Will the future bring a utopia of quality MMO gaming on game consoles, or is the genre firmly rooted to the desktop PC? We send Gazimoff in to investigate.
It seems to be a ritual that MMO connoisseurs go through every few years. We moan and gripe about the lack of quality MMO gaming on consoles, about how our favorite genre never seems to escape the shackles of the desktop. But is this a dream worthy of pursuing, or are there strong reasons for massively multiplayer gaming to remain blocked from our console-bound friends?
Recently there’s been a plausible rumor (since denied) that Valve was working on a Steam-powered games console of its own. This represented a slight about-face for the developer and publisher, after CEO Gabe Newell stated that "We'd rather hardware people that are good at manufacturing and distributing hardware do [hardware]." That tone softened in a more recent interview, with Newell later adding "if we have to sell hardware we will."
The rumor went further, suggesting that the Alienware x51 slim-line desktop could have been an early mock-up or prototype of a Steam Engine console. It’s easy to see why, with the sleek design looking more at home underneath the TV than on the desk. Plus, with Steam’s "Big Picture" mode handling TV and control pad conversion, it seemed like the hard work was already done.
For now the gossip has been placed firmly on the back burner, following a report by Kotaku from this year’s Game Developers Conference. In the article, Vice President of Marketing Doug Lombardi stated that the company is researching biometric feedback, but added "it’s a long way from Valve shipping any sort of hardware." While this doesn’t rule out a Steam Console in the far distance, Lombardi added that we shouldn’t expect to hear anything at GDC or E3 this year.
Although it’s unlikely to become reality any time soon, a console tailored for Steam would also be a huge bonus to the MMO industry. The online portal is rapidly becoming the distribution platform of choice for a range of free-to-play and subscription games, with top tier titles such as Rift, Guild Wars and EVE among those available. But would enough gamers buy into a Valve Console in order to sustain these massively multiplayer games? It’s possible that fledgling MMO gamers would be better served if Valve struck a deal with an existing console manufacturer instead.
The idea of porting an MMO to console makes sound business sense, with a huge market of dedicated gamers relatively unexposed to the genre. RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can sell 2 to 3 times as many copies on consoles as they will on the PC. But with console MMO successes such as Phantasy Star Online and Final Fantasy XI fading into history, we’re left wondering if it’ll ever happen again.
Both Sony and Microsoft are looking at their plans for the next generation of consoles. Redmond’s future Xbox, codenamed Durango, is already believed to have been demonstrated to developers in secret preview meetings. Yet the current version of the platform is littered with developer woes, with both Tim Schafer and 2D Boy highlighting problems with Microsoft’s inflexible billing bureaucracy.
If an MMO is to succeed on the console platform, developers need the freedom to innovate how they earn revenue from their games. Console platform owners need to loosen control so that the full range of subscription-based, free to play and advertiser funded models can be explored. It’s become clear that this freedom simply isn’t available to Xbox developers, with Final Fantasy XI being the only MMO to release on the Xbox 360. Subsequent ports such as Champions Online, Age of Conan and Kingdom Under Fire II have either been placed on indefinite hold or cancelled outright.
Things seem to be faring better on the Sony side of the fence. Dust 514, CCP’s entry into console gaming, is set to debut on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita later this year. The MMO first-person-shooter will be free to download and play on both formats, supported by a micro-transaction item shop. Blizzard is also looking at a console version of Diablo III, with the real-money auction house likely to push it to a PlayStation-only release. ArenaNet is looking to enter the console battleground with a port of Guild Wars 2, but even this is likely to end up being a Sony exclusive.
If Valve is seriously set on pushing Steam into the console market then releasing an Alienware-built Steam Engine could end up being a bad idea. The other option is to negotiate with Microsoft to replace the ailing Xbox Live Arcade with Steam, taking on developer relations and opening up the console to a small army of indie teams. Valve would gain access to the lucrative console market, while Microsoft would have an ideal partner used to working with the huge range of developers. With it, the fabled multi-platform MMO release could finally materialize.
But is it really worth it? Are there still console gamers out there who don’t have a PC yet desperately crave some MMO action? Is it possible to pull off modern multiplayer interaction without the aid of a keyboard? Or have we all grown cynical and jaded, begrudgingly accepting that the only way to play the latest and greatest MMO titles is to stick to the PC or Mac.
One thing is clear: without significant change, MMOs are likely to remain firmly rooted to the desktop for several years to come.
Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer, Staff Writer