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.

And also:

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?

166 Human skulls. All legitimately obtained, I might add.

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:

This technically qualifies as a Rorschach test in six states and the District of Columbia.

…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.

Posted on May 23, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. > If it’s so important to your game that the player be the
    > hero in the story, why are you making a MMO?

    What about that? I think this is true and doesn’t conflict with your post. In an MMO (single player or not), the player should not be a hero but merely an adventurer.


    • “Merely an adventurer” who just happens to collect the most powerful weapons from the most ancient of evils, manages to save every village they come across at exactly the right time, greet the Kings, smite the wicked, slaughter wildlife, fly on dragons, delve one’s way into wealth beyond the GDP of the kingdom, never permanently dies, recovers from grievous wounds with potions and magic apparently unavailable anywhere else in the land, etc etc etc?

      If the player is merely an adventurer, every dungeon should be looted and empty once they get there. There shouldn’t be anything to do at all. Because there are 100,000 other mere adventurers doing the same thing every hour of every day.

      A narrative can certainly be more subtle than “Dragonborn this” and “1000 year prophecy hero that.” But you are always the hero of every story you play.


  2. Well-written post. Thanks.


  3. Totally agree. And as an older player, I tend to be less a social player, but still just the idea that there are real people out there while I play is somehow important. It’s stimulating and less lonely. Like reading a book at a coffee shop.

    After 4 years of WoW, maybe 20% group play, offline solo games just feel so empty and pointless. Even if the gameplay may be superior. Loved Skyrim at first, then found myself back in WoW doing low level quests and hunting rares in Northrend/Outland while occasionally chatting.


    • Reading at the coffee shop is very good way of phrasing the feeling.

      If I go swimming at the YMCA, I feel a lot better when there are other people in the pool… as long as I can claim a lane. I am not swimming with them, but we are “together” just the same.


      • #2 has merit on the basis of fun.

        #1 is irrelevant as the list of failed MMOs shows those companies might have delivered a profitable product if they had been single player, where niche quality doesn’t work against you so much.

        As far as AAA MMOs, they are far more likely to fail than succeed and most have been limited on fun for a wide audience. Only 1 AAA MMO has succeed to-date (WoW) with no other company ever pulling it off again since 2004. See SWOTOR, Warhammer, Age of Conan, Tabula Rasa, Star Wars Galaxies, Vanguard, and add all the others to this list which have died trying. Players on an individual basis may have loved these games (as I did Tabular Rasa), but the financial model was unsustainable. Those titles would have been more profitable single player, with added multiplayer functionality in my opinion. As it were, many of these games no longer exist and the rest exist tenuously. What use are single player experiences delivered via MMO if the game will be shut down in a few years due to unsustainable profit model.

        These fun factors you link are in-escapable intertwined with the financial model of the studio. Going for the MMO is *not* a good idea for single-player titles. It will just be piled onto the list of failed MMOs, making it that much more difficult for truly multiplayer games to get financial support. This is a bad trend, in my opinion. We shouldn’t be looking at it the way you are.


  4. Agree with this too. I’ve played coop games more than single player for many years now even back in Baldur’s Gate era – I never played Diablo solo either.

    MMOs certainly have more content and replay value than single player games I feel. I also can’t go back to solo games really, Skyrim failed to grab me, I’m going to give Amalur a try this summer but honestly I find solo games rather pointless as they have a finite ending.

    I do wish MMO designers wouldn’t equate solo-friendly with ‘discourage grouping unless it’s random strangers’ however…


  5. Ah, Azuriel. I’ve come to disagree with you on a very simple basis: MMOs cost too much. The real question is *why* are companies making single player MMOs when they could make 3 single-player titles with the same budget.

    And the answer is money. That’s it. It’s got nothing to do with giving the players some great experience. It’s got everything to do with a desire to fleece players for a monthly fee.

    In MMOs, players *are* the content. This continues to be the basis and continues to be what makes the 10s of billions of dollars they cost to make worth it. It’s the on-going fees which are driving the creation of single-player MMOs. Of course single player games can offer a great MMO experience. But it’s irrelevant since the goal is merely to acquire more money from players.

    This is one reason MMOs are so awful these days. They’re single player experiences that, while players clearly want to play it, don’t want to pay a monthly fee for that. See SWOTOR for the latest evidence.

    It’s the money.


    • I can agree with a lot of that. Most developers are certainly on the wrong side economic equation – they seek higher profits not by delivering a higher quality product, but by extracting a higher profit margin (via DLC, etc) from the sales they do make.

      That said, I do still believe 1) and 2) make many MMOs better than strictly single-player titles, even if they cost more… which they sometimes don’t depending how you calculate cost (as a fun ratio, time played, etc).


