Wiretap: Online Console Gaming

 Ellie needs him ... but do we?
What brave new world that hath such people in't?

   At Spaceworld 2000, Nintendo seemed invincible. A new, high-performance console, the best handheld on the market, a slew of new and exciting franchise updates; they seemed to have it all. But there was one hole in the armor that not many noticed. The Gamecube modem and future broadband adapter were both intriguing, but when asked how they intended to implement an online component into games, they openly admitted that, as yet, there was no plan besides the broad intention to "optimize gameplay."

   Though SegaNet was promised as going live along with the Dreamcast in pre-release promotional material, it will finally see release this week--one year after intended. Worse than the delay is the lack of games that support the network. Every conversion of a Japanese game that included netplay features--even those as basic as in Street Fighter III: Second Impact, which only used the Internet for ranking purposes--removed all online components, because SegaNet wasn't ready yet. But soon SegaNet will be ready, without much to show for it. Sega's own marketing speaks for itself: read the online hoopla at Sega.net and just try to find mention of a single specific game.

   Those of you following the news at E3 or TGS undoubtedly noticed that Square was heavily pushing their new PlayOnline network. In lieu of any Sony-driven attempts to produce, support, or market modems and broadband adapters, Square is picking up the online slack for the PlayStation 2. They've got big plans, including the requisite online marketing, chat features, and Internet-ready games. But what the saga of Turo and Ellie didn't tell you was that the construction of this network has set them back to such an extent that Square must maintain 3.5 million subscribers per month just to break even. This, when their primary market of Japan is a country where local phone rates are still by the minute rather than the month, and no large-scale online game a la Final Fantasy XI has ever been tested. Meanwhile, in America, we may see the rollout of a broadband network sometime in early 2002; it's uncertain if Sony is even bothering to make up a strategy as they go along.

   Why is every major console manufacturer courting online components at the risk of failure? Why go out on such a limb to provide networked gameplay? Why is "Internet-ready" suddenly the most crucial buzzword in any system's marketing? The real tragedy in the above three tales of woe is this: no one knows.

   One possibility could be that the PC gaming model has started to seep into the minds of console developers. In that world, a game without online components is not a game. System Shock 2 and Thief II were tremendous single-player experiences; they were also tremendous sales letdowns. The single-player adventure game is also all but dead--Grim Fandango and Monkey Island III failed dismally, while The Longest Journey can't even find a U.S. publisher despite massive critical acclaim. Meanwhile, Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament, and Everquest, all games built solely around online play, were burning up the charts. This would certainly seem to be Sega's thinking, at least, since the marquee title for SegaNet's launch was a Dreamcast version of Quake III Arena.

   PC online gaming works for several reasons. The mouse-and-keyboard scheme lends itself to chatting during a game, and PC online games are built around the same Internet protocols that have been in place for decades. It has its problems, but on the whole it works rather well. It cannot, however, be adapted to consoles for a few critical reasons.

   First, that no console port of a big-name PC title has ever done that well. Though one of the Dreamcast's strengths is supposed to be the easy conversion of PC titles, early experiments in this vein such as Slave Zero were disappointments. Second, "burning up the charts" means something different for PC games than console titles. A roaring success for PC developers is 100,000 copies sold; where a console game stands out when it breaks 1 million. Taken together, these two facts may mean that Sega is seriously overestimating the audience that online PC ports will reach.

   The other problem with PC thinking is that the PC platform has an advantage no console has, or ever will have: longevity. This has not, until now, been a real problem with consoles. There is nothing stopping me from picking up my NES and popping in the original Dragon Warrior. But when the Dreamcast dies, whether that happens sooner or later, there will be nothing in particular compelling Sega to maintain support for older online games. Online console games are useless without the network infrastructure in place, and the history of console cycles suggests that these network infrastructures will not be viable for more than about five years.

