Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Skyrim Online

What is an MMORPG? One would think that after over a decade of playing them, and over 8 years of writing about them, I would have a good answer to that question. But I don't. The problem is not to look at any specific game and decide whether I would consider it to be an MMORPG or not. The problem is to imagine how much the existing games could change, and still be an MMORPG. I was pondering that question after reading not one but several bloggers writing about playing both Skyrim and the Star Wars: The Old Republic (beta) this weekend. Although they were more or less restrained by the SWTOR NDA, it was rather clear that everybody considered Skyrim to have a more believable, immersive, epic world than SWTOR. I believe them.

What I have problems with is jumping from the Skyrim vs. SWTOR comparison to a conclusion about the future of MMORPGs. I do think that SWTOR is a logical consequence of the evolution of the MMORPG genre from Everquest to World of Warcraft to now. But by being so typical, SWTOR ends up being not at all exceptional, not pushing the envelope. I tend to think about all the MMORPGs as being points in an imaginary cloud, the possibility space of MMORPGs so to say. The cloud encompasses all the features of all possible games that I would consider MMORPGs. On the outer edge of that cloud are atypical games like A Tale in the Desert, Puzzle Pirates, or Wizardry 101. And games like WoW or SWTOR are smack in the center of that possibility space.

What I observe is that many people look at this center, and not the edges of the possibility space. They point at World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic and say: "This is what an MMORPG is!". I believe they are wrong. And more specifically in this case I don't see any reason which would prevent the possibility of a hypothetical "Skyrim Online", which would have all the immersion of the existing Skyrim plus the massively multiplayer online features that would make it an MMORPG.

I am well willing to chant with you the often repeated lament of how game companies are more likely to target the center of the possibility space than to try and push the edges of that space outwards. But I don't think that it is already time to give up all hope. There are still games on the horizon like Guild Wars 2 which will be very different. And it is likely that the center of the possibility space will become so crowded after SWTOR is released that it forces competitors to do something different to survive.

While Skyrim having such a big open world is certainly nice, it has to be remarked that big open worlds are a current trend in single-player games. While MMORPGs have on average become more theme-parky, single-player games have become more sandboxy over the last decade, with GTA playing a big role in that development. And while it might not necessarily be Skyrim Online, it is quite possibly that a company with a strong single-player brand makes an MMORPG in the future, and that this MMORPG will have an epic open world because of that being what the company knows best. Just like SWTOR inherits many of the features of previous Bioware games, a company currently making epic open world single-player games might produce an epic open world MMORPG in the future.

I don't expect SWTOR to provide me with more than a few months of fun, because I expect it to be too similar to other MMORPGs in the center of that possibility space cloud. I will probably burn out quickly, because I've played too many too similar games in the past. And I consider it possible that I am not the only one who will have that experience. And over time this might cause a shift in the MMORPG market. I still have hope for MMORPGs that are very different. Just look how many different combat systems single-player RPGs of the last couple of years have, while too many MMORPGs are using a combat system that hasn't evolved much since Everquest. There is room in that possibility cloud, and that room gives me hope.

Skyrim would have to change drastically to become an MMO. On the other hand this kind of MMO is right at the center ff the possibility space, in my opinon.

Wowlikes have iterated themselves into a local maximum and away from the center, in my opinion.

When I started WoW many years ago it was the open world that attracted me. It wasn't tleporting to daily dungeons to run with strangers to earn points for best-in-slot.
As an explorer myself (though one who does not have a nice enough computer to play Skyrim), I love open worlds. I remember exploring WoW, when it first came out. I love that sort of stuff.

The biggest thing that jumps out to me from this post though is that a truly large, epic world is only finitely explorable, and players as a rule will consume that content faster than developers can produce it. Exploring does get old, and it can get old quickly. In addition, as you add players to the world, the world necessarily "shrinks". I'm not sure that either of these problems can be successfully combated, and as a result, I'm not sure that a MMO with a true focus on an expansive, immersive world ripe for exploring, is really a long-term success.

