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Archive for April 13th, 2009

In a reply to Saylah’s musing about my credentials, I tallied up my MMO experience, and estimated that I’ve played MMOs for maybe 100 hours total over the last three years, much of that in the last six months as I have bounced from Betas to trials to F2P MMOs to Guild Wars.  I’m not sure if that means I’m still a noob in the MMO world, since I’ve never subscribed to a game or hit a level cap, yet I’m not exactly fresh meat.  Whatever the case, I’ve easily spent twice as much time studying the game design and art of MMOs, and trying to derive some new ideas for expanding and realizing the potential of the genre.

At any rate, that 100 hour mark of gameplay in maybe a dozen MMOs altogether still plays second fiddle to my game time logged in Final Fantasy Tactics Advance 2: Grimoire of the Rift.  I have a save file in that game with a total of 125 hours, 44 minutes and 45 seconds… and I’m not even done with it yet.  I have thoroughly enjoyed the game, and I still like to play it, even though I’m long past what most people might think of as being “the main game” or the time threshold for non-addicts.  Of course, a full-time MMO player would scoff at that, logging that much time in WoW in a month, with 20 hours each in WAR and LOTRO or whatever.

The thing is, I’ve logged those happy hours over the course of seven months, in five, ten and fifteen minute intervals.  Maybe it’s waiting for a stupidly long red light (or a series of red lights), maybe it’s just during lunch.  (When I was carpooling as a passenger for a 50 mile commute a few years ago, I got a LOT of DS time in, especially with a little dungeon crawler called Shining Force 2.)  Occasionally, I’ll get in an hour of playtime as I tell stories to my daughter, waiting for her to sleep.  This is not time that I could realistically spend in an MMO, no matter how interesting the game design, lore and art direction may be.  I am not by a computer, and even if I were, I don’t have the blocks of time to commit that most MMOs demand.  Life does that to a guy.  (Not a complaint, just an observation.)

Perhaps that’s what makes me an MMO noob, while yet maintaining relatively hardcore academic, artistic, business and even personal interest in MMOs.  Of course, this is just another nugget to throw in the “hardcore/casual” diagnosis (I like the multiple axis methodology), but that’s not really where I’m going with this particular article.  (Though it could handily answer Saylah’s question; I’m a noob for not putting in the gaming hours for “street cred”, but I’ve more than put in my time when it comes to really digging into the beating heart of these games, and I’m no stranger to gaming in general, having played since Pong.  In a parallel universe where I didn’t get married and still lived in my parents’ basement, I may well be one of those theorycrafting guild leaders who writes FAQs in his spare time.)

No, I’m wondering why there isn’t an MMO that can be played on a handheld machine, in quick spurts, without a subscription fee.  The Nintendo DS has wireless, and the DSi takes that a step further with an iPhone-like “app” shop.  (Tangent… am I the only one that hears mental fingernails on a chalkboard when functional words like “application” get mangled like that for the sake of marketing?)  Pete has a good article up on the DSi, and his sister article on the Wii “phoning home” really has me wondering if the DSi is close behind.

Technologically, it’s at least feasible, considering the wireless connections and processing horsepower of recent machines.  Of course, we’d have to make concessions to the format, all the way from UI to graphics to core game design, but really… is it that far off?  Champions Online wants to be a cross-platform MMO (XBox 360 and PC), and Final Fantasy 11 already is.  Handheld gaming machines today aren’t up to those standards, but they may well be in relatively short order, and a savvy MMO design could use modern machines.

Really, looking at the core game mechanics of modern mainstream MMO design, there’s not much that couldn’t be shoehorned into a handheld.

DIKU design? Easy, peasy (Disgaea already has demonstrated that to an absurd extreme; the DS port apparently still has the stupidly high level cap and insane grind).

Highly soloable experience, with optional multiplayer “raids”? Perfect for consoles. 

Quest based design? The current iteration doesn’t quite fit into 5-15 minute gaming sessions, but it wouldn’t take much to mold it. 

