Skyrim is a Bad MMO

Skyrim, of course, is not intended to be an MMO.

That said, as I sailed past 100 hours played and started finally running out of the “named quests,” I started thinking back to when a lot of bloggers were musing on a hypothetical Skyrim Online and how great that would be. As it turns out, there is not much imagination necessary: Skyrim really already emulates a lot of the standard sort of MMO tropes. And, perhaps ironically, some of Skyrim’s other qualities sort of demonstrate why such mechanics generally do not really work in MMOs.

Questing

Quests range from “Talk to this guy,” to “Collect 20 Nirnroot,” to “Kill the Bandit Leader in a nation with an inexplicable 10,000:1 bandit to honest citizen ratio.” While there are no exclamation points over peoples’ heads, each city is so densely packed with quest-givers that your minimap – if such thing existed – would be lit up like a Christmas tree. And just like with every quest in an MMO, you never get a sense that you are actually solving anything. Give the Blacksmith 10 Fire Salts to reheat his forge? He may greet you a little differently, but his “secret technique” results in no higher quality merchandise, no larger gold cap, no discounts.

Sidequests are sidequests, though, right? Well, to an extent. The problem is when there are more sidequests than main quests, or when the main quest is boring. At some point, you give the player enough freedom to hang themselves… and they do.

See, I have completely lost the Skyrim narrative. “What am I doing? Why do I care?” Helping a dude steal a horse is supposed to enrich the game world’s verisimilitude, I guess? If that is the case, it failed. The quests are so disjointed and arbitrary that I end up feeling like a dyslexic, ADD-addled coke-fiend with Tourettes, sputtering along countryside with an ever-increasing laundry list of chores. The situation really makes me appreciate all those otherwise lame zones in WoW, insofar as the quests actually lead somewhere or enriched the background of the zone.

Crafting

I have heard a lot of people lament the state of player crafting in MMOs, but again, Skyrim is a good case-in-point about where strong player crafting can lead to. Basically, I have not upgraded a single piece of gear in the last 40 hours of gameplay. Considering there is no such thing as quest XP, and I have more gold than I could ever possibly spend, the lack of possible gear upgrades essentially boils questing down to its base narrative components. Some hold up, most do not.

Short of the sandbox-esque nuclear option of destroying gear and/or permanent durability loss, I do not see a worthy payout for the costs of strong player crafting. I just completed a long questline to reconstruct a 1,000+ year old amulet whose power started a war and led to it being split into three parts and sealed away; the names of amulet keepers were to be forgotten under the pain of death. After finally reforging it, I held it in my hands and… oh, +30 to Health/Mana/Stamina? I created an amulet with +67 to Health and +40% extra Bow damage nearly 50 hours ago.

/vendor

While some of this can be mitigated in MMOs by making recipes rare, requiring special crafting materials from higher-level content (which is different than normal loot… how?), and so on, strong player crafting still seems to boil down to reducing or eliminating much of the incentive to quest. Perhaps that is indeed the entire point, eh? Moving away from designer quests and into “Spam Trade chat for an hour” player quests? That is fine to do, with the assumption that the game itself is either going full quest-less, or the quests that do exist are so ridiculously fun and exciting that they are intrinsically worth doing.

Pacing

Although this is not a formal review, if I had to sum up all of my problems with Skyrim in a single word, it would be “pacing.” There simply isn’t any. Even if the game revolves around doing what you want, pacing is important. I am level 51 and I can 2-shot dragons with my bow from stealth – the game is essentially over for me. And yet the main questline is not remotely near complete, nevermind the handful of other quests remaining. Yes, “I did this to myself.” If EVE gave every new player a Titan for completing the tutorial, those players would also be “doing it to themselves” for (ab)using it too.

Point being, it is the designers’ jobs to craft a well-paced game. I don’t care how sandbox your design is, I shouldn’t be allowed to break the game for myself. One of the great strengths of the themepark experience is exactly the derided “on rails” component: it will take you X days of Y quests to get Z gear. The bosses you face tomorrow will be stronger than the ones faced today. There will be a quantifiable reason to collect 10 bear asses.

After 100 hours of gameplay, clearly Skyrim is doing some things right. I have never taken more screenshots in my entire life, for example. Despite my character being completely broken, I still treat the world seriously (sneaking around when I could simply kill things straight-up) because it projects seriousness in most every scenario. But instead of making me pine for Skyrim Online, it does the opposite. I miss the strong narratives of Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I hated having to level through Burning Crusade content in WoW, but I hate tracking down 20 Nirnroots more.

Pacing is something to keep in mind when constructing your hypothetical sandbox or Impossible MMO. More options, more things to do, can actually result in less meaningful gameplay. Skyrim deserves its accolades, but it makes for a pretty bad MMO. And the changes necessary for Skyrim to be ported into the MMO world would, in fact, make it resemble nothing like its present state.

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Posted on February 15, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Well said. I am starting to feel the same way about Amalur.

  2. The problem with Skyrim is in combining the various crafting to produce uber weapons. This is the mistake the designers made. If all you had was 100 skill in smithing that Daedric dagger would be good but not better than the one you get from the DB quest line.

