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Opinion: Why Microsoft Loses MMOs (And Why The PS3 Will Win the Genre)
Opinion: Why Microsoft Loses MMOs (And Why The PS3 Will Win the Genre)
April 30, 2008 | By Michael Zenke

April 30, 2008 | By Michael Zenke
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    17 comments
More: Console/PC



[In this in-depth Gamasutra opinion piece, journalist and MMO commentator Michael Zenke takes a close look at Microsoft's missed opportunities in the MMO space - and how Sony is poised to capitalize.]

The cancellation of Marvel Universe Online was a blow to MMO and comic fans alike. Still, now that the pain has faded somewhat, I think it’s clear that MUO’s death may be a good thing after all.

Given the rumors of confusion on the dev team about what the game was going to be like at a fundamental level, pulling support from the project seems like a no-brainer. That said, I think MUO’s death highlights Microsoft’s sordid history with Massively Multiplayer games.

If you look down the big list of canceled or never-released massively multiplayer games, Microsoft’s name comes up a suspicious number of times. The closure of Asheron's Call 2 is probably the most high-profile of these. Mythica, True Fantasy Online, Vanguard, and now Marvel Universe were all dented by the Redmond giant’s deft touch.

On a fundamental corporate level, I think that the company just doesn’t understand the whole MMO ‘thing’. The Xbox Live service is a known quantity at this point, and it's probably one of the defining elements of this generation of consoles. That said, having the patience to see something like an MMO through to completion is a very different task.

Even more than that, I think Microsoft’s short-sightedness when it comes to this genre has left a huge opening for Sony and the PlayStation 3. Though there are no firm plans in the public eye right now, the tide is rising for MMO experiences on Sony’s console. I think it's possible that Microsoft has ceded this fight without even firing a shot.

Microsoft’s Messups

The piece 'Delay of Game' was originally published in the pages of the late, lamented Games for Windows magazine. That article, which touches on some well-known delayed and cancelled games, contains the most recent discussion of Microsoft’s most tragic MMO closure: Mythica. I mourned the game’s loss back in 2004, and even then it was very clear why Microsoft had cut it free from development:

[Microsoft says] there are too many games already, we don’t think there is a market for our game. Besides Mythica, Microsoft also has an entire gaming platform to support …

Despite the protestations of Microsoft’s PR department, it should be mentioned that Mythic Studios had a lawsuit pending against MS … In all likelihood all of these reasons resulted in Mythica’s cancellation. Two years of development time is not something easily thrown away, even by the likes of Microsoft.

mythica_01x-150x150.jpgIt is somewhat difficult for me to understand what goes on in the company’s corporate mind. It’s almost like their are two mental models at work.

On one hand you have a company willing to put everything on the line for the untested Xbox 360 concept. On the other, you have a corporation that wasn’t willing to even try to put an MMO on the market. The 360 and Xbox Live have been hugely expensive gambles, and in the U.S. and EU they’ve paid off.

So why cut Mythica? Given the marketplace at the time (pre-World of Warcraft) it would have very likely attracted a respectable following, and might have even done very well. It was ahead of its time with the concept of instancing and storytelling in games, and offering a unique themed experience that still hasn’t been adequately tapped by the MMO genre.

Trends that were explored in Gods and Heroes (another canceled game) and are going to be touched on lightly in Age of Conan were given center stage in Mythica: Norse mythology, the gods walking among the adventuring populace, etc.

True Fantasy Live Online’s cancellation makes even less sense to me. It was a gorgeous title that could have not only opened up the Xbox platform for MMOs but also broken down the barrier between Microsoft and the Japanese development culture. That barrier, ultimately, is why TFLO was shut down, at least according to Wikipedia:

img_blanc21-150x150.jpg
Relations between the two companies soon began to spiral out of control as Level-5 struggled to meet the demands required by Microsoft, who in turn grew frustrated at the lack of progress being made on the game …

Level-5 President and CEO Akihiro Hino stated in a Japanese interview that the poor relations between his company and Microsoft, partially due to the latter’s inexperience in dealing with Japanese developers, was one of the major reasons behind True Fantasy Live Online’s cancellation.

