A Rant: Enough Of Single-Player MMOs

Not The Elder Scrolls Online, it's Skyrim. Obviously.
According to The Elder Scrolls Online game director Matt Firor, the series’ online spin won’t be quite as social as expected. At least, not completely. “We have a whole part of the game that’s 100% solo, and that’s the main story,” he explains to an invisible interviewer in this Game Informer video. “Everything you do is solo and the world reacts to you that way.”

Isn’t it about time we just admitted this isn’t actually a good thing?

MMOs have always had strong single-player roots when it comes to quest design and your individual character’s progression, but for some reason that I’m sure has nothing at all to do with it being a lesser risk than meddling with core MMO mechanics in front of an incredibly argumentative community, the current trend for most new games is to really ramp that up and pretend it’s as a good as an actual, regular RPG. That provided the only really interesting bit of Star Wars: The Old Republic, the upcoming Guild Wars 2 has a social quest threaded throughout its level curve, The Secret World is incredibly narratively driven, and now The Elder Scrolls Online is joining the party too by carving out a whole chunk of itself just to be antisocial in.

Generally preferring single-player games and considering most people to be smelly, oily bags of bones and assorted types of goo, you’d think I’d be happy about that. And I guess I am slightly, in that it’s good to see people still want to make single-player experiences, instead of trying to drag us all kicking and screaming into their expensive party for our heroic fix.

The problem is that you will never get as good a single-player experience in a multiplayer game as you would if it was single-player in the first place, and even thinking about single player in these terms is to miss the point. Sure, it’s good to have something to do even if you’re not hanging with a group. But the best stories you get in any MMO are the ones you create for yourself. The world can add context and meaning to them, but they have to emerge organically for them to feel like anything other than just another step on the road to maximum level.

Ha! Eat lightning, just like your cousins, Small Forest Wolf, Elder Wolf, Greater Elder Wolf, Reanimated Ghost Wolf, Demon Wolf and Sheep Who Chose The Wrong ****ing Day To Get Clever!

Even ignoring atmospheric problems like the fact that The Secret World is going to be shared with hundreds of players putting the ‘overt’ into ‘covert operative’ by hurling fireballs at anything with hit-points, multiplayer games lag far, far behind the single-player equivalent. They’re usually visually inferior due to the need to create worlds big enough for thousands of players, never mind handling the technical issues of keeping them running, while controls and game balance are decided based on connection speeds, player tolerances for things like decisions that could still be making an impact on their progress months later, and the need for balancing assorted classes rather than just worrying about the best choice for the story and the game alike.

Worst of all though, progression is never built around either of these things, but the game’s need to keep you playing. How much better would The Old Republic have been, had Bioware focused on giving us eight really good ten hour experiences, instead of padding out everything from taxi rides to quest objectives in the name of extending the subscription fee.

(This failed for me, incidentally, as while I was enjoying the Imperial Agent story, I quickly tired of what I shall simply summarise as “MMO Bullshit” and ended up quitting in the mid-20s. And judging from the subscription numbers since launch… well. I would like to put it on the record though that I am very, very up for a proper Imperial Agent game, any time Bioware wants.)

After a while, the Imperial March starts to go 'Bored bored bored, bored bored bored, bored bored bored. BORED BORED BORED bored bored bored BORED BORED BORED. BORED! BORED! BORED BORED! BORED! BORED-BORED-BORED-BORED!'

Even at their best, I would trade any single-player focused content in any MMO for a dedicated single-player game. Guild Wars 2 offers a personal story that plays a bit like Dragon Age… but a Dragon Age where every quest is spaced out by jarring, unconnected busy-work. One minute I’m attending a high society party and involved in political intrigue, the next… I’m picking apples? This is nonsense. The Old Republic bills itself as KOTOR 3, 4 and 5 or similar, but I’d take those games in trade any day. As for The Secret World, I would kill a not mathematically insignificant number of you if it could magically add the words “Alpha Protocol 2” to the title. A special genie-made version without the bugs and with better combat, of course.

This isn’t to say that these single-player experiences can’t be fun. They’re just inferior, much as MMO combat (yes, even Tera) is years behind a proper hack-and-slash game like Bayonetta, because any game that tries to be all things to all people will always trend towards mediocrity. It’s only through focusing that you can achieve greatness and develop new ideas.

And it’s not just the single-player experience that’s left wanting…

I can't wait for the GW2 NDA to lift fully, just so I can take some shots of it instead of blowing this guy's house up every other week...

So much MMO design has historically been built on a baseline single-player experience that just happens to have other people around, it’s easy to miss just how little most of them actually do. Sure, you might occasionally team up with someone to biff a monster, but when you get back, the quest-giver will still talk to you as an individual and you’ll still be sent off on your own isolated path, burning through content at a far higher pace than any developer can keep it coming. Almost nothing makes an attempt to make the world feel dynamic – either in the challenges that you’re set, or the communal feel of building to something more than punching a boss in the middle of a dungeon who’s never actually going to accomplish a damn thing.

Where for instance are the worlds where the great demon can actually explode out of his dungeon if not kept in check? Where are regular events like finding the resources to expand your faction’s capital city, and votes on how to do so? Where are the battle lines constantly shifting as a result of fights that any player can contribute to? Using regular single-player RPG design in the MMO world doesn’t simply result in boring quests – it provides a path of least resistance for design that results in precious little innovation happening on the multiplayer side either.

(Eve of course is the big exception to the rule, though things don’t necessarily have to be that hardcore to be interesting. DC Universe Online for instance could have done all sorts of cool Good vs. Evil stuff and world events. Instead, you burn through the scripted content in about a month, and the world is left standing around awkwardly and trying to sell the old lie that ‘endgame’ means ‘real game’. Which is, and always has been, a load of balls.)

Man, we're even less subtle than the Company from Prison Break. And they won the Rubber Stapler at last year's EvilOrgCon

Going back to The Elder Scrolls Online specifically, what’s the point of a dedicated single-player experience? We already have an unbelievably epic, free-form, high-quality single-player adventure set in this universe, and it’s called Skyrim. No MMO can possibly come close to a game where you can face your destiny, then happily turn round, steal a whole town’s clothes and run giggling to join the Dark Brotherhood. It’s just not going to happen. One day, it might, but if that day is anytime in 2013, I’ll force an orphan to eat my hat. Without ketchup.

Instead of wasting that time to create an inferior experience, not to mention acknowledging the poor fit by segregating it from the main game being sold, surely something like The Elder Scrolls Online should be focusing on exactly what an online community can actually bring to the series. We don’t begrudge shooters for not giving us bots any more. We’ll play strategy games without a campaign. It’s about time that MMOs cut loose and focused on the unique experiences they can bring to the table, and leave it to the single player games to make us feel like heroes.


  1. Vexing Vision says:

    Huzzah! Hear, hear!

    Still looking forward to the Secret World though, especially after that Beta. But will, as always, stick to a small group of friends to burn through the content.

    That said, I strongly dislike MMOs where you are The Chosen One, entirely disregarding everyone else on the planet. Secret World at least handles that correctly by having you be a pawn.

    This massively bugged me in AION.

    • Mavvvy says:

      I’m the same all these types of games, always playing with the same group of 3 mates. To the point where the game is less mmo more left for dead co-op. The other players in the world have the same substance of the phantoms of demon souls, they are present but your still on your own. At least in demon souls they are useful.

      Roll on planetside 2, it will be like revisiting the past (ps1)to experiance what I thought would be the future.

  2. Bobka says:

    I’ve always wondered whether it would be conceptually possible to make a game as player-driven and free-form as EVE Online, but without the harsh learning curve and the steep cliff of power newbies have to climb. What would that look like? Would it even be fun?

    • Spinks says:

      Plenty of RP MUDs/MUSHes have gone that route. It can be plenty fun. Tends to attract lots of drama though.

