The future of the MMO (Part 3)

The MMO genre is a challenging and congested sector, with a series of big name MMOs due out over the next couple of years.

So what do the MMO developers need to do to grow the market? Should developers and publishers look away from the PC and towards the home console market?

In our final roundtable with the MMO specialists, we discuss what the next step could be for the world’s most lucrative genre:

In this roundtable we speak to:

Erling Ellingsen, Director of Communications at Age of Conan developers Funcom.

Wes Platt, design lead at Icarus Studios, who developed Fallen Earth.

Rob Smith
, COO at Jagex, the company that publishes popular web-based MMO Runescape.

Jaeho Lee, CEO of MMO publisher and developer NCsoft West.

Nicolas Pajot, the COO of Gala Networks Europe, which hosts several big MMO games including Allods Online.

EJ Moreland, design lead on Realtime Worlds’ upcoming MMO APB.

Dirk Weyel, COO of MMO developer Frogster Interactive

Stephan Ansari, Vice President European Operations for OGPlanet. OGPlanet are a publisher of free-to-play online games.

Jack Emmett, COO of MMO developer Cryptic Studios.

What do you feel needs to happen to shake up the MMO sector?

Stephan Ansari, OGPlanet: I would love to see a great cross platform MMO spanning PC, Consoles and Handheld devices. How amazing would it be to move from a fixed Console / PC to a portable device and still be able to connect, interact and receive updates from your favourite persistent world game.

Jack Emmett, Cryptic Studios: I think coming up with different games is one thing. What’s happened is that the perfect MMORPG was created in World of Warcraft. We need to look in new directions – FPS, RTS, etc. in order to succeed.

Nicolas Pajot, Gala Networks: We firmly believe in the free-to-play business model as an alternative to the few successful subscription-based MMOs. From our experience of what we have seen in Asia, where this model is prominent, only a couple of MMOs with a subscription business model have managed to survive, while several so-called free to play games can co-exist.

Erling Ellingsen, Funcom: One of the challenges the business is facing right now is simply the size of these projects. MMO games are often huge bets that require long production cycles and significant budgets, and it’s very difficult for all but the largest players to break into this segment.

With that much on the line, it’s easy to become risk aversive. But if you look at the single-player segment, there are more titles spread across a more varied production size spectrum, and this drives innovation forward. And game development thrives on innovation.

As such I think the MMO business would benefit from productions of lesser scope, but then people will also need to be able to manage their expectations to what those MMOs could deliver. Right now most people are waiting for the World of Warcraft killer, and just about any game tagged MMO is facing huge expectations. I would like to see more indie-type MMOs, games that can risk innovating on the tried and true MMO formula, and that are comfortable with not having several hundred thousand subscribers.

Why do you feel MMO games have struggled to break onto home consoles?

Jaeho Lee, NCsoft: There have been very few genuine MMOs launched for console. It’s less of an issue about controls and more about hardware and approach.

The current generation is the first time we’ve seen the business models and technical capabilities in place to do the genre justice in full scale including the network and memory capacities.

Dirk Weyel, Frogster: MMOs have a much longer lifecycle than normal console games and they don’t need a box in the shelves necessarily which leads to a completely different business relationship between developer and publisher.

MMOs are getting new patches and new content updates every few weeks or months, which could be difficult when it comes to the submission process with the platform holders. Consoles are online but not all of the console players use them online. A key element of MMOs is communication between players via ingame chat, which makes a keyboard or voice-over communication necessary.

These are just a few reasons but I think that there will be successful MMOs on consoles in the future.

Jack Emmett: There are a few reasons, actually, including different audiences and different control types, for starters. And, frankly, MMOs on consoles are something different and something different is often scary in an industry where risks are punished with closures.

Wes Platt, Icarus Studios:
A lot of people, myself included, really don’t associate consoles with MMORPG titles. I’m honestly a little terrified of the idea of trying to set up a bunch of different button-bindings for my Fallen Earth mutations and combat abilities should I play the game via console.

Of course, there are keyboards for consoles, so the transition doesn’t have to be so traumatic. It really depends on changing the expectations and pre-conceived notions about the console’s capabilities.

EJ Moreland, Realtime Worlds: A true MMO on the console would require close collaboration between the MMO developer and the console provider. Even companies that have proven successful independently as a console provider and an MMO developer have had little success bringing an MMO to the console.

Hosted and managed client/server games like MMOs require a bit more freedom on the developer’s part or an extremely close relationship with the hardware manufacturer to make it a cost-beneficial endeavour in addition to guaranteeing the quality of the experience with the right server hardware and hosting environment. 2010 may be the year we see such a situation occur.

Rob Smith, Jagex: Development of MMO’s on consoles is a hot topic amongst game publishers.

Yet, while games consoles have become more popular their user bases remain far outstripped by the number of internet enabled devises, so do MMO developers need to break into the console market to expand their audience share?

This isn’t to say that MMOs do not have a future on consoles, both Xbox and PS3 have very well resolved online networks that could support an MMO. In the medium term the accessibility, usability and connectivity of the PC still remains better suited for MMO’s so I don’t think MMO development on consoles will become a top priority for every MMO developer in 2010, but they are definitely a future opportunity.

To read Part One, click here
To read Part Two, click here

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