Although there are a few exceptions, consoles were historically never known for their MMORPGs. A few game studios went to extraordinary lengths early on but most were met with limited success. Of course, there were a few gems, such as Phantasy Star Online, EverQuest Online Adventures, and Final Fantasy XI that maintained high player populations for several years. Even those relatively successful titles eventually shutdown as maintaining software on outdated platforms became more effort than it was worth.
Initially, hardware and connectivity issues were the main obstacles to overcome when creating online multiplayer games, however, there have been vast improvements across the board since then. Still, there are many potential problems that consoles can run into that PC users generally don’t have to worry about when it comes to the MMO genre. Even so, we’re starting to see more and more titles receive current generation console ports. That begs the question: Is this simply a trend or are MMORPGs actually meant to survive on consoles?
In the past, hardware constraints were among the most difficult problems to overcome when designing an MMOs. Many games already required top of the line PCs to play and trying to port them to console was simply impossible. The power gap between PCs and consoles still exists today, but the severity has lessened due to significant improvements in technology and optimization skills by developers.
With Dust 514 shutting down last year, Destiny is essentially the only console exclusive MMO currenly on the market. Even categorizing Destiny as an MMO is highly debating by the gaming community and for good reason. The entire game is heavily instance, and on top of that each zone has a cap of 16 players. Furthermore, fireteams range from 3 to 6 players, based on the content, which most people will argue does not qualify as ‘massive.’ Essentially, the only area where you’ll see a significant amount of Guardians is in The Last City.
It should be no surprise that every other MMORPG ported to console is also heavily instanced. A few of the more popular examples include: The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV, Neverwinter, and DC Universe Online. Using an excessive amount of instances for either zones, dungeons, or story content usually limits the number of players in a certain area and can help minimize lag or FPS issues.
However, instancing content doesn’t always fix these problems. Final Fantasy XIV players on the PlayStation 3 and 4 have often been excluded from content due to poor performance. This was particularly noticeable when group hunting missions were still incredibly popular in the game. Many times, console players wouldn’t even finish loading before the monster was killed and therefore they wouldn’t receive credit. Additionally, this has led to many console players being excluded from raids due to slower response times or gameplay freezing altogether.
Having static, limited hardware definitely makes it more difficult to design an MMO that can run well on consoles while not dumbing down the PC version. The connectivity issues, while less about ISP speed these days, can stem from an inability to reconfigure network traffic on consoles.
As technology progresses, consoles will become more powerful but it’s likely they’ll always be behind PCs due to their demographic. Consoles are designed for consumer gaming while PCs deliver a higher quality experience at a cost. However, there’s also the possibility that technology will eventually surpass what developers can even create, which would lead to an equal playing field for both consoles and PCs. Until then, MMOs are still viable on current generation consoles, but they often still deliver a watered-down experience when compared with their PC counterparts.
Peripherals and Addons
What makes many MMORPGs so great is their innate complexity. Whether it’s min-maxing the greatest builds ever, mastering complex skill combinations, or memorizing a massive amount of keybinds, the standard MMORPG isn’t simple. In order to tackle these endeavors, MMO players rely on a number of hardware and software devices that are designed to tackle these complex operations.
The standard keyboard and mouse setup is highly accurate and allows for a significant amount of customization. Through macros and key combinations, players have instant access to dozens of abilities simultaneously. There simply aren’t enough button combinations on a typical gamepad to create that type of responsiveness. Additionally, there are custom gaming mice and other peripherals, such as the Logitech G13 and Razer Orbweaver, that take this one step further.
Although mice are generally more accurate than gamepads, there is a certain amount of comfort to be found in a console controller. There are genres that do favor console controllers, such as platformers and action adventure games, as they don’t require a copious amount of buttons and benefit from the twitch nature of gamepads. However, most console MMOs don’t take advantage of this. Personally, I’d much rather play Destiny on a PC because a mouse and keyboard is simply more accurate with shooters. The other available options are fairly standard MMORPGs that use a tab-targeting system with lots of hotkeys. Many of the more action-based games with an emphasis on controller support, such as TERA, Black Desert Online and Dragon Nest, aren’t even available on console.
This doesn’t mean that controllers won’t work with the typical MMORPG formula, but they’re not nearly as efficient. Instead of simply pressing a single key, console players need to use a combination of the left and right trigger buttons to access all of their skills. Furthermore, the selection of abilities usually has to be reduced. While this can be compared to using Shift or Alt on a keyboard, the number of options is still considerably less. This is probably why one of the more successful console MMORPGs, The Elder Scrolls Online, only allows up to six abilities on the skillbar, which is very accessible for a gamepad user.
In addition to hardware limitations, console gamers generally aren’t allowed to use addons for their MMORPGs. These can vary from custom UI mods to damage meters. Currently, the more addon heavy MMOs haven’t been released for consoles, but many ESO players have complained about the inability to modify their experience. While addons are fine for ESO on PC, they’re not allowed on the Xbox or PlayStation versions of the game. Even if this doesn’t directly affect gameplay, it does make the experience less customizable. Many of these issues could be avoided if developers allowed for more UI options, or implemented these features directly into their games, but so far that hasn’t happened on console.
