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Zum Geburtstag viel Gluck!
July 1, 2002

For reference, the title of this column is pretty much "Happy Birthday!" in German. Or if you go by a very literal translation, "To the birthday, much happiness." Whose birthday is it? My younger brother's, and since I couldn't think of a column title, I figured, what the hey, you know? After having spent six years in Germany, the language sort of stuck with me. Bits and pieces anyways.

Two editorials by two editors, no less. One of them is by yours truly. Onward.


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This Week's Question: Where do you see the MMO genre going from here?
 
 
Online Gaming's Future

Online gaming. The dawning of a new era, the next big leap for the videogame industry (in its quest to conquer the world). While the heated debate on the next generation consoles definitely caught a lot of attention, it was nothing against the buzz and hype on the one hand, and the sometimes cautious, sometimes bold criticism surrounding online gaming. While practically nobody denies online gaming's importance for the future of gaming as a whole, as well as the industry's survival in a phase of rising costs, there are still lots of question marks looming over this topic.

400,000 subscribers to Sega's Dreamcast online RPG Phantasy Star Online (Version 2) proves that online gaming is not PC exclusive, however the recent launch of Square's ambitious PlayOnline service (along with the release of Final Fantasy XI) also showed how easily big problems can arise, and at a time when PC users around the world have been already fighting their way through the worlds of MMORPGs a la Everquest or Diablo 2 for years. Only at this year's E3, the big three console makers: Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, came forward with concrete plans concerning their future online strategies. Originally, Sony and Microsoft had already planned for mass market product online gaming to commence with this hardware generation. However, already one year ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had to admit that his company overestimated the development of one key requirement for online gaming: broadband internet access. By the year 2005, not even 50% of the audience of 14 to 29 year olds, targeted by both Microsoft and Sony, will have broadband internet access at their disposal. To be sure, 50% would be a nice figure, but nonetheless 50% also means only 50%. So, for better or worse, packaged games are here to stay at least until the end of the current hardware generation, and hence longer than many in the industry have anticipated. And while both Sony and in particular Microsoft could boast dozens of online titles being in development for their consoles, most of the big franchises stay offline for the time being. Nintendo is still highly suspicious of the entire buzz, arguing that online gaming won't be able to reach an acceptable mass penetration any time soon. The newly elected President Iwata made clear, that Big N had no interest in going into the online battle with full force.

The only big Japanese game developer which seems full prepared to jump right into online gaming market in a matter of months is Sega. The company is the only 3rd party publisher which will release online games for all three consoles. Having amassed an impressive amount of experience due to its Dreamcast online games, Sega is easily one, if not two steps ahead of the competition. With Final Fantasy XI or the PS2 version of Sony Online Entertainment's Everquest only due to be released in the US early next year, Phantasy Star Online Episode I and II for GameCube and PSO for Xbox should have little trouble in finding a lot of interested users when they are released this fall. While online sports games developed by Visual Concepts and Yuji Naka's plans regarding the GameCube and Xbox version of PSO have all been revealed months ago, the company is also porting over its online strategy game Hundred Swords to PS2.

The eleventh installment of one of the most heralded and successful franchises in videogame history went online over a month ago. Already prior to the launch, Square announced that Final Fantasy XI will have an offline successor sometime next year. This has very little to do with the various problems that accompanied the launch of PlayOnline and Final Fantasy XI, but rather with economics. Even though Final Fantasy XI's development cost Square "only" 12 million USD (compared to 30 million USD for each PS installment of the series, and between 30 and 40 million USD for FFX) 100,000 subscribers to Final Fantasy XI are obviously less lucrative than a potential three million sold copies of Final Fantasy XII. Apart from FFXI, don't expect a lot of online titles coming out of the Arco Tower. Square CEO and President Yoichi Wada in a recent interview commented on a light-hearted online RPG scheduled for a 2003 release, but declined to give any details. Square's objective with online gaming right now is to gain experience and increase its popularity (otherwise the company could have opted to make, let's say Seiken Densestu Online), and make profit only in a long term. As Yoichi Wada stated, Final Fantasy XI will be around for four to five years. All this obviously didn't prevent the most vocal (one might as well inclined to say polemic) Square critics to denounce FFXI as Square's worst failure next to Final Fantasy The Movie, and this only five weeks after the PlayOnline service's official launch. At least for the time being (the current fiscal year), there will be no more online games, neither on PS2 nor GC.

