How to be Massively Multiplayer and Mobile

How to be Massively Multiplayer and Mobile

Ask your average man on the Clapham omnibus what has been successful in the mobile sphere and he'll probably tell you ringtone and game downloads. With the launch of the iPhone, ringtones have reached their natural destination of turning mobile phones into portable music players, but games have largely remained static, offering the same tried and tested platform and Space Invader style games. This, of course, is almost certainly about to change in the near future.

To understand what is likely to be in store for mobile gaming you have to look at where it is now and where the mainstream, desktop gaming World is. Mobile gaming came to life largely due the introduction of mobile platforms that would allow you to install and run third party software on a handheld, in particular Java. It meant that, for the first time, you were not limited to the applications and games that came preinstalled on your mobile when you bought it so you could then download and install new software. And so the market in mobile games became was born.

As this market presently stands, the vast majority of games typically come in the form of a downloadable application written for J2ME, Symbian or similar. Most are just simple portings of old arcade classics such as Tetris or Pacman as well as puzzle or card games. Most importantly however, they service a very important behavioural demographic; that of the casual gamer, who may be sitting in a doctor's waiting room or on a train, in a cue for a sandwich or otherwise occupying themselves for a few brief minutes between daily tasks.

Essentially they're 'time killers' – simple games to occupy the user when they have a few minutes to spare and may be picked up and dropped again at a moment's notice. Because of this, the gaming model has not strayed far from that of games that would have been popular in the eighties and nineties – platform games, 2D shoot-em-ups, puzzles – games that a user can start and stop at a moment's notice and that require a near-zero learning curve to play.

Meanwhile, in the desktop World games have naturally evolved and in the last few years a new type of game has appeared. Multiplayer games are not a new idea; I remember playing NetTrek as a student against others on the college network in the early nineties. What struck me at the time was not that there was anything particularly advanced or special about the software itself, but that it was a lot more fun to shoot real people than computer generated ones. This Schadenfreude was the beginnings of the social dimension to the game genre that would eventually evolve and make such games as Quake and Counterstrike so successful. Then someone had the bright idea that instead of multiplayer games that involve at most a few dozen players in a small game world that lasts only as long as the game is in session, they would try creating huge environments that persisted even when players were not online and that contained tens of thousands of others. And so the massive multi-player game (or MMPG) was born.

MMPG's brought in a number of new dimensions that the old Multiplayer games lacked. The first was virtual economies, as players began to not simply kill everything that moved, but instead got their hands on, or even manufactured, virtual objects and then traded them. This got to the stage where the virtual economies began to out perform real ones in cases and players began to trade items and 'virtual currency' in the real World and for real money – a practice that is banned in many games, but actually encouraged as part of the business model of others, such as Entropia Universe.

The second was the social dimension. Players began to create their own clubs and online relationships and as time went on the emphasis moved from game play that was generated by the game itself, to game play that was generated by those playing it. Good examples of such games that are primarily player driven are Eve Online and Second Life – the latter of which in particular has very little content or game play that is not player generated.

So as MMPG's have evolved, the following trends recent have become apparent:

  • New pricing models are being tried. Originally players would buy the game and then pay a recurring fee thereafter. Now many games increasingly let people play for free, but limit what you can do unless you upgrade or 'buy' virtual currency from them.
  • Player generated content is now firmly established in MMPG's. This does not simply relate to the aforementioned items that may be bought or sold in the virtual (and sometimes real) World, but also the game play itself is increasingly driven by the players rather than supplied by the game writers.
  • The trend has been to simplify game play so as to increase their appeal to non-gamers. After all, the complexities of games may have attracted a particular type of player who was willing to study the complexities of the online game and it's economy, but most potential players are uninterested in a steep learning curve just to play a game.
  • More casual playing is encouraged. MMPG's as a rule are not about a quick game. Playing them often involved several hours of virtual travelling, waiting and 'grinding' through quests or missions. Increasingly game play has been modified to cater for more casual players who might want to play for a few minutes or an hour in any sitting.

 

Commercially MMPG's have been incredible successes, with games such as World of Warcraft boasting over seven million players Worldwide – each paying a monthly fee of around US$13, in addition to the initial cost of the actual game itself. It doesn't take a genius to understand that the opportunities that would come with being able to successfully port this genre of game to the mobile platform.

Of that, to date, there have been precious few attempts at creating mobile MMPG's (but lots of press releases). A few examples exist such as Artificial Life and the multi-player platform developed by Geewa, but ironically the best and often most used examples are those written by players of the established desktop MMPGs themselves as a means of tracking their online personas or interacting with friends outside of the Game World.

So what are mobile MMPG's likely to look like? The first, and least important I feel, question is what technologies they'll use. The two most obvious candidates are using a downloadable, most likely Java, client and the other is the thin client approach over the mobile Web. Each has both advantages and disadvantages.

The mobile Web has potentially a huge part to play in mobile MMPG's, having finally reached a decent level of maturity in terms of usability and design capabilities. Unlike downloadable clients built on platforms such as J2ME, PocketPC or Symbian, mobile Web browsers come on pretty much all devices, substantially increasing one's potential player base.

However, one disadvantage when compared to downloadable clients is the question of offline play, in that the latter would allow some play to take place offline on a device and only connect when it needed to. This has long stopped being an issue in the desktop Web, but given the often-exorbitant data fees charged on mobile networks, it is a factor that cost conscious users are acutely aware of. The greatest disadvantage that a thin, mobile Web-based, client would have against a downloadable one though, is content richness. Walking through a virtual world is not feasible with the former and so recreating what is available on desktops would become a non-starter from the onset.

But then again if we were to try to do this we would be making the classic mistake of the mobile Web – that it is simply the Internet on your phone – It's not. What we should do is look at the desktop MMPG model and apply it to the mobile user rather than attempt some form of direct translation. In this we can say the following:

  • Mobile users will not play any game, MMPG or otherwise, for hours at a stretch. What they will do is log in and spend a few minutes several times a day at best.
  • Player generated content is king – this may be produced by the interaction between them or by what they 'construct' within the virtual World. This point cannot be underlined enough because the social aspect of a game is worth ten times the pretty graphics you could ever pack into it.
  • The game rules should be simple, but lend themselves to as many possible permutations as possible. If a player needs to spend longer than a minute or two to get into (note I didn't say understand the entire game) then you've lost them, but this simplicity has to be balanced against it becoming stale and predictable too quickly. Achieving this balance is difficult, but it is central to the success of any MMPG.

 

As such, I would firmly believe that what will make a mobile MMPG successful, especially in light of the present virgin market, is not what technology is used, but the underlying game itself. And whoever manages to crack that nut first is going to end up very, very rich indeed.

Gaddo F Benedetti (gaddo at gaddo dot net)

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