I have been playing Skyrim for the last couple of weeks. It is undoubtedly the best single player RPG I have ever played. The wonderful thing about the Elder Scrolls series is not just their level of craftsmanship, but the lessons we can learn for the video game industry as a whole.
Skyrim, as other games in the Elder Scrolls series before it, is a theme-park game with sandbox elements. There is a main storyline, but you as the player are free to diverge from it and happily spend your days crafting bits of armor and rearranging the books in your little home if that is what you desire.
The books found in-game are an ongoing feature of the series, and Skyrim is no exception. Some of you may be aware of a study based on information in the books which breaks the fourth wall. If you aren’t then I urge you to read it. The parts to this are here:
In this analysis, the writer explores the idea that the player in the game has an effect on the game-world that goes beyond merely playing through the content. The effect is metaphysical, in such that through the texts found in game it is revealed, for example, that the inhabitants of the world are affected each time the player reboots the game to avoid an unwelcome end. The inhabitants cannot articulate their concerns, but their historians have an inkling that someone or something is “playing” with them. They know that time is being altered and lost in some way.
This is taken a step further when the player meets the character of Vivec in Morrowind. Vivec is an NPC who is aware that he is merely a character in a game, and because of his awareness he is able to free himself from the bonds of his in-game limitations. This he communicates to the player through a series of books to be found in the game, the thirty six lessons of Vivec. Thus he also knows of the player, and their god-like role and effect on the game world. In effect there is no wrong way to play the game. If the player wishes to min/max their abilities, to save and reload when things don’t go their way, to limit themselves to have more of a challenge, to modify the game code itself, all is acceptable. To quote Kateri from her final post in that series:
“… A game is a created reality, and TES invites the player to invest their imagination in that reality, and to interact with it. To shape it as they see fit. They release tools to mod it, so any player can make themselves an all-powerful god. Cheating? Wrong word. It’s part of the game. It is allowing the player to change their world.
And so it makes sense that Bethesda create ingame lore that plays with these ideas of so-called cheating, of power and agency, of warping the world around you. If the devs are the Godhead, then each player is immersed in their own god-dream. But the good player, the ruling king, is a lucid dreamer. If they can master the dream-game, if they can gain enough power, or cheat, or create their own reality in the Construction Set – this player has not just beaten the game, they have *become* part of the Godhead. Of the creative process. CHIM…”
Fascinating stuff. But if a player is a god, if there is no wrong way to play a single player RPG, where does that leave an MMO based on the same criteria? Let us now imagine the Elder Scrolls series as an MMO. While it makes sense for one player to be a God playing within his own lucid dream, it makes no sense at all when multiple Gods appear in the same dream. Now we move from there being no wrong way to play the game to there being no right way. Skyrim only works when there are an infinite number of alternate universes extrapolating on the same idea. Place a second player within the same game, make it multiplayer, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. The game no longer works as intended. Having thousands of Gods or ‘heros’ in the same world only serves to invalidate the reason for them being heros. Even more when you realize that you leaving the game, after all of your world changing hero status, will leave no effect at all. There can be many worthy characters within a game world, but there can only be one God overlooking the entire dynamic, if the God itself is bound in some way by the limits of the game universe, (ie the devs are the Godhead and each player is in their own unique God-dream.)
The starting area of Tortage in Age of Conan is routinely held up as an excellent example of a starting zone in an MMO, but it is merely a good example of a single player RPG which happens to be set in an MMO universe. Apart from multi-player quest lines, there is no need to interact with another player in Tortage, and it could be cynically said that these quest lines were made multi-player to satisfy some sort of semblance of an MMO. Once the player left the starting zone and ventured into the world of Conan, the game fell down, precisely because there was no more content on a scale that was found in the opening 20 levels. Age of Conan is two games in one: a well-designed single player RPG in Tortage, and an ill thought-out MMO for the rest, where the devs unwisely assumed that the players themselves would somehow generate content in a theme-park world. Likewise, the only conceivable reason for the new Star Wars game to be an MMO is that this is the only way for the company designing the game to recoup their development costs and show a profit.
Placing a theme-park RPG in an MMO environment merely defeats the purpose of the game itself. In an MMO you populate the world with players and bring it to life. But if every player is a God or a hero involved in their own ‘unique’ storyline of saving the world from this and that monster then the whole thing loses any sense of validity and you are reduced to mindless quests and repetitive tasks.