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New HOME of the MMO
It has become increasingly evident over the last generation that there is no longer a considerable gulf separating console and PC gaming. Console hardware has evolved to mimic certain aspects of its more prolific cousin and the software is quickly doing the same. The current iteration of home consoles incorporate WLAN, upgradeable hard drives and highly advanced GPUs.
Yet for all their fast growing similarities there will always be a divide between PCs and home consoles, the gamers. Yet the MMOG, a stalwart in the PC gaming community since Maze War over 30 years ago, could further narrow the gap between these two demographics with its auspicious return to consoles.
Perhaps the seed for the console MMOG were sewn as console gaming began to show itself capable of creating an enthusiastic social networking community. Facebook and Twitter is now available from the Xbox 360's dashboard and with HOME Sony have created the console's answer to second life. All of a sudden the PC and console communities aren't so different.
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DC Universe leads the way...
A number of projects are set to test whether the MMOG really belongs on the console. Developers are placing their faith in some high profile IPs and bombarding us with choice, as is their want. DC Universe Online is perhaps the most promising of the current crop of upcoming releases, overseen by numerous DC luminaries (including artist Jim Lee) and arriving in the wake of the critically lauded Batman: Arkham Asylum, a game that proved comic book adaptations can be executed with faith and grace. Elsewhere, The Agency sees players create their own James/Jane Bond and take part in an online world of espionage. PS3 exclusive MAG brings 256 player battles to the first person multiplayer shooter, a legion of armies on one network.
Yet there are some holdouts, Realtime worlds have ceased console development of their Crackdown follow-up APB and MMO behemoth Blizzard haven't officially announced any console projects, although their ever growing community tools are definitely becoming more accommodating...
"I think we are moving to this sort of connectivity being common across all games, PC and console. Thats the future. And the Battle.net service ties all that together"
-Greg Casella recently quoted in EDGE magazine. Jan. 2010.
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"There are naysayers in EVE, they're just concerned about putting the fate of a planet in the hands of the console people"
- Atli Mar Sviensonn, creative director at CCP
Of all the possible entry points for the console MMOG, Swedish developer CCP may have found the perfect way of integrating PC and console gamers. Dust 514 is an MMO first person shooter based within the world of EVE: Online, the second in command of PC MMORPGs, next to World of Warcraft. Although the connection between the two is not the games main selling point (according to the developers many of the Dust target audience will have never heard of EVE), the key aspect is that it will unite the two gaming factions in the same universe. Level hubs known as war barges from Dust will exist in EVE space, trading between the games will be possible, as will corp integration. CCP have offered an olive branch to the console gaming world, if they wish to communicate, they can. The universe of EVE is dense and often seems like a niche environment even on its native platform, it will be interesting to see how this world translates onto consoles. CCP's masterstroke is to stage their new IP in the FPS arena, the consoles most lucrative genre.
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Does the MMO belong on consoles? Surely developers have enough IP to forego the need for anything to bolster their allready bulging software catalogues. It all essentially boils down to financial revenue. The sheer volume of subscribers in the PC MMO community is staggering, World Of Warcraft's 11 million strong subscriber base is an unprecedented benchmark in the history of community gaming (click here for more subscriber figures).
"I’ve always said that a game should be designed around its business model, and Guild Wars is certainly designed to be a free-to-play online game. In fact, there are hundreds of free-to-play online games on the market today, but some publishers are increasingly relying on micro-transactions, in-game advertising, “premium” accounts, or, at worst, lead-gen scams to generate more profit. I don’t like this nickel-and-dime approach, because it leads to design decisions that are based on something other than what’s most fun for the players."
-Jeff strain of UNDEAD Games, lead developer for an as yet untitled console based Zombie MMO.
This raises the most important question when looking at the console MMOG, cost to the player. It has been announced by Sony that not only will DC Universe Online carry no subscription fee, but will also feature open platform servers, allowing PC and PS3 gamers to exist in the same world, a similar integration technique to that of CCP. The Agency will also be free to play, however, it has been announced by Sony Online Entertainments John Smedley that the game will be funded by micro transactions and a "velvet rope" policy that will restrict non-paying gamers from certain premium playing areas. This kind of business model has an uneasy back and forth quality to it that may not sit well with most gamers, who may feel they are being duped into buying a game on the promise of free subscription, only to find that they cannot progress without breaking out the credit card.
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MSG: Massively single player game.
Some console games of note have already tested the waters for the MMO by presenting massive single player experiences. The sales of such games reflect the fact that there is a demand for wide open RPG style experiences. Oblivion and Fallout 3 are two such games, both of them place the player in a large open environment, interacting with a myriad of NPCs, completing quests and slowly building their character. If their is a market for these type of games then surely an added online element will not deter players.
Elsewhere, online multiplayer games have also evolved to reflect the style of the MMO. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and its sequel feature a deep multiplayer mode that includes levelling up, class creation and highly customisable battles. Lionhead's Fable II is a largely single player RPG that allows other players to communicate in game, while not actually taking part in each others quests. This genre progression and integration is paving the way for the console MMO by training players in the genres idiosyncratic nature.
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Succeed where Final Fantasy failed?
The console MMO revolution is going to continue apace regardless of any naysayers or apprehensive software developers. Sony in particular are personally bankrolling there own platforms MMO prospects, placing there faith in the genre. Microsoft are staying quiet while working on projects elsewhere (Natal in particular).
Its easy to forget those that have gone before and failed at making the console MMO a mainstay (Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy XI and EverQuest Online Adventures in particular), but try in vain they did. Perhaps with the latest generation of consoles blurring the line between the two types of gamer, this new attempt will succeed. The games in question certainly have the pedigree and the potential for success, only time can tell.
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DC Universe Online: Fall, 2010 (US)
The Agency: TBA
MAG: Jan 29th, 2010 (US,UK)