Vague Patch Notes: How platform considerations impact MMOs

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.


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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I’ve got Castlevania Symphony of the Night on my phone right now. It’s got virtual buttons as part of the UI, and it works pretty well with the touchscreen because of whatever wizardry they used to port it to Android. It’s the same game, just different controls. … But, I’m really glad I invested in a Bluetooth controller and the game supports gamepads.

As for the brief time I tried mobile MMOs, I preferred tap to move. Like an action RPG where you click the mouse on the ground to move, you touch the screen to move. But, I invested in a stylus, so my huge fingers don’t block half the screen.

ARPGs (or at least that style of movement) seem to work best on mobile, compared to games with virtual buttons.

I’ve also got Neverwinter Nights on my phone, and as soon as I adjusted the camera and controls so I could tap to move and interact it made the gameplay better.

Auto battle and auto run make is so you’re not even playing the game, you might as well uninstall it and watch Twitch.


FFXI’s macro system was the equivalent of a hotbar. Back when I played FFXI I only used the menu system for infrequently used skills/spells, like the 2-hour. FFXI also has keyboard/mouse support even on the PS2. People have been plugging in USB keyboards/mice into consoles since the early 2000’s.


I gnash my teeth almost daily at how crippled Fallout 76s UI is on a PC due to being primarily designed for consoles.

Everytime I inadvertently jump out of my power armor, have to scroll the shitty “wheels” or change them out, or bemoan the lack of proper chat text boxes I curse consoles and those who play on them.

MMORPGS could have been so much more if not held back by the dregs of hardware platforms.

PC Master Race, now and forever.


Great article, good subject to think about.

Interestingly, I bought a steering wheel and pedals recently and it completely revolutionised the experience of racing games compared to a standard controller. Something like Project Cars 2 just wasn’t very fun with a controller – the racing was OK, but I found myself wishing for proper progression mechanics, upgrades and all that sort of thing to keep me motivated.

As soon as I switched to the wheel, the racing was all that mattered, so much more intense and enjoyable that I stopped caring about a lack of a meta game.

When it comes to mobile games, I just don’t play any as I’ve yet to come across something that is actually fun. A big part of that is that the lack of proper input devices really limits the gameplay possible. I also feel (and you touched on this in the article) that mobile devs have never really taken the time to think about what a great mobile game would actually be. Most things are either the most simple games you can imagine, like candy crush, or really bad ports of games from other platforms.

I think if someone started developing games that are more about the meta and management, and less about speed of inputting commands, then they might approach something fun.


I don’t know why that doesn’t resolve to an image as usual. :\
Sort of undercuts the message, I know.


And that is exactly why I have no interest, whatsoever, in whole gaming genres when it comes to phones or even tablets. The different limitations mean certain kinds of game I enjoy on one device provide a far, far worse experience when translated to a different one. So no, I’ll never play Diablo on a phone regardless of how much effort or resources are spent developing it.

(I do play games on phones and tablets, but they are games where the format doesn’t hinder the enjoyment; puzzles, point-and-click adventures, turn-based RPGs, and other things that require neither a virtual controller nor quick reflexes.)

Also, a very cool thing about the PC is that not only keyboard+mouse can handle fairly well almost every conceivable game, the PC is also capable of using whichever input device you want, including console-specific controls; with the PC I always get the chance to use the very best input device for the job, and with the ability to fully configure every aspect of its functionality to boot, whereas with a console I’m usually restricted to just the ones its manufacturer allows and with little to no ability to customize it. Heck, for some games — like No Man’s Sky — I even alternate input devices in real time according to what I’m currently doing.


If it can be played on a phone or tablet, I have ZERO interest in it.

If it can be played on a console (i.e. ESO), will give it the benefit of the doubt. But certainly would not buy into a new release that was advertised as available on console until I had fully researched it and watched PC play videos.

I really want my games to need to be on PC. That’s why I built it to do more than handle e-mails and documents. That’s why I continue to upgrade with better graphics cards, better storage, better power supply, better mouse, better keyboard, and so forth.