box to help sell both and get the ball rolling!

    I think Microsoft should definitely TEAM up with someone though(maybe turbine) rather than trying to build the MMO themselves.

  7. BTW

    <Still owns a N64 and loves the original Smash Brothers/Mario Party/Battletanks(I think that's the name of it, Yes, I found that game completely awesome 😀 )

  8. How about the fact that all updates must be approved by Microsoft or Sony and that certification can take up to 2 weeks? Imagine if you had a majorly important hotfix?

    I think the timeliness of updates is a big drawback for console MMO’s, since you’re at the mercy of some incredibly slow approval processes for title updates.

  9. right now im on my wii internet, posting this so just wanted to say that. heres what im thinkin on the subject… xbox is fully capeable of a console mmo. so is wii, and ps3… know why?… god bless servers, 100 people per server and maybe 1000 servers can still be called an mmo. anybody played magna carta 2? the gameply feels like an mmorpg except it had no multiplayer at all… why no do a magna carta style game on the 360? id buy it… oh and p2p sucks thats very important if i have to pay live and the game company hell with it!

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