      • Grinnbarr says:

        Well Paradox are making (publishing?) Salem if you look that up. I’ve never played an MMO before but to my untrained eye it basically looks like a massively multiplayer Minecraft as imagined by Tim Burton. It’s going to be F2P so I might check it out. It certainly looks like it skips out all the ‘kill 10 wolves’ bullshit of WoW and its followers.

        • Apolloin says:

          From my experiences in the Beta, Salem is nothing more or less than a 16th century murder simulator. It is one of those games where the player base seems to have been raised by cannibal wolves in some rural backwater.

          • Rawrian says:

            Sadly, yes. I’ve played Haven & Hearth in worlds 3 and 4, and it was better in that regard, at least people said “hello” before killing you. Nowadays it seems not many players are interested in cooperation with strangers and playing just for fun, it’s all about KILL OR BE KILLED.

    • Mimir says:

      EVE Online in a fantasy setting sounds pretty cool to me. Replace the tired cliche of an NPC questgiver with PCs that need tasks done to further their own power grabs. Use the remnants of a fallen power bloc’s stronghold as a dungeon to be cleared out for a new group.

      I hate to wish on a magical unicorn for a game filled with the buttermilk dewdrops of dynamic player power bases, but it’s a nice goal for CCP or some other brave developer to aim for.

      • Jockie says:

        You don’t necessarily need all of Eve’s bits transferred to another setting, just the bits where players can affect change in the world, often these games come out (thinking of Mortal Online and that roboty one Jim was playing recently) and the bit they seem to have copied is the fun-murdering interface clutter and counter-intuitive control scheme.

        • brecherbernd says:

          It actually looks quite interesting. Will give that a try!

      • onetrueping says:

        Check out the Pathfinder MMO that’s in production by GoblinWorks. That’s almost exactly what they are making.

      • Vexing Vision says:

        That already exist. It is called Darkfall.

        Immediately after the servers opened, everyone was griefing everyone else and much fun was had.

        I think the only reason why EVE works for some players (not for me) is because Space is Huge. Landbound, this wouldn’t work.

        • Phantoon says:

          That game is grindariffic. I regret every penny spent on trying it.

          Giant warning if you think that game is for you- it most likely is not.

      • Kelron says:

        Mortal Online actually works pretty well, and it’s faster to get into the game than Eve. Its biggest problem is a low playerbase, as with so many of these indie MMOs.

      • jkz says:

        EVE still has a crappy npc quest system and a surprising amount of the player base stick to playing that. I don’t know if it is because they are used to that in MMOs but it is the most boring part of the game, a game that lets you do whatever you want in an open world sandbox.

        I wish there were more difficult open world sandbox mulitplayer games that enabled the players to make the stories. Few and far between though, DayZ has been interesting, hopefully more developers will follow suit.

        • Blackcompany says:

          As an eve newbie sticking to box quests I can tell you why we stick to them. Null sec is far too dangerous for new players. We simply lack the means to get there given the risk.

          But that is ok. Even given the grind I will take the sandbox. No going back now to scripted, single player know games.

          • realityflaw says:

            You can have a ton of cheap PvP fun in a kessie or a rifter, get a few friends together and you may even get a few decent kills, just stay away from the gates.

            I found that people who convince themselves to wait until they get X skill, or can fly X hull are probably never going to really get out there, and that’s fine I guess, but if you’re just going to live in the empire there are much better PvE MMOs out there.

          • Vulpis says:

            Honestly…while not a Eve player myself, one impression I keep getting from all the different stories, reviews and comments I’ve seen is that the place *really* needs to establish a Freelancer’s Guild–a group where the members permamantly give up the ability to own or control territory, and in return get a measure of free-passage and protection in what are essentially gang territories. That way, the players who just want to do some freight-hauling or other regular things can do so without having to get involved in the politics and gang-fighting of the larger groups, and without getting curb-stomped and griefed as soon as they poke their nose out of the NPC-patrolled zone.

        • Phantoon says:

          SWG had quests by NPCs too, but those felt part of the world as well. Sometimes you’d get a kill quest for a nest of some monster, or to hunt some resource down, or find a thing.

      • MadMatty says:

        I agree Ultima Online was the first and best MMO, to date.
        It could use an UI overhaul today, but the rest worked like it should.
        I´ve played Mortal Online, Darkfall, Eve, Wurm, Conan and WoW for a good bit of time, and nipped a few trials of the other WoW clones out there.
        Darkfall was getting pretty close -Ignore Kiron and Eurogamers reviews, Darkfall is bad for entirely other reasons than those listed, which was basically “Meh i´m getting killed near the newbie spawn for no reason” – Well then, MOVE OUT then ffs, its not like it has a huge friggin map.
        Wurm is a fine MMO, unfortunately the UI is Aspie as hell, and it really needs proper funding to get the graphics/combat into better shape… maybe to late now.
        Mortal Online was a good attempt, but needs free player House placement, and visible items in the game world, like Wurm and Ultima has.
        Eve is built on dissapointingly primitive Physics, and as such fails to immerse the player in actual Space. Eve´s skill system is also crap.
        Elite 2: Frontier got the physics right around 1993 or so- I recently played Pioneer (the reverse-engineered remake of Elite 2) and it played just like i´d wish Eve would have….. anyway, i´ll dream on…..

        As for the Elder Scrolls Online main quest being solo- Well it didn´t work in Conan – why do it again?

    • Cabaen says:

      The old Ultima Online was totally player driven and without the absurd learning curve of EVE Online, one of the best MMORPG ever made.

      • Oozo says:

        Yeah, I wanted to say this as well: Ultima Online was the last MMO I played in earnest, and it’s somehow sad to see how the better of the good parts of this predecessor are, to this day, ignored.

        Granted, I used to play on a “unofficial” server, but it was really something:
        People wearing Ork-masks (because you couldn’t have a default non-human avatar), organizing themselves in tribes of hunters and bandits; and the “Game Masters” really made a good job of actually introducing catastrophic (and not-so-catastrophic) events that changed the world and thus had a huge influence on all the players.

        It’s true that you had to work your imagination in order to actually “believe” it, but if I have learned one thing, it’s that if you leave it to the players to shape the world and the story, they will make something interesting out of it. (With a bit of authorial control over crude misbehaving, that is…)

        WoW and almost every MMO since didn’t appeal to me from the start, much for the reasons Cobbett points out here: Why play an MMO if the players can’t actually give shape to the world, society etc.?

        • MadMatty says:

          I agree Ultima Online was the first and best MMO, to date.
          It could use an UI overhaul today, but the rest worked like it should.
          I´ve played Mortal Online, Darkfall, Eve, Wurm, Conan and WoW for a good bit of time, and nipped a few trials of the other WoW clones out there.
          Darkfall was getting pretty close -Ignore Kiron and Eurogamers reviews, Darkfall is bad for entirely other reasons than those listed, which was basically “Meh i´m getting killed near the newbie spawn for no reason” – Well then, MOVE OUT then ffs, its not like it has a huge friggin map.
          Wurm is a fine MMO, unfortunately the UI is Aspie as hell, and it really needs proper funding to get the graphics/combat into better shape… maybe to late now.
          Mortal Online was a good attempt, but needs free player House placement, and visible items in the game world, like Wurm and Ultima has.
          Eve is built on dissapointingly primitive Physics, and as such fails to immerse the player in actual Space. Eve´s skill system is also crap.
          Elite 2: Frontier got the physics right around 1993 or so- I recently played Pioneer (the reverse-engineered remake of Elite 2) and it played just like i´d wish Eve would have….. anyway, i´ll dream on…..

          As for the Elder Scrolls Online main quest being solo- Well it didn´t work in Conan – why do it again?

    • Lemming says:

      Day Z with commercial backing would fit that bill. Factions, barting…all would form organically.

