MMORPGs and Online Roleplaying games have a long history on the PC gaming platform. On consoles, Online roleplaying games are still rare. It's an untapped market that only few dare to enter.
I will take a look at online roleplaying games on consoles. What is the state of MMORPGs on consoles and which direction are they headed?
Before we can answer those questions we should first take a look at the history of online roleplaying games on consoles. Let me take you back to 1998, the launch of the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast was SEGA's final attempt to gain a respectable market share in the console market.
At it's release, the Dreamcast was by far the most powerful console avaible, but what really made it stand out was its huge emphasis on online play. While consoles had played with online functionality before, the Dreamcast was the first console to make online play one of its main selling points. The console even came with a built in moden right out of the box.
In November 2000, Sega released the very first online roleplaying game on consoles: Phantasy Star Online. Phantasy Star Online was released to high critical acclaim and was an instant hit, It was unlike anything ever seen before on consoles.
Players could meet up in a visual lobby to chat, enter game rooms or make one themselves. As players reached certain levels, new difficulty levels would open up which contained stronger enemies and more rare loot.
Communication was possible through symbol chat and word select and players had the option to purchase the Sega Dreamcast keyboard for communication.
While it really was little more than a hack & slash game through the same 4 levels over and over again, Fans came back for more due to its addictive and social nature.
With that said, PSO wasn't without its problems. Due to a lack of a hard drive, new content was hard to come by and Team Sonic wasn't exactly interested in fixing bugs and glitches.
Also, to save the character data client side instead of server side and expecting players not to hack their own player data was probably a bit too much to ask.
Despite these problems, PSO lived on long after the death of the Dreamcast with ports of the game released for the Nintendo Gamecube and Xbox, and a PC version in the form of Phantasy Star Online: Blue Burst.
Despite the success of PSO, interest in console online Role playing games was low and it wasn't untill 2002 when the very first console mmorpg was released in Japan.
SOE likes to claim Everquest Online Adventures was the very first console mmorpg, but Squaresoft beat them to punch by releasing Final Fantasy XI on May 16, 2002 in Japan.
It was then that the limitations of console hardware at the time became obvious. The Playstation 2 did not have a build in hard drive or internet modem at the time. Both were required to play Final Fantasy XI, making the entry fee for FFXI more expensive then traditional PC MMORPGs. Square Enix also struggled with the release schedules of the game. The Japanese PC version of Final Fantasy XI was released 6 months after the PC version and the North American PC version was released a full year after the Japanese PC version. The North American Playstation 2 version was released in March 2004 and Europeans got their hands on the first version in september 2004, well over 2 years after the Japanese release.
This wouldn't be so much of a problem if it weren't for the fact all versions of the game played on the same servers. Japanese, Europeans, Americans, Playstation 2, PC and eventually, Xbox 360 owners all played on the same servers. This led to some early frustration as the Japanese had already played through the entire game before the game was out in NA and the EU.
Despite early frustrations, Final Fantasy XI quickly became popular and is still widely considered to be a good MMORPG. The gameplay of FFXI was similar to Everquest, but the UI was much more similar to the singleplayer games. This allowed both PC gamers and Console gamers to quickly pick up and play.
Square Enix claims Final Fantasy XI has around 500.000 active subscribers, making it one of the most popular MMORPGs around. It's hard to find info how many people are actually playing on consoles, but I think it's safe to assume the vast majority of FFXI players are playing the game on the PC. The Playstation 2 version is expensive and the hard drive is not compatible with the Slim Line Playstation 2. The Xbox 360 version was released in 2006, years after the game came out and the game performs very poorly on the system with noticable framerate drops.
SOE release Everquest Online Adventures in 2003, but unfortunately I never had the chance to play it. The subscriber base only reached 30.000 subscribers, well below the expected 100.000 subscriber base SOE was hoping for. Perhaps more memorable was the horrible advertisement.
