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.
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.
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.
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.
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.