    • Shuck says:

      “a game as player-driven and free-form as EVE Online, but without the harsh learning curve and the steep cliff of power newbies have to climb”
      The problem is that those two ideas are directly at odds with each other. It would take a brilliant and complex game design to reconcile the two, if it’s even entirely possible. A few smaller MMOs can sometimes pull it off to some degree if their player base is small, self-selecting and agree to refrain from certain behaviors. If you’re trying to encode that within the game, however, that’s another issue.

      • Vulpis says:

        Yeah…part of the problem with Eve is that along with the ‘player-driven’ thing, it’s designed specifically to cater to the griefer mentality. There’s no place for the player who just wants to do their thing out in the wider world to just do their thing without either getting stuck joining one of the gangs or getting curb-stomped as soon as they try and leave the NPC zone with the boring stock missions.

  3. NathanH says:

    Personally the only typo of MMO I would be interested in is one where I play almost all of the game on my own, only occasionally running into other people, but everything that is going on in the world is influenced by all the players. Essentially what I want is a game that harnesses all the interesting non-scripted organic stuff that can emerge from having lots of humans involved, but without having to actually interact with any of them very often.

    Edit: I would correct my typo but it is too good a typo to correct.

    • mbr says:

      I think that’s called sitting in front of your computer all day.

    • frightlever says:

      Yeah, I like my real world encounters with people to be scarce and fleeting. Like when they bring me pizza.

    • Roshin says:

      I agree with this. In MMO’s I like to play *alongside* other people, but not actually play *with* them. Partying in MMO’s is borderline painful in my experience, even if you’re playing with people you know, and PUG’s can be a nightmare.

      I guess the problem is that MMO’s are primarily considered money machines and little else. The focus doesn’t seem to be on giving the player an interesting experience, but on how long you can keep them in the game and finding the shortest route to their wallets. Where are the spiffy new ideas on how to use the advantages of MMO’s (there must be some) to enhance the player experience and not just use it as DRM in a shite disguise?

      • Blackcompany says:

        Last night, i was mining in Clellinon. Came across a catalyst destroyer doing same. It was, if course, another player. Whose ore will go to create in game goods. Some of which I might buy later. I might never know that person; I might work with them. We did not interact directly…which somehow, strangely, enhanced the experience.

        New to Eve, and loving it.

    • lowprices says:

      I think the closest you will get to that is Dark Souls. A single player adventure, but a constant multiplayer thing going in which you can see other peoples progress, invade their worlds (and have yours invaded) and occasionally help each other out. So long as you don’t mind the odd moment of teeth-clenching difficulty, it’s a fine ride.

      • RvLeshrac says:

        Dark Souls is the worst possible example. Dark Souls is about encountering someone who has vastly superior equipment and watching them beat the holy fuck out of you repeatedly because you can’t lock on to them.

        The “difficulty” in the game is nothing more than “We’re not going to show you any part of this boss’s patterns, and have it kill you in one hit.” Which isn’t ‘difficulty,’ but rather ‘being a dick.’

        • Phantoon says:

          People that hate a thing are bad at being objective about it.

        • Dahoon says:

          The invaders are the same or lower level and the no-lock-on ring was fixed =)

          Dying lots doesn’t equal high difficulty in my not so humble opinion. It’s just another kind of gameplay.

  4. Belsameth says:

    Very nice writeup and I agree fully.

    Now just hope that such a game as you’re describing *does* surface in 2013, if only because I expect youtube video’s of the orphan and the hat experiment :D

  5. fugo says:

    yes to all of the above. planetside highlights this fantastically. it may not have had much visual differences, but the ever moving frontline added so much to the illusion of reality in the world. I quit WoW because it felt like I was an actor on a set, where nothing I could ever do would change the world unless the ‘director’ made changes and even then they were never unique to me. i fear diablo iii will be monumentally successful and this kind of crap will become more and more common. most of the games i remember fondly are single player ‘sandbox’ types, where you can sit around and laugh at all the stories you and your friends have.

  6. Malk_Content says:

    Did you find the disconnect between individual experiences more jarring in GW2 than you did in Skyrim? The only difference I can see is that in Skyrim you willfully stop saving the world/battle dragons/become and entirely magic free archmage in order to pick leeks out of a garden rather than GW2s (or any other MMOs) story kicking you back out into the world for a little bit. I’d also argue that Skyrim is probably one of the worst examples of a solid singleplayer experience as, at the end of the day, no matter what you do the world will exactly the same but with just a differing amount of NPCs.

    • Screwie says:

      This is an interesting point. How is the distinction between “MMO content” and a storyline quest much different from the distinction between storyline and side quests in a single player RPG? They can both be jarring when the non-linear stuff contradicts with the urgency or consequence of the epic narrative.

      • neofit says:

        The main difference is in that in Skyrim, when I am told that I am the only who can kill A to save B, when I am making my way to A I do not have 3 other people doing the same, I do not have to queue behind others for the honor of killing A or beg to be accepted into the group of “only people who can kill A” currently waiting for A to respawn, nor am I worrying that so and so could ninja loot A’s corpse.

        Regarding the urgency, it is the difference between a scripted on-rails game and a free roamer. I cannot imagine how we can have a TES-type of roamer with any kind of believable urgency. I’d vote for the roamer any day though.

        • Screwie says:

          “The main difference is in that in Skyrim, when I am told that I am the only who can kill A to save B,”

          This is one of my beefs about so many MMOs. Off the top of my head I can only think of a few that don’t put you up there as some chosen one (City of Heroes was great at making you feel like one of many) but even those (CoH included) still get to the point where everyone has saved the world in the exact same way, albeit in their own private instance. Instanced MMOs at least avoid the problems queuing and kill/loot stealing present in most open-world MMOs – one reason why I prefer the former.

          I don’t think a lack of urgency is necessarily inherent in a free-roaming game, but you’d need a clever way to address it – simply badgering the player about saving the world all the time would only annoy.

          • InternetBatman says:

            This problem could be helped by a bit of randomization. Randomize the name and location of the instance, and everyone can have their own invasions.

          • Drayk says:

            “I don’t think a lack of urgency is necessarily inherent in a free-roaming game, but you’d need a clever way to address it – simply badgering the player about saving the world all the time would only annoy.”

            Fallout 1 does that really well in it’s first part. You have a deadline to find the water chip, but then you pretty much do wathever you want.

          • Apples says:

            @Drayk: I thought that was done pretty badly in FO1. The idea that I could potentially play for a very long time, and then get myself into a state where I could never win because I’d spent too much time dicking about, felt like a huge burden and really put a dampener on the enjoyment of the thing for me. Sure, the time limit was actually very long and allowed tons of dicking about, but I couldn’t know that beforehand, so I felt like I had to rush straight to getting rid of this time limit. It also wasn’t clear how much of the game would be within that time limit, and how much was to come after, and how much content I’d be locked out of once I got the water chip. It felt like a Sierra game where I was constantly slightly worried about screwing myself over later on.

            I’d prefer the slightly odd feeling of lack of urgency over that feeling of oppression. I can’t think of a way where time limits could be imposed on a free roamer without it feeling oppressive, and in fact when time limits ARE imposed it now violates player expectations – I felt confused and angry in DX:HR when the hostages died because I spent too much time in a vent, not impressed and immersed.

          • rokahef says:

            Perhaps a better example then is the way it was done in FO2 – you still had a faint sense of urgency, with periodic reminders (your dreams of the Elder speaking to you), and if you chose to ignore it for long enough, the storyline adjusted accordingly. It didn’t break the main quest, it just took the quest in a different direction.

            Simply put, branching main storylines is the answer.
            Skyrim: chose to dick around instead of fighting the dragons? Whiterun burned to the ground, and the survivors are sheltering in the nearby cave. Riften is a ruin, and everyone is living below ground / in the sewers. etc.

            GW2: didn’t focus on your private instance storyline and advance the ‘main’ plot? until you do, you’ve got additional mobs roaming around and dragon bosses setting fire to all your settlements.

