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The Birth Of The Mobile MMOG


September 19, 2003 Article Start Page 1 of 2 Next
 

Major Fambrough: "You wish to see the frontier?"
John Dunbar: "Yes sir, before it's gone."
-Dances with Wolves

Mobile phones are becoming increasingly powerful computers, complete with operating systems and standard APIs. Although most phones on the market are still useless for anything more than phone calls, we are slowly moving into an era where many people will walk around with a (potential) networked game console in their hand.

As mobile phones increasingly resemble networked computers, they become more interesting as platforms for multiplayer games. Yet, as someone who helped develop three MMOGs (including World in War, which was recently released for mobile devices), I can vouch for the fact that application development for mobile phones is still in its infancy. Mobile game development lacks many of the resources that more mature gaming platforms offer. Based on my experience, I will describe what I believe are the essential requirements for making a successful MMOG for mobile devices - a genre that I'll refer to as "3MOG" in this article.

The MMOG Market Today

According to MMO Worlds (www.mmoworlds.com), there are almost 60 MMOGs on the market today (not counting the various expansion packs for games like EverQuest), and many times that number of MMOGs under development. The 20 most well known MMOGs on the market are listed in Table 1.

Name

Developer/publisher

Release year

Comment

Ultima Online

Origin Systems

1997

250,000 subscribers as of 2001

EverQuest

Verant Interactive/Sony Online Entertainment

1999

430,000 subscribers as of 2002

Dark Age of Camelot

Mythic Entertainment / Sierra Studios

2001

250,000 active subscribers as of December 2002

Lineage

NCSoft

1998

4,000,000 accounts, 200,000 simultaneous players

Asheron's Call

Turbine Entertainment/ Microsoft

1999

Microsoft's MMORG.

EVE: The Second Genesis

CCP Games

2003

A $10 million project.

Anarchy Online

FunCom

2000

A futuristic MMORPG from Norway.

Sims Online

Maxis / Electronic Arts

2002

A $20 million budget, 97,000 active players. One of the few MMOG trying to target casual gamers.

World War II Online

Strategy First / Cornered Rat Software

2001

A WW2 game.

Star Wars Galaxies

Sony Online Entertainment / LucasArts

2003

Huge project with lot of attention.

Planetside

Verant Interactive / Sony Interactive Studios

2003

The first MMO first-person shooter.

Toontown Online

VR Studios / Disney

2003

A persistent world for children and their parents.

UltraCorps

Jaleco Entertainment/Microsoft

1998

Tick-based strategy game.

Table 1. Today's best-known MMOGs. For a more complete list visit http://www.mmorpg.com/gamelist.cfm?sort=rating

The MMOG genre has been a powerful buzzword in the game industry for years now. I see five interconnected reasons for this:

  • Long lifespan. Most PC games have a life span of just a few months, whereas MMOGs can last for years partly because of their tight relationship with players and their ability to evolve the game world around the player.
  • Player loyalty. If a player passes the initial rituals for entering and learning the basic rules for the game (which are admittedly often tedious), they tend to become loyal to that game and its community.
  • Large (potential) margins. MMOGs often adopt a business model whereby the income is less dependent on a middleman (i.e., a retailer), so a larger part of the money can be reinvested into to the game and/or company. A side effect of this that the recurring subscriptions increase the developer's incentive to keep players loyal through various means.
  • Greater chance for total disaster. MMOGs require centralized player services that need to be running all the time. That's very different than a stand-alone game. Many MMOGs have had encountered disasters at launch because the developer and/or publisher encountered unforeseen technical problems.
  • The huge potential for the genre. There are a lot of industry projections that predict that MMOGs will be huge in the future , and I hold this opinion too. While today's MMOGs usually target hardcore gamers, they have the potential to attract more casual gamers too, based on the social aspects inherent to the genre.

To date, not many 3MOGs have been released, but that will change over the next few years. A good example of a 3MOG currently on the market is TibiaME from German developer Cipsoft (see Figure 1). TibiaME is what you might expect a MMOG to look like on a mobile phone; it resembles popular PC-based MMOGs like Ultima Online and Lineage.


Figure 1 TibiaME, the only MMOG accessible from a hot air balloon.

My company's first major 3MOG is called Football Manager, which we began developing in 2000. Now on the market, the game has thousands of monthly paying customers and is one of the largest Swedish online games. The premium television channel Canal+ markets it, but it's only available in Sweden and Norway at the moment.


Figure 2. Football Manager - the PC game.

The game is accessible via mobile phone too, allowing players to interact with their team at any given moment (Figure 3).


Figure 3. Football Manager - the mobile phone version.

The Challenge

Creating a 3MOG offers many interesting development challenges, some of which I will describe. Note that my experience is based largely upon my experience as a developer in Sweden; some of the factors I describe may vary from region to region.

Latency

Latency is always an important issue when developing multiplayer games. Most mobile phones run on GPRS networks, which have very high latencies (bad for games). Whereas latency in network calls for PC games is measured in hundreds of milliseconds, for mobile phones latency is typically measured in seconds. Imagine trying to play a game of Battlefield 1942 and always seeing what happened four seconds ago.

While getting the correct packets on a mobile phone can take more time than on a PC, the speed of sending data is comparatively not so bad. It typically ranges from 9.6Kbs to (in theory) 172Kbs, compared to a PC's dial-up modem speed of 56Kbs. Therefore, as long as we can hide the latency in a mobile game's design, there is actually a pretty good network to work with. Table 2 shows some values that we have seen in our Swedish networks (these are anecdotal measurements).

Operator

Average connection time

Average time sending one byte from a mobile phone and getting it back

Average time uploading and downloading 1000 bytes of data

Operator Y

Disney

2003

1.0 seconds

Operator Y

14.0 seconds

1.0 seconds

1.6 seconds

Table 2. Latency test results using C++ on a Series 60 phone.

 


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