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!

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