            Amalur: spent all your time picking flowers and alchemy ingredients? sorry, the baddies just crossed the ocean and are laying siege to the other fortress. You now have to break the siege.

            Increased consequences, increased replayability… Seems like a win/win proposition to me.

          • Drayk says:

            @ Apples:

            I get your point but I don’t agree. In both case, Deus ex HR and Fallout 1, I got in trouble the first time around. In Fallout 1, I didn’t manage to find a chip in time and had to use an old savegame to complete it. I was dissapointed but knew it was my fault.

            In Deus ex HR the first time i arrived people were dead because I lost too much time fooling around my office dispite several attempts by sarif to get me in the Chopper quickly. I felt it was a good way to introduce the game and to make you feel that your actions had impact.

            Tru, i reloaded, but then, for the rest of the game, I thought a lot more on what I was doing. I guess that’s how I did not fall in the chip trap (which was kinda obvious too if you read the emails.)

            There is one game on DS, called Radiant Historia where each decision you take can make you lose. It’s part of the game design in a story that involves time traveling and parrallel universes, and makes an interesting case on choices and consequences.

        • Malk_Content says:

          Those problems aren’t a symptom of mmos but rather of bad design. These games fail to either a) create a story which justifies you being one of many or b) allows the many to get in the way of the one. Both are bad design. If you look at GW2 those problems don’t exist (or at least shouldn’t from a design point of view.) All of the open world stuff is framed such that you are part of the bigger ongoing effort and anything that is singularly only you able to do something is separate from that,

          The only reason I brought it up is that I believe Skyrim is perhaps a terrible example of how good a single player game can be, especially when the single player aspects of some upcoming mmos far exceed its offerings in terms of reaction to a players actions. I’d rather have four other people doing the same thing as me but have that thing change the game world than Skyrim’s monstrously static environment.

          • MadMatty says:

            @ Malk

            Its all about backbone MMO design.
            Wurm Online has great stories, coming from player interactions alone- not a quest in sight!
            Just because the backbone of the code is made in such a way to facilitate freeform player interactions, in an Actual “Free roaming world where your decisions have actual consequences” – the most abused phrase to adorn every theme-park MMO packaging ever.
            Wurm “just” needed 50$ million thrown at it, round launch, and it would be the end of this discussion.
            I don´t have any hopes for the Real MMO to get made anytime soon, as i see the big publishers seem mainly clueless, as to how A Real MMO should work, and seem content spewing out WoW clones in hope that their shareholders will clap their clammy little hands together over the (hopefully) WoW-ish bottom line figures. Sigh.

            Anywho, Planetside 2 is coming up, and while not a proper “MMO” as such, memories of the 1 tells me theres going to be a lot of player facilitated stories and emergent gameplay, which is so sadly lacking in these recent big-studio “MMO´s”.

        • DrGonzo says:

          You can force timelimits on the player, or my preference would be for stuff to fail, people to die if you leave things too long. Or, in the case of Elder Scrolls, they just need to stop writing their stories with urgency in it as they do. It’s jarring and makes it feel very gamey, but they insist on doing it in every one. Make a story about exploring the world and not saving it.

    • Roshin says:

      The one thing that breaks immersion for me in the TES games is that I can be everything. Leader of the Thieves Guild? Sure. Head of the Mage’s Guild? Why not? Maybe take over the Assassin’s Guild too while you’re at it? Fuck, yes.

      I understand that they want me to see all the content, but it still doesn’t make sense and it’s always far to easy to achieve.

      • Phantoon says:

        You found doing all those easy in Morrowind?

        I guess you can just blow tons of dosh on training to rank up…

        • NathanH says:

          I wonder why they removed the skill restrictions for guild advancement.

    • Phantoon says:

      I think the worst offender of this is The Pitt DLC bullshit for Fallout 3.

      Walk in in any amount of armor up to power armor? Knocked out. Killed the guards so you wouldn’t be knocked out? Knocked out anyways!

      Finish the DLC, and what changes? Nothing. The people act the same, save for the head guy that sarcastically says “yeah whoop you’re a big hero”. That’s it. Unless it was made to be depressing, it was a massive screw up- and it’s depressing for the wrong reasons!

  7. drewski says:

    Pfft. I won’t play strategy games without a campaign, Cobbett.

    • cptgone says:

      i actually prefer skirmishes on random maps over campaigns.

      • drewski says:

        I don’t mind the concept of skirmishing but I need some sort of overarching narrative, even if it’s self constructed.

        I mean, the Total War games are essentially skirmishes tied together with a self generated campaign, and I like them fine. But when it’s just “oh hi here’s some strategy game” I can’t engage.

  8. Kdansky says:

    These games are just MMOs so they can charge a monthly fee. SWTOR is the prime example: It’s a single-player game at heart, but it charges 15$ a month extra. If they had released a dozen single-player episodes, one for each class (sell the first three at 49$, then one every few months for another 10$), we’d have just as much fun with it, and it would have been the better game. But no, MMOs is where the big players smell the big money.

    • mmalove says:


      Berate WOW and it’s clones all you want, but at 180 dollars annually, plus an extra 40 bucks/expansion roughly every 2 years, you’re attracting a 200 dollar/customer spend, and Blizzard’s shown they can get MILLIONS on this bandwagon. Even Call of Duty can’t churn out 3 games/year to compete with that kind of money.

      The problem is, for me at least, two fold.
      1. I often don’t get my money’s worth out of massively multiplayer. This is mostly a flaw in game design: progression creates power gaps between players so that the friend you made yesterday is no longer having fun in the same content as you today, because you played more or less hours. Endgame is the promise land where this power gap converges so everyone can play together again, but more and more MMOs are stacking so much onto the solo grind up to endgame, many don’t even make it. So in the end, we get a very expensive world where player interaction matters very little throughout the experience.
      2. The balance of player numbers/server. As if the above weren’t making most MMOs massively solo as it is, there are a few quirks that persist through MMO demographics:
      -In the beginning, there will almost always be lag, overcrowding in newbie zones, and increased downtime as the servers buckle from putting everyone into a small portion of the game world
      -In a few months time, the game world will experience a bar-bell effect: newbie and endgame zones will be reasonably populated, but the mid-game zones will be ghostlands.
      -Any game that uses virtual/physical servers to divide the players into manageable game worlds will see many players converge onto a few servers to get the most out of playing with other players, leaving large numbers of near empty servers.

      The net result of this, is I have an easier time getting a multiplayer experience out of a game like league of legends, starcraft or diablo, than I do in a massively multiplayer game. And I think as more people are realizing this, they are less willing to hang in for a long MMO subscription, because what’s the point?

      Looking back, I subbed SWTOR, and while playing felt it was a pretty decent RPG for an MMO. But in hindsight, I have to agree with many of the criticisms posted in the article and comments: the quests, combat, and time grinds were all MMOified – the game world forced into rigidity such that other players could enjoy the same scripted events, the power curve of levels replacing any development of skill needed to play through higher end content, the “rare” lightsaber you found having 5 equivalents for sale on the market. I’d like to say I could justify buying an MMO, playing through the solo story and then unsubbing if the endgame wasn’t worth it, but truth be told I’d much rather hang onto my dollars and support the development of non-MMOified RPG content: where the story matters, where the your character actually affects the gameworld instead of just levelling up off of it, where you can skip taxi rides without players feeling you cheated by skipping a time sink.

  9. frightlever says:

    Isn’t this what Age of Conan did? I quite liked the SP part of that. It was everything else about it that wasn’t so hot.

    I suppose at some point somebody was staring at two bullet-pointed columns, on the left SP and on the right MMO. That “compelling personal story” on the left, might just attract those “juicy subscription fees” on the right. Or not.

  10. kataras says:

    We need more games like STALKER, where you are not the almighty hero and the game world simply does not care about your existence. In fact you are a minor annoyance in the grand scheme of things. A small stone in its shoe. A fly in its tea. A yellow stain in its underwear.

