Revisiting Single-Player MMOs
Keen has a post up entitled “MMORPGs are not Single-player Games,” which laments the direction MMOs are heading as evidenced by The Elder Scrolls Online having a 100% solo “main story.” I am not particularly interested in talking about TESO, but rather this paragraph (emphasis mine):
If it’s so important to your game that the player be the hero in the story, why are you making a MMO? MMO’s suck at being single-player games. Did you skip SWTOR? What makes MMO’s any good at all are the multiplayer elements. Take those away and what are you left with? A game worse than the one you could have made if you actually made a single-player RPG.
Well… do MMOs suck at being single-player games?
It may be easy to answer in the affirmative, and in some respects I would agree. Undoubtedly there are concessions made in an MMO that are irrelevant in a single-player RPG. Daily quests, for example, exist as “content” to get people to log on at regular intervals and maintain social ties. The related notion of paced content (i.e. weekly resets) is also an MMO staple that makes no particular single-player sense. Even normal quests are likely more generic (and numerous) than they would have to be.
But in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG. There are two main reasons why.
1) The gameplay is often more satisfying, for longer.
The example I used in Keen’s comment section was The Witcher. Here is a 3rd-person action-RPG game with hotbars and talents and exploration and quests and so on. Basically, a mini-MMO, if you will. As I detailed in my review, The Witcher’s combat system is terrible. Way worse than even Warhammer Online’s janky PvE gameplay. While I considered the storyline/setting to be somewhat of a redeeming factor, it could very well be that something like The Secret World or World of Darkness (assuming that is still a thing) or some other MMO eclipses it even within its own specific niche.
I would never agree with someone who would suggest that stories in RPGs are irrelevant, but let us be honest here: most of your RPG hours are spent in combat. RPGs don’t necessarily need gameplay deep enough to last 1000 hours because the story runs out in 40-100 hours, of course. But there is nothing worse than getting stranded 2/3rds of the way through an otherwise good story with gameplay that has ran out of steam. MMO combat systems, even the ones that feel “off,” convey a depth far beyond the average RPG. They have to.
Keen responded with “length isn’t related to quality,” which is true enough in a general sense. After a while though, one must admit that voluntarily playing the same game for 1000+ hours is perhaps indicative that fun is being had. I would not trade Xenogears’ 80 hours for WoW’s 7800 hours, or for the rest of my Top 10 RPGs for that matter. But for the Top #11-#120?
2) Show & Tell enhances the single-player experience.
I truly believe that Show & Tell is the future of single-player gaming. If you are not familiar with the concept as I use it, this quote (from a year ago) sums it up:
In this light, I do not particularly think the trend of companion AI or whatever is necessarily bad. Having played Minecraft for a while now, I have reached that plateau where you want nothing more than to show off the cool biodome tower you built or the Pit of Doom you dug or the cross-Atlantic powered railroad to someone, anyone else capable of appreciating the amount of effort/vision it took to do so. Of course, the thought of trying to do what I have done on a multiplayer server where anyone could wreck my house and steal my materials at any time is mortifying. I want a Show & Tell, not a group assignment. I want a single-player MMO.
Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. [...]
But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.
Show & Tell can be (and has been) implemented in bad ways. I am not a huge fan of arbitrary Achievements, for example, and I think focusing on the latest gear rewards is a bit crass. Transmog and costume options, on the other hand, are much better. Being able to invite you in to see my living room skull pit in Skyrim?
Would have been epic. The mere possibility of being able to eventually post the above screenshot, and having someone able to appreciate it on some level somewhere, generated dozens of hours of additional gameplay. In a single-player game. MMOs generate gameplay in this fashion all the time, of course, and I am here to confirm that it works for single-player games too. And, by extension, MMOs that are played as single-player games.
So getting back to the question at the top, I say: MMOs can (and often do) make excellent single-player games.
Keen openly wondered why this “mystery demographic” is getting catered to by MMO developers at the expense of “MMO identity.” I would say: where is the mystery? The vast majority of MMO players today are single-player MMO, erm, players. Less than 20% of WoW players raid; what are the other 80% doing? How many EVE players never make it out of high-sec space or never engage in consensual PvP? When you look at graphs like this:
…what do you see? Did 5+ million social MMO players crawl out of the woodwork in a single year? I don’t think so. Rather, Blizzard tapped into the latent single-player market by letting said players solo at their own pace all the way to the level cap. That was Blizzard’s biggest innovation.
Are social players more valuable to the long-term success of MMOs? Absolutely. Can studios focus exclusively on such players, ala Darkfall etc? Of course. But in so doing they leave literally millions of dollars on the table. And so the reason we see a “dilution” in the MMO identity is precisely because developers are seeking out the most profitable piece of that Venn Diagram – the intersection of single-player and MMO – by trial and error writ large.
The age of single-player MMOs has arrived. And for the majority of gamers, this is good news.