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GDC Panel: The Future of MMOs - Consoles?

While at the Game Developer's Conference, Jon Wood moderated a panel called "The Future of MMOs" populated by some of the biggest names in the MMO industry. Today, he presents his impressions of the panel's answer to the question of whether or not future developers will need to worry about both a PC and a console version of their games.

The Future of MMOs - Consoles?

In this, the second part of the report on The Future of MMOs panel, I ask the gathered developers if consoles are the way of the future for MMOs, and whether or not future MMOs will have to be developed cross-platform in order to be successful.

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As a reminder to the readers, the panel was made up of developers much more knowledgeable than I: Jack Emmert from Cryptic Studios, Matt Miller from NCsoft, Ray Muzyka from Bioware, Min Kim from Nexon and Rob Pardo from Blizzard.

The thought process behind this question, I felt, was fairly obvious. While up until now, it has been fairly easy to think about MMORPGs as a PC – only genre (they aren’t, games like Final Fantasy XI and Phantasy Star have been running on consoles for a while now), the upcoming launch of the PC version of Funcom’s Age of Conan and the pending Xbox 360 release of that same game, as well as SOE’s The Agency, are making more and more people question whether consoles will become the medium of choice for MMO developers.

I was a little bit surprised that all of the panelists seemed to agree in one way or another that consoles were going to play a large role in the future of MMOs. For the last few years, this has been a touchy subject for players and developers alike, and many people have many varied opinions. I have heard people complain about everything from a dumbing down of the genre to logistical concerns about updates through Xbox Live.

Still though, even if everyone on the panel seemed to agree that consoles would play a role, there was some variation over how that might happen:

Being on my left, Jack Emmert started the discussion by saying that yes, MMOs are moving toward consoles and that it isn’t surprising that we’re starting to see a migration, with Matt Miller agreeing. In the end, it’s a big audience that is playing on the consoles these days and that has the potential to grow and expand the current MMORPG player base.

Ray talked a little bit about how different the play styles are on PC and console, and he’s right. For years there has been a kind of rift between console players and PC players, and there I a good chance that it stems from the fact that the style of game play varies in a player’s choice of medium. He said that he felt that the PC and the console were two different markets and needed to be treated as such. In the end, Rob said that it’s all about knowing your audience, and that PC and console audiences tend to want different things.

Min Kim, the next of our panelists to speak, points out that the “mass market” for MMORPGs is probably still in the PC, but that not looking toward the console would be unwise. This, to me, is an interesting stance from Kim, and he makes a good point. He also mentioned the possible logistical problems of releasing Nexon games on the consoles, citing a desire to make sure that players have access to the free client. PCs currently support the business model, while it might be more difficult for the consoles.

This brings us, as does the end of every question, to the man at the end of the table, Rob Pardo of Blizzard. Rob points out the extreme penetration of personal computers versus their console counterparts. Rob, like a number of the others, also pointed out that developers should not only know their audience, but that they should choose the medium that will work best for their particular game, and that will maximize the fun for players. Rob also acknowledged one of the biggest complains that many people have when they hear about the idea of MMOs on the console: game mechanics. Many players feel that moving an MMORPG over to a console would hurt the gameplay and require a “dumbing down” of game features. Rob pointed out that the MMOs that we know today just work better on PC. That doesn’t preclude the possibility of a good MMO being made for the consoles, but as it is right now, MMOs have been designed for the PC.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to get when I asked the guys this question, but I know that it is a growing concern for anyone considering developing an MMORPG. Personally, I think the industry is at an interesting crossroads, as the first set of high profile MMOs move toward console releases. Fortunately for me, as a reporter, I have the luxury of sitting back and letting time tell the story on console MMOs. Am I sold on the idea? Not yet… but I could be.