    • Breadline says:

      I was thinking this too. Even in single player games being the role of Chosen One is tiring. In fact, STALKER makes me feel more involved in a living world than most MMORPGs do.

  11. Nallen says:

    You’re absolutely right, I don’t really understand the fascination with trying to make an MMO as much unlike a massively multiplayer game as possible. SWTOR felt completely singleplayer, even when it forced you to play with others.

    I think EVE is it really. And maybe that Robot EVE clone.

  12. PoulWrist says:

    I have been saying this for years. Noone wants to listen, though. New mmos are these trinities of games ; one part single player, one part multiplayer pvp and one part multiplayer pvm. All three games are completely separate entities within the game world hidden away in instances and phased zones. How did the freeform almost pen and paper style emulation the genre started out as get to here?

  13. Zorlan says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes, I agree 100%! I just made this account to post this after being a reader for a few years, but seriously. Get this article to the devs of TES:Online so that they know what they must do. Ah, how great it would be if people would just listen to your wise, wise words, Rob.

    PS. How do I change my password? I can’t find any “my account” page or something similar, just that darned Log-in button.

  14. vee41 says:

    “Where for instance are the worlds where the great demon can actually explode out of his dungeon if not kept in check? Where are regular events like finding the resources to expand your faction’s capital city, and votes on how to do so? Where are the battle lines constantly shifting as a result of fights that any player can contribute to? Using regular single-player RPG design in the MMO world doesn’t simply result in boring quests – it provides a path of least resistance for design that results in precious little innovation happening on the multiplayer side either.”

    Guild Wars 2 has dat. Obviously it’s ‘tug-of-war’ kind of chained events but amount of those interactions and dire consequences they can have makes it heads and shoulders above any other MMO. Let that giant octupuss monster run free and watch the whole zone gradually get annihilated by it’s minions, that sort of stuff. It gives a sense that your actions actually have a meaning in the world. When it comes to living world haven’t quite seen anything like that in single player games either.

    • PoulWrist says:

      Yea, you know how like Rift it had all these horrible consequences if you didn’t protect zones from invasions? Turns out, horrible consequences totally break the singleplayer game and because questing is required for leveling, noone can level while the zone is under control by mobs. So the zone control and horror was nerfed waaaay down.

      • Malk_Content says:

        Thats only a problem when you have a) a proscribed and linear levelling path (doesn’t really exist in GW2) b) no incentives for players to come back to areas to liberate it so they are perpetually locked down (once again not really a problem in GW2) and c) don’t give out rewards for effort and have a failure state reduce gameplay options (once again not true for GW2.) These things can work and I believe a level of permeance is needed for mmos to feel fresh and exciting again as the only thing that can offer an everchanging world is the random acts of other players. RIft had good ideas but implimented them poorly, being laden with some problems MMO devs seem to think are a part of being an MMO and working within the constraints of the formula rather than throwing the formula out if it doesn’t work.

        • vee41 says:

          This, all the positive hype GW2 has is there (mostly) for a good reason.

          • Malk_Content says:

            I’ll be honest that after the BWE I was a bit let down, far too much expectation from the hype. Then I caught myself and realised it is still miles ahead of what else is being offered in terms of the experience I want.

          • RvLeshrac says:


            I have the exact same feeling every time I load up the first Guild Wars. First MMO where I actually gave a crap about the world.

            It helps that ArenaNet implemented a completely modular world, where the state is based on the party leader’s quest status, and it *feels* like your actions are changing the world, even when they technically aren’t.

  15. Swyyw says:

    This has been my feeling for the past decade, but the market disagrees. At the end of the day it doesn’t mattter what’s better, only what sells. When the entire MMO genre decided to severly diminish the multiplayer aspect of those games in response to the (very real) frustrations of playing with other people, 10 million players said “well done”. The others went to sandbox games such as EVE Online or just gave up on the genre.

  16. Bassem says:

    Where for instance are the worlds where the great demon can actually explode out of his dungeon if not kept in check? Where are regular events like finding the resources to expand your faction’s capital city, and votes on how to do so? Where are the battle lines constantly shifting as a result of fights that any player can contribute to?

    Firefall and Planetside 2.

    • Malk_Content says:

      You’ve just reminded be to give the Firefall beta another whirl. What I played of it was wonderful and all it needed was “more possible events.”

  17. Vander says:

    I agree completly. What annoy me the most in the single player mmos is another thing: people. They constantly break the fourth wall, among a lot of things, and you cant do anything about it in most games.

    • Screwie says:

      Very much agreed. For this reason I only really enjoy instanced MMOs like City of Heroes, DDO and Guild Wars 1. I can play with who I want and ignore the rest of the world if I want to.

      Instanced MMOs such as the aforementioned three also tend to be better at handling narratives and consequences, I find.

    • Phantoon says:

      I like to imagine Dark Millenium was one where people would rarely break the fourth wall out of who the name would attract in the first place.

  18. trjp says:

    The moving battle lines you want are in Warhammer Online – whilst it wasn’t perfect, that was actually an MMO which made the most of the fact there were a lot of people in the world AND that the 2 factions hate each other.

    The best bits would throw the 2 factions together for endless fun and games – when it was good, it was very, very good.

    • f1x says:

      Indeed, it was just screwed at the highest level because of item progression / skills one shooting people

      but overall it had a very clever design, for example: something really simple like making both factions quest in the same map, one faction started questing in one corner, the other faction in the other, quests would lead to the center were the conflict/pvp would start and also were the castles/strategic points were
      A simple idea that was very much effective, it was just not as well implemented in every map, some maps (specially end-game ones) were not so well designed as the previous tiers

      also public quests really gave the questing a lot of life,

      Problem is Warhammer had also many flaws and sadly subscribers ran away back to WoW after the first month, but to be honest, I would gladly play Warhammer Online again if it had enough players / fixed a couple PvP balance issues

  19. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    Great article, I agree completely. This is one of the reasons I never really got into MMOs (the other is that I don’t think I can have fun with a game for which I have to pay a subscription).

    Regarding that hat and orphan thing: Shouldn’t you eat your own hat? I mean, for all we know, you don’t even like orphans and hats und you do something like this regularly.

  20. dawnmane says:

    This needs to be posted everywhere!

  21. Kollega says:

    I agree completely that making MMOs that are glorified single-player RPGs with monthly fees attached is stupid, and that all the good stuff is on the “player-driven, procedural, dynamic” side of the fence. But then again, you have to be pretty irrational to disagree with the idea that MMOs should make use of their “Massively Multiplayer Online” component.

  22. neofit says:

    Let’s see it this way. I paid about 50€ for Skyrim. It took me 5 months on and off, a week here and a couple there, to “finish it”, i.e. do most of the quests there. If it were one of those new online SP games, I’d have to pay about 5x 15€+ VAT. So why would they want to NOT go online?

  23. Amasius says:

    DCUO actually had a huge open world pvp event just yesterday. I gave up though after I dc’d the third time… But still, it was impressive to see so many heroes and villains together.

  24. Lobotomist says:

    @Richard C.

    Great write up. Sumps perfectly the reason why 99.99 MMOs failed.

    If you want MMO, remove the story – because players and interaction with players = are the story

  25. f1x says:

    The whole MMO concept has gone silly thats for sure,
    Back in the early days of WoW and previous MMOs, people would just group up because it was FUN and it was cool to actually meet other people
    you didn’t really need the game mechanics to tell you “look, you have to form a group now to do this, and we have conveniently placed a button here that will make everything automathic”, I think thats part of the disease, when (as a developer) you dont trust that players will group up and have fun on themselves, you’ve made something wrong

    I mean, in the end glorified single-player MMOs are the result of poor/bad design,
    but a MMO that forces you to group with other people would be the same in my eyes

  26. dLay says:

    Very good article, but still, if SWtOR would be without the story then it wouldn’t have been a true BioWare game.

