3 Nov 2011

Mobile MMO Missteps

At the moment I’m on holiday, which probably explains why I’ve been a bit lax on updates. While for some that might mean hitting the nearest beach and putting their head into a good book, for me it means working out just how many of my glorious gadgets I can take with me.

What started out as a sackful of handheld games consoles, MP3 players and so on has nowadays shrunk down to a smartphone and a laptop. While having the laptop is handy for occasional sessions in Warcraft when I can get a good wifi connection, I tend to use my smartphone for my mobile gaming needs.

This predictably ended up with me giving mobile MMO gaming a try. Buoyed on by Massively’s MMOBility column I downloaded a few titles and gave it a go. Unfortunately the experience was incredibly disappointing, and while I share Beau Hindman’s optimism about the future of the genre I think that these games make several important missteps.

A Bagful of Problems

The first issue is one that’s shared with a ton of other games available for smartphones. It’s this obsession with having a virtual d-pad covering up to half the screen just so you can control the character. It feels like the developer couldn’t be bothered to come up with something new, so they just decided to stick to what they know and kludge it in somehow.

The second issue is with the time it takes to log in, get set up and do anything. With desktop MMOs there’s an adage that a player must be able to achieve something meaningful in an hour. Take that to mobile and you’re looking at 5 minutes while someone waits for the bus, drinks their coffee or finishes lunch. If you want someone to interact with your world don’t be a time hog.

The final issue is with how these games make use of mobile data. If I want to play them, I have to be standing in an area of strong 3G or wifi coverage. To get this I’m either at work when time is short or at home where I’d rather play a game on my desktop. The mobile gets used when I’m in transit from one place to another or killing time, and that doesn’t mean I have the best signal.

There’s also the question of just how much data is being sent back and forth. With most subscribers now being on a capped data plan the last thing we want is for our Twitter or Facebook time to be eaten away by an MMO that we hardly play.

No More Kludges

Instead of trying to mimic game interfaces used on other consoles or MMOs, I’d encourage developers to try out ways of incorporating natural gestures such as taps, drags and swipes to interact with the game in an intuitive manner. Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja, Zen Bound and even Angry Birds have done away with the waste of screen space that is the virtual d-pad.

The aim here is to see if different control styles or even gameplay styles emerge that are more suited to a mobile MMO running on a touchscreen device. Instead of feeling like a poor kludge there’s a chance to take full advantage of the hardware available.

I’d also take a look at slimming down the gameplay experience. Make the game quick to enter and exit so that the attention is spent on that short period of time when someone’s playing. If possible look at breaking down a game activity into phases that can be rum concurrently, so that even if someone can’t complete a quest or slay a dragon they can set something up that can be returned to later.

It’s these “pockets” of gameplay that I think are going to be important if we’re going to progress beyond an Angry Birds level to more enduring gameplay methods. Breaking phases down still gives a feeling of accomplishing something even if there’s other stuff to do when we return.
Finally I’d take a long hard look at how data is being used in the game. Is realtime communication really needed or are query-response models better? Are there ways to use push alerts to let players know when an action has completed or when a challenger has arrived? How much of the content requires HTTPS encryption? Can the game cope with a varied and sometimes unavailable data network?

I think that to tackle this we’ll probably end up digging into the early days of MUDs and other text based adventures in order to see how developers coped with a limited amount of data to deliver multiplayer experiences. I think a simpler game that’s playable almost anywhere is going to be much more poplar than one that demands that you camp under a cell tower.

Getting There?

I think that mobile MMOs have a future as the natural evolution of smartphone games. Having a portable device with all that power and capability hooked to the internet feels almost like it was built for social gaming. And yet our knee-jerk reaction has to take what’s worked on desktops or handheld consoles and try to cram it in.

I’m hoping that while developing apps for Android and iPhone is still fairly cheap that we’ll see games emerge that look at these devices in a new light. I’m hoping that UI designers will look at the way in which we interact with these devices and try to build game worlds that can be explored in this natural way. I’m hoping that systems designers will focus on mechanics that promote short bursts of gameplay. I’m hoping that the architects will look at slimming down that data profile so that we’re not shackled to high-speed networks.

After all, the chalice is there for the taking…

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