Square's two partners, Enix and Namco are equally cautious about the entire issue. While Enix has yet to announce an online game for any console, Namco so far only has the successor to its first PS2 RPG Seven, Project Venus and an unspecified Xbox Live game in the works. The developer of Shin Megami Tensei, Atlus, at least has two online titles in development, Shin Megami Tensei Nine for Xbox and another, yet to be announced MMORPG for PlayStation 2.

Among the three console makers, only Sony's in-house development teams are working on an online RPG, namely Arc The Lad Online. Nintendo will most likely let its 3rd party publisher come up with online games for GameCube, just like Microsoft will rely on 3rd parties to fill this void in a similar way. Currently Microsoft leads the bunch, when it comes to the quantity of titles. At the 2002 Summer Xbox Conference, 47 games for Xbox Live were announced, while Sony could show off only 30 at this year's PlayStation Meeting. The (known) number of online games in development for GameCube is much smaller.

Whether those numbers will eventually mean anything remains to be seen. Taking Final Fantasy XI, the PS2's first game to go online as an example would only support the critics, who prefer to stay offline with their consoles. Almost five weeks after the release, Square has sold a mere 100,000 copies, compared to 2.1 million of Final Fantasy X in a similar time frame about one year ago. Only too often, critics and the Square-bashing faction tend to ignore a simple, but important fact: the one to blame for the sluggish sales is SCE rather than Square. Since FFXI requires a broadband unit-equipped PS2, a sufficient supply of this accessory is vital for the game's success, however, ever since the release shortages forced Square to temporarily hold the sales of its online game, they can only resume them as new broadband units become available. This leads us to one of the big obstacles of console online gaming in this hardware generation: By most reliable projections, SCE will command 50%+x of the entire market with worldwide PlayStation 2 sales reaching the 50 million plateau by the end of the current fiscal year in March 2003 (for reference, Nintendo aims to achieve the same number by 2005). Playing online games on your PS2 requires you to purchase at least an ethernet controller and may be even a $199 USD harddisk drive (at this point, it is still uncertain whether the drive will eventually be released in the US at all. If so, don't expect to see it anytime this year). Microsoft's built-in ethernet controller and harddisk is a much better (and cheaper) alternative, simply because console players never liked to buy add-ons for their favorite toys. Just ask Sega. The biggest obstacle for Microsoft is Xbox's installed hardware base, which is growing as expected in the US, but has not even reached 250,000 units in Japan since the console's February 22nd launch. Even if the company succeeds in winning undecided users over with its built-in features in the US, it is unlikely that the majority of Japanese customers will play online games on a console whose offline games have apparently close to no appeal to them. Think Sega Dreamcast in black. All in all, the console online gaming market still has a long way to go. Sure, the question concerning online gaming is not if, but when it will become a relevant factor. Still a lot of question marks remain and it is anything but clear what kind of impact online gaming will make on the current generation of consoles. The bright future, which analysts and media alike tend to predict, may as well arrive only in 2005 when the next generation of hardware will be launched.

- Chris Winkler

Parn:
Broadband is nice, but one thing that serves as a reason for online gaming not getting the attention it could get on console systems, is third party developers' reluctance to support what the majority use... dial-up internet connections.

Limiting people's options always limits the potential base of customers. If you make your game broadband-only, you cut out a large chunk of the population. If Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast had released supporting only broadband, it wouldn't have sold even close to what it did. PC online games have worked fine on dial-up for years, so why Square chose to not support broadband can only make the average online gamer wonder "what the hell?"
 
In Defense of RPGFan

Lately it seems that a handful of people think RPGFan as a whole is anti-Xbox.

Get over it.

Yes, there are a few people on the site have negative feelings toward Microsoft. Most of them (read: two people) also happen to be Macintosh users, so that makes them biased to begin with, but also a minority on the staff. You know what though? They don't report any Xbox news. They also happen to be interested in Panzer Dragoon Orta and will be getting a Xbox anyways. Go figure.

Microsoft has generated an interesting fanbase with the release of their first console. I can't help but be amazed at the number of people that immediately cry "bias" if someone states the slightest negative comment toward the system. The first thing that comes to mind is fellow editer Stephen Harris' (Tenchi-no-Ryu) Morrowind E3 impressions. For some reason, a few people took his statements in regard to the Xbox version's graphics being inferior to the PC version (which they ARE) as Xbox bashing. News flash: the truth sometimes hurts, but it's the truth nonetheless. I happen to /OWN/ Morrowind Xbox, so for a moment, I'd like to go through Stephen's impressions and verify each of the statements. For those who missed the article, point your browser to http://www.rpgfan.com/news/2002/1558.html.