EQOA commercial: www.youtube.com/watch
Meanwhile, Microsoft was about to launch its Xbox live service for the original Xbox and was looking for a game to premiere the service. Microsoft came in contact with Japanese developer Level 5, which at the time had worked on games such as Dark Cloud 1 and 2. Microsoft and Level 5 came to an agreement to develop what would be one of the most anticipated console MMORPGs yet: True Fantasy Live Online.
Development of True Fantasy Live Online had faced many issues. Level - 5, which had only developed offline games, was inexperienced with network coding and had difficulties implenting full voice chat, which was never done in such a large scale mmorpg. Microsoft insisted voice chat to be implemented in the game and was against the use of a keyboard. Level - 5 struggled to meet the demands of Microsoft, while Microsoft became frustrated with the lack of progress on the title. Despite the game being nearly complete, TFLO was eventually cancelled.
TFLO is still considered to be the one of the most disapointing cancellations of recent years.
True Fantasly Live Online gameplay footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWqSo5oKlHA
So where does that leave us now?
At the moment, none of the current generation of consoles have any modern MMORPGs avaible, The Xbox360 port of FInal Fantasy XI and the Japanese exclusive port of Angel Love Online for the PS3 being the only exception. Fear for failure seems to be the primary reason, the console mmorpg market is a risky market, and few projects are more risky than an MMORPG. There are a few ports of PC MMORPGs on their way, but nobody seems to be able to risk a console exclusive mmorpg.
The Xbox360 will be receiving ports of Champions Online, Age of Conan and Huxley.
The Playstation 3 on the other hand will have to do with a few other games. SOE is currently working on The Agency, DC Universe Online and Freerealms. NCsoft is currently working on a yet to be announced project for the Playstation 3.
Still despite this, it' doesn't look as if console MMORPGs are really taken seriously. Both The Agency and DC Universe Online are made with the Unreal 3 Engine, and if there is one thing thats obvious about the Unreal 3 engine it's that it does not like the Playstation 3. At all. According to joystiq, The Agency is no exception:
"Immediately, it was clear that the PS3 version wasn't running on par with the PC version (which is probably why this was the first time the PS3 version had ever been shown). The PC version ran smoothly with sharp, crisp graphics and superior textures, while the PS3 version suffered from noticeably lower-quality textures and a slightly sluggish framerate. Overall, the PS3 version still looked quite solid, but when displayed next to the PC version, the disparities were very apparent."
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the console MMORPGs lineup are (inferior) ports of PC MMORPGs.
I don't think that MMORPGs on consoles will ever really take of if this trend continues. Console gamers are not waiting for inferior ports of PC style MMORPGs.
So, what needs to be done to have a successful mmorpg on consoles? I personally think the following must be done to start the mmorpg snowball on consoles
- Understand the differences between console and PC games. It's no secret that MMORPGs are a natural evolution of the singleplayer RPG genre, but RPG games on the PC are very different from RPG games on consoles. Where as PC gamers grew up playing RPG's such as Diablo, Baldurs Gate and Neverwinter Nights, Console RPG gamers grew up playing games such as Final Fantasy, Chrono Trigger, Star ocean and the Tales of series.
These two type of games are very different from each other, and I personally think this is what killed Everquest Online Adventures: By making a PC type game in a "generic" PC game fantasy environment and expecting console gamers to feel comfortable in that.
- Use a recognisable franchise for console gamers.
It's no secret that MMORPGs build upon existing IP's tend to be more popular than MMORPGs which are not. MMORPGs are something alien to console gamers, and using a franchise that is recognisabale for them may encourage them to make the jump. A console exclusive mmorpg of console IP's such as Fable, Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto could go a long way.
- Make it a console exclusive. Console gamers play their games, especialy rpg games, different from PC gamers. Expecting a console gamer to adjust to PC gameplay mechanics and expecting both audiences to be happy is simply unrealistic.
I think that MMORPGs are becomming more and more present on consoles, but I think they will always remain a niche genre if no company is willing to really put in the time and effort to create a console mmorpg. As of yet, it's simply not possible to tell if console MMORPGs are an untapped market, or an unreachable market.