The Elder Scrolls Online and the Rise of the Massively Single-Player Game
No game market is riskier to enter than the crowded and notoriously unstable world of Massively Multiplier Online games (MMO). Developers will always be tempted by the potential for profit, though – World of Warcraft, the highest-grossing game of all time, has over 7 million subscribers, each paying up to $14.99/£8.99 a month, and it’s been running for ten years.
The foundation of WoW’s success can probably be attributed to its status as a sequel to the influential Warcraft strategy game series, and many other developers have followed suit, trying to decrease risk by creating MMOs based on popular single-player franchises. Recent examples include The Elder Scrolls Online, Final Fantasy XIV and Star Wars: The Old Republic.
MMOs can be very different beasts from offline games, though. They are designed around interacting with other people, who can be seen in the game world even if the player has nothing to do with them. Several areas and enemies are simply too hard to tackle solo, meaning players have to form groups to take them on, and later in the game they often form large, permanent guilds to tackle dungeons. Trading is often the best way to get good items and players define the in-game economy. The jargon and unspoken rules of the game are usually created entirely by gamers. Other people’s presence is inescapable.
This poses an interesting challenge – how does a publisher convince fans of a single-player franchise to play its new MMO spinoff? More and more they seem to think that the solution is to make sure players can play these games alone if they want to. While traditionally single-player games are trying anything these days to fit in multiplayer modes (think Assassin’s Creed or Bioshock 2), the MMO genre is strangely heading in the opposite direction.
The Elder Scrolls Online is the most recent high-profile MMO release, based on the unwaveringly single-player franchise that brought gamers Skyrim, Oblivion and Morrowind. It’s no surprise that it was met with heavy scepticism from fans of the series on announcement, and in a pre-release interview with Game Informer, Game Director Matt Firor was quick to point out that there is “a whole part of the game that is 100 per cent solo, which is the main story, where the world focuses on you – you are the hero, everything you do is solo and the world reacts to you that way”. It was a clear statement that seemed designed to reassure past Elder Scrolls players – he was, after all, basically describing the mechanics of every previous game in the series.
As a result, in TESO there’s a main storyline that players can complete entirely on their own, they see the game world differently from other players depending on how far they’ve progressed, and even the player-versus-player content includes solo quests. Players also automatically share experience from kills with others without needing to formally group up with them, meaning that their progress is not slowed if they prefer to play alone.
The problem is that this also removes the need to interact with other players at all. When I’m on the same quest as someone else in the area we’ll often be killing the enemies together without saying a word to each other. It’s even odder when the focus on a personal story means that NPCs keep telling me I’m the only one who can help them. It can feel like I’m just playing a single-player game that happens to have other people wandering around.
To TESO’s credit, though, it is at least a more sociable game than 2012’s Guild Wars 2, which featured many of the same game mechanics but gave players even less of a reason to interact with each other.
Whereas TESO offers bonus experience points for questing as a group Guild Wars 2 offers no such benefits. In fact it doesn’t even give players much need to group up in the first place – unlike in TESO, GW2’s quests are mostly minor variations on the kill/collect model that are often too short, simple or easy to need any special group effort.
There is also a stronger focus on solo story quests in GW2 compared to TESO, all of which take place in ‘instances’ – areas that remove players from the multiplayer world altogether – making these quests particularly isolating.
Instances designed for one player were once unheard of in MMOs, where most quests can usually be completed by everyone in the game, and seem to go completely against the core principles of the genre.
Perhaps the first game to use them extensively was Bioware’s 2011 MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic, which is a spin-off of the company’s successful Knights of the Old Republic single-player RPGs. TOR seems to want to actively discourage players from interacting early in the game by instancing most of their quests and giving them AI-controlled partners to help with the rare hard enemy (these companions are the same for every player of a class, only adding to the feeling that this is a single-player game in disguise).
Communities, not Games
This is not to say that any of these games are bad, just that they are lacking in what really makes MMOs special.
MMO developers are trying to increase their audience by catering to gamers who would usually want to play games alone. They are part of a trend among big-name developers of making games that appeal to as many people as possible, which can mainly be attributed to the increasing pressure from cheap and creative indie titles that often outperform their games in both sales and critical praise.
But these players probably aren’t interested in a traditionally multiplayer-only genre anyway. Meanwhile, focusing too much on solo content can harm the multiplayer elements that are an MMO’s true selling point and also put off the players who can make their communities truly thrive. Think of EVE Online – an almost entirely community-driven game that is relatively low-profile by most standards, but has remained enduringly popular thanks to some extremely dedicated fans.
It’s true that these communities can sometimes be a little unattractive for more casual players. I began enjoying World of Warcraft less and less when I realised that other player’s ideas about what made a ‘good’ player were restricting the sandbox nature of the game. At least that showed that the community mattered, though, and WoW still held my interest longer than almost any other game I’ve played.
The extra cost that usually comes with an MMO – whether that be through a subscription fee or an in-game shop – also means that a focus on solo play might make gamers feel that they are simply playing a more expensive version of single-player entries in the franchise, something that will only drive people away.
The Value of Multiplayer
It is of course possible for MMOs to become too reliant on interaction between players, resulting in many gamers finding it harder and harder to progress in the game without significant groups of other players. One of WoW’s early weaknesses was its over reliance on large group dungeons once players reached the level cap. These were among the only activities to do at the end of the game and one of the only ways to get the game’s best items, but they often required groups of up to forty people to complete, something only the most active players of the community usually had access to.
There is still value in single-player content, but it should be an option and not a philosophy to design the game around. It should never be in direct opposition to the ‘Multiplayer’ part of ‘Massively Multiplayer Online’, and it should always be better with other people if players have that option.
Not everyone plays MMOs with friends, but this is not a reason to isolate these players from others – it’s a reason for MMOs to strive to foster a community within their game worlds. Showing players the benefits of groups, guilds, trading and communication without forcing them – or making them purely functional – is important to this. In other words, gamers need to see the value multiplayer has in enhancing gameplay elements they like, rather than getting in the way of them.
Emphasising single-player elements is not the only way to attract people who usually only play solo games, because there’s more that attracts someone to a game than its player count. If gamers like The Elder Scrolls games because of their richly-detailed worlds and lore, then give them this in the MMO and instances or personal story quests won’t be necessary to bring them over.
TESO actually does this well, but it was fairly underplayed in a marketing campaign that focused mainly on game features like combat and character progression. The same can be said of the promotional strategies of most MMOs, but these games aren’t popular because of their gameplay – functionally, they usually don’t come anywhere near to the standard of the best new single-player releases. Instead, it’s the thousands of other people playing that make them interesting.
What’s the point of an MMO if gamers aren’t going to care about these people? Surely in an industry where AAA games are becoming more and more homogenous we should celebrate rather than suffocate the unique features of online games. Otherwise, players may one day give up on the genre altogether.
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