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The Birth Of The Mobile MMOG

Mobile phones increasingly resemble networked computers, with more processing power and better displays. As such, they're becoming more interesting as platforms for MMOGs. Yet application development for mobile phones is still in its infancy, so mobile platforms lack many of the resources that more mature gaming platforms offer. This article describes the state of the mobile MMOG genre today, explains the unique technology challenges facing MMOGs, and lays out design guidelines for making a successful game.

Major Fambrough: "You wish to see the frontier?"
John Dunbar: "Yes sir, before it's gone."
-Dances with Wolves

Mobile phones are becoming increasingly powerful computers, complete with operating systems and standard APIs. Although most phones on the market are still useless for anything more than phone calls, we are slowly moving into an era where many people will walk around with a (potential) networked game console in their hand.

As mobile phones increasingly resemble networked computers, they become more interesting as platforms for multiplayer games. Yet, as someone who helped develop three MMOGs (including World in War, which was recently released for mobile devices), I can vouch for the fact that application development for mobile phones is still in its infancy. Mobile game development lacks many of the resources that more mature gaming platforms offer. Based on my experience, I will describe what I believe are the essential requirements for making a successful MMOG for mobile devices - a genre that I'll refer to as "3MOG" in this article.

The MMOG Market Today

According to MMO Worlds (www.mmoworlds.com), there are almost 60 MMOGs on the market today (not counting the various expansion packs for games like EverQuest), and many times that number of MMOGs under development. The 20 most well known MMOGs on the market are listed in Table 1.

Name

Developer/publisher

Release year

Comment

Ultima Online

Origin Systems

1997

250,000 subscribers as of 2001

EverQuest

Verant Interactive/Sony Online Entertainment

1999

430,000 subscribers as of 2002

Dark Age of Camelot

Mythic Entertainment / Sierra Studios

2001

250,000 active subscribers as of December 2002

Lineage

NCSoft

1998

4,000,000 accounts, 200,000 simultaneous players

Asheron's Call

Turbine Entertainment/ Microsoft

1999

Microsoft's MMORG.

EVE: The Second Genesis

CCP Games

2003

A $10 million project.

Anarchy Online

FunCom

2000

A futuristic MMORPG from Norway.

Sims Online

Maxis / Electronic Arts

2002

A $20 million budget, 97,000 active players. One of the few MMOG trying to target casual gamers.

World War II Online

Strategy First / Cornered Rat Software

2001

A WW2 game.

Star Wars Galaxies

Sony Online Entertainment / LucasArts

2003

Huge project with lot of attention.

Planetside

Verant Interactive / Sony Interactive Studios

2003

The first MMO first-person shooter.

Toontown Online

VR Studios / Disney

2003

A persistent world for children and their parents.

UltraCorps

Jaleco Entertainment/Microsoft

1998

Tick-based strategy game.

Table 1. Today's best-known MMOGs. For a more complete list visit http://www.mmorpg.com/gamelist.cfm?sort=rating

The MMOG genre has been a powerful buzzword in the game industry for years now. I see five interconnected reasons for this:

  • Long lifespan. Most PC games have a life span of just a few months, whereas MMOGs can last for years partly because of their tight relationship with players and their ability to evolve the game world around the player.
  • Player loyalty. If a player passes the initial rituals for entering and learning the basic rules for the game (which are admittedly often tedious), they tend to become loyal to that game and its community.
  • Large (potential) margins. MMOGs often adopt a business model whereby the income is less dependent on a middleman (i.e., a retailer), so a larger part of the money can be reinvested into to the game and/or company. A side effect of this that the recurring subscriptions increase the developer's incentive to keep players loyal through various means.
  • Greater chance for total disaster. MMOGs require centralized player services that need to be running all the time. That's very different than a stand-alone game. Many MMOGs have had encountered disasters at launch because the developer and/or publisher encountered unforeseen technical problems.
  • The huge potential for the genre. There are a lot of industry projections that predict that MMOGs will be huge in the future , and I hold this opinion too. While today's MMOGs usually target hardcore gamers, they have the potential to attract more casual gamers too, based on the social aspects inherent to the genre.

To date, not many 3MOGs have been released, but that will change over the next few years. A good example of a 3MOG currently on the market is TibiaME from German developer Cipsoft (see Figure 1). TibiaME is what you might expect a MMOG to look like on a mobile phone; it resembles popular PC-based MMOGs like Ultima Online and Lineage.


palm_01.jpg

Figure 1 TibiaME, the only MMOG accessible from a hot air balloon.