  6. If the premise is that subscription-based single-player mmorpgs, which is an oxymoron, is going to continue to be mainstream, I’d say not. Following several single-player/corpg mmorpg’s before it that have either dismal populations and/or have gone free-to-play or closed, SW:TOR was the latest single-player rpg disguised as massively-multiplayer to show some down-turn in a very short time. Prior to the lay-offs, players/subscribers have been leaving in droves, not wiling to pay$15/month for a single-player/corpg after realizing it is such. Aside from that consumer backlash, it has become the single-worst consumer rated mmorpg on metacritic in recent history.

    Essentially millions of more maturing mmo enthusiasts are mmo nomads, not being satisfied by products that have been delivered over the past several years. To suggest that that player-base doesn’t exist or is less valuable, I think is a flawed assertion.

    As players eventually lose interest in these single-player/corpg centric MMOs and stop playing because of the constant watering down of the massively-multiplayer fundamentals, the remaining players who are stupid enough to put up with it become the false majority.

    If a restaurant that caters to vegetarians starts putting more and more meat on the menu it’s only a matter of time before the original patrons (vegetarians) will no longer patronize the restaurant. This is exactly what has happened to mass market MMOs as short-term design decisions are implemented, as there is a greater emphasis on single-player and cooperative online lobby-system pve mechanics, with the result being that they create, retain and attract a complacent, coddled and indolent player population.

    Millions of others just aren’t subscribing to it any more.


    • “If a restaurant that caters to vegetarians starts putting more and more meat on the menu it’s only a matter of time before the original patrons (vegetarians) will no longer patronize the restaurant. This is exactly what has happened to mass market MMOs…”

      Your argument is flawed in that you suppose there are more vegetarians that go to restaurants than the mass public. By the very definition, mass market MMOs have to address the needs of the mass public. This is one the main driving reasons behind WoWs continuing 10,000,000+(it’s important to see the zeros) consumer base.

      If you’re arguing that there aren’t games that the nomads can play, what’s wrong with EQ1, EvE, Darkfall, Ultima Online, Fallen Earth, DAoC, Asheron’s Call, A Tale in the Desert, Istaria, LOTRO, Lineage, Aion, Tera, Guild Wars, FFXI, CoH/CoV, STO, WAR, DDO, Age of Conan and the literally dozens of other niche-MMOs?


      • It wasn’t an argument, but a statement of fact.

        Nice to see some of those lack-luster games, even more recent ones you’ve listed, show the decline I talked about.

        Also pretty humerus how you believe those games are considered “niche” when at the time of their launch, of which some weren’t that long ago, the mainstream genre studios that developed or published them considered them “mainstream” mmo’s.


        Oh-yea…and EVE is a great niche mmo, and one in which rivals the subscription-base of some of the mistakenly labeled “niche” games, by yourself, on your list; though I think Darkfall could be in that category.

        Lastly, pssst. . .GW isn’t an mmo. Even ArenaNet called it a corpg; though in their case “c” was for competitive.


    • It does not matter how many single-player MMOs “fail,” if they can be said to “fail” at all (any failure beyond a positive ROI is purely semantic); there is enough potential money on the table to ensure that developers chase the unicorn for decades to come. And that is taking for granted that forced grouping elements in MMOs is good design at all, rather than an antiquated design relic from a bygone era, like bleeding the humors or spontaneous generation.

      Your vegetarian restaurant analogy is apt, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. Such a restaurant might start putting meat on the menu for two reasons: to cater to the non-vegetarian friends that get dragged into that meal (just like Chinese buffets invariably have a pizza and fried chicken selections) or because they see how much money other vegetarian restaurants are making doing the same. Or maybe the organic food movement comes along and makes serving to such a niche no longer cost-effective. Or maybe it simply doesn’t make sense to build another restaurant in a saturated market, especially when the clientele are fiercely loyal to the places that already exist.

      Regardless, as I mentioned in the original post, I am making no claims that “pure” MMO players shouldn’t be catered to, or that no company can turn a profit focusing on just MMO purists, or even that single-player MMOs are sustainable. Rather, I am saying that single-player MMOs are frequently better than single-player RPGs these days, and successfully tapping into that single-player market can be wildly profitable if they can land in the middle of the Venn Diagram.

      As someone who doesn’t care in the least whether any given MMO is still around 2-3 years later, it is good time to be a (single-player) gamer.


  7. I would much rather play a game with local co-op with my husband than an MMO. Unfortunately, they just don’t make offline MMOs, so I’m stuck with thousands of other people I’m terrified of. We generally have very little to do once we reach the level cap, except in the few situations we’ve been able to progress on our own. I wish MMO developers would own up to what they’re doing and implement an end-game that really caters to their market.

    I would love to see something like scale-able dungeons that would conform to solo play or a 2-man group or just whatever. I hate feeling forced to group just because that’s all there is to do, and, outside of PvP, I just don’t do it.

    Bah, this makes me so grumpy.