Auction House profiteering? You could do that with a web page, putting it on a handheld with a pretty UI is doable.

“Dumb” client? Consoles are pretty dumb, and hacking a DS isn’t nearly as easy as messing with a PC or network.  The PSP is a bit more hackable, but still, one of the points of consoles is consistent hardware and easily controlled communications.  Even the PSP is better than a PC in that regard.

To be fair, the current input scheme of PC MMOs, a mouse and keyboard, isn’t easily kludged into a DS, but the core gameplay experience, that of a dungeon treadmill with ever-increasing levels and gear prettified with glitzy graphics and other players really isn’t much of a stretch, at least conceptually.  FF: Crystal Chronicles on the DS is already a multiplayer dungeon crawler, albeit limited to four players in relatively close proximity.  Throw a wireless hub into the mix, and those players could be all over the place.  Expand the roster to 24 players, and you’ve got access to the bulk of what WoW has to offer from multiplayer gaming.

Sure, chat would be severely constrained… but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Slowing down the leetspeakers, texters and Barrens chatters by using the DS stylus for writing may well make the game much easier to stomach.  Using predefined macros for something like the PSP may feel limited, but if the game design doesn’t actually call for much more than “healbot plz” and “With Me!” sort of communication, you could probably map four major “chat” macros and get a lot of functionality.

Art would likely have to lean more to the Maple Story methodology than Age of Conan, but that’s only a problem if the visuals are more important than gameplay.  (Everyone will have to make their own call on that, but I think smart art direction and fun game design can more than compensate for lack of DirectX10 shader support.  I say this as a professional artist, though it pains my interior aspiring masterpiece creator:  smart art direction with smart game design, even with low overhead art budgets, can make games a lot better than trying to duplicate Pixar’s efforts on a machine that can eat Crysis for lunch.)

Yes, this is all a rather thinly veiled swipe at the ultimately shallow experience that modern MMO design has become, since I really do think that it could be stripped down to make a modern DIKU MMO for handhelds.  This is still something that I’ve mused about for a bit, though, beyond using it as a vehicle for poking at PC MMO design.  There really should be a market for handheld MMOs.  DIKU MMO games have proven profitable and popular, for better or worse.  (Speaking of profitable, a handheld MMO would almost certainly have to go the Guild Wars monetization route, if for no other reason than the expectations of console gamers.)  Taking the handheld market by storm would be a logical step in the evolution of the beast.

…and it scares me to think that I would actually probably sink easily that many hours into a well crafted Harvest Moon MMO or the like on the DS.  The concessions that would be made to make it work on a DS may well prove to be boons to those of us who want to play, but have fractured schedules, and who don’t feel like shelling out a subscription fee.  It’s also an opportunity to pull the art budget and “bling” back out of the equation, and focus on solid gameplay.  That’s appealing.

(I wanted to work Animal Crossing in there somewhere, but I’m tired, and I’ll just mention it in passing as another “social” game that works via the wireless system.  The technology is largely there, it just needs to be pulled together and smartly utilized.)

Saylah asked a while back for browser-based control over some elements of PC MMOs.  There really are a lot of “modules” of modern MMO design that could be compartmentalized into handheld machines and/or internet browser access.  Can an entire MMO really be that far behind?  It need not be inane to the level of Progress Quest or even RuneScape, either.  (Though the latter has enjoyed significant financial success for a “nonAAA” MMO.)

Consoles are a bit more of a beast to program for and go through the hardware distribution channels, so we’re not likely to see the sort of indie revolution that I’m hoping for on the PC front, but a smart dev with a bit of experience, smart design and lucky timing could really sweep the floor in the handheld market.

I do think the technology will be there before the funding or the willpower, but as business history is wont to illustrate, the first to put down roots in a new niche will often set the tone for those who follow, and make a lot of money doing so.  As much as I’d like to see MMO design evolve in the PC sphere, perhaps the handheld market is ready (or almost ready) to pick up where the PC should have left off years ago.  (And this time, get it right.)

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