My company's first major 3MOG is called Football Manager, which we began developing in 2000. Now on the market, the game has thousands of monthly paying customers and is one of the largest Swedish online games. The premium television channel Canal+ markets it, but it's only available in Sweden and Norway at the moment.


palm_02.jpg

Figure 2. Football Manager - the PC game.

The game is accessible via mobile phone too, allowing players to interact with their team at any given moment (Figure 3).


palm_03.jpg

Figure 3. Football Manager - the mobile phone version.

The Challenge

Creating a 3MOG offers many interesting development challenges, some of which I will describe. Note that my experience is based largely upon my experience as a developer in Sweden; some of the factors I describe may vary from region to region.

Latency

Latency is always an important issue when developing multiplayer games. Most mobile phones run on GPRS networks, which have very high latencies (bad for games). Whereas latency in network calls for PC games is measured in hundreds of milliseconds, for mobile phones latency is typically measured in seconds. Imagine trying to play a game of Battlefield 1942 and always seeing what happened four seconds ago.

While getting the correct packets on a mobile phone can take more time than on a PC, the speed of sending data is comparatively not so bad. It typically ranges from 9.6Kbs to (in theory) 172Kbs, compared to a PC's dial-up modem speed of 56Kbs. Therefore, as long as we can hide the latency in a mobile game's design, there is actually a pretty good network to work with. Table 2 shows some values that we have seen in our Swedish networks (these are anecdotal measurements).

Operator

Average connection time

Average time sending one byte from a mobile phone and getting it back

Average time uploading and downloading 1000 bytes of data

Operator Y

Disney

2003

1.0 seconds

Operator Y

14.0 seconds

1.0 seconds

1.6 seconds

Table 2. Latency test results using C++ on a Series 60 phone.

 


Design to Hide

How can these long latencies on mobile networks be hidden from players? One simple answer is to use a turn-based game design. This kind of game works poorly over the Internet, since it's hard to hassle an opponent for taking too long during his turn. Thus, turn-based games have been much more successful in "hot seat" versions. Another drawback to turn-based games is that the more players there are, the less playtime each person gets.

Tick-based gaming is a solution to this problem. In tick-based gameplay, you take a turn-based game and allow all players to plan their moves ahead of time, and then the game executes all the moves simultaneously. This model is fairly common in massively multiplayer web games , but it hasn't been adopted by many high-budget projects (a notable exception is UltraCorps). The tick-based model works best for strategy games, in strategy sub-genres like "manager" games, war games, resource management games, and so on.

Of course, this is this is not the way we are used to playing MMOGs. However, the design of many real-time multiplayer games could be accommodated to handle much higher latencies if the game was redesigned with those technology limitations in mind. While a multiplayer first-person shooter probably couldn't be redesigned to handle high latencies (since actions are so direct and gameplay requires fast action), games that have natural delays in them might be able to hide latency. For instance, imagine a game in which you command a large Spanish galleon. When you give the order to lower the sails or make a full turn, it takes the ship some time. Latencies could be hidden between the time the order was issued and its execution completed.


palm_04.jpg

Figure 4. The J2ME client of World in War, a tick-based 3MOG.

Another good example of hiding latency is seen in The Sims, where the user influences indirect control over the game characters. Since the characters move around on their own, even without the player's direction, the player has something to watch while the command takes effect, and there are plausible reasons for the character to not react instantaneously.


palm_05.jpg

Figure 5. Hiding high latencies on mobile networks is possible through careful game design, such as the time between issuing an order to a boat and when the order has been executed.

Device Anarchy

In the beginning of the PC era there were many different PC manufacturers -- just like the mobile phone industry today. Over time, the PC market has become rather homogenous. Surely not to the extent of the console market, where you know precisely what hardware the game will be played on, but there are certain standards that you can rely on like screen size, amount of memory, and input devices like mouse, keyboard and perhaps joystick.

The mobile phone market doesn't offer as much hardware certainty as today's PCs. For instance, in Sweden there are about 80 phone models from about 10 manufactures. The screen sizes vary wildly, as do the number of buttons and their locations on the phones. It may go without saying that until there are standards for the most basic hardware capabilities, developing mobile games will be difficult.

