An MMORPG for a console?

7th November 2008 – 8.56 am

Whilst taking a break from the Eurogamer Expo with a bunch of bloggers and being recorded for some podcast or other the topic of MMORPGs for consoles was raised. Specifically, the question was asked whether there will ever be an MMORPG for a console. The host responded emphatically positive, stating that MMORPGs will come to consoles but only once game designers get rid of the grind and make a game that is essentially fun to play, otherwise the console gamers will not want to play it. I took exception to this and pointed out that if a game could be made that was fun to play and without a grind then it would already exist on desktop computers. I stand by this opinion. I don't think it is possible to wave a magic wand to create the perfect game for consoles that has eluded designers thus far on desktop computers. On reflection, it seems the question of MMORPGs appearing on consoles was sidestepped because of this digression. I'll attempt to examine the question further.

I'm returning to the topic of MMORPGs on consoles if only because further thought on removing the grind from the genre for console play revealed it to be unnecessary to do so. The idea of unlocking content in console games has been around for many years and often takes the form of playing through solo content multiple times with different characters, vehicles, or difficulty settings. Some content can only be unlocked by vastly repetitive gameplay, running through the same tasks hundreds of times only to unlock a feature that lets you do it all again but in a slightly different way. And if you need more convincing about the gameplay grind being present on consoles you need look no further than Pokemon as a shining example. The grind is quite obviously present in console gaming. It may not be present in all console games but it also isn't present in all computer games; the point here is that console gamers will reject a game with grinding and I am claiming evidence exists that shows there is clearly a market for a game with grinding on consoles.

It is interesting to note that most of this grinding is done by solo players for achievements and rewards that will only be shown locally. Consider what would happen if these gamers who play for hours on end to unlock special features were able to preen in front of like gamers, showing off the results of their efforts. Rather than graphical representations of trophies or special weapons and clothing that only you will see on your screen you can strut around other players with these rewards to show just how hardcore a gamer you are. If console gamers already go to great lengths to unlock content just imagine how many more would be tempted given the opportunity equivalent to going AFK at the Ironforge bank whilst wielding the Twin Blades of Azzinoth. Add achievements, titles and other rewards as incentives and you have a recipe for successful MMORPG grinding on a console.

So a console MMORPG won't need to get rid of the grind. There will be plenty of players ready to grind for rare items and casual players can enjoy the game on their own terms, just as MMORPGs function on computers. In that case, what defines an MMORPG? The most simplistic answer is that the game will need to be massively multiplayer and on-line, the former pretty much demanding the latter. Essentially, then, it needs to be determined what elements are necessary in a massively multiplayer game. In doing that, it will be possible to see if a console version is likely to be made.

I would suggest that being able to form groups of players to become more powerful as a collective, either for social or gaming reasons, is the quintessential element of MMORPGs. There is little point in playing a massively multiplayer game if all of the other players are or can be ignored. Of course, this should not deny the value of the content or exploration available to the solo player but if every player is only offered a single-player experience then the very nature of the game being massively multiplayer seems undermined. There needs to be interaction between the players and this needs to be mainly in the form of co-operation, to give a sense of community that brings MMORPG worlds alive.

There needs to be a list of friends or helpful players that a player can maintain to help keep in contact or group up with the other people in the game. Some kind of guild system, which allows larger, permanent groups of like-minded players to keep in close contact, is also becoming a necessary element of any MMORPG. And all of this ideally needs to be able to be performed in-game. Out-of-channel communications are possible but it removes the possbility of spontaneity and the unexpected ad hoc formations that spark the more interesting occasions of on-line gaming. What is needed is a way to group up with players, both locally to your character and possibly remotely, to form a coherent and permanent guild, and a method of keeping track of friends and allies.

With a keyboard this is straightforward, as names can be typed quite easily, but with a console direct input would be more difficult. And this moves the topic along to the subject of communication. A keyboard allows simple and complex sentences to be constructed, either for sharing information about a quest or the tactics to be used during a battle, or simply to engage in smalltalk with a friend whilst killing ten rats. Communication on a console would unlikely be as flexible.

There could be a menu system developed for a console that allows for an option to be invoked to add a friend to a contact list or to invite them to join a group, which then brings up a virtual keyboard to allow name entry. There could even be a more intuitive interface developed that intelligently allows selection of players based on level, class, region, or other factors, although it would need to be quite cleverly implemented in a game where potentially hundreds or thousands of players are on-line at once.

Voice chat could displace written communications in MMORPGs on consoles, particularly with standardised hardware and dedicated headsets. However, whilst voice chat works with small groups of people the general or trade channels would be unfeasible to conduct using voice chat because of the number of people involved, as well as their relative anonymity. Even a moderately sized guild would not want to use voice chat as a substitute for a text-based channel for general communications.

Again, a clever interface could solve these issues. Allowing simple substitute phrases and pre-constructed sentences available for general interactions and progressing to voice chat when in specific groups would allow for most of the acceptable communications seen in-game. The question becomes how to create this new interface for consoles. The number of different attacks, abilities and movements that most MMORPG avatars are expected to perform greatly exceeds the number of buttons available on even the most complex console controller, and these are the functions generally used in battle and exclude the unique actions available to certain equippable items. Being able to create the rich texture of combat using a console controller whilst also context-switching to communication and management functionality promises to be a difficult task.

That's not to say it can't be achieved. Consoles have shown that, despite some people's objections, they are capable of running a competent first-person shooter, holding simplistic conversations, connecting to the internet for on-line games, and other functions once reserved for computers, even if those functions have been simplified. It will only take one clever chap to create a suitably adapted interface for the MMORPG genre to be realised on consoles, and whilst it would likely be simplistic it only needs to be adequate. Then the opportunities to expand on that design would create a growth market for console MMORPGs in much the same way that the building on ideas has seen massive expansion of the genre in the computer market.

Will we see MMORPGs appear on consoles? I think we will, but I also think they will be considerably different in interface design than any current MMORPG, which may influence gameplay in subtle respects.

  1. 2 Responses to “An MMORPG for a console?”

  2. There was a console MMORPG that was going to be released, but it never happened. When the New Game Experience hit Star Wars Galaxies, many people were so upset with the changes that those who had beta copies of the console version broke the NDA and posted screenshots and videos of the game in action.

    SWG had a X Box 360 version of the game in development. If you search the net long enough, you should be able to find some more information on it.

    It never came to be however. With the playerbase leaving the game due to SOE's abusive practices, SWG has pretty much died as a product and thus, the funding for further development dried up.

    It's the closest anyone has come to a console MMORPG to date. While the grind issues were still there, the game was dumbed down enough for a console interface.

    Consoles will need to make some steps forward before such a product will become viable. Remember, one of the pulls for MMORPG's is the fact that it's more involved than a console game.

    By ga'len on Nov 7, 2008

  3. Several new MMORPGs are set for console release. Champions Online is a good example.

    By PsycheDiver on Nov 7, 2008

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