The Single Player vs. MMO Tradeoff

So in listening to The Instance podcast recently, the hosts touched on a bit of a discussion that’s been at the back on my mind for a while. The question was actually emailed in by an 8-year kid who’s evidently taking a class in video games (how times have changed!). The question was pretty simple—will Skyrim ever be made into a multiplayer game? For those who aren’t familiar with Skyrim, it’s the latest release in the Elder Scrolls series of single-player fantasy roleplaying video games.

The hosts answered “no” immediately, more due to the fact that the creators, Bethesda Games has stated they have no wish to move into the multiplayer genre. They’ve probably already explained why, but I can already guess at some of the reasons: Loss of control over the singular vision and storyline of the game. The headaches of trying to please a mass audience with a multitude of agendas and reasons for playing (see some of my previous articles here). The infrastructure costs of managing players logging in from all over the world. The fact that the market is littered with failed MMOs.

But at the same time the hosts answered this question no, there was little doubt about the excitement at the possibility of a Skyrim multiplayer game. Why? Because such a game would be light years ahead of anything that exists in the multiplayer game field today. Go a step further, and the reason for this has to do with the scale of a single player game vs. an MMO. Skyrim has a much more up-to-date graphics engine, and does much more with the ambience of the “non-player characters” (non-human controlled) characters than most MMOs attempt. Probably due to the huge scale, many MMOs enable only minimal interaction with objects and people within, selecting only a small subset as available. With a smaller, single player RPG, more development resources can be spent on the smaller details (overall graphics, video, unique character voiceovers, detailed storylines and puzzles) that give the game the flavor the hosts of the Instance were so excited over. A game like Skyrim can populate its smaller world with fully written books for the characters to uncover, and objects that may be worthless or valuable depending on what research the player is willing to put in. Characters that may have a clue to the whereabouts of a lost treasure, or simply are ranting on the corner. The Instance hosts were excited about the immersion factor. All those small details add up to a game that is much more involving than one where a fake “door” to nowhere is set into the side of building.

The advantage an established MMO has, however, is time. Given enough subscribers to sustain the franchise, the developers can continue to add all those immersive details into the game in patches and expansions. The problem they run into (and I think this is where Bethesda balks) is the “pleasing everyone” factor. The player-vs.-player people want their new battlegrounds, the power gamers want their end game raiding content, the PvE folks want their roleplaying and questing elements. Who wins? Well, typically the ones who make up the bulk of the player demographic. Sure, something for everyone is released as the MMO grows, but after a certain point, these player demands can start to outweigh building of the immersive vision for the game. In this particular conversation, the thought was that someone could create an addon for Skyrim that would allow a small group of friends to play together, but that was the best that could be hoped for.

Some folks at The Sandbox have argued that this is the real problem with MMOs today – that they have been taken over by people who just want to group up with their small group of friends to do roleplaying. They would argue that the MMO was originally created so that large groups of players could participate in large scale world building and PvP battles, and that the roleplayers should go back to their small-scale RPGs. Indeed, the folks at The Instance seemed to be feeling that a focus on the smaller group is the current trend.

Some new games coming out appear to be adding more of the single player RPG elements to the MMO. While Star Wars: The Old Republic is being accused of 1) being a Warcraft clone with better cinematics and 2) a single player RPG disguised as an MMO, it does appear that the larger MMO companies are trying to bridge the gap between the genres. Two games on the horizon for 2012 are Guild Wars 2 and The Secret Worlds, both of which are making claims of a more immersive MMO experience. We’ll see as the year goes on, but the topic does appear to be becoming a hot one within the industry.

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3 thoughts on “The Single Player vs. MMO Tradeoff

  1. gretch05 says:

    With every innovation comes a risk…..

  2. mygunzgoblam says:

    the problem with an Elder Scrolls MMO is that Bethesda’s business model is to launch an optimized-but-not-polished-and-full-of-bugs single-player experience, then let the mod community turn their meh into awesome. So where is the mod community going to be with a multiplayer / MMO product?

    • gpili says:

      well perhaps Bethesda will do the same modding of their mmo. I’m interested to see how it will play out now that they’ve announced for 2013. my understanding is that they’ll be using a different engine and the standard 3rd person view most mmos pick. this is a bit disappointing as I like the immediacy and tension of the single player game. still it will be interesting to see the entire world available in a single game.

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