The mobile MMO conundrum

Recently, Massively OP’s Bree wrote that she is “a little bummed” at the apparently missed opportunities in mobile gaming. The mobile bubble has burst without any true mobile MMOs having come along, a blow for the MMO scene, and all that.

Well, I’m not bummed in the least. Like Thomas Henshell, I have always been anti-casual games; as a corollary, I am anti-mobile games as well (I do not have, and have never had, a single game on my iPhone). And there’s the rub – casual.

Mobile games are designed to kill moments. MMOs are designed to kill hours. A mobile MMO seems to me like prime cut Angus deep-fried and served drenched in KFC ketchup. Shoehorning the WoW formula into an iPhone is never going to work – for anything resembling MMOs we we know them to be feasible on mobile the way mobile gaming was intended, expectations must change.

For starters, every factor in an MMO that glues the player to the screen needs to be rethought. Two ways to do it come to mind: the old-fashioned browser game method of timed moves, or customizable AI taking control while a player is away. These would also address the issue of spotty network connections.

Neither works for me. After all, they kill the in-the-moment social factor that MMOs thrive on. If I’m in a raid with 11 others, and 8 of them leave their characters on autopilot because lunch hour’s over or they’ve reached the end of the clinic queue, I’d feel the same as if they had link-dropped or just ragequit.

Speaking of raids, the whole system of dungeons needs rethinking as well. Mobile controls aren’t well suited for conventional MMO movement and combat, and neither is the conventional MMO formula of teaming up against lengthy boss challenges. But without that, what is a mobile MMO but a one-sided MOBA?

These are just a couple of surface thoughts. What it boils down to is, simply, that either MMOs need to be redefined to succeed on mobile, or mechanical concessions have to be made. Either way, this might make them not MMOs, and then what’s the point? And all this without even bringing payment models into the equation.

There are too many clashing variables to reconcile. Realistically, the commenters on that MOP post who say mobile can only support MMOs are on the right track. To me, that’s where mobile belongs – as a complement to bigger, deeper games. The drone operator app for The Division was, for a long time, my favorite example of this. A pity we’ll never see it.

I’ll end with an anecdote. When, some months back, a small team reached out to me to write for an iPad RPG they were planning, I put aside my reservations and agreed to meet. After all, can’t say no to writing for a game, right? But there would be no second meeting.

Because less than an hour into the brainstorming, I was hearing talk of microtransactions and price points. The game was just a glint in their eyes, and already there was the cold gleam of monetization behind it. A gleam that outshone any consideration of making a game that would stick in the first place.

That’s the problem with mobile gaming, in its purest form: fleeting diversion, pendulum gaming focus, and devs milking every swing of the pendulum from the ground up. A reflection of what we have become as societies – and something I’m glad I was reminded to abjure.


7 Responses to “The mobile MMO conundrum”

  1. I’ve been testing out the mobile market more these days, and find that most of it is exactly how you describe: casual and designed to kill moments, not hours. Some games fit right in and don’t feel too bad to play while waiting around at a doctor’s office or would be fun to play during a commute (on a bus/train/plane).

    The problem is that most are designed to either encourage you to dupe your friends into playing to gain more in-game currency or whatever (time walls) or have ridiculous grinds that make spending some money to progress seem almost worth it (pay walls).

    Again, I’ve found a couple games that are fun little time wasters when you’re away from your pc/console, but otherwise you’d be better off spending your money on games that will be a full experience.

    We’ll see what happens in the future, as I don’t see the mobile market going anywhere.

    • I was hoping you’d chime in, given your recent explorations. Yes, I neglected to mention friend referrals. What a bother! But it might actually help the cause of mobile MMOs, given that MMOs are all about large player volumes. I imagine the adoption rate from referrals on mobile would far exceed referrals on PC.


      • The problem with mobile devices is that they are all touch screen. Sure, there are peripherals like the Nvidia Shield or bluetooth/usb mice/keyboards for tablets, but that seems to be the antithesis to getting a mobile device in the first place.

        Well to be honest in the first place, you got your phone to make phone calls, and you got that tablet to have the laptop experience without lugging around a laptop. So really, they weren’t designed with games in mind. With that said, I find that without those peripherals, most games need to be limited in scope, particularly when talking about mechanics.

        MMOs and MOBAs by nature are steeped in mechanics, so it seems counter-intuitive to play them on mobile devices. Hence all of the ridiculous mechanics present in mobile games at this juncture.

        In the future this may change, but I have my doubts that it’s a viable platform for these types of games.

      • Well, to be fair, MOBAs can be very simple mechanically. It’s MMOs where I fully agree with your assessment. Hence why I thought the definition of an MMO needs to be fundamentally rethought to make sense on mobile.

        That, or they need to make tablets with built-in projection keyboards that don’t fizz out after a couple of hours. >

      • I don’t see where you could ever function in a MOBA without a mouse and keyboard. Touch functions wouldn’t cut it.

      • Maybe I’ve just been away from the MOBA scene too long, but I feel touchscreen is ideal for the genre. You can tap faster than any mouse cursor can move – would need a great multi-touch screen though.

      • I feel like that would take a huge amount of getting used to, plus you need both hands to play, most phones/tablets are held with your other hand.

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