Mobhunter: Are Portable MMOs the Future?

In my last article I talked about three gross stereotypes in gamers: the true casual gamer, the hobbyist gamer, and the hard core gamer. I spent most of the article focusing on the attitudes and drive of the hobbyist gamer when compared to the powerful hard core gamer. However, the market for the casual gamer stands to be far greater in number and profit than either the hobbyist or the hard core gamer. Games built for hobbyist or hard core gamers may sell up to ten million copies worldwide for the most popular games released such as Halo 2 and World of Warcraft. Casual games, however, have the potential to sell to everyone else.

World of Warcraft changed the market of MMOs by many orders of magnitude. With its simple gameplay, low system requirements, extremely accessible quest system, and fast level increases; World of Warcraft brought in ten times as many players who had never played massive online games as any previous game published in the U.S.

It is unlikely another game will make as significant an impact on the PC as World of Warcraft. Other games may, in time, achieve the same numbers but it will require an incredible amount of work, a powerful infrastructure, and a lot of luck. Lord of the Rings Online had the most popular fantasy world, a tested infrastructure, and a lot of development. It came out strong and will do well for a long time, but it has no where near the numbers of players that World of Warcraft has. No doubt developers and publishers look at the market for MMOs and realize they have no way to make a dent.

Fertile lands lay open for those with the money, experience, and drive to seed it. The latest generation of gaming consoles all include the infrastructure for successful online games. Microsoft showed how successful a market built around online console gaming can become with Xbox Live. Yet no massive online game has successfully penetrated this market. Publishers have released a few MMO titles on consoles in the past but none have hit enough sales or subscribers to push the market forward. While this is likely due to poor marketing, a poor subscription model, or simply a poor game; publishers no doubt point to these few titles as an example of how MMOs overall would perform on consoles. Doing so is akin to pointing at the first few first-person shooters on consoles and saying a game like Halo can never work.

MMOs will likely make a significant impact on consoles in the next two years. It will only take one or two well done MMOs to push consoles into the realm of powerful massive online gaming. This doesn't, however, impact casual gamers. In order to tap into the market of massive online games for casual gamers, an entirely different platform must be considered.

There are over forty million Nintendo DS portable consoles in the world today. Even three years after release, the Nintendo DS outsells all other consoles. The top selling games on the Nintendo DS are often games with very simple mechanics, very little story, and often on focused game world. Games like Brain Age, Planet Puzzle League, and Nintendogs are hardly considered games by most gamers, yet they successfully tap into markets that games like Halo and Everquest can never touch.

The Nintendo DS has all of the hardware requirements needed for massive online gaming. It has voice input and output. It has built-in wi-fi. It has enough controls, including the touch screen, to accomplish a relatively complex game. Nothing prevents a publisher from releasing a MMO on the Nintendo DS except business and marketing decisions.

Even with 40 million consoles available, the Nintendo DS is dwarfed by a much larger infrastructure of inter-connected platforms: cell phones. There are over one billion cell phones in the world today. They cross all classes and all cultures. They have no pre-defined demographic. Release a game for a cell phone and you can reach just about anyone.

Not all phones have the capability to play games at all, much less network games. The platform varies so greatly that designing any game for all cell phones might prove impossible. However, as very popular phones proliferate like the Motorola Razor and the iPhone, this platform may stabilize.

A MMO for cell phones would hardly resemble any MMO we've seen so far. They'd be more like an online chat program or SMS client than they would a game. People may have avatars that represent them and might be able to engage other players in very simple games, but a full fledged roleplaying game is unlikely. Given the successes of casual games on the PC, game consoles, and portable systems, it is unlikely a casual gamer wants a traditional role playing game anyway. They are more likely to gravitate towards social networking and simple gaming. Over time, however, these games may become richer and richer, letting casual gamers escape into online worlds that shift from the abstract worlds of online chat to more defined worlds like Middle Earth, the worlds of Harry Potter, or more likely Poke'mon.

Now for some predictions.

I predict that in 2008 Microsoft will announce a Halo massive online game for the Xbox 360. The game will be released in 2009 and sell as many copies as Halo 2 and Halo 3. It will have as many if not more subscribers than World of Warcraft and it will begin a new age of massive online gaming on game consoles. Dozens of other console MMOs will be released within 2009 and 2010 but none of them will do nearly as well. All of the articles we've seen about World of Warcraft wrecking the MMO market on the PC will be rewritten to address Halo ruining console MMOs.

I predict that Nintendo or a third-party publisher will release a simple social online game with a persistent world for the Nintendo DS. The game will be similar to Poke'mon Diamond and Pearl except with persistent online play. Most hobbyist and hard core gamers will dismiss the game as overly simple but the sales will outstrip any PC-based MMO. It will also be the first online MMO to capture male and female non-gamers over the age of 30.

I predict that Apple will build an in-house game development team for the iPhone. As iPhone sales continue to increase, Apple will begin to release small and simple games designed for the iPhone. In late 2008, one of these games will include multiplayer and in 2009 Apple will release a massive multiplayer environment akin to online chat mixed with casual games. Again hobbyist and hard core gamers will dismiss this as a rich AOL chat client rather than a game yet it will outsell computer MMOs by a factor of ten.

I predict that computer MMOs will continue to be released but with decreasing sales and decreasing numbers. By 2010 most gamers will have gravitated towards console games for massive online games.

By 2020 over a billion people will be interconnected through portable massive online communities. Hundreds of different games from dozens of different players will let people interact and interconnect in the worlds and environments they find most comfortable. Such environments may be as sterile as an AOL chat room or as rich as Middle Earth. Portable systems will include enough resolution, enough control, and enough bandwidth to let people interconnect in text, voice, and image anywhere on the planet.

By 2030 we'll all be driving across a desert wasteland in supercharged muscle cars in search of gasoline. Our rugged off-road tires will crunch over the billion portable devices that have long since gone dark.

By 3051 robotic alien probes will land on earth and harvest all of the silicone and broken glass to build intergalactic starships.

Or perhaps that is just a MMO I'm about to play.

Loral Ciriclight
22 June, 2007