    I played the game three times. Once as a 2H warrior, once as the sneaky assassin and once as a clothie mage. The warrior could walk up to anything without fear of dying and in 2-4 power hits kill the mob with my uber damage 2H sword that I made by combining potions and smithing enchants.

    My sneaky assassin could walk up unnoticed and 30x damage with a dagger and kill anything. Or use the bow and kill the mob in 2-4 shots while never being spotted.

    But my mage had problems. See the weapons scaled way beyond the mobs chance to resist. Spells are completely controlled by the game and never get to that point. And cloth just doesn’t hold up to what you can do with the armor.

    So as for ease the designers did make a few mistakes in combining crafting to make uber items. And sneak attacks are OP (they should be much lower on the multipliers). But a mage on hardest difficulty is pretty darn hard.

    In the end I agree that Skyrim would make a poor MMO. But I’ve been saying MMO’s are a dying breed. I think the future of games will be more like ME3 where you have solo play and couple that with multiplayer.

    • The problem is Enchanting, IMO, just like it was in Oblivion. The stealth damage modifiers are pretty ridiculous on their own, but being able to stack +160% to bow damage and then multiply that by x3?

      All of that is so easily fixed that I wonder why the devs refused to do so. I’ve said it on Nils blog before, but I have fun in these games by dissecting the mechanics, figuring out how they work, and then “gaming” the system. To me, the magnitude of the min-max power gain is irrelevant; an extra 10% damage would have been enough. So… who is this in-game god-mode even for?

      It’ll sound weird, but I’m paying game makers to stop me from ruining games for myself. I can draw an easy box around cheat codes/console commands, but I can’t maintain an suspension of disbelief by gimping my own M.O.

  3. I came to pretty much the same conclusion but after maybe 10 hours, I guess I just don’t find the Elder Scrolls take on sandbox gaming appealing. I have limited free time and don’t want to wander aimlessly looking for something meaningful to do.

    Also for me the Elder Scrolls games are very ‘system-exposed’, the nuts and bolts of the system are there in your face teasing you to break them (e.g. the jumping endlessly or swimming in circles to ‘level’ those skills).

    Your point about pacing is spot on and this is really missing from Skyrim.

    Many of the more recent posts about Skyrim are along the lines of “I made the game trivial”. I can imagine any attempt at an Elder Scrolls MMO would fall apart in beta, just imagine the rampaging hordes of min-maxers rushing to find new ways to break the system.

  4. There are some kinds of games I don’t like. Every game isn’t for everyone. More to the point, though I think you may already know this …Skyrim isn’t an MMO. I must have missed your point despite the detail you go in to prove how this model wouldn’t fit an MMO model. How is that insightful?

    Agreed that the game is directionless; for players who prefer to be guided through an adventure, they will not like almost any Bethesda game. Any. The game world of Skyrim, as with all Elder Scrolls games, is designed to allow players to create their own adventure. For players who want their adventure created for them, they won’t like these games. Elder Scrolls games haven’t changed all that much. An article explaining how “aimless” the adventure feels and declaring a single-player adventure to be a “bad mmo” lacks a point.

    As a single-player and as an Elder Scrolls game, I also think the game doesn’t pace the branching of divergent stories sufficiently. All the same, I like that the experience is completely what I make of it.

    Clearly MMOs and singleplayer RPGs serve different market segments. Yet all the lovers of themeparks, like you, have over 100 hours in this “bad MMO” :) I’m not understanding the point you were aiming for in this article. Should I call this a bad book? (see what I did there?)

    All of this said with amiable intent which is often impossible to translate through text.

    • Agreed that the game is directionless; for players who prefer to be guided through an adventure, they will not like almost any Bethesda game. Any.

      Well, see, here’s the problem. Skyrim feels directionless and/or arbitrary, but Bethesda made Fallout 3 and New Vegas, both of which I played for hundreds of hours and felt no such thing. Fallout 3, in fact, is easily in my Top 10 game list, if not Top 5.

      I am willing to admit that the post-apocalypse setting has a lot to do with it, insofar as it implicitly “justifies” a lot of the behavior that Skyrim and Oblivion gropes about trying to rationalize. I never ever got tired of searching random shacks for supplies in Fallout, for example, because that’s what you’d do after the world ends, right? It’s intuitive. There’s nothing particularly intuitive or compelling about what I’m doing in Skyrim. Even with the whole dragon angle, the Whiterun guards seem perfectly capable of handling business when one shows up.

      I continue playing though, because the Skyrim world looks so goddamn amazing. Whatever technology they’ve developed for making mountains look the way they do justifies whatever development costs they endured (and undoubtedly recouped).

      As for the intent of the post itself, totally my fault if it isn’t coming across more clear; I was only going to make a joke about the questing at the top before the keyboard took off on its own. But my overarching argument is that a lot of the complaints people have about MMO weaknesses are systemic, and Skyrim sort of demonstrates that. In other words, my issues with Skyrim are generally “solved” in the MMO realm in ways that people nevertheless complain about.

