Opinion: Why Microsoft Loses MMOs (And Why The PS3 Will Win the Genre)
In this in-depth Gamasutra opinion piece, journalist and MMO commentator Michael Zenke takes a close look at Microsoft's missed opportunities in the MMO space, from Mythica to Marvel Universe Online - and how Sony is poised to capitalize in
[In this in-depth Gamasutra opinion piece, journalist and MMO commentator Michael Zenke takes a close look at Microsoft's missed opportunities in the MMO space - and how Sony is poised to capitalize.]
The cancellation of Marvel Universe Online was a blow to MMO and comic fans alike. Still, now that the pain has faded somewhat, I think it’s clear that MUO’s death may be a good thing after all.
Given the rumors of confusion on the dev team about what the game was going to be like at a fundamental level, pulling support from the project seems like a no-brainer. That said, I think MUO’s death highlights Microsoft’s sordid history with Massively Multiplayer games.
If you look down the big list of canceled or never-released massively multiplayer games, Microsoft’s name comes up a suspicious number of times. The closure of Asheron's Call 2 is probably the most high-profile of these. Mythica, True Fantasy Online, Vanguard, and now Marvel Universe were all dented by the Redmond giant’s deft touch.
On a fundamental corporate level, I think that the company just doesn’t understand the whole MMO ‘thing’. The Xbox Live service is a known quantity at this point, and it's probably one of the defining elements of this generation of consoles. That said, having the patience to see something like an MMO through to completion is a very different task.
Even more than that, I think Microsoft’s short-sightedness when it comes to this genre has left a huge opening for Sony and the PlayStation 3. Though there are no firm plans in the public eye right now, the tide is rising for MMO experiences on Sony’s console. I think it's possible that Microsoft has ceded this fight without even firing a shot.
The piece 'Delay of Game' was originally published in the pages of the late, lamented Games for Windows magazine. That article, which touches on some well-known delayed and cancelled games, contains the most recent discussion of Microsoft’s most tragic MMO closure: Mythica. I mourned the game’s loss back in 2004, and even then it was very clear why Microsoft had cut it free from development:
[Microsoft says] there are too many games already, we don’t think there is a market for our game. Besides Mythica, Microsoft also has an entire gaming platform to support …
Despite the protestations of Microsoft’s PR department, it should be mentioned that Mythic Studios had a lawsuit pending against MS … In all likelihood all of these reasons resulted in Mythica’s cancellation. Two years of development time is not something easily thrown away, even by the likes of Microsoft.
It is somewhat difficult for me to understand what goes on in the company’s corporate mind. It’s almost like their are two mental models at work.
On one hand you have a company willing to put everything on the line for the untested Xbox 360 concept. On the other, you have a corporation that wasn’t willing to even try to put an MMO on the market. The 360 and Xbox Live have been hugely expensive gambles, and in the U.S. and EU they’ve paid off.
So why cut Mythica? Given the marketplace at the time (pre-World of Warcraft) it would have very likely attracted a respectable following, and might have even done very well. It was ahead of its time with the concept of instancing and storytelling in games, and offering a unique themed experience that still hasn’t been adequately tapped by the MMO genre.
Trends that were explored in Gods and Heroes (another canceled game) and are going to be touched on lightly in Age of Conan were given center stage in Mythica: Norse mythology, the gods walking among the adventuring populace, etc.
True Fantasy Live Online’s cancellation makes even less sense to me. It was a gorgeous title that could have not only opened up the Xbox platform for MMOs but also broken down the barrier between Microsoft and the Japanese development culture. That barrier, ultimately, is why TFLO was shut down, at least according to Wikipedia:
Relations between the two companies soon began to spiral out of control as Level-5 struggled to meet the demands required by Microsoft, who in turn grew frustrated at the lack of progress being made on the game …
Level-5 President and CEO Akihiro Hino stated in a Japanese interview that the poor relations between his company and Microsoft, partially due to the latter’s inexperience in dealing with Japanese developers, was one of the major reasons behind True Fantasy Live Online’s cancellation.
As recently as early this year Hino stated his interest in completing work on the project. The CEO of the company is invested enough to restart a several-year-old project, a project that the Redmond giant was too short-sighted to fully explore.
It's also worth pointing out that, given Level 5’s high-profile current-gen console title, White Night Chronicles for PS3, it's a fairly safe bet who they’d end up working with if TFLO ever gets off the ground.
Sony’s Sweet Spot
Two things spell out Sony’s intentions in this space very, very well: the recent reorganization of SOE beneath SCEI (out from under Sony Pictures), and NCsoft’s announced intentions to work with Sony to bring products to the PlayStation 3.
For all the questionable choices Sony has made over the last few years, their instincts when it comes to the MMO genre have been very good. Final Fantasy XI, EverQuest Online Adventures, and recently Phantasy Star Universe … almost every MMO to come out on a console has hit a Sony platform.
NCsoft’s stake in this is clear-cut. They want access to the console market and need a partner. Lineage and Arena.net’s Guild Wars would be fantastic additions to the PS3, with a minimum of UI tweaks and adjustments to get them working.
NCsoft also has several in-development MMOs in the works as well, at least one of which I assume to be a purely console game. With their stated intention of working with Sony, I wouldn’t hold my breath to see that game on the Xbox 360 anytime soon.
Sony Online Entertainment CEO John Smedley claims that SOE’s move is purely functional. That may be so, but even if that’s the case the move has a lot of symbolism behind it. SOE has always been the Sony outsider, doing very much its own thing.
Moving the experts in this field closer into the fold makes a great deal of sense. The goal, I believe is to bring the MMO-style of thinking ‘in house’ so that ideas can percolate in the right directions. With a firewall between Sony Online and the rest of the company there was little chance of that kind of business acumen influencing the right people.
SOE, of course, already has two games committed to the PlayStation 3 platform. The Agency and Free Realms will both be bringing some of that new Sony Online thinking to the benighted console - a little glimmer of hope for their online offerings.
The Agency in particular is a serious contender, and many gamers are watching it very closely - far closer than the PS3's Home service.
Beyond this corporate reshuffling, Sony has two other things going for it on the MMO front. The PlayStation Store and the Sony service itself is free. That’s a plus for companies wanting to put their games on the PS3 platform: no additional barriers.
If a company like Nexon wanted to bring one of their games into the fold, they could offer a free download from the PlayStation Store and never have to worry about their business model being disrupted.
The other thing going for Sony is simple history; they haven’t made a giant mess of every MMO they’ve previously touched. Microsoft now has a reputation in the industry. They aren't completely out of the fight; Mabinogi may be making its way to the Xbox 360, Huxley is still in-development, and Age of Conan may one day see release on a Microsoft console.
All of these plans, though, have been in the works for some time. There's a distinct feeling that Microsoft just isn't taking these initiatives seriously. Not surprising, given what’s happened in the past.
Without a big shakeup, I don’t see MMOs taking the world by storm on any platform this year or even in 2009. That said, some day there will be a big console MMO.
One of these days we’re going to see a persistent online game world crawl to the top of the charts and take on the big boys with a control pad. I’m laying odds right now that Sony’s going to have the lock on that game.