Series Info...Biting The Hand #36:

Online Console-ation Revisited

by Jessica Mulligan
October 15, 2002

And so we continue from last column, looking at two pieces about console online gaming I wrote two years ago and seeing how they match up with the current reality. Below is the second column and, after that, a look at what is actually happening.

Online Console-ation

Volume Nine, Issue 18
First Published: July 27, 2000

Last week, we had a homey little chat about the possibilities of console gaming using the Internet and online services. For those who haven’t read last week’s column, you’ll want to take a quick gander before continuing here. Go ahead, we’ll wait for you.

OK, on with the show. At the close of last week’s column I wrote:

The second critical issue is; will the Internet gaming experience be good enough to promote console game play? In other words, is the current and planned Internet technology mature enough to make console gaming a good enough experience that people will actually do it?

I highly doubt it.

The current and future state of both the backend Internet technology and Internet game design and multiplayer console game peculiarities is key here. Let’s look at some of the critical issues:

(NOTE: For purposes of this article, I am assuming that most online gaming for consoles is going to be a pay-for-play proposition, in some form other, such as paying for the overall net connection service. Considering recent actions and comments from console company execs, such as Square announcing that Final Fantasy XI Online will cost 1500 yen ($15 US) a month when launched, this is probably going to be the case for most online console gaming. Offering free online play is a totally separate market; it may sell some extra SKUs, but you have to be really good developer to get away with it. To date, only Blizzard has had noteworthy success at it in the PC market.

We’re also not going to get into mass-market classic games, such as poker, bingo, etc. or worry about services such as cheats, hints, reviews and the like. Again, a totally different market; we’re talking gaming in this column.)

Reaction Times and Latency: From issuing a command on the controller to seeing the reaction on the screen, console gamers are used to experiencing consistent split-second reaction times. By split-second, we’re talking on the close order of 60 milliseconds. Loosely translated, that comes out to less than 1/10th of a second. Or, in layman’s terms, “really damned fast.” That’s why they are called twitch games.

Which makes the Internet a bad bet for online versions of twitch games, what with the Internet being as split-second and consistent as your average Presidential candidate. Estimates of average Internet latency – the time it takes the average piece of data to go from point A to point B - vary from 125 milliseconds to over 500 milliseconds. Even worse, the latency is not consistent. It is not unusual to have a data packet stall for several seconds during a trip, giving rise to the Web’s cynical nickname, the World Wide Wait. Can you imagine trying to duel another human in the average boxing or martial arts arena game and having to wait a second or so for a punch or kick to update on the screen?

(Say, that gives me a game idea… The Six Million Dollar Man: Combat Arena! The marketing will be easy: “Heart-pounding, flesh-ripping combat so fast, it’ll look slow!” I already have the sequel planned: The Bionic Woman : PMS (Permanently Motion-Slowed) Warrior.)

OK, so the Internet sucks now, but how about in the future? I mean, all those pundits and experts are telling us that broadband will solve these critical issues for us Real Soon Now. Suffice it say that, without going into a thousand- word rant that questions their sanity, they are wrong. Latency rates and inconsistency are getting worse, no matter how backbone providers fudge the figures to show ‘improvements.’ Broadband makes the problem worse, not better; ever more data continues to flow over increasingly clogged lines. We just can’t lay fiber fast enough, only about 12.5% of what we need each year just to stay even. It’s going to be this way for a long time, maybe 15 years or more.

What does it all mean? With inconsistent latency being a critical issue, publishers are going to have a hard time charging for online console games designed for split second reactions. Which means they’ll probably end up giving away online play for free for most games, just as all Mpath, Pogo nee’ TEN and the Zone had to for the PC twitch games.

Design and Controllers: Console controllers rather mandate that these games be designed with 2 to 4 player games in mind. The biggest hits in the online world right now are the 8-32 player Retail Hybrids such as Quake III, Tribes and Unreal Tournament and the massively multiplayer, persistent world games, such as EverQuest and Ultima Online. The 2 to 4 player games - and most 8-32 player games, for that matter - just don’t draw a long-term audience.

This would seem to argue that you’d want to give away the 2-4 player online gaming for free as a loss leader in hopes of selling some extra units, unless you can offer some other bennies and perqs that make paying a monthly fee worthwhile. The only bennie worth anything to an online gamer is some persistence of the character, like racking up permanent win-loss scores and gaining power and attributes thereby.

That’s where the game design comes in and why most online console games are going to fail hideously, especially in the first two or three years online console gaming. Not only are the console developers going to have to try to design with the Internet’s less-than-wonderful latency in mind, something they’ve never had to do before and is completely antithetical to their industry, they can no longer write game design documents using a template that starts with the line “This is a twitch combat/sports/fantasy battle/arena duel/whatever style of game (please pick only one) that will appeal to the male teen market.” I rather suspect that the only change to that template at some companies will be to delete the word “twitch,” which pretty much guarantees some spectacular, expensive failures.

Remember, too, that video games and online games aren’t just different platforms; they are also different markets with different needs. Online gamers expect a whole lot more for their money and are quite vocal when they feel they aren’t getting it. Actually developing the game is only part of the puzzle; most of the work happens after the game is shipped. We’ve talked about the whole “not just a product, but also a service” thing before. Why do I believe it will be ignored here as it most often is in the PC online market?

What this all really boils down to, then, is that unless the console publishers understand upfront that this takes more than just porting video console games to an online platform, they are in for a rough ride and we’re going to see some online console games that would appeal only to the Devil’s ugly sister.

