So a couple of weeks ago I posted about my problems with PC gaming on the go. I don't figure this problem will persist over the next five years or so since everyone seems to be jumping on the "mobile / wireless" bandwagon. I just keep seeing more and more laptops around me and I don't see that trend ending anytime soon. Especially with Cell phone companies offering wireless broadband for the same price as Cable and DSL.
Related but separate, cell phone gaming and portable consoles have grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years. The highest selling console on the planet right now is the DS and it's closest Competitor in the handheld market, the PSP, is already making plans to be integrated into a cell phone design. Of course, if Nintendo does this first with the DS, it won't surprise anyone since cell phone functionality has been rumored since the launch of the Gameboy Advance. Did I mention that the iPhone plays games now? No realy.... it plays games!
In the mainstream video gaming world, this looked at as something of an amusing oddity. Kinda like a woman with three breasts. It's fun and worth mentioning, but not really to be taken seriously. I find this attitude strange considering that about 40% of video gaming revenue comes from handhelds.
Here at MMORPG we care even less about portable gaming, be it on a laptop or otherwise. I mean really, an MMORPG? on the DS? Pffffffttttt! Whatever.....
That hasn't stopped people from playing MMORPGs on their laptops over wireless broadband, nor has it stopped handheld game developers from flirting with MMORPG concepts. Even Cell phone developers are taking a stab at integrating some of the elements of MMORPGs into their games.
Before I get into all of that however, I want to talk about how going portable morphs traditional gaming into something outside of what gamers are normally used to. Some of these things are old phenomenon that are making a comeback due to portable technology, and some of them are entirely new. Most of these things have made me take a different look at games as social media and the alleged importance of online gaming.
The most obvious thing that portable gaming brings to the table is visibility. Playing on a laptop or handheld console is an inherently public action. We've all seen the lame "Dude, get your own" commercials for the PSP, and that isn't too far off the mark with portable games. You're usually playing these games while waiting for something in public. This means that those who didn't bring something to occupy themselves with like a book, paper, people watching, ect. will wind up "shoulder surfing" people with games, books, and papers. I may not always get an audience when I play my DS in public, but I'm not surprised when someone does watch.
I want you to let the public aspect sink in for a second. Those of us that grew up with the arcades won't find this all that odd. Those of you that cut teeth on the Playstation one will probably be terrified. Last year I talked with a Gamestop employee, who I estimated to be about 20... maybe 22, that claimed he was so embarrassed to be a gamer that he tried to keep his friends and family from finding out that he still played video games.
Back when video games were in the cabinet, everyone played them and they were placed just about everywhere. The grocery store, the bar, the local Burger Trench.... they were everywhere and people aged eight to eighty two played them. Somewhere about the time that the arcades all got turned into Chucky Cheeses, adult video gaming became a badge of social retardation and 40 year old virginity. Portability is changing everything back the way it was.
The shoulder surfing aspect leads us to the next throwback that portable gaming gives us: The pick up game. When I see another DS owner in "the wild" I usually shoulder surf or ask what they're playing. This normally leads to a discussion of what games each person has on them and a negotiation for a pick up game. The cool thing about the DS is that many games only require you to have one cartridge among several players. So I can set up a four player game of Mario Kart, Metroid Prime: Hunters, Advanced Wars DS, or whatever even if the other person doesn't actually own the game. This is also possible with laptops, but would require each person to have a copy of the game. Combine this with zero lag and games that play out in under five minutes and you practically have the arcade experience in your pocket. Well.... except for the punks plunking quarters on the glass for the next play that is.
The downside of pick up gaming is that it shares one of the most crippling problems of online gaming. Cheating may not be common either online or in portable games, but it's still present and very much a threat. With traditional console and arcade games, this wasn't a big deal since everyone was playing on the same machine. This also wasn't a major deal with offline LAN parties since the promoters would police the floor and bounce cheaters on a moments notice. You were deterred from cheating due to the fact that it took you several hours to break down your computer, load it in car, unload it, set it up, and connect it to the LAN. Why risk being thrown out and having your rig smashed up in the process? With pick up games over wireless peer to peer networks, these defenses just aren't in place.
Syphon Filter: Combat Ops just came out on the PSP this November. It already has hacks available for it. While I haven't heard of this kind of thing happening on the DS, it's definitely a possibility on the PSP and laptop games. The only defense is to just stop playing, beat up the asshole cheating, or both. This strikes me as something that will generally only happen online, but the nature of portable gaming combines both the best and the worst of live and online gaming.
