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Analysis: Why Aren't There More Console MMOs?
Analysis: Why Aren't There More Console MMOs? Exclusive
June 9, 2008 | By Joe Ludwig

June 9, 2008 | By Joe Ludwig
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    11 comments
More: Console/PC, Exclusive



[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. Itís 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.]



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Comments


Anonymous
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As a player of PC MMOs and also PSO/PSU, I very much understand and agree with the barriers MMOs face on console. The biggest hurdle for me is the relatively hampered control of console gamepads.



The split-screen option would be great to have - allowing roomies or family members to join the fun.

Peter Freese
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Excellent points, Joe. Related to the issue of most homes not having more than a single XBOX360 or PS3 (thus not facilitating multi-user play within the home) is the fact that these consoles are usually connected to the largest television in the living room. A console MMO would need to compete with non-gaming forms of entertainment for this resource. Most other family members will be disinclined to give up watching their movies and favorite prime-time shows while someone spends hours leveling.

William Armstrong
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One benefit of having an MMO on a console is that it removes the multi-tasking capacity of the PC environment, allowing (or forcing) the player to remain focused on the game's atmosphere and ambiance and not all of the various functions a PC. For example, iTunes isn't blasting music over the game's soundtrack, IM programs aren't chiming with the latest gossip from school, and players can't alt-tab to check websites like thottbot.com or wowhead.com (which basically walk you through the entire game, removing the need for what little logical thought or problem solving was needed in the first place.) A console MMO would be a more 'pure' experience, better at retaining the player's attention and the sense of mystery and wonder that is lost when the game world's roads are already well-traveled (and documented.)



As a side note, It should be noted that Phantasy Star Online (for the Gamecube at least) offered up to 4 player split-screen. I can't confirm this feature for Dreamcast or Xbox versions, though.

Anonymous
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"A console MMO would be a more 'pure' experience, better at retaining the player's attention and the sense of mystery and wonder"



Dream on, laptops and Wi-Fi are very common these days. :)

Stephen Chin
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Not to mention multiple input and picture in picture. As I am more a PC guy but enjoy consoles, I have all my consoles hooked up to my computer monitor (which has PIP). Similarly, I have a friend who is more a console guy... but even his HDTV is hooked up as a third display to his computer (which is right next to it) so that he can put web content or PC videos on his HDTV.



And for every distraction that PCs have, consoles have similar or share. Friends lists are a major part of online console experiences. And nothing stops a person from using their computer to play music while turning down the volume on the game console.

William Armstrong
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Those are great examples, but even with laptops, PIP, PC to HDTV connections and stereo systems, there's still an element of purity to the console experience. All of the intrusions have some degree of complication, even if they are minor inconveniences. For example, to visit a gaming website with walkthrus and cheats, you have to physically leave the console, be it to check your PC or grab your laptop. With a PC, it's just an alt-tab away. I'm not saying standing up and walking to another room is a huge barrier, but it is SOME degree of a barrier. Consoles with a hard drive that are capable of playing back music during gameplay still require you to rip music from a CD or sync your console to your PC; neither of which are very difficult, but still require you to make the effort to do so.



I'm not saying game consoles produce a complete vacuum, where only the player, the control, and the game exist, but doing all of these extraneous activities take a conscious effort to perform. With a PC, the information and intrusion is floating in the background, easily obtainable; on a console, it exists OUTSIDE the game experience and so you have to 'break away' from the game to obtain it.



It's not difficult to do, by any means, but it does require the player to make a more conscious decision to get help from outside sources or to ignore the game's soundtrack for their own. That decision can be enough for the player to decide against cheating or tainting the experience. A game like Bioshock without the atmopshere loses so much, and I if you're alt-tabbing to find out what to do next while Metallica blasts in the background (rather than the golden oldies and creepy atmospheric effects of the game), something is seriously lost.



There's something to be said for the connection between player, controller, and console alone. There will always be things that take you out of the game, but from a PC vs. Console standpoint, I think Cconsoles are a much more 'connected' means of playing.

Ben Zeigler
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Good article Joe. One thing I would like to mention is that Certification is in particular a huge problem if you want to support multiple-platform MMOs. Trying to coordinate releases between PC and console, or between different consoles, is extremely difficult given the nondeterministic scheduling of certification. This is one area where being on PC is significantly easier from a tech perspective.

Markov Kuznetsov
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I agree that there is far more PC's than there is console out there.





The numbers of consoles are much more accurate for actual systems used primaily for gaming, whereas the total number of PC's does not give a viable demonstration of market size for the gaming industry and thus the numbers could be misleading.





A lot of these PC's are office, bussiness and low end which is primarily used for nothing more than e-mail/web surfing or watching you tube and the such.





In a nutshell, the PC gaming market may actually be about the same size or maybe even smaller than the console market size.





Other than that little clarification of numbers, I agree with much of your article. Very well written!

mike prevez
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Markov the Pc's counted have dedicated nvidia graphics cards in them therefore would be used for gaming or game capable at least. You would not put a gpu in a pc just for email, web surfing etc. So the numbers are accurate.

Markov Kuznetsov
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PC game box sales account for about 14% of the total gaming boxes sold. The rest is to consoles and portables.



Although I do understand that PC box sales does not cover digital downloads such as steam. Digital downloads for PC games would have to be nearly four times larger than the PC game boxes sold to roughly even up the numbers with consoles, of which I doubt it does.



Now with a much larger number of GPU out there than consoles, and yet have a gaming market no larger than the console market, the number is indeed an inaccurate way to measure the gaming market size.



Lastly, a GPU can be bought for as little as $60, although it would be basically rubbish at that price, which the retails could put in some low end computers for sale.



There are a lot of people who do not really know that much about computers and head over to Harvey Normans or some such retail chains to buy a computer and a lot of the low end computers for sale actually does have a GPU in it, even though the buyer may not be buying it for gaming.



I still do not agree with you about the numbers being accurate. However I do agree with the other reasons the OP used to explain why there are not more console MMO's hence me pointing this one thing out.

Glenn McMath
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While it is probably more than mitigated by the above points, one advantage of making an MMO (or indeed any sort of game) for consoles instead of PCs is that you are working with one defined set of hardware and don't need to worry about different user configurations causing bugs or issues (assuming you aren't targeting a multi-platform release, of course). Also if the console manufacturer is providing some network infrastructure (such as with XBox Live) there could be some inherent benefits there too. Although if you're forced to work through their service which wasn't designed to accommodate your type of game, that could be another barrier to add to this already lengthy list.

Hopefully somebody will figure out how to overcome all of the above and provide console gamers with a compelling MMO experience.


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