As recently as early this year Hino stated his interest in completing work on the project. The CEO of the company is invested enough to restart a several-year-old project, a project that the Redmond giant was too short-sighted to fully explore.

It's also worth pointing out that, given Level 5’s high-profile current-gen console title, White Night Chronicles for PS3, it's a fairly safe bet who they’d end up working with if TFLO ever gets off the ground.

Sony’s Sweet Spot

Two things spell out Sony’s intentions in this space very, very well: the recent reorganization of SOE beneath SCEI (out from under Sony Pictures), and NCsoft’s announced intentions to work with Sony to bring products to the PlayStation 3.

For all the questionable choices Sony has made over the last few years, their instincts when it comes to the MMO genre have been very good. Final Fantasy XI, EverQuest Online Adventures, and recently Phantasy Star Universe … almost every MMO to come out on a console has hit a Sony platform.

1042162720_b1a84202ce-150x150.jpgNCsoft’s stake in this is clear-cut. They want access to the console market and need a partner. Lineage and Arena.net’s Guild Wars would be fantastic additions to the PS3, with a minimum of UI tweaks and adjustments to get them working.

NCsoft also has several in-development MMOs in the works as well, at least one of which I assume to be a purely console game. With their stated intention of working with Sony, I wouldn’t hold my breath to see that game on the Xbox 360 anytime soon.

Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley claims that SOE’s move is purely functional. That may be so, but even if that’s the case the move has a lot of symbolism behind it. SOE has always been the Sony outsider, doing very much its own thing.

Moving the experts in this field closer into the fold makes a great deal of sense. The goal, I believe is to bring the MMO-style of thinking ‘in house’ so that ideas can percolate in the right directions. With a firewall between Sony Online and the rest of the company there was little chance of that kind of business acumen influencing the right people.

SOE, of course, already has two games committed to the PlayStation 3 platform. The Agency and Free Realms will both be bringing some of that new Sony Online thinking to the benighted console - a little glimmer of hope for their online offerings.

The Agency in particular is a serious contender, and many gamers are watching it very closely - far closer than the PS3's Home service.

cagegirls114-150x150.jpgBeyond this corporate reshuffling, Sony has two other things going for it on the MMO front. The PlayStation Store and the Sony service itself is free. That’s a plus for companies wanting to put their games on the PS3 platform: no additional barriers.

If a company like Nexon wanted to bring one of their games into the fold, they could offer a free download from the PlayStation Store and never have to worry about their business model being disrupted.

The other thing going for Sony is simple history; they haven’t made a giant mess of every MMO they’ve previously touched. Microsoft now has a reputation in the industry. They aren't completely out of the fight; Mabinogi may be making its way to the Xbox 360, Huxley is still in-development, and Age of Conan may one day see release on a Microsoft console.

All of these plans, though, have been in the works for some time. There's a distinct feeling that Microsoft just isn't taking these initiatives seriously. Not surprising, given what’s happened in the past.

Without a big shakeup, I don’t see MMOs taking the world by storm on any platform this year or even in 2009. That said, some day there will be a big console MMO.

One of these days we’re going to see a persistent online game world crawl to the top of the charts and take on the big boys with a control pad. I’m laying odds right now that Sony’s going to have the lock on that game.


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Comments


Anonymous
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Microsoft should just cut a deal for WOW and call it even. Why reinvent the wheel?

Anonymous
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"The other thing going for Sony is simple history; they haven’t made a giant mess of every MMO they’ve previously touched."



Are you kidding me? Where have you been hiding? EQ to EQ2... While EQ2 is a better (more up-to-date) game Sony completely split the community in two without attracting the new faces they thought they'd attract. Now they're running two games with a similar sized community rather than just one.



SWG... Don't tell me you haven't heard of the combat upgrade?



