Part 2 of an Interview with Gavin Longhurst of BigWorld Technology
Gavin Longhurst is the Director of Business Development for BigWorld Technology, the Australian-based creators of BigWorld, a middleware platform billed as the complete MMOG solution. Gavin put it more succinctly: ”If you want to launch an MMOG quickly, we’re it,” he explained, smiling. Certainly no other complete MMO design suite is as mature as BigWorld, but the only MMO currently released that uses this platform, Dark & Light, wasn’t exactly a humdinger by most reviewer’s standards. In fairness to BigWorld, Farlan Entertainment’s project was certainly huge, but suffered from that nasty disconnect that affects so many young developers – over-promising and under-delivering – with a few billing snafus thrown in for good measure.
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Though Dark & Light hinted at what BigWorld is capable of, I was anxious to hear Gavin’s pitch. What could BigWorld truly offer that another rival solution could not? “It’s all working,” Gavin explained, “Server, graphics, content development, it’s all working.” It was a seeming understatement. Yet if “great tools make great games” is more than just an industry cliché, we can assume that the converse is also true. A design toolset where everything just plain works would get things started on the right foot, to say the least.
Karen Hertzberg did a wonderful job describing Gavin’s explanation of the state of BigWorld as a design tool in this OGDC ‘07 article. My questions for Gavin ranged mostly on the sweeping challenges associated with porting an MMO to a console. The benefits of games development on a console are manifold, with greater market reach being the greatest advantage. But that consoles offer another advantage to developers. “The promise of consoles is that you’re developing for a consistent design set,” Gavin explained, eliminating much of the Q&A guesswork associated with obsolete hardware drivers and system spec mismatches.
Almost without exception, MMOs are iterative – they require regular patching, meaning the gaming platform must have internet connectivity and fast-access data storage. Some might remember that the two console MMO pioneers, Final Fantasy XI (for the PlayStation 2) and Phantasy Star Universe (for the Xbox) both required platform-integrated hard drives. Sony went as far as to bundle FFXI with a 2nd generation PlayStation 2 (with onboard data storage) to satisfy the requirement. I asked whether Gavin believed that the advent of hard drives was enough to push MMO development on consoles. “I used to believe that,” Gavin explained, “but now, looking back, the culture wasn’t there.” He related that playing an MMO on a PC with a mouse and keyboard is a intrinsically different gaming experience than playing on a console with a controller. MMOs are much more sociable than even the most involved console games, and despite inroads in voicechat, keyboard is still the preferred input method. Even today, no console has made keyboard integration a priority, not to mention that communication over VoIP at a massive scale is sketchy at best.
Balancing a truly cross-platform game (that is, one where PC and console players live on the same happy server) also proves tricky. As an example, Gavin pointed out that circle strafing is faster with a mouse and keyboard than with a controller. To overcome this without simply nerfing the controls, you might give the PC player more lumbering character choices than the console player. Still, balancing control is one piece of the pie that isn’t
Other more general cultural barriers were mentioned: the more sophisticated forms of griefing in MMOs compared to a typical online console game, openness toward online-only (no single-player) content, and a subscription / microtransaction model that’s fairly new ground for console players (though Gavin noted that Xbox Live’s Live Points and the equivalent on other consoles grants other sorts of business models a toehold).
Still, with solid massively multiplayer efforts like Test Drive Unlimited (X360, PS2, PC) just released, and more coming (like Age of Conan later this year), here’s hoping BigWorld can help to tap a market left largely unfazed by World of Warcraft’s rise to popularity.
Thanks to Gavin Longhurst and BigWorld Technologies for talking to us at OGDC 2007!
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