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Bill Murphy: Coming Soon: Pocket MMOs

Columns By William Murphy on January 20, 2011

Coming Soon: Pocket MMOs

Yesterday the general gaming public learned that Nintendo’s next portable, the 3DS, will be dropping in America on March 27th for the (yikes!) cost of $250.  I’m not sold that the portable will be worth the money being asked of it, though the notion of glasses-less 3D and much more power than the regular ol’ DS is quite enticing.  You’re probably wondering why I’m even bringing a portable system like the 3DS up here on MMORPG.com, and really it’s more of a speculative purpose than anything else.  Along with a bevy of upcoming releases being detailed at yesterday’s press event for the new portable, Nintendo detailed a much more robust and less painful-to-use online system for the 3DS.  Without knowing a concrete thing about the PSP2 (which is supposedly just around the corner too), one can assume it’s probably going to come with a diverse set of online support as well.  Take into account the fact that Pocket Legends is making a nice little name for itself on the Droids and iPhones of the world, and one can’t help but wonder if there’s a growing trend for some sort of Pocket MMO sub-genre. 

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Before we even begin to speculate what kinds of games such a phenomenon would produce, let’s take a look at something that was recently announced as in-development.  Panasonic is apparently knee-deep into R&D for a device they’re calling “The Jungle”: a portable and handheld online gaming machine that they claim will be perfect for online games such as Battlestar Galactica Online and Jagex’s Runescape.  I know, I know… it sounds essentially like a glorified netbook.  If you saw the images of the thing’s proposed design, that’s really all it is only without the other functions of such a product.  The potential market for something like this aside, considering how easy it is becoming for most casual online gamers to play their favorites on their smart-phones, it’s easy to see that there’s still a precedent developing for portable online gaming.  I just happen to believe that any real manifestation of this will come in the form of new types of games which will be designed for use with established hardware such as the new PSP2 and the 3DS (or whatever handhelds lie beyond). 

Taking a look at games such as the massively popular Monster Hunter series and how they’ve already achieved success with an online-multiplayer component, it’s easy to see the potential for more persistent online experiences in the handheld space.  With the next generation of handhelds, there may be ample opportunity for more innovation and more diversity in the MMO industry, but there are certainly hurdles to be overcome.

The 3DS and presumably the PSP2 will both be wireless compatible, and it’s possible that the latter will come with some sort of free wireless 3G service (along the lines of Kindle’s Whispernet service).  Either way, both will have access to wireless internet connections, so as long as the users can find an access point they’ll be able to connect to whatever online content is proposed.  Both systems are also going to be far more powerful in terms of computing than their predecessors.  The 3DS is essentially as powerful graphically and computationally as the Gamecube, with multi-tasking functionality, and the rumored PSP2 is supposed to clock in at more than half as powerful as the PS3 (wowsa).  In terms of technology, one would think that either machine would be capable of performing admirably in the MMO space, the question is: what would those games be like?

It’s already a difficult task to convince console gamers that a subscription is needed, and I imagine the idea would be even more foreign to handheld gamers.  Therefore it’s without a doubt in my mind that any handheld MMOs would need to be subscription-free and instead earn extra income from online marketplaces and downloadable content.  This is a risky line to walk, but it would likely be the only option available for pocket MMOs.  Another problem is that traditionally MMOs follow a basic set of guidelines in terms of functionality.  We’ve already seen much confusion and arguments surround whether SOE’s DC Universe Online is really and truly an MMORPG.  I imagine that handheld games in the genre would be even more scrutinized.  But that doesn’t mean there can’t be deep and layered content on a portable level.  The UI would need to change, typed chat would likely be a thing of the past, but the social functions of voice, grouping, guilds and the like wouldn’t have to change a bit.

Would everyone here be on board with a handheld MMO?  Probably not.  And I suspect that next to none of our current crop of games would translate well.  A true first generation handheld MMO would be a new IP and a new type of MMORPG experience altogether.  It would need push the kind of content delivered on Pocket Lengends even further.  And sure there’s probably plenty of folks who would rather keep their online gaming relegated to their PC (and consoles at the most), but count me in as the type of person who would love to have a sandbox or theme-park to take with me on the go.  And while we could debate for hours on what a game like this could or would be like, and whether or not it would even deserve the distinction of “MMORPG”, the truth is that we’re not far from it becoming a reality.  I do believe that the rise of the smart-phone and more importantly the next generation of handheld consoles is going to see its own fair share of MMO experimentation.  And I for one am anxious to see what comes from it all.

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for all of his pointless rambling.