Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Rise of the MMOFPS

Traditionally, MMOs have been your typical swords-and-sorcery MMORPGs.  The best example is, of course, World of Warcraft, but games such as EverQuest, Warhammer Online, Lord of the Rings Online and Ultima Online (the latter typically thought of as the first 3D MMORPG, although technically that distinct honour belongs to Meridian 59) are games that many will think of when asked to name titles that typify the genre.

Why though?  Why are there so many MMORPGs in existence (well over 100), but relatively few MMOFPS games, when game series such as Call of Duty (and Modern Warfare), Battlefield and Team Fortress are (far and away) the most popular type of games played online over all platforms?  I think there are two answers to this question: history and technology.

With regards to history, PlanetSide (released in 2003) is considered by most to be the first true MMOFPS (although Neocron, released in late 2002 contained many MMOFPS elements, but is usually considered more of a hybrid between an MMORPG and MMOFPS) and the cold, hard truth is that it failed.  It's difficult for me to admit that, because it is my favourite online game ever; nevertheless that assessment is accurate.  At its height it didn't receive more than ~70,000 active, paying subscribers, and by anyone's standards, particularly in an MMO, that is far from a success.  Other studios, after seeing PlanetSide and Sony fail so spectacularly, retreated firmly back into the RPG side of the MMO universe, ultimately culminating in the release of World of Warcraft by Blizzard in late 2004, a game that has almost single-handedly come to dominate the entire MMO market by its phenomenal success (both critically and commercially).  12,000,000 active subscribers are a nice thing to have.

The technology aspect of PlanetSide's failure is more relevant.  You can get by with a 50, 100 or sometimes even 200 ping in an MMORPG because you aren't requiring twitch accuracy.  An MMOFPS on the other  hand requires as low a ping as possible, as you would want in any multiplayer FPS where latency can often be a significant factor. At the time PlanetSide came out, server technology was inferior by several orders of magnitude to modern-day servers, and the system simply could not keep up with the requests hundreds and sometimes thousands of players were making to them.  In several large, pitched battles I personally witnessed framerates dropping like stones as the server struggled to update everyone in real time.  The game was simply ahead of its time, at least from a technical standpoint.

Where does that leave us today?  In 2011 server technology has come along in leaps and bounds.  Sony (or anyone else) should not have any issue with being able to deliver 30fps at a bare minimum in the forthcoming PlanetSide Next.

Sony aren't the only ones pursuing an MMOFPS though.  I've talked before about the rumours swirling around Blizzard's forthcoming MMO, Titan (which according to leaks is apparently an MMOFPS).  The experience they have received from over 7 years of operating WoW will surely only be a benefit when it comes to crafting their newest MMO as well as designing the servers that it will run on.

More and more it seems that people are falling over themselves to try and push out an MMOFPS.  MAG on the PS3 has 128 v 128 battles and although I wouldn't consider it a true MMOFPS (there is no open world, just instanced fighting zones) it certainly incorporates many elements of the genre, including levelling, skill trees and a hierarchical squad leadership system.

The enigmatic-yet-controversial developer Derek Smart also has an MMOFPS on the way, known as Line of Defense.  It's a while from release, and the Derek Smart name will put off some, but it's definitely yet another MMOFPS being thrown into the mix.

You've also got Firefall slated to be released at the end of this year.  Again, it's not a true MMOFPS, but a team-based shooter incorporating some MMO elements.  Firefall also has the advantage of being free-to-play, which virtually guarantees it at least an initial playerbase.  If Red 5 (made up of many former Blizzard employees) can make it work then this will only widen the genre even further.

We've also seen APB and CrimeCraft ply their trade as MMOFPSs.  In CrimeCraft's case they launched initially with a subscription model but moved to free-to-play shortly afterwards.  APB notoriously went under as a going concern shortly after its release, but the game's assets were purchased by GamersFirst and is relaunching as a free-to-play title (as it probably should have originally when it was operated by Realtime Worlds) later this year.

This brings me to Huxley.

Just kidding, that shit is the very definition of vapourware.

So it's clear that there are several full MMOFPS games in development (and hopefully we'll be seeing PlanetSide Next sooner, rather than later, although the recent lack of information from SOE does have me slightly concerned) as well as games using some of their nuances but stopping slightly short of being a true MMO.  In particular I think Firefall is one to watch.  Free-to-play is definitely the buzzword of the industry right now; both Lord of the Rings Online and Champions Online saw tremendous revenue increases after they made the move from subscription to free, and it seems that the market is increasingly moving in this direction.

All that's required is for someone to cater to FPS players and make an MMO that really delivers on what PlanetSide could (should?) have been.  Whether that turns out to be PlanetSide Next, Titan, or some other title, remains to be seen.

