Sony Online Entertainment's working on massively multiplayer shooter The Agency for both PlayStation 3 and PC, which raises a lot of interesting questions about developing an online game for both platforms at once.
For example, with both versions underway for both PC and PlayStation 3, could players on both platforms interact in the same game world?
SOE is indeed considering it, says executive producer Matt Wilson -- "In fact, we're actually doing that at the office. Technology-wise, it's really not that complicated."
But there are three key barriers he says that stand in the way. First is game exploitability -- Wilson uses the example of the high quantity of hacks in a PC shooter like Counter-Strike to describe how it's significantly more difficult to secure a PC online title than it is on a console's closed platform, and maintaining the safety across platforms presents a challenge. "Being able to manage that is no simple task," he says.
The second problem is gameplay balance, as the difference between PC mouse-and-keyboard versus the PS3's controls gains particular weight with a shooter.
"We can do things to equalize them, whether that's aim assist on the console or other things on the PC, but when we've actually done focus group testing and so forth, you're always going to have the console players versus the PC players," Wilson says. "There's always a dynamic of 'It's not fair!' for whatever reason. So, it is important that we take those considerations on that."
But the third consideration is the biggest challenge, Wilson says, in terms of allowing PC and PS3 players to share the game world -- the update process.
"MMOs live and die by their updates, and we need to be able to update our product frequently," says Wilson. "The console requires a certification process, while the PC does not. And so it's going to be really difficult for us to maintain that synchronization across both platforms, and make that work really easily with the value of the MMO."
"As soon as there's an item that maybe we didn't think about and that's causing issues on the server, we need to be able to take care of that immediately, without compromising the other one. It's actually a pretty difficult proposition."
But at the very least, Wilson says game accounts will be global and cross-compatible, even if not necessarily simultaneous. "We're going to start simple," he says. "If you have a PC account, and I have a PS3, you should be able to come over to my house, and play on my PS3 game with your account. So, we want the ability for you to be able to move across worlds pretty easily."
"And then the other part is leaderboards and other things. And maybe in the future, we'll start connecting them up and doing that. Again, it's never been a technology problem; it's more game balance and update calls."
There are pros and cons, Wilson says, in dealing with a closed platform versus an open one. Most obviously, a closed platform is guaranteed compatibility for all users who own it, and it's a level playing field when improving issues like framerate and latency, key for a shooter.
"The negative is that because it's a closed platform, we have to go through a certification process," Wilson says. "I don't necessarily look at that as a negative, because in the end, I'm hoping that gives us a better quality. And if we happen to miss things, they'll catch it, and vice versa... It's just something new and different; it's not something we're used to."
On the other hand, changes to PC online games can be made immediately across servers in a way that can't happen on the PS3. "We have to actually look at designing the game differently, asking what data can we update without requiring a certification run, and what data can we not update without requiring a certification run? That's something we have to balance," Wilson says.
"The nice part about the PS3 is that it's a powerhouse console, and if we're designing it with the PS3 in mind, we're still going to have a high fidelity game on the PC. And so, from a content perspective, we're really not doing anything differently, whether it's the PC or the PS3."