On the other hand, if the publishers do realize it upfront, then they’ll save themselves tens of millions of dollars and we’ll see some really interesting online console games in the next year or two.

Oh, yeah, that’ll happen.

OK, so where are now, slightly over two years later?

Latency: As far as Internet technology is concerned, things have progressed pretty much as I expected they would. The Internet still features inconsistent latency at a level that makes twitch gaming problematic. It is likely to get worse before it gets better: Broadband access now makes up between 15 and 21% of all US homes, but uses about 50% of online minutes (see the Forbes article). At that usage rate, it isn’t going to take many more broadband connections to eat up the available bandwidth and return us to the bad old days of the Internet boom, when lag times caused pundits to brand the Web as the World Wide Wait.

Sony is solving this issue for Playstation 2 online games by ignoring it and making it the problem of publishers and developers to solve. That means it won’t be solved and likely won’t be ameliorated, as those worthies will set up the cheapest bandwidth deal they can afford as individual entities. That means each separate offering to players will be, well, separate; there will be no consistency to the inconsistency of the latency, if you will.

Microsoft is going a smarter route, in my opinion. They will be an aggregator and portal; developers of Xbox online games won’t need to cut their own deals for bandwidth, billing and account management services, et al. Microsoft will take the majority of the money, of course, but it will also take away from developers some significant and costly problems, so the trade-off is likely to be a wash and quite attractive to developers, especially small, innovative houses that can’t afford to offer these services themselves. One thing we all ought to have learned in the online service industry is that aggregation under a standard connection method and interface feature set works better than forcing people to learn a number of them, even if the standard isn’t particularly full-featured or the best technology available. This is one reason AOL has 34 million subscribers and why the Web has a standards committee. There will still be home-grown efforts and they provide some needed innovation, but the largest base of subscribers will flock over time to an aggregation of products that doesn’t make them learn the ropes again just to get access to each new product.

On top of that, MS recently cut a deal with broadband provider Level 3 Communications to provide the broadband infrastructure, co-location facilities, Internet access and a private network for Xbox Live in the US and Europe. What that means, potentially, is better and more consistent performance for players who log in through Level 3 or through ISPs that create peering arrangements with Level 3. For players who have to route through a number of hops to get to a Level 3 router, latency will still be problematic. Overall, though, MS’s scheme has a better chance of showing better and more consistent performance for more players. Note that Level 3 is also recently rumored to be in buyout talks with Genuity, one of the top four Internet backbone providers. If that happens, millions of US Internet users and thousands of ISPs, including AOL, will have direct routing arrangements with the main provider for Xbox Live. Interestinger and interestinger…

Design and Controllers: In terms of controllers, this is where I failed, two years ago, to recognize that some people were really thinking about the issue. Again, Microsoft comes up with a good answer by enabling voice chat in Xbox games, providing the API and standards, requiring use of those standards in all Xbox Live games, and shipping a microphone with the Xbox Live sign-up kit. This makes it very simple for developers to include and gives the players one standard across all Xbox Live games to deal with; very convenient and almost fiendishly clever.

It is a simple and elegant answer: remove some of the strain from the players and enhance community by using voice chat, leaving the hands free for the tasks of gaming. I can’t believe I missed it in these two columns, because I had previously discussed it elsewhere in regards to PC online gaming. I’m jealous and my overblown ego is bruised.

In terms of design; well, the jury is still out until we see what changes are made in the online versions of console games. If the effort is aimed at simply providing multiple sessions of 2 to 4 player games, I can’t see why people would pay much for the services. You can still get a better experience playing at home with your friends, even at a relatively low cost of $49 for the first year of Xbox Live and whatever the multiple developers and providers of PS2 online games plan to charge on a per game basis.

On the other hand, if developers start expanding the offerings with higher numbers of players per session, more latency-tolerant designs (i.e. less twitch-based) and adding some elements of persistence beyond simple scoring ladders, players are more likely to want to spend money on the games. Under this scenario, real-strategy games, turn-based games and role-playing games are likely to do much better than simple shooters, which are so dependant on consistent, low latency rates.

I think the real key will be how well truly persistent offerings, such as massive-multiplayer games, can be made to work in this environment. Most of the money from online gaming right now comes from subscription-based RPGs; if that can be translated to the console world, too, online RPGs could provide the main revenue stream that allows the non-persistent, session-based games to experiment until they find a winning solution. With voice chat to provide the community connection, it can be done, although I expect the RPGs will have to be simpler in command structure to account for game controllers versus the versatility of the keyboard.

On the other, voice command capability (versus simple voice chatting) has the potential to replace the keyboard altogether and Sony and Microsoft, as well as a couple independent software houses, are working on making that work well. The capability actually exists today, but there are a number of niggling problems to be solved. It’ll happen, but nobody is sure when. It could be tomorrow or five years from now.

So overall, the scorecard for these two columns is: C+. Some issues are still in the ‘In’ box and I made some good calls, but missed a couple of important ones, mainly that Microsoft learned some of the lessons that needed to be learned and is trying to solve them with Xbox Live, especially the community and control issues via voice chat. Sony, on the other hand, is taking the easy way out for now and leaving the issues to the developers to solve, which is likely to result in a number of schemes, resulting in no standards and adding a layer of impedance to player acceptance.

At this point, disregarding overall potential revenues and subscriber numbers, Xbox Live looks like the console online gaming winner over the next three to five years. Unless Sony gets it act together and creates some standards and offers some services to developers that relieve them of the pressure and expense of finding their own providers, doing their own billing and account maintenance, customer service, et al; if that happens, all bets are off.

Recent Discussions on Biting the Hand:

jump new