      Keen complained about crafting in SWTOR yesterday, for example. Crafting can be improved, no doubt, but only to a point – past that point, strong player crafting devalues quest rewards. Similarly, having a much less restrictive “on rails” questing can lead to players forgetting why they cared to begin with, or a disjointed experience overall.

  5. I find it interesting since I generally agree with much of what you said, the quests can feel like a deluge of random “Kill 10 X” or “Go here, kill this guy”…which has gotten me thinking of why I enjoyed it so.

    Perhaps it was the graphics, on my computer it was well out of the uncanny valley enough that I was able to let myself immerse and just take in the beauty of my surroundings. Perhaps it was the (arguably) consistent feel of the game, the way NPC’s interact and the art worked, the flow of combat even though it was relatively simple.

    I sort of liked the fact that the “Bring me 20 X” quests often had no specific location to go (unlike WoW) were more interesting…as I found the things in the world I’d keep them, but it also meant I could try non-traditional methods of acquisition.

    The narrative..I found it no better or worse than Oblivion, Fallout 3 or New Vegas, none of them especially grabbed me but I found New Vegas even easier to become “broken” in, once my hunting rifle got a scope there was nothing I couldn’t kill from a mile away.

    Though I am still mulling it over, I think a large factor in why I enjoyed myself was because it was just me in the game. When going to cave X to kill Jim the Terrible I didn’t have to form some random group or wait for him to respawn after another player killed him. I didn’t have someone who’d theorycrafted the best build judging or whining about how I played. I didn’t have general or trade chat full of people spamming about who knows. If I wanted to do something I could just go do it. If I found a specific build was making the game too easy I could either increase the difficulty on my own or change how I played…when Stealth/Archery sniping trivialized most content I decided to try only daggers.

    • The alchemy quest for 20 Deathbell, 20 Nirnroot, and 20 Nightshade is what I was referring to in the main post. To an extent I agree that it is refreshing to be able to either go pick the flowers yourself or buy them or whatever, rather than being limited to “Kill X mobs in this highlighted area.”

      My problem started when I finally got all the Deathbell and Nirnroot, but had no real idea where Nightshade was located. Yeah, I read the in-game book about them being located in “swampy forests” or wherever, but I wanted to finish the quest now. After searching for a while, I realized that I really don’t care about the process of learning where Nightshade grows in the Elder Scrolls world; it isn’t a compelling piece of trivia, and I was left with the impression this quest is simply game time padding.

      Maybe I would have cared more about those sort of quests if I wasn’t already 50+ hours into the game at that point and otherwise feeling “done.” Then again, 20 is simply outrageously arbitrary. Why not 10? It’s tough suspending one’s disbelief when confronted with suspiciously even numbers.

      • And in that I agree; I got the 9th Fire Salt for that smith and wanted nothing more than to just go buy #10 to be done with it. I suppose my point really was just that I kind of prefer the quests in Elder Scrolls than WoW. It’s frustrating to have it mostly done, but I like it more than the WoW Theme-park of “Go to this place and collect 10 from here.” It certainly isn’t perfect, just comparing two faulty system. I suppose in a perfect MMO there would be quests for all 4 Bartle types of gamer (or something to entertain them) with these “Go and collect X of these” meant mainly for explorers.

  6. “Skyrim really already emulates a lot of the standard sort of MMO tropes”

    Totally agreed. I’ve seen some commenters refer to Skyrim as a sandbox, I would strongly disagree with this premise.

    Skyrim has a main quest chain, 4 guild-based quest chains, a civil war chain and lots of side quests. The main chains themselves are highly linear, with the occasional Bioware style A/B decision. You can do them in any order, as there is minimal impact on the world.

    Exploring the caves and forts is optional and occasional leads to a quest, or otherwise just shinies.
    Crafting is purely optional and makes characters stronger than they need to be to progress.
    You can buy multiple houses, although there is little reason to do so, besides having a place to leave things.

    I really, really enjoyed the game. Unlike many recent titles, the world feels large, beautiful and dangerous. Although the main quest felt somewhat cliched to me, the volume of other content kept me busy for some time. However I think it would be stretching the facts to say that it is all that different from a themepark.

  7. I completely agree. In many ways Skyrim is a one player MMO – the entire world is just waiting for the player to come along and deal with their problems through kill / collect / fedex quests. Except that Skyrim has only one player to deal with.

    I’m finding Skyrim to be very detailed, but very hollow. Dialogue options are most often, “Yes, I’d like to do that quest” or “No, I don’t want to do that quest yet”. There’s no character to the game.

    This is my first Elder Scrolls game and it feels so completely like generic fantasy I’m amazed that it has won gaming awards for its story. Thus far the only location I’ve come across that has impressed me for its imagination has been Blackreach.

    • Having played Oblivion, I’m starting to “get it” when it comes to the sort of world they’ve constructed. Skyrim takes place 200 years after Oblivion, but on some of the quests/etc I will go “oh, I’ve heard of that before” or “yeah, my character in the other game was involved with that.”

      At the same time, the lack of a cohesive narrative fails to tie all these loose ends together. The setting is a more interesting character than any single individual in it. If that was what they were going for, great, but that could also be accomplished in any game with one-dimensional, boring characters… much like this one.