Vague Patch Notes: How platform considerations impact MMOs

    
7
Work on a team.

It wasn’t until I had been working in this field for a while – and as a result playing a lot of different MMOs – that it really clicked for me how weird it was that Final Fantasy XI didn’t have any sort of hotbars. I’d played that game for years, of course. Sorting my lists of spells and being able to select things quickly was just a skill I had developed. But it wasn’t until I got used to playing other MMOs when it really sort of clicked in my head that the total lack of hotbars was weird.

And why was that the case? Because the game was meant for play on a console, of course, and the natural interface for a PlayStation 2 didn’t have an easy way to work any sort of hotbar, so it didn’t exist. You’ll remember that a big to-do was made for the elaborate solution used for Final Fantasy XIV just to make a hotbar setup work for a controller. And it brings to mind a side of gameplay that we don’t tend to think about as much when it comes to how often MMOs are defined not only by the goals of the design team but by the limitations of the hardware they support.

To a certain extent, of course, we recognize that hardware does have a limiting effect upon games. After all, if your game is designed to run on a low-end graphics card, it has to use certain compromises in terms of its available assets. Something that is meant to run on mobile devices is naturally not going to have the same graphical demands as a game which runs on a high-end gaming PC. But there are aspects of control that we don’t really tend to think about as much.

For example – and also because it’s been on my mind lately – let’s take a look at auto-play as a mechanic. Why is that so prevalent in mobile games? I know, I know, you’re already limbering up to say that it’s a matter of cheap cash grabs and whatever, but please, I’m begging you, take a moment to actually think about this. (Also, read Carlo’s article in favor of it. He did a good job.)

Dash dash revolution

On a PC, of course, moving your character around is pretty straightforward. You press a button and your character starts moving. Release the button and your character stops. Simple enough, and it’s fairly straightforward (conceptually) to navigate a three-dimensional environment with WASD to move and Space to jump. But on a mobile device, you have exactly one button to count on.

You can work around this to an extent with UI elements, of course, but too many UI elements start becoming cramped and make the game otherwise unplayable. Thus, allowing you to take your hand off of the “movement” aspect lets something that is not the biggest key to your enjoyment in tense situations become automated, while keeping other aspects of the flavor. It also helps ensure that you can focus on active play when you have time and slip out of that mindset as needed, something that can be very relevant on, say, a mobile device you’re using to play on public transit.

Obviously, it isn’t what you want if you’re sitting down at the aforementioned high-end gaming PC and want to have a more involved play experience. But it’s a change made not due to arbitrary simplification but due to the nature of the platform. The mechanics need to match what platforms the game is playable on.

But that’s all part and parcel of the bigger issue here. MMOs for mobile generally have a different focus in play compared to MMOs for home systems, just like console games and PC games tend to have different goals. Your desktop computer, by default, has a keyboard and a mouse; your console has a controller. The latter is usually better for quick inputs and fine control in those inputs (how many console games allow you to carefully adjust your movement speed with just a shift in your press of the analog stick) while the former supports more varied controls at your fingertips and easier text-based chatting. A game played at home can be meant for long sittings, while mobile games may well be played in five-minute bursts.

Mechanics meant to account for the limitations and nature of mobile gaming might not work very well on a desktop game, meant for longer play sessions and more social play. But that works in the other direction, too. I wouldn’t really want to play World of Warcraft on my phone (and no, sending people on missions does not count for that). These things are tethered to specific platforms for a reason, and they generally exist to solve actual problems.

Uh?

This, for example, is why some games (such as the aforementioned WoW) aren’t just ported onto consoles that can handle the hardware required. You actually have additional work that might need to be done, like creating a system whereby players can actually interact with one another despite the limitations of console hardware. Yes, your PS4 and Xbox One can both hook up a USB keyboard, but are people going to? Is that even a desirable outcome?

Look at Phantasy Star Online 2 as an example of what happens when you’re designing around a console first. The game is much more playable solo and most of the coordination you need is personal; you need to know how to play your generally rather complex class, not discuss strategies with your teammates, because you may not be able to do so in a timely fashion in the heat of the moment.

And this isn’t a mark against that game, mind you. In the short period of time when I could actually play it, I rather enjoyed it. But it does require different sensibilities and goals. You cannot just drop a game on to a different platform without accounting for the different restrictions that platform has. Or, well, you can, but it’s going to be hot garbage and no one is going to enjoy it. So you shouldn’t, at the very least.

These are all things that have to be decided rather early in design, of course. There’s nothing stopping you from later porting a game to a new platform, obviously, and we’ve had good games brought from consoles to PC and from PC to console. But a game like Albion Online was designed at the start to be balanced across multiple different platforms, not ported over. A game like Star Trek Online is a PC ported to console, and that means it’s going to have certain limitations not present if it were originally really designed with both in mind.

We don’t usually think about platforms like that because, well, a good game is supposed to be separate from platforms. The original Super Mario Bros was a good game and the same game on any other platform would still be a good game. But if you think about the number of buttons involved, you’ll realize that putting it on mobile would be difficult to say the least… and you’d have to basically design a new game to cope with all the differences in interface.

There’s not a hard conclusion to this. But it is worth thinking about it. Some game mechanics just work better based on the nature of the platform being used, and you have to account for that.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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