As you can see in Table 3, WAP has the largest market share in Sweden with over 60 phone models available, but WAP supports fewer technologies suitable for interactive games. In Sweden, two million people out of a total population of 8.5 million have access to a WAP-based phone, but only 100,000 have ever used these capabilities . Among the programming environments for interactive applications, J2ME covers the largest mobile phone model segment, but it has several drawbacks when compared to C++. For instance, with J2ME you must rely on the Java Virtual Machine and you have less control over function calls -- and that can mean less control over the network connection. Network disconnections can add latencies of up to 10 seconds per network call, which can be a big drawback for a 3MOG. In addition, with J2ME you often end up trying to fix bugs caused by the Java Virtual Machine, not your code.

Programming environment

Out of about 80 models available in Sweden, there are…

Comment

J2ME

More than 20 models

Fast development, lots of bugs, sub-optimal performance.

C++

At least 6 models

Rather expensive phones, small market segment. Works on N-Gage.

Mophun

8 models

See http://www.mophun.com for specs and features.

WAP

More than 60 models

Limited in interaction and popularity.

XHTML

A few models

Comparable to WAP.

Pjava

At least 2 models

Works on the P800 and Nokia Communicator.

Brew

-

Qualcomm's technology. Not available on any phone marketed in Sweden, but has significant market share in the United States.

imode

-

NTT DoCoMo's Internet access system. Not available on any phone marketed in Sweden, but has significant market share in Japan.

Table 3. Development environments for Swedish mobile phones.

Screen Size, Input and Other Limitations

Screen Size. There are two major hassles when it comes to screen size on a mobile phone: it is small and there is no standard size (not even a standard proportion!).

Building an interface that supports different screen sizes is incredibly hard. A heads-up display that has been optimized for 800x600 pixels will not look as good on 1600x1200 (and excludes game play in 640x480) and will take valuable development time if your ambition is to make it work at all resolutions.


palm_06.jpg

Figure 6. Various screen sizes on different phones.


No.

Screen size (width x height)

Brand

1

101x80

Siemens & Sony Ericsson

2

120x160

Motorola

3

128x128

Nokia & Samsung

4

128x160

Samsung

5

132x176

Panasonic

6

176x208

Nokia

7

208x320

Sony Ericsson

The only real workaround to this problem is to use tile-based graphics and accept that text will break for a new line whenever it feels like it. Full-screen 2D bitmaps are almost out of the question.

Note that small screen size is not always a bad thing when it comes to game development. Players do not (yet) expect the quality of graphics on mobile phone to match that of Half-Life 2, and these lower player expectations can work in a developer's favor. When it comes right down to it, the display size has little impact on the success of the title.

Application size limit. Application size is limited on many models. A common size limit is 64KB, which is tiny for MMOGs. Some more capable phones have an extra memory card, allowing applications to be several megabytes in size. Needless to say, it is easier to develop games for the latter.

Color depth. Color depth also varies substantially between phones, but luckily there are not an infinite amount of color depths from which to choose. With a few exceptions, most phones with application development possibilities support 12-bit (4,096 colors) or 16-bit (65,535 colors) color depth. Both are quite sufficient, so game developers do not have to focus too much energy on the differences between the two.

Operator Issues

Internet connectivity for mobile phones isn't as easy as it is for PCs. There can be no MMOG without networking, and when it comes to Internet connectivity for phones, everything relies on the capabilities of the operator. On mobile phones, network packages are transmitted via the operator's software, and in many cases those messages are like frogs crossing a highway: sometimes they make it, sometimes they don't. This problem is bound to work itself out with time. Currently, however, all operators that you plan to support need to be thoroughly tested (which isn't cheap if you want to launch your game in several countries simultaneously). My suggestion is to launch your game in you own country where it's easiest to contact mobile operators to troubleshoot any connection problems. A word to the wise: operators have their own schedules and product plans, and many aren't concerned with the deadlines and constraints of a small game developer. Make sure you build some flexibility into your schedule and save yourself some stress.

User Behavior

Phone usage behavior varies greatly from PC and console playing habits. This must be taken in consideration when designing a 3MOG. Studies show that the average gaming session on a phone lasts just a few minutes. In some respects, this fact bolsters the case for 3MOGs since a persistent world can make better use of short playing cycles than a game that requires a player to start a new session each time the game is played.

Mobile games must behave politely and accept that the player's situation must always come first. A game in which the player's character dies and can't be resurrected -- just because the player got off the bus or answered a phone call -- will aggravate users and result in fewer players and lower revenues. Devising multiplayer functionality to accommodate frequently distracted players is one of the great challenges facing 3MOG designers. Indirect control of your character might be one way to overcome this. If the game character can make its own decisions, the sudden absence of the player is not as obvious.