First off Stephen says, "Alas, the in-depth Construction Set that shipped with the PC version, an impressive feature that allowed the player to change various aspects of the game world, will be absent from the X-Box release. Bethesda stated that it was fundamentally impossible to create such a powerful editing tool for any X-Box game and that Microsoft is extremely protective of the X-box’s HDD." Now, is this true? As the owner of the Xbox game, it most certainly is true. I see no construction set with the Xbox release.

The next piece of info in the article says, "Even though The Elderscrolls III: Morrowind utilizes the X-Box hard drive, the game suffers from long initialization times as the data is streamed to disc." Is this true as well? It most certainly is. The game has brief load times as you go from area to area, but to initialize the game anytime you load a saved game (including reloading after dying, in which case it has to reinitialize everything again), it takes over 30 seconds as it transfers data to and from the hard drive. I've literally timed it.

The segment though that probably is considered an outrage by a few fanboys, is the dislike of the Xbox edition's visuals compared to the PC edition starting with, "Severe aliasing was present on both the backgrounds and the character models in addition to extremely grainy visuals." Is this true? Yes it is, and if you honestly can sit here and tell me otherwise, you apparently aren't playing Morrowind on Xbox, and are just someone raving about a game on a system you don't even own. Go purchase the game and see for yourself. If you do have the game and still think there isn't a problem, better go turn on Halo and stare at the screen a bit longer.

The graphics criticism continues with, "The background pop-up was another annoyance, though the attempt to mask the limitations of the hardware through fog was almost laughable." Is this true? Definitely! The viewing distance is poor for a system that supposedly can push 125 million polygons on screen. This boils down to either the Xbox being weaker than Microsoft claims, or programming issues on Bethesda's part. In a recent article at Gamespot (linked here, though unsure if it's only for members of Gamespot Complete), Bethesda clearly states that they had trouble trying to make a game optimized for 256 megs of RAM fit in the Xbox's 64 megs of RAM, so I'd bet money on the programming issues. Compare the viewing distance of Morrowind on Xbox with Halo. The difference is clear. Morrowind's viewing distance is pretty bad on Xbox.

This all finishes off with, "While the PC version was notorious for haphazard frame rates and polygon clipping/tearing, the X-Box version was considerably more cohesive, even with animation in the ballpark of 14fps." While I don't have the PC version to compare, I can most certainly verify the low framerate, and if those that have the PC edition say that the Xbox version has a lower framerate, I believe them. The framerate IS hurting, particularly in some of the more graphically detailed areas. If you're playing Morrowind Xbox and can't see a lower framerate than what's standard in a lot of console games (30 FPS minimum), then you need your eyes checked. Just play Morrowind awhile, then switch off to a game with a much higher framerate (like Jet Set Radio Future). The difference in speed will be blatantly noticable.

Stephen's Morrowind Xbox impressions apparently were just the start of RPGFan's sudden "Xbox hating rampage." One of the news stories from just last month regarding a title called Tenerezza revealed that the Xbox release was put on indefinite hold, and instead a PC edition would be released. It's linked right here: http://www.rpgfan.com/news/2002/1584.html. Certain individuals apparently believed that we as a site are a bunch of liars, which was quite interesting since other also-reputable sites reported this same story.

My only thoughts are, WHY would we lie about anything? Honestly, where did this idea that RPGFan is anti-Xbox come from? I would have thought Jayde's extensive editorial from back in September last year would have meant something (look here), perhaps even implying that we were biased in FAVOR of Xbox. Hell, I devoted the opening paragraph of another editorials column to 'Birthday Cake', a song featured in Jet Set Radio Future, a game on the Xbox.

If RPGFan's news coverage is lacking, fine. If you think our media is lacking, fantastic. If you think there are ways to improve the site, alright. If you think I'm a mouthy bastard and need to calm down, great. Feel free to let us (or me) know what we can do to make it all better. But telling us we have biased coverage is insane; we cover some of the most obscure games around, and have a staff of editors with a wide range of tastes. The only bias presented on the site is on our message boards, individual game reviews (which reflect the person's opinion, not the site), and columns such as this one. Our news tries to be as objective as possible.

In short, if you think RPGFan is anti-Xbox, you're an idiot.

- Jason "Parn" Walton



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