  27. faelnor says:

    We don’t begrudge shooters for not giving us bots any more.

    I do. If BF3 had bots like the original BF1942, I would have bought it.

    Anyway, I get the feeling that the amount of RPS posts complaining about a general state of affairs in the video games industry is increasing every day. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a staunch complainer. I agree wholeheartedly with the article, and it’s something I used to criticise even before WoW was out.

    But I find it interesting that people who used to complain about exactly the same things (social gaming, monetization models, always-online models and this very article for instance) a few years ago were quickly shunned by a horde of mocking and accusing commenters. Times change, I guess.

  28. Stellar Duck says:

    Thank you for the alt-texts Richard. They were great.

      • Stellar Duck says:

        You consistently manage to get them just right. I’m always happy when you got a piece here, both because I greatly enjoy your work and because I want to check the alt-texts. It’s like a little advent calender.

        When I’m going to be playing ToR later today I’ll probably have a hard time not thinking about your rendition.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          They’re fun to do. You can be a little naughtier than normal because they’re not quite so in-your-face as a regular caption, and don’t have to fit page furniture in any way. And I like that in some way people interact with the article to get them instead of if being a purely passive read.

    • Faldrath says:

      Yep! The article was great overall, but the alt-texts were superb. The second and third ones almost got me in trouble here at work.

  29. lowprices says:

    This has pretty much summed up why I’ve been umming and ahhing about the secret world. While anything with Ragnar ‘Longest Journey’ Tornquists name on it would be an instant buy for me, I’m really not sure how successfully a narrative-driven game can be integrated with a MMO experience. Will the horror be convincing if people are running around calling everyone faggots in public chat (not that I’m a cynic about how people behave towards each other online or anything)? Probably not.

  30. Breadline says:

    I’m so sick of developers thinking we want to be THE hero in every MMO. Not only that but they seem to constantly believe we’re actually falling for it. It’s almost gotten insulting. I’m not blind or retarded, I can see all the other players performing the exact same tasks I am and all being individually congratulated for being THE hero. They’re fully aware that this shatters any form of immersion to the point where we never care about the story yet they do it anyway.

    asdbskjadnksa DEVELOPERS, WE AREN’T IDIOTS.

    The most I’d want to be in an MMO’s scripted quest system is A hero, among many others. But even then, the single player bits are bullshit. The ONE DISTINGUISHING FACTOR that MMOs have over every other game is persistently existing with other players. Why does every developer ignore the one strength MMOs have? You know that as soon as a more accessible medieval fantasy version of Eve comes out everyone will praise its innovation while us gamers sit there with an epic wtf face, amazed that the industry took this long to grasp what MMO stands for.

    When I heard that Elder Scrolls Online was largely about three faction open world PvP with an emphasis on territory control I got excited. I thought I might enjoy an MMORPG that actually takes advantage of players’ ability to affect each other and the world. But those hopes were dashed as soon as someone said “We won’t let other players get in your way in this MMO! You’re totally the hero!”

    I fully support being able to act by yourself all the time in an MMO, on your terms. NOT by being given an awkward alternate dimension wherein each player becomes their own world that the universe centers around.

    An MMO’s strength should ultimately be players’ interaction with each other.

  31. KaelWolfcry says:

    While some actual dynamic events in an MMO incited by the actual players would be most welcome, the painful fact of the matter is that hell truly is other people. Especially when you have several different ambitions, egos, and ages (mental or physical) trying to accomplish the same goal. This is only compounded by the shroud of anonimity and sense of entitlement many gamers carry, creating this sort of “shit salsa”–spicy, but awful in its composition, and ultimately making one sick by exposure to it.

    If not having to deal with the greater bulk of online idiocy is the Stroke of Doom for MMO’s, then I’ll try to carry that burden on my shoulders…until the user is further empowered to filter their game population to their tastes. (I say “user” and not “developer”, since clearly the devs can’t be assed to do it themselves, and have other priorities anyway.)

  32. RakeShark says:

    I think the best way to make a MMO is to treat it like a social experiment rather than a social experience.

  33. Wodge says:


    Also, I think another issue is that MMOs are too easy, I remember a time in EQ2 that you couldn’t leave Qeynos or Freeport without a full party or else you’d be mauled to death by badgers or somesuch, now you can solo some of the easier raids and reap all the loot.

    Make the world punishing to encourage, no, demand, grouping up. As it stands most MMOs are single player save for a few “Heroic” or Group quests that either take on a tougher Mob out in the wide world, or an Instance. This pretty much makes Mass Effect 3 an MMO in my eyes.

    • trjp says:

      Problem is that a high number of players don’t want to have to group-up to progress.

      They will probably group-up for certain events/arenas/raids etc. – but they don’t want to have to find a group to kill 50 wolves or collect 10 doodahs.

      Anyone thinking otherwise, hasn’t been paying attention really – the first point of complaint with any MMO is usually ‘having to play with other people’ rather than just being ABLE to.

      • Wisq says:

        I do wonder if it’s possible to have the best of both worlds. For example, scale things such that they allow soloing, but substantially reward grouping.

        There’s generally not a ton of incentive to group up with strangers in a lot of MMOs. You kill faster, but you split the XP so it’s the same net gain. You may also have to share loot and worry about people hogging it. You complete quests faster, but then you have to run off to hand them in, slowing things down. Deaths tend to be disruptive, costly, and focused on certain players (the tank or the squishes, depending on the situation), and one player screwing up can get the whole party killed (meaning it’s hard to work with a variety of skill levels).

        There are solutions to most of these. Instanced loot, grouping XP bonuses, reduced death penalties (or perhaps reduced based on group size?), etc. But you do need to really want to focus on multiplayer.

        Borderlands wasn’t an MMO, but it often feels like a mini-MMO anyway, and I think they handled this aspect almost perfectly. Enemy strength scales with number of players, so there’s always a challenge and lots of XP to go around. Items scale too, so you get much better gear from multiplayer, as well as lots of money to go around too. Loot isn’t instanced, but you make up for that by each character generally having a few item classes they need, so distribution is easy.

        Thus the multiplayer experience is good enough, even with strangers, to make it worth playing co-op rather than solo. Yet solo is still perfectly viable, and is probably how 90% of players do their first playthrough. IMO, MMOs could learn a thing or two from this model.

  34. Stevostin says:

    Amen. Just adding to the choir if anyone deciding is reading. Let’s put it in other words : MMO new choir pattern : Day Z. Leave the usual questing stuff to Single player experiences. The only story telling that works in MMO is the one created by the players themselves.

  35. mueti says:

    I don’t get why you cite GW2 as a negative example so much. It does have that “singleplayer” component, yes, but it’s a minor addition. At the core the game very much does exactly what you demand from mmos, it takes the the multiplayer aspect and makes that it’s thing, instead of doing something that singleplayer games do better already and just throw a few more people in there.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      It’s because even there, done well by MMO standards, it’s mediocre at best and badly clashes with the rest of the game, from your character talking and taking the lead in conversation instead of being your character, to narratively consecutive events being spaced by the level curve, to the clash between who and what you are in those bits not being acknowledged by the rest of the game. And other things. But I’m on my iPhone ATM and long form typing is a pain.

      • Malk_Content says:

        But then you go and cite Skyrim as your good singleplayer example, a game in which who and what you are means nothing to the game and any action you take does little to change the world as a whole. GW2 actually does a better job of reacting to the player with NPCs reacting to you differently based on your personality (such that it is chosen between three options) a world in which locations will change, even if not permanently outside of the instance. Gw2 isn’t perfect but call it mediocre at best and then comparing it’s elements against a game that does it worse creates a weird disconnect.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          No, I used it as my Elder Scrolls example to tie things back to TEScO.

          • Malk_Content says:

            Going back for another read, fair enough. IN my defence I did go and make a cup of tea just before the end and didn’t properly resync myself.

