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.
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.)
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...
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.)
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.