  8. I have to agree with Keen.

    I disagree with your first point. First, if you look at satisfaction in relation to money spent I don’t see MMOs having any advantage. In fact, for the amount of money you can end up spending on an MMO (I shudder when I do the math at how much I paid Blizzard over the years) you better be getting hundreds, if not thousands, of hours played out of it. There’s also a disadvantage to a game going on this long. WoW looks outdated. There’s things they’d probably like to add but can’t as far as game-play and mechanics. Meanwhile, if you look at the Witcher and Witcher 2 (or the ME series, etc.) you have the ability to continue to tell your story but make major changes in between games.

    Second, from my own experience a lot of this single player experience in MMOs is ultimately aimed at a multiplayer end. Folks will undertake the hundreds of hours to level a new character in the hopes of doing raids, PvP, or even just instances.

    As for the graph you posted, I have more questions than answers after looking at it. What value do those numbers have without seeing comparative sales figures for single-player games? If MMOs were this great new single-player experience that folks want, why do they all take hits when the real single-player games come out (such as when ME3 and Skyrim released recently)? Getting back to the economic argument, MMOs are always on whereas you finish single player games. How much of those numbers are folks playing something to tide them over rather than playing something that they really want to be?

    I also think Keen is right on the money when he says these MMOs are basically second rate when it comes to a single-player experience. While playing TOR recently I couldn’t help but be frustrated at what could’ve been if Bioware had taken a story like the 1st chapter of the BH and turned that into a game along the lines of KoTOR or the first two ME games. The story could’ve been the focus (rather than 3/4 of game-play having to be side quests, PvP, or space missions just so you gain enough XP to do the story). They could’ve fit the worlds to the story rather than fitting the story to multiple worlds that had to work in 8 different class stories (the Republic Soldier is the worst in this regard, with story elements on Coruscant feeling tacked on to fill in space rather than being part of the original outline). The game-play could’ve been flushed out for just that one class, rather than having to limit it to fit in with the 3 others in the game (I remember reading the description of the BH play-style in-game and hearing mention of flying around with a jet pack, only to play it and realize that ‘flying around’ is jumping 6 inches off the ground when you punch an enemy once every 15 seconds). The single-player experience of TOR really felt second rate.


    • First, if you look at satisfaction in relation to money spent I don’t see MMOs having any advantage.

      Oh? I have 117 hours on Skyrim, having purchased it for $40.19. That’s ~$0.34/hour of entertainment. I have 7,728 hours /played on WoW. Now, I’m not quite sure how thorough I was when I calculated it down to $0.087/hour of entertainment in the linked post, but I certainly have not paid the $2,654.60 necessary for it to be the equivalent of Skyrim.

      Was 100% of that WoW time compelling entertainment? Well, was 100% of Skyrim’s time compelling?

      As I mentioned in the post, I would agree the quality of the hours of entertainment of my Top Ten RPGs would edge out MMO hours. But at some point, we have to recognize that even a “one-monther” likely amuses us at a much more efficient rate than any single-player game. The Skyrims of the world aside, we’re lucky to get a $1/hour ratio.

      Second, from my own experience a lot of this single player experience in MMOs is ultimately aimed at a multiplayer end.

      That’s a fair point.

      It does cut both ways, however. I would hardly imagine that most MMO BGs would qualify as being social in the way of “pure MMOs,” or really even instances for that matter considering LFD. I would argue that both sorts of things fall under the auspices of (single-player) Show & Tell, given how you need no relationship with the people you are “playing” with.

      I suppose it would come down to how binary we get with the labels.

      How much of those numbers are folks playing something to tide them over rather than playing something that they really want to be?

      At what point does a game you play to “tide you over” for hundreds of hours not become a game you really want to play? I get what you are implying here, but even filler needs to be better than other alternatives. And besides, what did we do before these time-filling MMOs? Did I play A Link to the Past 30+ times because it was that good, or because that was all I had? As Maximus might say, “Are you not entertained?”


  9. @Cik Bast

    “As players eventually lose interest in these single-player/corpg centric MMOs and stop playing because of the constant watering down of the massively-multiplayer fundamentals…”

    Wait… which players are we talking about?
    If we track trends over the last 10 years or so, we see the market as a whole growing while the MMO fundamentals were ‘watered down’.

    If anything the SWTOR launch showed that there was interest for a singleplayer centric MMO (2 million sales) but that Bioware rushed to launch omitted a number of key features (namely server migration, group finder, end game content/balanced world PvP).

    Also I don’t think that ‘niche’ is the derogative term you take it to be. You don’t need 500k subscribers to have a stable game and viable business.


  10. As a person who can only play occasionally now, I’ve been thinking about why I still want to play MMOs even though I only play them solo at this point. I agree with your comments and posted more of my thoughts on my new blog.

    Thank you for the well thought out post.


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