      • Runs With Foxes says:

        I think mueti’s point is that the majority of the game is actually highly social, so you can’t put it in the same boat as SWTOR, which is more of a single player game forced into an MMO monetisation scheme. You might argue that GW2 shouldn’t have that single player story stuff at all, and I’d tend to agree — but I have a feeling it would come in for criticism from reviewers if it didn’t have that.

        That’s the thing. Why are articles like this one labelled ‘rants’, resigning their impact to mere opinion? Why don’t you ever hear these criticisms in actual reviews? Come review time we hear about how SWTOR’s cutscenes are nicely voiced, and how the NPC companions have some funny lines or whatever. Totally irrelevant to what an MMO should be about. But these criticisms aren’t raised until the game has come out. Not placing the blame on you here, but just reviewers in general.

        The other issue is that people tend to only focus on AAA games and ignore the other MMOs that actually do offer the kind of social game you’re talking about. Something like Salem will always be a niche game, but it’s a proper sandbox with all players doing everything in the same space, with no Emotional Story in sight (except the ones that might emerge from the game systems and interaction with other players). But you don’t hear about games like that. For all the protesting, it’s the blander antisocial games that get the attention.

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          In general, because space is limited and people don’t much care for reviews going off on tangents and criticising games for the sins of their genre unless they’re particularly egregious about it. In the case of MMOs, because they’re like trying to review ‘chocolate’ based on a bag of Revels. The only thing a ‘timely’ review of one (which for various reasons from business to reader demand, ends up being the default, and beta experience only goes so far) can realistically do is advise whether or not it’s worth taking a punt on it.

        • Enikuo says:

          I think the niche mmos are always ignored because they almost always have open world PvP that, as Apolloin noted earlier, turns them into murder simulators “where the player base seems to have been raised by cannibal wolves in some rural backwater.”

          I can think of maybe 2 sandboxy mmos where that’s not the case – WURM Online and a Tale in the Desert.

          • MadMatty says:

            “where the player base seems to have been raised by cannibal wolves in some rural backwater.”

            well, for most Fantasy MMO´s this is often the actual case LOL
            but i get what you are saying.

            It is solved by joining a large guild or settlement!
            There will always be bandits looking for an opportunity tho, but i think this adds to the charm rather than detracts-

            They were savage times indeed.

          • Enikuo says:

            Well, that’s the common advice – join a big guild. But, I don’t think it gets us anywhere, because clearly, gamers aren’t interested in that solution. It’s a problem with sandbox mmos that neither developers nor gamers seem interested in solving.

  36. Thoric says:

    I had some hope for this, but now it’s dead.

    I’m sticking to DayZ.

  37. Tomhai says:

    thank you for the article. I have not been able to play ANY of the MMO-s because of this (EVE’s just too hardcore and spacey:)). I thought that maybe Firefall would change that, being an FPS and having lots of PvP but the awful MMO look and “kill 20 of this” first mission quickly turned my off.

    • kaffis says:

      Consider PlanetSide 2 instead of Firefall, then. No “MMO look,” no kill 20 NPCS quests.

      Kill players, capture bases. On your terms.

  38. iZen says:

    Word, Richard, Word. Except I am thinking this since about 10 years.
    The first MMOs where created around very low internet connections, and therefore had all that “Roll the dice” mechanics to avoid stuff like collision detection, lag in direct combat (Severance, Mount&Blade) etc.
    However, the tech has evolved now, but the gameplay of MMOs hasn’t in the slightest.
    That’s partly because the MMO formula has been accepted by the playerbase as a genre on its own, instead of being seen as the compromise/improvisation it actually is.
    Age of Conan strived to change that, but in the course of development all those prominent features we were promised (Severance and M&B were even mentioned as inspirations) were either dropped or altered to fit in the classic MMO formulae. This was mostly the publishers fault, and around the time the game was released, the head dev quit his job (I suppose out of shear frustration of having his dream being slaughtered to pieces and refitted to be WoW). What came out was a hybrid, one of the most beautiful gameworlds I’ve ever seen, great animations all packed into the WoW formulae. However, it was not what we were promised, so after 2 years of hyping the game, I didn’t even buy it on release. It was a failure in terms of selling, because other games were perfecting what AoC called a compromise, so why play it in the first place? I bought it way later for 10€ green pepper edition, the game was almost dead by then (only a year old though).

    Admittedly, its only half the fault of WoW. The formulae was created by DaoC and the likes, but WoW just sold maddeningly, motivating other prublishers to stick the formula.

    Most minimalistic features ever just combine to let the player do whatever he wants, and how he wants it. How is a 10year development cycle for Diablo3, wich actually does nothing new to its predecessor that couldnt also be addon content, justifiable if you look at games like Skyrim (2,3 years maybe?) or DayZ, wich was developed in a week or so.

    “MMO” in its most classic meaning is still a promising word. Yet not if devs don’t COMPLETELY and UTTERLY abandon the classic formula and make a real game for many players instead of a glorified excel sheet that just eats time and has no skill involved whatsoever. (Skill in MMO basically means “Who put most time into it?/Who is most withstanding to boredom?”)

    • MadMatty says:

      You are…. Correct!

      I just keep wondering if the paying playing field is dominated by spotty 16 year old tards, who have no experience with Real MMO´s, since they don´t have triple A graphics, easy to learn UI´s or massive hype marketing- probably so.
      A real MMO is so rare i guess many gamesplayers don´t have any experience at all with emergent gamesplay- a shame, since im quite sure thats where its at.

  39. AmateurScience says:

    That’s hit the nail on the head for me. Your TOR example was *precisely* what happened to me: Enjoyed playing the imperial agent, got frustrated by the ‘MMO bullshit’ as you put it, and stopped playing around lvl 26ish. TOR was the first game where I really felt I didn’t get my money’s worth, and was certainly the last game I’ll play that requires a subscription. The other thing was that because of the aggressive instancing, I almost never saw other players out in the field, even within days of release. The MM of this particular MMO was severely lacking to the point where I found myself asking: ‘why bother?’.

  40. jhng says:

    A really good article and well done RPS on providing an independent platform for interesting guests.

    A basic design principle of any creative act is the constant question – “what is uniquely enabled/disabled by adding/removing feature X”. If you add a verse to your song, make sure you say something that you couldn’t fit into the other verses and vice versa.

    So you would have thought that when going down the MMO route designers would think “what can we uniquely do in an MMO context that we couldn’t achieve in any other context?”. Cobbett’s piece suggests that in the AAA field you often can’t find a compelling answer to this question which is intrinsic to the game — most could equally work as singleplayer games for the majority of the player experience.

    So the sad truth is that the answer to the question is likely to be extrinsic to the game — more profitable revenue models, de facto DRM, a normalized acceptance of compulsion loop gameplay which can be exploited and so forth.

    It’s particularly sad to see first KOTOR and now Elder Scrolls falling prey to MMOification. I bet that the likely failure of SW:TOR (haven’t played it but the rate of subscriber drop off looks pretty terrible) will basically kill off any prospect of getting another single-player KOTOR game (Dev: “Can we do KOTOR 3”, Exec: “No, we tried to revive KOTOR with SW:TOR and it bombed, consumers don’t want that kind of thing”). Elder Scrolls, ditto.

    Then all big budget single player games will be CoD-a-likes (since consumers obviously “do want that kind of thing”) — in fact, we’re already seeing it with Syndicate and Xcom revivals and with the few publisher-driven ‘big new IP’ projects focussing on that genre (Homefront in particular springs to mind).

  41. Nameless1 says:

    I totally agree, except I don’t find Skyrim SO good, especially gameplay and content wise. Without the mods It would indeed be a poor thing.