Watch this space!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Not A Banner Day For EA Or BioWare

You've been hard at work on the sequel to what many people consider to be the best RPG of the past decade.  Time to sit back with a cold beverage and watch the accolades roll in, right?  Not if you are EA and BioWare.

First came the news this morning that copies of Dragon Age II seemed to contain SecuROM, a much-maligned security program that comes dangerously close to being considered a rootkit.  The problem is that this was not mentioned anywhere, and in fact BioWare a fortnight ago stated that SecuROM would not be used.  In fact, EA are enjoined (prevented) by court order from using SecuROM in any game without fully disclosing it, this one of the terms of the settlement arising from the shitstorm with Spore's draconian DRM a few years ago.

Then on top of that came a story that EA had banned an individual on the BioWare forums, but that that ban had in turn locked him out of playing all of his EA games, including his newly-purchased copy of Dragon Age II.  His crime?  Reportedly he posted (to BioWare), "Have you sold your soul to the EA devil?"  Clearly something that warrants a 3-day ban from all EA forums (including BioWare's) and all of your EA games, right?

The individual, going by the nickname v_ware, had his ban confirmed by Stanley Woo, a BioWare employee, as well as by an unnamed BioWare moderator (who refused to comment further, according to RockPaperShotgun).

Once the story started being picked up by sites such as the aforementioned RPS, Eurogamer, Kotaku and others, EA swiftly slammed on the brakes and reversed course, rescinding v_ware's forum ban and his EA account ban and restoring access to his (fully paid for) games.

Apparently it was all a big misunderstanding (as these things so often are, of course).  Now it was "an error in the system" that banned not only his BioWare forum account but also his entire EA account and prevented him from playing the games that he had, quite legitimately, purchased.  The fact that this "error" only came to light after a substantial portion of the gaming press had picked up the story and run with it, was mere coincidence.  No doubt he would still have been unbanned even if he hadn't publicised the situation to anyone who would listen.

So on a day where we should have been paying attention to more interesting things, such as this snazzy new trailer for Star Wars: The Old Republic, we instead get bogged down dealing with crapfests like this from EA and BioWare.

While I appreciate their apology and withdrawal of their ban, I do not believe it would have happened without the microscope that the gaming press provided for most of the day, and that EA capitulated as a direct result of this negative attention.

The SecuROM issue may be more problematic to fix, since EA are under a court order whereby they are compelled to fully disclose any use of SecuROM (and in this situation did not); violation of this court order could be considered contempt of court, with all of the seriousness that that entails.

So what have we learned?

Large corporations make mistakes, and shining a torch on those mistakes is a good way of trying to get the situation resolved.

Oh, and obeying court orders is for squares.


BioWare have responded to the SecuROM allegations and stated that DA2 does not contain SecuROM.  What it does contain is a release-day check that has many technical similarities to SecuROM, but isn't actually SecuROM itself.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Death Of PC Gaming Exaggerated - "I was never really that ill" It Is Quoted As Saying

The PC Gaming Alliance today released a report showing that in year-on-year growth (2009 - 2010) the PC market took in $16.2 billion, an increase of 20%.

Unsurprisingly, more than 25% of that revenue came from China alone, with the rise of F2P titles and the popularity of browser games contributing considerably towards this. Not to be left out, $7.3bn came from the combined sales of the UK, US, Germany, Japan and South Korea.

Apparently, all those naysayers who insisted that the PC was dead as a gaming platform were completely and utterly wrong. Who would have thought it?

The report also shows that Steam currently leads the way in digital distribution, with an estimated 70% of the digital PC distribution market, but with competitors such as Impulse and Direct2Drive hot on their heels and predicted to increase their market share over the next few years.

It seems that publishers are beginning to wise up to the fact that they can get a bigger slice of the pie by bypassing traditional bricks-and-mortar stores and just selling directly to the public digitally, eliminating a good portion of their costs, as well as the cut that the retailers take, in the process.

Steam are the clear leader in this segment right now, but I'd expect some heavy competition coming out from the smaller players (likely comprising of some heavy discounts as Valve are themselves wont to do, or perhaps timed exclusives whereby one of the smaller digital firms gets the rights to sell certain games for, say, a month, before they become available on Steam and everywhere else).

So the sky isn't falling, developers and publishers aren't leaving the PC in droves and the PC is continuing to keep pace with consoles. And speaking of consoles, their most recently-available sales figures (2009) indicate a total revenue of almost $19.7bn (this figure represents PS2, PS3, X-Box 360, Nintendo DS and Sony PSP figures, combined).

On the one hand you have the PC - by itself - at $16.2bn, and essentially every console on the market today, at $19.7bn. The PC is close to beating everyone else combined, and is greater than any single individual segment (even the 360, Microsoft's Holy Grail).

PC Gaming. RIP.