It happens with a frustrating reliability: a single player game RPG (you choose if the ‘R’ stands for ‘role’ or ‘roll’) is released that contains a large world to explore and threads of emergent gameplay, leading to a large number of people wonder why they don’t see the same in the massively multiplayer online space. It’s just happened with the release of Skyrim, as numerous bloggers sang its praises and wondered why MMOs weren’t doing the same ‘open world‘ thing.
It’s frustrating because it is the same answer this time as it has been all those other times. And the answer is: people.
Or, to phrase it differently: single player games only have to worry about the one person at the head of the queue. MMOs have to worry about the people who will be second, third, fourth and one millionth through the world.
In a single player RPG, being able to manipulate a flexible world is fantastic, wonderful, allows true player choice, etc. In a MMO, being able to manipulate a flexible world is griefing.
Let’s look at one particular Skyrim video showing what you can do in the world: home decoration. With corpses. Of women. That you’ve decapitated and then kept the heads as trophies.
Weird as it is, this behaviour can work within a single-player RPG because those actions effect no-one else. If that was a MMO, all those characters would possibly now be unavailable for others to use. The player could put his head-trophy stand out in his front yard as a display to others or have an entirely different and grotesque front landscape.
In Skyrim, a player’s actions effect only themselves. In a non-static MMO such as the original release Ultima Online (which allowed a lot of player freedom and had to deal with griefing on a large scale), a player’s actions can impact on every other player around them, potentially even when they are offline. This sounds great, until you realise that it means that you can log back into a world to find (for example) your companion has been murdered and their head used as a decorative paperweight.
People also effect the exploration angle – once specific areas of value are discovered, then the majority will make their way to those locations and ignore areas that don’t contain something to see or do. It’s much easier to feel that you are exploring a new world in solo or in a small group than try to pretend you are breaking new trails when pass other /afk players over every in-game hill.
Single player RPGs are always going to excel in making the player feel special because the entire thing is designed as an experience for one. MMORPGs have “massively multiplayer” in the name, meaning that they have to cater to a lot of players in-game simultaneously.
Which is why Skyrim can do what it does and why MMOs don’t deliver the same experience.
(Not that I expect to see anything change – when Dragon Age 3 comes out there will most likely be exactly the same comments raised on exactly the same issues).