June 10, 2008 8:00 AM | Simon Carless
[In a pointed analysis piece, Joe Ludwig, producer at Pirates Of The Burning Sea developer Flying Lab Software, examines the barriers that make creating console MMOs more difficult than PC MMOs, from platform holders through certification and control devices and beyond.]
A few weeks ago, Dan Rubenfield posted this (as part of a larger rant putting all MMO developers on notice):
"If you continue to refuse to acknowledge consoles as the de-facto standard for AAA gaming, you will go out of business.
Quit making PC games. It’s a waste of time and money."
(NPD respectfully disagrees with the waste of money part.)
I for one would love to build a console MMO. It's not that MMO developers don't acknowledge consoles as dominant, it's that there are many barriers to building a console MMO that don't exist on the PC. I mentioned a couple of those in my comment to the post above, but wanted to expand on them here.
Barrier #1: Platform Holders Demand a Share
Assuming a moderate success, MMOs are almost unique in their ability to give game developers a revenue stream. Most studios live from milestone payment to milestone payment and rarely see royalties off the game after it ships. If they're smart, they make a little extra on each milestone and can build a buffer to help them tough it out between projects, but often failing to sign with a publisher for the next project drives the developer out of business. With a few very successful exceptions, just about all studios live on this edge.
Ongoing revenues from subscriptions or micro-transactions change all of that. These revenue streams require constant updates to keep going. That means that the publisher needs the developer to stay in business so they can keep working on the game.
Assuming modest success, it also means that eventually the developer is going to pay back their advance and start earning royalties. This seems to have worked out pretty well for Cryptic who are developing Champions Online without a publisher.
When you introduce a platform holder to the mix, the economics change. Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo is going to demand their cut of all ongoing revenue, and that cut is rumored to be between 25% and 35%. With one more player getting a piece, the revenues shrink for both the publisher and the developer, and it becomes harder to turn a profit from a "modest success."
Barrier #2: Certification
Absolutely everything released on any console goes through an extensive testing phase called certification. This is a slow, expensive process that is imposed by the platform holder to keep a consistent level of quality and a consistent user experience for all titles on their platform. It works, too, so certification isn't likely to go anywhere any time soon.
How does certification interact with the need to put out patches on a regular basis that add new features to the game? It's bound to slow things down (and make patches more expensive).
Barrier #3: No Keyboard
Voice chat is great for small groups. It even works pretty well for short messages from one player to another. It really doesn't work so well for chat groups of 100. All the current consoles can take some kind of keyboard, but requiring one is something your users are going to object to. The game console is in their living room, after all, and they are probably running out of room after the drum set and all those extra Rock Band guitars.
Even if you could guarantee that the players have keyboards, text chat is still problematic. People sit pretty far back from their televisions, and even HD displays really aren't very high-res compared to PC screens.
Barrier #4: Long Development Times
MMOs take four to five years to build. People keep trying to convince themselves that they can do it in three years, but they're wrong. They are going to schedule everything for three years and then end up slipping by a year or two.
The Xbox launched in November of 2001. The Xbox 360 launched in November of 2005. PlayStation 2 launched in November of 2000, and PlayStation 3 launched in November of 2006. The last major generation change on the PC was Windows 95, and it's had a pretty smooth ramp since then. It's really hard to spend four to five years building one title when your platform is only going to be current for five to six years.
Barrier #5: Consoles Have a Smaller Installed Base
Yes, I said smaller. There are 189 million NVIDIA GPUs installed in PCs, a number which doesn't count any of the ATI cards out there or any NVIDIA cards older than the 5 series. There are 120 million PlayStation 2s, 25 million Xbox 360s, 25 million Wiis, and 20 million PlayStation 3s. That's a total of 190 million consoles. Whatever ATI brings in installed base pushes the PC way over the top.
This entirely discounts the fact that every single game console was purchased to play games and every PC was not. It also discounts all those GeForce 2s and 4s that a PC developer really should use as their min spec.
Barrier #6: Duo Play
Many, many people play MMOs (and other games for that matter) in pairs. I've played 6 different MMOs with my wife. Lots of people play with their spouses, siblings, or kids.
As long as you have an appropriate min spec, your game is likely to run on the second-tier PCs in the house. But how many people have a second Xbox 360 in their house? Some do, to be sure, but that number is tiny compared to the number of two-computer households.
Console MMOs really need to support split-screen play on a single machine, which adds to the development complexity. On the other hand, split-screen duo play would be fantastic for people who live in the same house and is actually a feature that consoles can offer over PCs.
So We're Doomed Then?
In the short run, yes. None of these are insurmountable obstacles, but they do make a console MMO more difficult than a PC MMO. There is enough money to be made in console games that future MMO releases there are inevitable. It's just a question of when they arrive.
Several console MMOs have already launched. The most successful of these by far is Final Fantasy XI on the PlayStation 2. Everquest Online Adventures and Phantasy Star Universe (and Phantasy Star Online before it) are two more examples. There are probably more that I'm not coming up with. All of these games have seen some modest success, but none of them are either major console hits or major MMO hits.
To add to those, some new console MMOs are in the works. SOE is working on three PC/PlayStation 3 titles, with Free Realms being the first one to come out. PS3 is the loser so far this generation, though, so that may not make much difference to most console gamers.
UK magazine Edge has rumored that Nintendo was working on an Animal Crossing MMO, but it's just a rumor at this point. Microsoft obviously doesn't have the institutional fortitude to build MMOs; they have canceled Marvel twice. NCsoft also announced a partnership with Sony to bring an NCsoft game out on the PS3, though they aren't saying what game yet.
Eventually MMOs are going to come to consoles. It's just going to take them a while to get there, and they will probably never emerge in the same numbers as they do on PCs. Buck up, Dan. We'll get there some day.
[Joe Ludwig is the producer of Flying Lab Software's Pirates of the Burning Sea. His ten years in the industry put him somewhere between Clueless Newbie and Bitter Veteran. Joe is a frequent speaker and occasional writer on MMOs and their issues. His blog can be found at http://programmerjoe.com.]