Matrix Online? Complete abandonment of the community? The game is rarely even included in press releases that SOE puts out about their "family of games"



Vanguard? Pushed out the door way too soon?



Sony is very obviously where MMOs go to die. Microsoft may not be able to produce a successful MMO but Sony kills previously successful ones.



Can you name one MMO from Sony that they haven't screwed up? The Agency looks great but seriously... it's not out yet... Sony has plenty of time to screw up. Or maybe they've learned from their mistakes... finally.

Anonymous
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because, why would more people play WoW on an Xbox than a pc? The game fits most gamer PCs in exsitsance right now so making it for Xbox would just be a waste of time really, not to mention how much you'd have to change the UI to support using a game pad. A more likely mating would be something akin to EVE.



Again I wouldn't really say this would work since EVE is a fairly low spec game and most folks who would play it already use their PC for it, but the UI changes wouldn't be as drastic and sweeping as they would be in WoW.

Anonymous
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WOW has a US player base of only 2+ million. There are many million more console players who'd play WOW on an Xbox. I'm not saying make it Xbox exclusive, just open it up to console players. WOW's UI would be easier to adapt to the Xbox than most other MMOs.



EVE is too niche and hardcore for most console players.

Anonymous
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Well so far, the PS3 is the one without an MMO. MS has FFXI (ps2 has it as well) and last I heard APB was coming to PC and 360. So far there have been no MMO announcements for PS3. Also, even with the recent updates, the PSN is still not on par with Xbox Live. I think MS is in a better position to take on MMO's than Sony at this point.

Anonymous
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The popularity wasn't my problem. Have you ever seen a fully loaded out character on WOW? I have a friend who runs a level 70 warlock and nearly every quickslot bar in the game's avalible set (probably more than 20 or so slots) is filled, navigating this without a mouse would be irritating as hell. And players without a keyboard would be muchly screwed.

I was suggesting EVE as a game that's UI would be easier to adapt was all really, I agree it's too hardcore and niche to make it in such an envornment but it's much slower pace would make it fit better with a 'sans' mouse setup.

Aaron Casillas
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Seriously, how many mmo's can anyone person play in one night and be successful at them? I've played EQ and WOW both had fantastic gameplay but soon it all fell of the deep end when the amount of time to do anything cool became exponentially longer and longer.



I'm proposing these companies instead create a more robust Coop community with a soc. hub...after all that's really one of the many birth places of the MMO experience.



Creating better coop experiences with time tight compulsion/reward loops will allow players to play a variety of games in shorter amount of time. That also means I as a player get to play more of the games! Woot

Bart Stewart
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Never count Microsoft out.



I remember the early 1990s when the LAN was hot and Novell ruled the world with NetWare. When Microsoft tried to compete directly by offering their own LAN server, they got blown out of the water. At that point, I think someone at MS said something like, "OK, we're thinking too short-term -- what's the Next Thing for connecting people to the data they want?" At which point they noticed this thing called the Internet and a little browser named Netscape... and within a few years, Novell was a footnote in history.



There are some very sharp people working for MS, and they historically don't take failure lightly. I would not be at all surprised to see Microsoft suddenly decide they can't compete head-to-head with Sony on MMOs as currently conceived, look to the near future to see what technology is just coming into its own for connecting gamers to MMOs, and bring out their own product that succeeds by leapfrogging the existing MMO space to provide a new and better concept of online gaming.



I've no idea what that might look like. I've just seen Microsoft do this kind of thing before, which leads me to suspect that it's premature to count them out of the MMO market (or some shiny new version of it) permanently.

Peter Park
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Because while it certainly is a golden goose for Blizzard, it's an old golden goose and they never know when it'll die.



And also, today's MMO games that is WoW lacks several features that are only natural to MMO's characteristics and are needlessly labor-intesive. Hope someone steps up and change the face of it.



Actually, Blizzard, for one, said their next MMO will not be another WoW, but a revolutionary one. I'm looking forward to it.

