Stumbles of Console MMO Development
I don’t think it’s any secret these days that I enjoy the hell out of DC Universe Online. But I play the game on the PC, as I’ve not yet taken the plunge on a PS3. It’s obvious to me, and I’m sure to others, that while SOE has done an admirable job of straddling both PC and console design there are plenty of areas that things could have gone more smoothly. Arguing over whether MMOs even belong on consoles is a moot point. They’re happening, folks. They will continue to happen. The best advice I can give those who may be resistant of the idea is to get used to thought, realize you don’t have to play them and start thinking of some ways in which the console MMO can be made better.
The first thought that comes to mind is the recent frustration over DCUO’s first content update. Originally due to hit this week, it was held back until next week because so many different moving parts need to give approval before a patch is released. Aside from SOE themselves, it needs to go through SCEA and SCEE (Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Europe respectively). And of course it needs to be approved by DC Comics as well. Any game that straddles both the console and the PC is bound to run into this problem, as is any game that licenses an IP. I recall similar issues with Warhammer and Games Workshop. It’s not a problem that has any easy solution.
But more directly tied to the game, console controls are by and large much more restrictive than the mouse and keyboard of the PC. MMORPG players are used to having a wide range of control and UI options in their games. They’re also used to being able to chat at will and easily interact with others on the keyboard, and through a clickable user interface. This isn’t something that’s possible with a joystick controlled game. The whole UI that we’ve been used to for years is suddenly turned on its head when an MMO is made for the consoles. Final Fantasy XI had the same problems. People adapted as they loved the game enough to do so, but it’s still an issue.
But then there’s the gameplay itself as it’s tied to the way in which we’re used to controlling these games. It all changes when you throw an MMO onto a console. You don’t want to force those players to use a USB keyboard and mouse and so you have to design everything to be done with the controller and most likely a headset. There are folks who will use a controller with a built-in keyboard, and there are some who will gladly plug in a keyboard to chat, but by and large the game is going to be played with little more than a controller and a headset. How does a community adapt to this? A big part of what makes many an MMORPG great is the chat that goes from zone to zone or across the entire game. That simply won’t exist in a console MMO, at least not to the level it once did.
I don’t claim to have the answers to these and many more questions facing the console MMO. But when I look at the potential for the genre on the PS3 and Xbox 360, I know there’s a reason for companies to keep at it. I do think that subscriptions are risky for a console market. I also think that any console MMO is going to wind up being vastly different than what we’re used to. Perhaps the most obvious choice for a console MMO would be one that blends the FPS genre with the persistent online world (Firefall, DUST, Undead Labs’ game). But one thing I believe needs to be addressed is the apparent need to make a console/PC game. I love DCUO. But even I can tell it’s more of a console-designed game than something that was meant for PC.
Basically, with all my armchair developer brain joo-joo, I see console MMOs as a growing arena for these games. But the games themselves will not be what we’re used to with titles like Everquest, WoW, or even EVE. They will be far more streamlined (some would say stripped down) affairs. They should not (but probably will try to) charge subscriptions. They should be built around a consistent stream of DLC and a mix of fluff purchasable items. They should also not try to straddle both the PC and the console side of things. They should be made for one or the other. But hey, I’m not a professional. I’m just calling it like I see it. I want to play MMOs on my Xbox. I want Rockstar to make Read Dead Redemption Online even more robust than it already is (probably a pipedream). I want DUST 514 to be an incredible MMOFPS. I want Undead Labs’ game to suck my free time away with plenty of zombie awesomeness. But I hope that each of them realize they can’t go in thinking that what works on the PC will work on the console and vice versa.