Turbine on spinning console MMORPGs

GDC Austin 2009: Dungeons & Dragons Online developer recaps challenges of bringing popular PC genre to the living room, why PS3 should be the lead SKU.

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Who Was There: Turbine vice president of product development Craig Alexander talked about the lessons learned in the company's first year and a half of developing a massively multiplayer online role-playing game for consoles.

Console MMOGs are seen as a holy grail of sorts.
Console MMOGs are seen as a holy grail of sorts.

What They Talked About: Alexander began recapping the history of MMORPGs, noting the way they've changed in gameplay as well as fee structure. Some of the original massively multiplayer games like Shadows of Yserbius and the original AOL-based Neverwinter Nights were paid for on an hourly basis, but they soon turned to the monthly subscription fee common to Ultima Online, EverQuest, and Turbine's own Asheron's Call.

The common thread between all the games he mentioned was that they were all on the PC. However, with the PS3 and the Xbox 360, Alexander says consoles have finally achieved the basic requirements to support MMO games, from storage space to online communities.

Alexander said it took PC MMO games about 10 years to mature to the point where they are now dominant on the platform. Now MMOGs are at the point where they are responsible for almost all of the growth in the PC market, Alexander said.

Historically, Alexander said trends in the PC market are typically echoed in the console market three to four years later, from first-person shooters in the '90s to sports games before that. More recently, Alexander said the conventional wisdom was that online multiplayer games and user-interface-intensive games would never take off on consoles, though games like Halo and Oblivion are changing that perception. As a result, Turbine believes MMOGs are soon going to revolutionize the console space, just like they did with the PC.

The trip to consoles from PCs has proven transformative for many genres, Alexander said, though that's not the only potential advantage. Moving to consoles can also be beneficial, he noted, because they are designed to be a social entertainment experience instead of a solitary one, hardware standards are uniform, and the upside for a success is very high. Demand for console RPGs is also higher than ever, Alexander noted, with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion selling though to roughly half of the Xbox 360's user base at the time of its early 2006 release.

Alexander thinks the success of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion proves there is a market for a console MMORPG.
Alexander thinks the success of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion proves there is a market for a console MMORPG.

While Turbine hasn't detailed its plans for its first console MMORPG, don't expect it to appear on the Wii. Alexander said Nintendo's platform just doesn't have the basic tools necessary to handle Turbine's needs.

"In many respects the [Wii] hardware resembles the previous generation more than the current one," he said.

Cross-platform gameplay is also a no-go for Turbine, Alexander said. While technically he said it would probably be fairly easy, the idea of dealing with each platform's online storefront currency integrated with a single cross-platform virtual-in-game currency would be "a nightmare."

Going into depth on the challenges of bringing MMORPGs to consoles, Alexander talked about financial hang-ups. For one, building a massively multiplayer infrastructure costs about $20 million on top of the game development itself, and that can be harder to recoup on consoles. And then once the technology is ready, Alexander said it can take three to five more years to actually build the MMORPG.

Alexander said it could be tempting to make the Xbox 360 the lead SKU when making a console MMO game, but he said it was better to go with the PS3 to start. He cautioned that the PS3 has a wealth of hardware constraints like the Blu-ray's slower access time, often less-friendly developer tools, and a different memory architecture. In all, Alexander said migrating a game from the PS3 to the Xbox 360 is far easier than doing it the other way around.

Getting back to the PC side of things, Alexander spoke about Dungeons & Dragons Online, and the surprising success of its recent switch to a free-to-play business model. Alexander said subscriptions have actually gone up since the free-to-play option was introduced, and healing potions have been flying off the shelves of the microtransaction-driven in-game store.

"It's a little too early to declare complete victory, but we're very happy," Alexander said.

CDungeons & Dragons Online's move to free-to-play has been successful.
CDungeons & Dragons Online's move to free-to-play has been successful.

He also added that he believes console players will react the same way to a hybrid subscription/free-to-play model, and it's something Turbine is actively pursuing. Developers need to minimize any friction to access of their games, and in the console space, Alexander said that means no subscription requirement.

However, he said that consoles don't have a history of online monetization like that, and some of the older billing platforms like Xbox Live might not have built-in support for some of the business models being considered. Another concern Alexander said MMORPG developers should have is that having to pay the manufacturers a hardware royalty on top of intellectual property royalties makes having a large user base more important.

Finally, Alexander covered some of the design challenges facing massively multiplayer games for consoles. The audience is different, as are the interfaces. However, he noted that USB keyboards and chat pad controller add-ons could help get around that issue. Turbine is also prototyping a "canned chat" option where players can select from an assortment of common in-game messages without the need for a keyboard.

Alexander feels that MMORPG interfaces on the PC are also too complex and generally unsuited for standard-definition TVs. However, he noted that's only a problem if the user interface is borrowed completely from the PC standard.

Quote: "In many respects, we're betting the company on it."--Alexander on Turbine's console MMORPG push, though he did insist Turbine was still committed to the PC business.

Takeaway: Whatever developers do, Alexander said under no circumstances should they just try to port their MMORPG to the console. Instead, they should consider taking their favorite console designs and add in massively multiplayer features with a handful of innovations. Bringing the genre to consoles has a number of substantial hurdles to clear, but Alexander is convinced they can be overcome, and whoever does that will enjoy tremendous success.

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