The ability to interact with other players is the lifeblood of the MMO genre. Without the community focus, MMORPGs likely wouldn’t exist in the same form they do today. Generally speaking, the gameplay aspects of MMORPGs aren’t nearly as good as their single-player predecessors. They’re unable to replicate the twitch-based nature of fighters, complex puzzles of action-adventure titles, or the depth of turn-based strategy games. Furthermore, the large scope of MMO design makes meaningful story development a difficult task that has only been done well through heavy instancing or linear questing.
Combat has never been the main draw of an MMORPG. Of course, there are some aspects that can definitely be fun, but there are almost always been examples found elsewhere. Until recently, action-combat in MMOs simply didn’t exist. Even recent games can only do so through the use of instanced zones or client-side hit detection, which comes with its own assortment of problems.
Despite the typical gameplay flaws of the MMORPG genre, the ability to play with thousands of other people simultaneously is a huge draw. This can be for camaraderie or competition, but the end result remains the same. People from around the world come together for a common goal, which is something rarely seen outside of videogames.
How people interact with each other also plays a major role in how successful an MMORPG can become. On a PC, players interact through in-game chat, voice communication, forums, guild message boards, and Reddit in an almost seamless fashion. All it takes is a simple Alt-Tab and the click of a button.
Unfortunately, things aren’t nearly so easy on console. This type of accessibility isn’t available on consoles, even with their access to web browsers. Yes, voice chat is very predominant on the Xbox and PlayStation, but adding people to your friends list and creating a group isn’t always an effortless task. Furthermore, there’s even a friend limit, which means adding new guildmates might even be impossible without deleting old acquaintances.
One of the worst aspects of console gaming is how segregated the communities are. Despite playing the same game, Xbox and PlayStation users cannot play on the same server. This is due to Sony and Microsoft not willing to cooperate with one another. If you have a friend who plays Neverwinter on the Xbox One and another on PS4, you either have to play both games separately or choose one over the other.
Even though there are almost always different servers on PC versions, there’s no physical barrier that prevents friends from playing together. Until this problem is solved with better cooperation between console developers and game studios, consoles are going to be at a strict disadvantage in the MMO market. Segregating a game’s population can make worlds feel empty and cause players to move on to something else.
The MMORPG genre remains one of the most expensive to develop games, with titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Destiny costing more than $100 million to create. Furthermore, they remain costly to maintain with server fees and content updates that require publishers to continuously see a return on their investment. In order for a developer to see a decent return on their game it needs to operate successfully for years; box copy sales often aren’t even. This is escalated with the emergence of free-to-play games, which carry a huge risk.
Let’s take a look at early MMORPGs like EverQuest and Lineage. After nearly 20 years, they’re still receiving content updates. They weren’t developed with a short life cycle in mind like the yearly update to Call of Duty or Battlefield.
In order for an MMORPG to be successful on console, it either needs to work on multiple generations or consoles need longer life cycles. Typically, a console generation has lasted six or seven years, and taking the time to develop a quality game could cut a few years into that lifespan. However, there has been speculation that the current generation could be around for at least 10 years. This would normally be enough time to produce, and reap the benefits from, an MMORPG, but we’re already more than three years into the current generation.
Furthermore, what happens to the players once that system is phased out. PC gamers go through new operating systems all the time, but it’s rare that support completely dies out for one. Moreover, developers will usually update their clients to work on the newest operating system. This means that PC-based MMOs typically last until they stop making money. Even then, private servers are often created for games that used to be popular.
A prime example of this is Final Fantasy XI. Although it’s still around on PC, the PlayStation 2 version of the game was shut down in 2016. Of course, the PS2 version suffered from extremely low resolution and framerate issues, which makes it unlikely that a signification portion of the population played only on console. However, the fact that there are still PC players means that the console version was ultimately disposable. This is less important for a game like Final Fantasy XI where the PC and console shared servers, but most current generation MMOs have separate servers. This means that when the PlayStation 4, or Xbox One, version of a game stops being supported, players will lose all of their characters and in-game assets forever.
When it comes to developing videogames, the mindset of PC and console developers is often very different. This is especially true for multiplayer-specific games, which are often designed to survive a few years on consoles but decades on PC. There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating, or porting, MMORPGs to console, but historically consoles have not catered to a genre that’s about longevity.
Consoles are designed for ease of access. The ability to instantly pick up a game and play it has introduced gaming to a much broader spectrum of people. However, that’s also why console games are essentially disposable with yearly renditions. People will purchase the latest edition of their favorite franchise and then trade it away when interest has dwindled.
By their design, quality MMORPGs are not created this way. Due to their high development costs and the requirement to maintain servers while providing constant updates, they need to sustain a large player population over a long period of time. That’s why they require monthly subscriptions or cash shops; revenue needs to keep flowing. This makes developing an MMO specifically for consoles a risky endeavor (unless you happen to be Activision).
Solving these issues has more to do with console developers than game designers. Giving consoles access to the same servers as PCs would stop community fragmentation and ensure a longer lifespan for games. Console developers could also work with designers to make sure their games work on future console generations. Additionally, as consoles move more towards multimedia devices than gaming machines, it’s likely that there will be more time between each new generation. This could ensure that MMOs have their niche on console platforms in the future, but right now consoles and MMORPGs are two very different formulas that often don’t mix well together.Related: Column, Console, DC Universe Online, Destiny, Dust 514, Everquest, Final Fantasy XI, Massive Inquiry, MMORPG, Neverwinter, Phantasy Star Online, Playstation 4, Xbox One