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Som Pourfarzaneh : The Case for the Mobile MMO

Columns By Som Pourfarzaneh on August 07, 2015

The Case for the Mobile MMO

Like a lot of our readers, I was raised on PC gaming, with an equal interest in consoles.  The disparate platforms represent different experiences for me, in that my desktop has always been an MMO, RPG, and general Steam machine, while my PS4 and other consoles have been gateways to first-party content and other games not available (or runnable) on my PC.


The industry’s approach to hardware has been changing significantly, however, and the two experiences have become less and less distinct over the past couple of years.  A lot of historically PC-only titles have been finding their way onto consoles, and if I weren’t so lazy, I could easily set up my desktop so I could play games on the big screen from the couch (I recognize the ridiculousness of that statement).  Still, habits are hard to break, and I don’t have much interest in playing Final Fantasy XIV or The Elder Scrolls Online on my PS4.

I am intrigued, however, by the potential for a full-fledged MMORPG experience on mobile devices.  I do a fair amount of gaming on my Vita and 3DS, and while I’ll attest to the number of good games on those platforms, none of them quite scratch the MMO itch.  I’m no stranger to tablet and smartphone gaming either, but I haven’t yet found that killer app that has the potential to suck me in like a bonafide PC MMORPG (except for you, Football Manager Handheld, and maybe Hearthstone).

Most opinions on mobile MMOs fall into one of two camps: that there are already a plethora of games out there from which to choose, or that the very concept of a handheld MMORPG is farcical.  In the first case, there’s undeniably some good stuff out there, including Arcane Legends and Order & Chaos Online, but most of it is either exceptionally microtransaction-heavy, card-based, or otherwise diversionary without much substance.  There’s certainly nothing commensurate with the B+ or better PC MMOs on our site.

In response to the second opinion, it is true that the hardware limitations of mobile devices pose an important hurdle in handheld MMO development.  The system specs of current-generation smartphones and tablets are impressive, but even if they could handle optimized versions of top-flight MMORPGs, there’s still the issue of input controls.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not a fan of the virtual thumbstick that’s become commonplace in touchscreen games, and I don’t see that as being a workable solution for MMO movement and combat.  I don’t even like the idea of playing MMORPGs on anything but a mouse and keyboard, so neither Vita nor 3DS controls would be ideal, either.

These limitations shouldn’t mean that there isn’t the potential for a triple-A MMO venture on handheld systems, however.  The different hardware and controls simply indicate a distinct type of approach that’s necessary, similar to what games like Arcane Legends and Order & Chaos Online have done, but with the backing of high-profile PC intellectual properties that we’ve come to love.  I would play the heck out of WildStar on my Vita, for example.  I know I’m only one of the ten people out there who still play that system, so pick your favorite MMO and handheld device, and think about the possibilities.  Who wouldn’t want to play Guild Wars 2 on their tablet while waiting for their order of Original BBQ Chicken Salad™ at California Pizza Kitchen (I have very specific gaming fantasies)?

Certain concessions would have to be made for the hardware, but they’d be worth it to allow you to play your World of Warcraft characters on your smartphone.  Perhaps that would include the introduction of a secondary input device, or a keyboard setup that your phone or tablet would dock into.  While I haven’t yet seen a control implementation that I like for handheld MMORPGs, there’s clearly a market for the genre, with hundreds of admittedly mediocre MMO-type games available.  It’s high time for one or more of the industry’s veteran developers to create a PC-worthy MMORPG experience on mobile devices.

What about you?  Would you play a handheld version of your favorite MMO?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at and a Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.