The Publisher's Role

As a 3MOG developer, you're working in one of the game industry's frontiers. As such, you'll be on your own in many respects - perhaps even without a publisher. Publishers are very risk averse these days, and they all seem to be waiting for someone else to make a move in this genre. Perhaps that means that there's a window opportunity for a brave publishing company.

In our case, we financed our titles without publishers and brought our games to market by making deals with media companies instead. Media companies often have large audiences already and are always looking for new ways to make money from them. MMOGs and media companies seem to be a good match: premium games looking for a large audience.

If you have an idea for a 3MOG, the most likely way it will get financed is from your own wallet. Don't despair, though -- one of our biggest lessons has been that it doesn't take a bankroll of $50 million to get a game started. We've found that players like feeling that they are part of the game creation process, and will accept fairly rudimentary gameplay if they have a hand in helping the developers mold it into something grander over time.

The Opportunity

Admittedly, if you are thinking about creating a 3MOG, this article might not offer you all the encouragement you were looking for. Don't give up just yet, however. Knowing the obstacles is at least as important as knowing the opportunities. Now that we've touched upon many of the hurdles you could face, let's look at the opportunities that await.

A commonly asked (and very important) question is, "Will mobile gaming become really big?" In response, I've heard people say things like, "I doubt it -- I'll never sit on my sofa and play a game on a tiny phone display". The truth is, neither would I, and I don't believe mobile gaming can compete with console gaming in those same terms. However, I do believe that it's a complement to console games, for several reasons:

  • Always with you. One of the most interesting aspects of the phone as a game platform is that you are never far from your phone. MMOGs are very social games that revolve around player communication and interaction, and the social aspects of MMOGs can be enhanced for phones by supporting more regular, but shorter, visits to the game world.

    Already we see how different PC MMOGs handle player interaction -- the level of player communication and cooperation varies substantially across the genre. For instance, in EVE: The Second Genesis, you can play the game like it was a single-player game, without virtually any social interaction. In that case, the community acts more like an instantaneous support organization where you can ask other players questions about the game. This limited interaction can nevertheless be very satisfying for players, and alleviates some of the frustrations found in single-player games. If a player cannot get past a certain situation, he can ask other players if they have experienced the same problem. Even if other players can't help, it's often a relief to just talk about the problem with someone. Therefore, the level of social interaction in MMOGs has been successfully tinkered with, and that may be instructional to someone wondering how to handle similar situations in 3MOGs.
  • Growing appeal for casual gamers. The social aspects of MMOGs can be very appealing for the casual gamer. Casual gamers tend to demand games that are easy to learn and don't demand long game sessions with lots of repetitive game play (like mining, monster melees, and so on). The most successful 3MOGs will be the ones that support long and short game sessions.
  • Persistent and pervasive. Most MMOGs use persistent worlds; game worlds that outlive the user sessions. This aspect is particular important for mobile phones that have limited storage and calculating capabilities, because much of this work can be offloaded to the server instead. In a persistent world, the game state is held on the server, making enormous game worlds possible even on a client as small as 64KB.

    However, 3MOGs have another advantage that console games lack: the ability to push game events and messages to the user at any time. It is obvious that this possibility might easily be misused and annoying to players. Yet designed correctly, this feature could enhance the game experience and create innovative scenarios. For instance, image a wargame in which players must take turn guarding their base camp. In the event of an attack, all players can be summoned to defend their common base via an incoming phone message that takes them into the game action. In this type of scenario, users should naturally be able to indicate when it is OK for the game to contact them so that the game doesn't get in the way of important things going on in the real world.
  • Cross-platform capabilities. Considering that the phone market is so differentiated, it doesn't make sense to code too much of the game logic for the client itself. To reach the largest market, you will probably need to have some different versions. Creating a thin client minimizes the effort to convert a game to a new platform.
  • Wide-open market. Mobile gaming is still in its infancy and there are few really good projects on the market, leaving the door open to newcomers.

Fortunately, the similarities between web and phone applications are not very large. If you're your game was written in Java, it might even be possible to reuse classes between different platforms, too.

In spite of all the exciting abilities the phone, as a gaming platform, it has not the ultimate sound and visual experience and will not have for a foreseeable future. By adding a web (or even a PC) interface, your game can become a richer experience. Cross-platform games also increase the feeling of a game that expands out of its medium, and strengthens the players' idea of what the game world really is.

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