Lord of the Rings Online maker Turbine has revealed the thinking behind its forthcoming console MMO, saying that PS3 and Xbox 360 offer a "superior MMO platform" with an untapped market worth an estimated $2.3 billion.
In his presentation at GDC Austin, VP of product development Craig Alexander revealed that Turbine has targeted PlayStation 3 as the lead platform for its console endeavours, saying that while the Xbox 360 is the more tempting and easy-to-work-with format, the PS3 presents a number of technical challenges that once overcome result in better code for all platforms.
The MMO maker hasn't really told us anything we don't already know in this respect - citing the slower access times on the Blu-ray drive as an issue, as well as the PS3's split memory pool and its tricky performance monitoring and debugging tools. In short, in common with many developers, Turbine said that migrating code from PS3 to Xbox 360 is far less challenging than doing things the other way around.
Perhaps more surprising is just how committed the company is to bringing its next MMO project to console. While many believe that the PC is the natural home to the genre, Turbine disagrees. Alexander mentioned that the same arguments were made about in-depth sports sims and the FPS genre, but now market leaders like Madden and Call of Duty all have far larger installed bases of players on the consoles.
Alexander said that the evolution of the PC games market is being mirrored on console, and it is only a matter of time before the MMO development scene shifts to PS3 and Xbox 360.
Lending weight to his argument, Alexander reeled off a number of RPG-related facts: namely that Mass Effect, Fable II and Fallout 3 have all sold in excess of three million units, and that, at launch, Oblivion sold to over 50 per cent of the Xbox 360 installed base. In Turbine's view, the appetite for adventuring is there on console, and MMOs are the last piece of the puzzle.
While the notion of "pay to play" subscriptions may introduce unwelcome friction for the gamer, Alexander offered that the platform holders have systems in place to make this element as easy to work with as possible, and said that over 50 per cent of Xbox 360 owners pay an annual $50 subscription - so the precedent and the payment mechanisms are already in place.
The LOTRO maker also revealed some of the philosophy behind its new forthcoming console game, suggesting that PC ports to console don't work, and need to built from the ground up for the platform. This in itself presents a number of challenges. First of all, the tech behind the game requires a 10-year lifespan - it needs to be ultra-scalable to accommodate the creation of additional content. Alexander put a $20 million price-tag on the development of the core tech, before even a penny has been spent on the actual game itself.
Furthering his "ports don't work" philosophy, he also said that "grinding" is a no-no for console gamers, again suggesting that the future of MMOs is very, very different to the present. In explaining his "superior MMO platform" comment, Alexander mentioned that consoles are designed to be more accessible and playable, that they're more social, that the gaming budgets are higher and that the competition is stiffer.
But for MMO game-makers like Turbine, he said, the potential prize simply can't be ignored. The company's revenue estimates for 2011 suggest that the PC MMO market will be worth $2 billion, but it will be an ultra-competitive, risky environment. Console on the other hand will still be fresh, with far fewer competing games on the market and an estimated $2.3 billion of revenue up for grabs.
So, what can we expect from Turbine's first console MMO if it's not a port of one of their existing offerings? Alexander suggested an interesting formula for success: take your favourite console game, add your best MMO features, sprinkle with innovation, invest tons of money, beta-test with thousands and "stay as flexible, agile and nimble as possible, for as long as possible".