Anonymous
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No company on earth could have messed up the Everquest and Star Wars franchises.



Except SOE.

Anonymous
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A little bias here? Regardless, I don't blame Microsoft for shying away from the MMO genre. It's a saturated market for people who have all the time in the world to sit at their computers at night and macro rudimentary tasks to hot keys. Where's the location of your average console, the living room? Will most teenagers' parents be happy with them steeling the TV to get the next pair of enchanted boots?



It just seems like MMOs have too much working against them to make it a practical thing to invest in. First, WoW already dominates a good portion of the hardcore market and nearly all the casual MMO market. Second, as if WoW didn't have a strong enough hold on the genre, there are dozens of other titles already available for people who want something different from their wallet-crushing games. Finally, a console just doesn't seem like the optimal place to play an MMO. As I stated before, the console lives with all the other family entertainment, while the PC is well suited for locking yourself in a room with the lights out for hours on end.

Anonymous
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Sure, the living room isn't an ideal spot for an MMO, but if a game can earn $100+ a year from each player, make every friend also buy the game instead of playing together or borrowing the game, and create a circular need to invest more time in the game (otherwise all that time spent leveling would be wasted), it's worth trying to make one.



To keep the kids out of the living room sometimes, it might be worth have an Eve Online / Animal Crossing kind of game, that rewards you for just periodically checking in instead of playing it non-stop.

andrew clear
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Well, I think Microsoft actually still holds the advantage. The next Final Fantasy MMO has been said that it will be a 360 and PC title, and that they have no plans for a PS3 port.



Being that it is a SE product, and that Final Fantasy XI is still strong after 6 years, that's a pretty good sign for Microsoft.

Rômulo Alencar
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"Final Fantasy XI, EverQuest Online Adventures, and recently Phantasy Star Universe … almost every MMO to come out on a console has hit a Sony platform."



One of them is a Sony property, the others are on Xbox 360 as well...

Anonymous
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Microsoft got a short-term pass with XBL. It's already a fading phenomenon. As is the MMO genre as we know it.



Sony would be stupid to keep pursuing the old model here; fortunately, they have some fresh ideas on the table, some public already, many not.



I don't look to MS for fresh ideas; and as for being a games publisher, I really think they're mostly out of them, period, at this point. Soon they'll be back to about where they were when they were publishing "Terminal Reality."

Anonymous
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Microsoft got a short-term pass with XBL. It's already a fading phenomenon. As is the MMO genre as we know it.



Sony would be stupid to keep pursuing the old model here; fortunately, they have some fresh ideas on the table, some public already, many not.



I don't look to MS for fresh ideas; and as for being a games publisher, I really think they're mostly out of them, period, at this point. Soon they'll be back to about where they were when they were publishing "Terminal Reality."

Steve Watkins
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Disclosure: I own Xbox/Xbox 360 and have Xbox Live (although I barely use Xbox Live due to poor pricing, weak content and terms). I haven't owned a PS since the first model (which only works properly when turned upside down, of course).



IMHO, most of M$FTs decisions with Xbox gaming, so far, have been poor, aside from buying Bungie (which ran away) and building Xbox Live. And they don't understand Japan at all - I doubt they ever will. Sony has made severe blunders as well.



Neither company will lead the charge with MMOs on consoles - they will catch up after someone figures it out. The question is which system will be the more welcoming during the trial/error process ?? M$FT has the technical edge, via Xbox Live, but Sony will catch up quickly. And M$FT's moves (with MMO plans) to date show them to be clueless as to how to fully exploit that edge.



I think someone needs to pull off accurate voice-recognition, to the point where you can manipulate a character's inventory and a menu system via simple commands, before a current-tech. (PC) MMO could be successful on a console. Something simpler,

like a console FPS MMO, should have been done by now.



Whatever solution emerges, they'll never capture a massive market with current "treadmill" designs created to suck user time and monthly subscription fees. It needs to be easy to get a bunch of friends organized then into and out of missions/quests, etc. QUICKLY.


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