Thursday, December 27, 2007

The best MMO?

Recently I pointed somebody at the existing post titled World of Warcraft as a Benchmark. After reading the post, I was asked a question. Since I didn't think World of Warcraft was a benchmark for MMO games, what did I think the benchmark was? Well, that question sort of misses the point of the original article. I don't think that any MMO should be held as the gold standard of how to make an Massive Multiplayer online title. Holding up one existing MMO as a standard for all other MMO's to aspire to simple creates copy cat games. I went over in that original article a quick list of existing Fantasy MMO titles and pointed out that the market was effectively saturated. It is my opinion that MMO developers need to diversify, and make drastically different games, so that they appeal to several different people. Okay, there is room for 5 or 6 of the same genre MMO, but there isn't really room for 10 or 12 that don't do anything different from each other.

Okay, so if I didn't think any MMO should be held as a standard, what did I think the best MMO was? Well, this might be surprising, but in my opinion the Best MMO ever... was Phantasy Star Online. Now, I'm not saying that just because the series contained the only games on the Gamecube that were online-enabled, nor because Phantasy Star Online GCN was available before either the Xbox or the Playstation2 went online.

For starters, Phantasy Star Online had a unique look. When you walked by somebody playing the game, you instantly knew what they were playing. It wasn't a game of guessing which generic fantasy title are you playing now? Phantasy Star Online also looked good, and not just for a console game. As I praised UT3, the game had subtle highlights and lighting so that you never mistook your character or an enemy for anything in the background. Even today, the style of Phantasy Star Online is unmistakable in the series continuation, Phantasy Star Universe.

Phantasy Star Online was also optimized for a phone modem connection. Sure, it played great on a cable modem, but because it was built for a 56k, it didn't matter how lousy your connection got. Loading screens were hidden behind clever portals that you could play around with while waiting. Phantasy Star Online's button press sequences hid potential online lag problems behind long animations, so that fellow players might not ever realize you had a lousy connection.

PSO also had a decent banking and trade system, and the loot system wasn't half bad. You could play on the foreign game servers, and there were several pre-translated phrases already available so that even if you didn't speak the same language as the other player, you could communicate what you were doing or what was going on. You also had the option to make your own custom emotes... in a console game.

Another point in Phantasy Star Online's favor is that it did go cross-platform, eventually spawning clients for 4 different platforms: Dreamcast, Gamecube, Xbox, Windows. Granted, none of these versions could play with each other, but you weren't limited to one platform to play Phantasy Star Online.

What Sega did with Phantasy Star Online is they kept it simple. The controls were obviously designed for a game controller first, so it felt right playing Phantasy Star Online on a controller. Players of Final Fantasy XI often get the feeling Squaresoft designed the game using a keyboard and mouse, then decided to fit everything onto a PS2 controller at a later date. Sega had a dedicated goal for what Phantasy Star Online was to be, and they hit that goal on the head.

A lot of Massive Multiplayer Online titles today do not have a clear goal of where the game will be 2 or 3 years down the line. Sega sort of avoided that problem as Phantasy Star Online was developed as a console game. There would not be any real addition of any game-changing content at a later date, leaving the majority of the development team to focus entirely on making the next amount of content and having a relative minority handling the support options for the published product.

I think this is one of the problems Tabula Rasa is going through right now. Tabula Rasa's basic design is still in a state of flux as character classes are rebuilt and powers are re-engineered. It is quite possible that over 50% of the development work on Tabula Rasa being done now is just in maintaining and reworking existing content rather than developing new content.

It is also why many MMO's run a test server, thus enabling the players to go ahead and look for problems in upcoming patches. That way most of the major game-breaking bugs can be identified and worked out, thus saving development time and effort when a patch goes live.

Going forward though, I think a lot of upcoming MMO's are going to be in trouble. I've talked about Age of Conan and Warhammer Online in some chats before, and my opinion is that anybody who is honestly waiting on them expecting something more than World of Warcraft... are going to be in for some of the biggest disappointments in gaming. It's well known that I don't like World of Warcraft, and that my general opinion of World of Warcraft players and it's communities hovers somewhere just above that of my opinion on Halo players. So... I hope this is taken for what it is: Anybody expecting Age of Conan or Warhammer online to do something different than World of Warcraft that will be worth the money? They don't. Stick with World of Warcraft if you like fantasy genre. If you want to play something truely different in the fantasy genre right now, go pick up a copy of Final Fantasy Online. If you want to play something that could really be different in the future? Wait for NCSoft's AION.

I also think that a lot of MMO's are going to have to follow the model set by Sega and get their games onto multiple platforms. Any publisher or developer that does not have a dedicated Linux strategy for the next 3 years, probably will not be here in 2. Reason why is that all major Original Equipment Manufacturers, nearly all major Original Design Manufacturers, and most of the minors in each are either shipping Linux installed systems right now, have announced that plans to sell Linux Systems are underway, or have announced that they will insure that their hardware is Linux compatible. Whether or not major game publishers like it, Linux as a desktop OS is not going away. It going to continue to grow, and in order to continue to grow their markets, publishers like EA, Blizzard Activision, Capcom, NCSoft and Valve will need to be shipping Linux clients for their games. They are not going to like it, but sorry, that's the way things are going.

Case in point would be the almost privately published Eve Online. I've cheered on Eve Online for working with Transgaming to produce a Linux client. There is, however, one gigantic problem. Eve Online isn't my cup of tea. I'm not saying there is anything wrong, or bad about the game. If I had published my review, it was going to be an 8/10. It's just that I don't like the genre that Eve Online services, just the same as I'm not a big fan of Need For Speed, Madden, or 1080. Sure, they can be great and wonderful games, but I'd much rather have the arcade insanity of Excite Truck or SSX Tricky over Need for Speed or 1080.

What I think many publishers are going to wind up doing is cutting similar deals with private 3rd parties that mimic the deal EA cut with Transgaming. EA contracted Transgaming to bring several of their titles to the Apple Unix platform. Transgaming told EA straight up that their development platform was Linux, and that if they developed the games to run on Apple Unix, they would run on Linux as well using Cedega. Okay, fine and dandy, EA's Macintosh games will run using Cedega.

Sure, it's a sneaky way to get Linux support, and you don't exactly get a big front page post on stating that such and such hot title will run on Linux. However, in order to appease Shareholders and investors that are incapable of understanding Linux or understanding sales at all, that is probably how the next year or so will see more games brought to the Linux Platform.

However, two years down the line, game companies that are not producing official clients are going to be in a tough spot. Publishers producing official Linux Clients will have 100% of the fastest growing PC market segment. Publishers that don't? Well... they won't go away completely. I mean Acclaim is still around... in some form or another.
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