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I wasn't prepared for Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn on PS4 to look as awesome as it does. That's because my last memory of a console MMO was when I balked at an ad for EverQuest Online Adventures, the PlayStation 2 port of the 1999 PC MMO that was already showing its age in 2003. Nothing about the concept made sense to me: the graphics were downgraded, the controller couldn't function like a mouse and keyboard, and rigging your PS2 with a modem connection seemed like a hassle. MMOs on consoles have historically had a rough go of things, failing to impress the existing PC audience and not grabbing the attention of gamers unfamiliar with the genre. But with Final Fantasy 14: A Realm Reborn out now on PS4, The Elder Scrolls Online on the horizon for PS4 and Xbox One, and Destiny in the works, this might just be the console generation that sells console MMOs to the masses.
Part of my reasoning for this being the turning point is branding. Final Fantasy and Elder Scrolls are instantly recognizable franchises, regardless of what genres you favor. Even if you aren't familiar with the inner workings of MMOs, the iconic aesthetics and worlds that these games offer could entice series fans into trying out the whole massively multiplayer thing. Most MMOs from previous console generations had to contend with incredibly niche or new IPs, which made them a much tougher sell to the unfamiliar. You either played games like Phantasy Star Universe, Free Realms, Dust 514, and DC Universe Online, or you likely had no idea they existed. Destiny is an exception, seeing how Bungie built quite the reputation for itself with the Halo franchise.
The new breed of console MMOs have also been built from the ground up with consoles in mind. Instead of trying to shoehorn existing UIs or mouse-and-keyboard combat onto a TV, developers seem acutely aware of how they can tune their designs for controllers without detracting from the PC gamer's experience. TESO and FF14 both do an excellent job of consolidating your skill set, which bypasses the dozens-upon-dozens-of-hotkeys mess that most World of Warcraft HUDs resemble. And with the smoother movement and camera controls afforded by a joystick, some players may actually prefer to play with a controller. FF14: ARR director Naoki Yoshida has stated that "In Japan, many players play on the console; there isn’t the same culture around the PC. In terms of America, the percentage is 50-50, an even split between PS3 and PC."
Until recently, developers had to jump through hoops if they wanted to release constant patches--the primary method for introducing new content and refining game balance in any MMO. It was only last year that Microsoft stopped charging developers for patches, and Sony has shown a commitment to making life easier for developers on the PS4. Add in the advent of free-to-play models in console games, and updating a console MMO should be a much easier affair on the latest hardware.
And with next-gen consoles, hardware incongruity is no longer an issue. The PC has (and likely always will be) the leading platform for graphical power, so MMOs ports had to make alterations--textures, draw distance, on-screen character count, etc.--to tailor the visuals to hardware that was four or five years old. But since the Xbox One and PS4 are (relatively) brand-spankin' new, they've got to power to match the average gaming PC's graphical output. Because online functionality is integral to getting the most out of your next-gen console, getting online is no longer a hassle. Playing on a console does exclude you from a host of user-made add-ons, but most modern MMOs compensate with incredibly malleable and customizable UIs.
No longer does a console MMO have to be the snot-nosed little brother of its PC counterpart. Call me an optimist if you must, but games like FF14: ARR, TESO, and Destiny all show signs of putting PC and console gamers on equal footing, instead of treating couch-bound customers like an afterthought. In 2003, I rolled my eyes at EverQuest Online Adventures. In 2014, I think I might actually prefer The Elder Scrolls Online with a controller.
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