I mean, I could totally be wrong, but I just have a hard time seeing such a thing not being fairly short-lived. Though I'd love to hear examples of games that prove me wrong, or systems that could beat those factors.
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Single player games like Skyrim require a large open world with a large amount fo quest lines to encourage the player to continue exploring and play the game. Games like WoW are player treadmills that reward players with trinkets and the ability to socialise with other players.

IMO opinion playing a game like Skyrim offers a much more rewarding experience than playing a game like WoW. Skyrim offers guaranteed quality time that is focused on strong storylines. Whereas WoW can only offer the "shared" player experience of tens of thousands of people all dancing to the same boss dance or all collecting the same 10 items to complete a quest.

They offer vastly different experiences.
The Bethesda games offer an incredibly open world, one which I want to explore. In Fallout 3 I had most fun just walking around to all the different places and find out what I could do there. There would be mini stories, quests and highly original locations spread throughout the world. They really awarded the explorer in me, it's fun and rewarding to just go around.

And that's not something I have with Biowares games. They're a lot of fun but they're also fairly lineair. You can choose the order in which you do your quests but that's about it.

And even WoWs last expansion lost a lot of its exploring fun. You start at quest-hub A and you follow all the quests that lead form it until a zone is finished. Unlike the original WoW, It leaves very little exploring.

And that's a shame, mmorpgs are an ideal platform to deliver huge, open worlds which you're free to explore. Yet, the best open worlds that I've been playing in lately have been Bethesda's single player games.
any chance you could tell us what blogs you were reading

Normally I would. But in this case the bloggers were in contravention of the SWTOR NDA, and I didn't want to point fingers at anyone and later find he got into trouble with EA Bioware.
You can't really say Bethesda are following a trend in this regard, though. They have always made massive open worlds (Daggerfall is still the largest and most open).

If the trends are going their way right now, good luck to them!
They point at World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic and say: "This is what an MMORPG is!". I believe they are wrong.

This is I'm afraid all too common. I recently had a discussion in a thread which I can't link to (draw your own conclusions about that) about using the trinity within a game and how I was disappointed with games that went down that old dusty boring road.

The most common answer in that thread was basically "But that's exactly what a MMORPG is about!" or "You can't make a MMORPG without it!". People are too used to the old solution that they just can't even try to think outside the box for a second. And still there are MMORPGs out there that proves them wrong.

Regarding your headline, I would probably like Skyrim Online. But they would probably have to find some interesting solution to get the same feeling since it probably wouldn't be as fun if there are ten of you going for the same open world bounty at the same time. Oh and they would probably drop the almost free picking of perks in favour of classes and the trinity just like most of the other big MMOs out there. :)
I think SWTOR will hold my attention for more than a couple of months because of the story element. Until very recently I didn't buy into the reroll as end game idea, bit I want to see the different stories and how each one plays into the others. I just hope enough people stick with it long enough for me to experience all of them.
In terms of being realistic and immersive, I think single player will always have an edge over massively multi-player. In either genre there will be players who are there to break the rules, mess with the world, or just teabag every corpse they see. In single player, the existence of these people has no impact on your immersion, while in massively multi-player it can easily get to the point where they are all you see.
I believe the rumor mill is still that bethesda 'purchased and is building a call center for it's upcoming MMO'. Take that with a grain of salt though, rumor is still rumor.

MMO's aside, lets compare real apples to real apples. WoW and SWTOR are single player games at heart. I still contend they are three games each. Compare the single-player content of either wow or swtor and you'll find similarities in Skyrim.

You are special, you are the hero, you save the world. I loath when these are used in MMO's because they cause such seperation from the actual end-game. There, you are 'and a group of adventurers'. You aren't in any cinematic in dalaran, Fordring is. You go from king of the world to 'those guys' in one level.

That said, Bethesda has an...interesting... way of doing things. I would bet that, if they did do an mmo, you would not be 'special' at all, and I think when an MMO finally does this and breaks that sacred mold, we will finally have a wow-replacement worthy MMO.
Skyrim is open world but still pretty small compared to an MMO world. If they had to make as many zones and towns as WoW has, I doubt Skyrim would have much more detail.