  42. pantognost says:

    It is my opinion, that the author is making a mixup in this article. Specifically he mixes up the quality of a solo experience with the need for a solo experience.
    I totally agree that mmos need dynamic content to keep players playing instead of canned quest lines. Btw that is what gw is promising. But i think that dynamic content can be both solo and group. Naturally the soloer cannot hope to defeat the dragon menacing the land, this is a task for all the heroes of the aforementioned land. But, a soloer can sneak into the dragon’s lair to steal the hoarded lich’s heart that can be used by the group to summon and bind the lich….and so on.
    In the previous example I am arguing for a totally emergent solo and group based experience that can keep the subscription instead of canned solo and geoup quest.
    And here I think it is where the whole article is missing the point of faillure for mmos.

    MMOs do not fail because they cannot excell in group or in solo content. They fail because they utilise single player (not solo, single player) design methods instead of adapting to the business model (subscription) by at last leaving both the soloer and the grouper to mess up with the world. Of course there is the danger of becoming sandbox mess, I am not arguing for that. I guess I’d like a more rich and deep terraria like emergent interaction, but in the context of a traditional fantasy mmo.

    Can it be done? I don’t know. But I don’t think that a rant about not trying is any help.

  43. malkav11 says:

    I completely do begrudge multiplayer shooters for not providing bots. If nothing else, they provide a way to get a feel for the gameplay before jumping into the shark tank that is multiplayer.

    But yeah, I’m with you on MMOs needing to actually be, y’know, multiplayer because they’ll never be as good solo as a singleplayer game.

  44. subcultureguy says:

    Nice article! You should check out Embers of Caerus a new MMORPG with strong sandboxfeatures. The devs just started a kickstarter to finance the prototype!

    link to embersofcaerus.com

    Check out the forums, our community allways likes new and more input!

    link to kickstarter.com

    And here`s the kickstarter! :)

    • Drakedude says:

      The man speaks the truth. Read my emails RockpaperShotgun damn it :P, this game is exactly the remedy to what you seek as stated in this article and so many, many more. It says something that i was so excited it took me another two emails to actually remember to link the KickStarter :L.

  45. Merus says:

    My usual experience of games that put all their effort into a strong emergent community and rip out any semblance of a singleplayer experience is: a vast wasteland of no-one during my peak time, with occasional pockets of Generic Internet People [read: kind of douchey jerks, but not enough to block]. The lesson everyone failed to learn from WoW was that the single-player quests basically made that game work, because it gave players a series of easily achievable goals that boiled down the vast, unforgiving world into manageable morsels. Almost every attempt to do a sandbox MMO fails because the sandbox is too damn big.

    Hell, Minecraft’s success where so many others failed is the same thing: at the start of the game, you have two very modest goals: shelter, light. Getting more shelter and more light is enough to get you familiar with the world, enough so that you’ll start getting really ambitious.

  46. Zeewolf says:

    I totally agree. I don’t want to play MMO-games for single player-ish experiences, since single player games does that so much better. On the other hand, back when I was dreaming about how cool these new-fangled MMO-things could become, I was dreaming of virtual, dynamic worlds where people existed and did cool stuff on their own. Like how you set your own goals in Minecraft, to achieve what you want.

    Actually, Minecraft online gives a pretty good idea of the direction I wanted MMOs to take. Only less blocky. Day-Z seems to be another good example. Dynamic, where what you do matters because of what you do, not because it’s scripted.

    • MadMatty says:

      Well, Notch´s brother has had a little something called Wurm Online going for a few years now- its small,
      UI is quirky and some graphics are bad- but Its It! Gameplay can be a little on the slow side, but it does do the trick!

  47. briktal says:

    I’ve wondered recently what an MMO-ish single player game would be like. That is, take an MMO, remove the grind and the other players, then let those bits that have to be restricted due to it being an MMO have more room to expand. WoW has it’s phasing stuff for zone changes as the result of quests, but it’s still a hacky solution due to it being an MMO. The single player game could do more with world changes based on quests.

    I suppose that really it comes down to a single player game having more MMO style questing/zone progress, except without the grind and with actual in-game consequences. So in an MMO you go to the next quest hub and this guy says kill 10 bandits and this guy says recover 5 stolen heirlooms from the bandit camp. So you go there and kill 10 bandits and pickup 5 items and come back and get your rewards, but then the bandits in the camp and items you collected respawn. In the single player game, you go to the quest hub and those guys tell you to take out the bandit camp and recover what they stole. So you go there and kill all the bandits and then recover the stolen goods and go back and get your rewards, but the camp stays cleared (or maybe people from the quest hub occupy the camp instead, or the camp is completely disposed of)

  48. Lemming says:

    Tying to be all things to all people has never worked. MMO, or single player. Pick one.

    They’ll learn when it all goes tits up.

    ” One minute I’m attending a high society party and involved in political intrigue, the next… I’m picking apples?”

    First time I encountered this kind of thing was the Burning Crusade launch for WoW. You’re level 60, you’ve defeated dragons and kings and sorcerers, people fear you where you tread and what’s one of the first things you do when you go through the dark portal? Pick up Felhound shit.

  49. chris1479 says:


    I had started to believe it was simply me who bought SWTOR and played it for about 3 weeks – bemused by the story but hardly enthralled – and left it outright mystified as to where the MMO was in this game.

    It was a lonely, content bloated, kill X number of rats kind of game and after spending £30 on it I’m absolutely cheesed off with it.

    As for the curiously large number of people who appear to enthusiastically embrace playing “MMO” games that have no discernible multiplayer content in them whatsoever, wtf mate? Go and play Skyrim or any other of the infinite single player RPGs out there.

    I’ve never had a case a true nerd rage before but my time has come. This article really puts its finger on exactly what it was about the past 5-10 years that has seen MMOs go from being life-breakingly awesome, colourful, strange, frantic, heartfelt, frightening, cheerful places filled with all sort of people doing all sorts of different things, into soulless and fragmented (read: instanced) places.

    I played EQ for years and years on and off, and as more time went by the life steadily drained out of it but I could never quite work out why things like “Partners” or “servants” or any other kind of NPC ‘help’ they kept crowbarring into the game grated so much.

    It’s because MMOs were – for me – always about getting a group of friends together, or making new friends, or even cooperating with your enemies, to become more than the sum of your parts for a few hours and fight hordes of hard as nails mobs, each person relying on the man next to him.

    Instead of this we got freaking SWTOR, god damn, even WoW was better than that and I only played that for a little over a month. What a ginormous let down. For all the infinite permutations of fun and originality that MMOs could have become the developers – nay – the gaming public chose to Call Of Duty MMOs into bland undistinguished gray mush. Mushy boring watery porridge of tacked together instances with a monthly fee attached.

    Thanks for ruining something that was absolutely awesome whoever you are, incidentally Day Z captures this sandbox/MMO feel in a way that no other game has ever managed to for me other than Darkfall/EVE or early Everquest.

  50. Iconik says:

    Any one else tired of the same old MMO arguement? MMO’s are fine. In fact, with each one something new is thrown into the mix to make it exciting, dynamic and new. The new ingredients thrown into each MMO are the exact things that these devs see us bitching about. But, when the time comes to actually buy it or play it, all we do is gripe, bitch and moan.

    MMOs are fine. The gaming community as a whole has changed. But that doesn’t keep us from constantly bitching.

    • Apolloin says:

      Exactly! When I started playing WoW it had about half the features that it does now, but we made our OWN entertainment. Even on the PvE carebeary server that I was on, you were always good for some open world PvP around Ashenvale – and I lose track of the number of hours that I and others would spend simply defending that goddamn bridge into the town from the large number of Horde players who would come to try and kill the Gryphon master and innkeeper.

      If you’re part of an MMO community and you’re wondering why most MMOs are evolving around the concept of giving the players the opportunity to avoid interacting with each other, perhaps the logical conclusion is that the communities are just too damn toxic!

      Eve copes with this by embracing it and giving players bigger and more opportunities of screwing each other over. Perhaps that’s why it does so well – no sign of THEM moving to F2P!