I guess that's really what defines portable gaming, it uses the natural social networking of real life and compliments that with the internet. This is almost in direct opposition to how mainstream online gaming works. Over the last ten years, the industry has expected us to stay inside and meet all of our gaming friends online. Meeting other gamers in the real world has become problematic at best. There are no arcades anymore, most of the people you see hanging out in places like Gamestop either resemble the comic book guy from the Simpsons or aren't old enough to shave yet, and it's not like you can tell who is and isn't a gamer just by looking at them. But if they're holding a DS, PSP, or you see them playing on a laptop, you not only know that said person is a gamer, but you know what kind of a gamer they are! This leads to an interesting question about MMORPGs: How does this affect MMORPGs both in design and definition?
The first problem is definition. We generally agree that an MMORPG is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. That means that Massive numbers of people can play at once and it's online. The line gets blurred quite a bit when we begin referring to games like Guild Wars and Phantasy Star Online as MMORPGs. Those two games are largely instanced and have party caps of between four and eight players. With Guild Wars, the maximum number of players in an instance is 24 with a max number of players at town hubs reaching a 150 maximum. Because of this, there has been some debate as to whether these two games qualify to be called MMORPGs.
Some extremists have suggested that including any instanced areas eliminates a game from getting the label of MMORPG. Likewise, there have been many that have stated that a game has to be able to host 3,000 players at once to be called an MMORPG. Everyone generally agrees that the game has to be online. But these differences in definition open the door to more social portable games that only use the internet to compliment real world social networking.
the first example is going to be Monster Hunter Freedom 2. This game is completely offline, but it comes from a short lineage of online RPGs. Like Phantasy Star Online, you are limited to a party of four players and a static world. The game is more open ended than PSO so there are over a thousand multiplayer quests alone, not to mention the number of solo missions. You're character also retains items and stats regardless of whether you play solo or multiplayer.
Let's expand now the concepts of this game a bit. Let's throw in the ability to download new quests, weapons, monsters, and areas periodically for a monthly subscription. Now let's add the ability to add player characters to a friends list and the ability to connect with those people online if you wanted? Is it an MMORPG or no? The only real difference is that you're meeting people in the real world rather than in some game lobby or massive server.
over the next year or so, there will be a handful of games that will work kind of like this sans the updates and monthly fees. Dragon Quest IX, Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Ring of Fates, even Sega is planning on releasing a spin off of Phantasy Star Universe on the PSP. With the success of MHF2 in Japan and it's rabid fanbase here in the US, expect to see more games like this with some of the features I just mentioned. As icing on the cake, Pokemon Diamond & Pearl features online trading that's similar to an auction house.
Now some people would claim that the game world isn't persistent in the aforementioned games. That is, the game doesn't happen on a server that's turned on 24/7 whether the player is logged on or not. I personally don't see why this is a big deal in largely static games like WoW or EQ2, but let's look at the whole concept of the persistent world anyway. More specifically, let's look at how you can have a persistent world without a world server or even an internet connection.
I submit to you... Animal Crossing! Yes, I realize that it's just a horribly kid friendly knock off of The Sims, but it has a few features that bring into question the standard definition of a persistent world. To begin with, each player has their own randomly generated town. If I go to someone else's town, not only will it have a different layout, but it also has different items and NPCs that I may not have in the town that was generated on my system. Going back to Monster Hunter, if we were to apply this idea it would mean that each player represents just another part of the game world to explore. With the exchange of friend codes or gate keys, you could revisit that players area whenever they're online to explore or trade. There's no central server, but there is persistence.
This idea of offline persistence linked to online play adds some even more interesting angles to game design. As an example, Metroid Prime Hunters allows you to scan for other players in you vicinity while the DS is in sleep mode. Any players that are found are placed into a rivals list and you get to see if they are online and can challenge them which is much faster than having Nintendo Wi-Fi search for random players. If we were to take our hypothetical mobile RPG and add this scan feature with faction based PVP, you could actually achieve a greater level of persistence than most modern MMORPGs.
Imagine playing online with a friend when suddenly four enemies log on and begin raiding your town. If you fail, your town can be burned to the ground with all the NPCs killed. As far as I know, there isn't a single MMORPG that I've ever heard of that allows for this kind of thing. Yet it's way more than possible in an offline portable game.
In the end, MMORPGs are social games and social spaces. The question is whether or not the definition of these games can be expanded to include games that operate over real life social networks or are confined to maladjusted shut-ins over the interweb. I personally like to think that these games can be more than a substitution for real life relationships and act as a catalyst for greater social interaction in flesh and blood world around us. Imagine how many MMORPG players you come into contact with every day and don't even realize it.