I think there is a time and cost limit. TOR seems to have more detail than WoW but still not as much as Skyrim does, and that's at a hefty $100 million cost and at least 4 years of development.

To make a large open world MMO with as much detail as Skyrim is out of the question. It could only be done with procedural generation of content, which will never be as good as hand-tailored content like Skyrim.
A while back I saw some ads and articles on Wurm Online that convinced me to join, and it was mostly about the joys of pioneering and carving out a space for yourself in the wilderness. So I joined the Freedom server to discover that the ‘Wilderness’ was several hours jogging through the game through sprawling tracts of claimed land and resources in a desperate search to find somewhere to settle.
The overall effect was of going out ‘pioneering’ and being forced to set up a little garden and plant a few trees next to your hastily-constructed shanty in an alley between two tenement buildings.

The number one most common question on the newbie channel is: “Where the hell can I find somewhere to settle?” The answer is predominantly: “You can’t. All but the most inhospitable, inaccessible land is taken. Join a village.” I actually did that and had a bit of fun for a while, but it wasn’t what I signed up for.

This is not the only time I have been misled (iphone games: raise an army! Create an empire! By which we mean join a guild of a few hundred people and raid other guilds as a faceless number – and don’t even get me started on EVE Online), and it may not necessarily be the fault of devs or advertising… In its early days, the world of Wurm may have actually been as advertised. But people came along and screwed everything up. I hear they opened up a new world to combat that. I’m guessing experienced players who knew how the game works quickly flooded the territory, treating it as some new gold rush, snapping up as many vast tracts of land as they could and importing their friends to form efficient villages. Humans, like water, follow the path of least resistance – which is usually whatever trail has been blazed before.

Whatever grand intentions open worlds may have, they fall over when you add the most chaotic, random element available: people. Traditionally, this has been resolved by imposing restrictions – hence the ‘theme-park’. Anything else usually insists on open PVP (dooming the game to a relatively niche demographic and languishing in ‘hip’ indie obscurity. With one notable exception), which frequently results in ‘communities’ that make the kids from the Lord of the Flies look like UN delegates. Player impact on a world is like ripples on water. If you want smooth sailing on your pond (unlike modern sandbox mmos, who don’t care), you either restrict how much splash any one player can make (ie – themeparks), or you restrict the number of players allowed out on the water (financial suicide?).

Now, if Skyrim Online was co-op with maybe a handful of people who each picked a different Hold to own only one house in, and your activities centred around tackling more challenging content together, we could be on to a winner (as it is, the game is painfully easy on ‘normal’ and combat requires no actual strategy). Even now, I have to wonder how many folks who would read the words ‘Skyrim Online’ would think, “Oh cool! I wonder if I’ll be able to break into actual players’ houses and steal their stuff! Or assassinate them! I bet my mage build can totally handle any melee build…”
"To make a large open world MMO with as much detail as Skyrim is out of the question."

All at once, maybe. It would be perfectly possible to make a large open world with less detail and then continually add content density to the zones over time.
Skyrim had eight level designers for the open world. Eigth. And there are few diminsihing returns here. A game that makes several hundred millions a year could easily - easily! - create a world of WoW's size (and more) with the level of detail that Skyrim has.

Besides, have you ever walked from one edge of the map to the other in Skyrim? I wouldn't call that small, really. But for a AAA-MMO we can employ 40 level designers easily.

Let's assume one of these guys costs $200.000 a year to employ. Now that makes $8mio per year. Clearly impossible to finance for a AAA game studio ...

We need more competition.
I think Skyrim should be online. It doesn't have to change at all. You should just be able to invite one of your friends online with you and you both play the story mode together (No split screen of course). It would kinda be just like fable 3, except that both players would be open to do anything
For skyrim to be an online game challenges would have to be different and they would have to change so much i just dont think its possible i wish they found a way and did it. it would be amazing
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