Will Console Online Gaming Survive?

Recently we received a press release from Sony announcing that Final Fantasy XI, their upcoming online extravaganza, will be available next March (2004). It'll only be available exclusively with an upcoming Playstation 2 hard drive, making the Playstation 2 the second console with a hard drive, so that it more resembles a PC. The Playstation 2 already has networking capability, as does the Xbox, but one has to wonder about the viability of online console gaming.

Getting back on the topic of Final Fantasy XI, it looks as if this online-only game might help usher in massively multiplayer gaming on consoles. While we've seen a few attempts at this, Final Fantasy XI looks to be the first one to jump in head first. According to the press release:

FINAL FANTASY XI has been designed based on creating communities among players, and gamers can create an alter ego that will exist in the world of "Vana'diel" customizing their characters by race, sex, nation of origin, and numerous other physical traits.  In FINAL FANTASY XI, gamers will become immersed in an expansive, original storyline as they go on missions and build their character's skills and attributes, either alone or with other members of the community, ultimately creating the history of Vana'diel.

The world of Vana'diel is made up of vast, never-ending environments with more than 100 areas to explore including mountains, forests, ice plains, deserts, oceans, rivers, castles and dungeons. Incorporating time and climate changes, Vana'diel is a truly persistent world, composed of three unique nations:  the Republic of Bastok, known for Industry and Might; The Kingdom of San d'Oria, called "A City Within A Fortress"; and the Federation of Windurst, founded on "The Fruits of Knowledge."  These nations enjoyed a friendly relationship on the surface; however, the territorial expansion is a constant desire for all of the nation's leaders, and players must choose one of these nations as their home.  Once players start their adventure in a rather civilized capital city, they may congregate, chat and do battle with the forces of evil, creating Vana'diel's history through various interactions.

This definitely sounds like a step in the right direction in terms of giving the players a world to enjoy, but will it work? While console gaming online does hold a lot of promises, there are a few pitfalls I see in granting it the mass acceptance that online PC gaming has enjoyed. The first I see is price, in terms of equipment and subscription prices.

Getting Final Fantasy XI will require you purchase the Playstation 2 Hard Disk Drive, which will run around $100. You'll also need an internet connection in your home, as well as a keyboard to type messages and what not. Then there's the monthly subscription fee, which will be $12.95. This adds up to a good chunk of change, one that only die-hard fans might be willing to pay. Also, what if an online game isn't part of a massively successful franchise? Will it have the same chance of survival or not?

This comes to my next point. While a Final Fantasy game will probably do well due to the popularity of the series, will this preclude other, possibly less successful franchises as well? Will we only see online games based on popular franchises such as Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, or Resident Evil? This result is directly tied into the first point, the cost. If enough people purchase the equipment, there might very well be a large enough audience for something new and different, but if not, the potential audience poll will be greatly reduced.

Overall, I'm hoping that Final Fantasy XI will be incredibly successful, and given Square/Enix's record in making excellent games, and Sony's record at making successful online games (Everquest, their PC online game, still has more subscribers than many other online games combined), all signs point to a successful game. If the game indeed does well, it will hopefully usher in several other online games, creating whole new communities of players. I personally feel that online gaming is the future of gaming, and if it's successful both on the PC and on the various consoles, it can only be good for us all in the long run.

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