   Another possibility is that developers are simply misinterpreting the data. An IDSA poll in mid-1999, cited by Sega in some press materials touting SegaNet, revealed that "55.4% of console gamers ... stated that the ability to play games with multiple users is very important." Note carefully two things, though: first, the percentage, and second, the wording. While 55.4% of gamers may have said this, note that this figure is only a little bit over half, which is not really an acceptable split on which to base major online campaigns. The important point here is the actual question at hand. 55.4% of console gamers stated that playing with multiple users is very important, but no mention is made of online gaming in any way.

   It's not only possible, it's in fact very likely that when console gamers talk about "playing games with multiple users," they mean games like Goldeneye 007, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Mario Party, and scores of other sports and puzzle games. Not a single one of which, as yet, has had online capabilities. They succeed on the strength of playing the game with other human opponents, whom you can talk trash to, laugh at, and in other ways physically interact with; while online games offer only a less intimate and frequently anonymous form of this interaction.

   Nowhere does one get the impression that all of these struggles to establish console gaming networks are based on actual fan requests. In fact, quite the reverse is true: many console gamers are actually dismayed that their favorite titles taking an online direction. When fans speak positively of Final Fantasy XI, for instance, it is with guarded optimism: "I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt before I write it off." Others are much less positive: "Final Fantasy XI sounds like it may abandon everything that made the series worthwhile, especially the involving stories, just to cash in on the Fad of the Week. It should be a side-story experiment if it uses the FF name at all." Another summed it up with, "I think what's kept me buying Square games all this time is that generally they have an excellent story. When Final Fantasy goes online, it becomes a mass of morons hacking each other up and trying to save up gold and experience."

   And on the subject of RPGs going online, there's also Sega's Phantasy Star Online. Says a longtime fan: "My take on PSO is, it will be really good for what it is, but what it is is not what I really wanted." The sentiment seems to be common among fans of the series, who say things like "PSO feels far removed from the series I've come to know and love," and "It's not really Phantasy Star and the character designs are fruitacular."

   There's another problem with player communication in online console games. None of these systems ship with keyboards, and mass-market retailers like Wal-Mart or Sears don't stock the keyboard accessories that do exist. I've already mentioned the trivial level of communication found in online games, and it's even more trivial when you consider the methods of communication available to online console gamers. As already seen in games like ChuChu Rocket, online console gamers in practice can only communicate using a few short, pre-set macros. These interactions are hamstrung further by the pragmatic necessities of design: in an RPG like Phantasy Star Online, to work successfully with other players, you get an icon-based menu system to request an item trade, to ask for assitance, and so on. The developers can fit in just enough communication to get the job done, no more, no less. Without intraparty communication or spontaneous reaction to game events, it's difficult to tell whether you're actually playing with other humans or just computer AI.

   Even assuming console keyboards were freely available and plentiful, there's still another roadblock impeding true communication in online games. In practice, many won't even bother with the extra peripheral to forego the tedium of constantly putting the control pad down, typing something on the keyboard, and picking the controls back up. The only way to circumvent this would be to go the PC path and integrate the game controls into the keyboard--but this "solution" strikes me as the least desirable thing that could happen to console games. One of their hallmarks is the simplicity of design and play possible with a control pad. If online console games with a keyboard and mouse succeed in becoming the dominant paradigm, they may as well not be console games at all. (In fact, it doesn't even make sense for them to be console games. If developers intend to produce games that absolutely require a keyboard and mouse to play effectively, why develop for a system where you have the slightest chance of splitting the userbase?)

   In the early 1980s, Coca-Cola decided its buyers wanted a change and poured gobs of money into the development, production, and advertising of the next big thing: New Coke. What they didn't consider is that nobody actually wanted what they were trying so hard to sell. Only when they stopped trying to unnecessarily tamper with a winning formula did they regain their past success. Nintendo, Sega, and Sony would do well to consider this example, and to stop trying to give console gamers what they don't want.

Column by Nich Maragos, GIA
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