You’re tired of yourself and all of your creations

Nobody said of Skyrim “why do we need to compare this game to an mmo anyway?” (That’s Nobody the commenter, not nobody in the sense of no-one. Somewhat confusing, though I hear he’s an excellent right fielder.) It’s a good question; many MMOG bloggers have taken breaks for, and posted about, single player fantasy CRPGs over the past few years such as the Dragon Age or Witcher series, but I can’t remember anything that’s prompted the level of pondering Skyrim has, as captured in some of the recent MMO Melting Pot pieces.

Very broadly, single player CRPGs tend to be story- and character-driven, often epic in scope, perhaps taking you from humble beginnings and giving you the chance to save the village/city/country/world/solar system/galaxy/universe/multiverse. MMOGs are virtual worlds, providing a canvas for you to create your own stories, probably accompanied by four, seven, nine, 24 or 39 comrades.

(Massive generalisations, obviously, ample scope for pointing out exceptions to either case, mourning the loss of the worldlier elements of MMOGs to focus on optimisation of mechanics, etc. etc.)

Skyrim is principally drawing attention for its virtual world, hence the MMOG comparisons. It has a story, but people aren’t writing about that side so much, it’s the world, the immersion, the sense of adventure that are sparking posts (such as those, picking an example entirely at random, of m’colleague). Though unusual compared to more story-driven RPGs it’s hardly unprecedented, apart from anything else being the fifth of the Elder Scrolls series (ignoring the spinoffs we don’t talk about), with Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas achieving considerable success as well. It’s not such a surprise that the Fallout games didn’t take hold in quite such the same way as for many people RPGs are most strongly linked with a fantasy setting, particularly when it comes to MMOGs, though I’d like to humbly nominate myself for a John the Baptist award for contemplating the MMOG potential of New Vegas a whole month ago. What’s changed since the previous Elder Scrolls game, then, Oblivion?

Oblivion was released in March 2006, eight months before this blog started, thus in the “beyond living memory” category (though these days I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast half the time, rendering the span covered by my living memory considerably less impressive). WoW was getting into its stride, MMOGs in general were becoming more popular, numerous tantalising titles were in development, things were generally on the up. Some veterans from Meridian 59, Ultima Online or EverQuest were mourning the passing of the Golden Age, but newcomers to the genre could still be awed by a marketplace or plaza packed with actual real-life people (or their digital representations, at any rate). Things feel flatter now, allowing Skyrim to surf the wave of ennui lapping at the shores of the blogarchipelago; it might just be me (and Melmoth), but it doesn’t seem like many new MMOG blogs are starting up, established bloggers have been hanging up their keyboards, even WoW’s subscriber numbers are (slightly) falling.

Perhaps technological developments play a part. Not having actually played Skyrim (I will at some point, but am currently distracted by hopping around virtual reality as a toilet) (no, really) I’m hardly in an optimal position for analysis, but it seems like the cracks that have always existed in the world of The Elder Scrolls are gradually being smoothed over with improved voice acting, human-designed (rather than procedurally generated) dungeons and encounters, better graphics, more sophisticated NPC scripting etc. Of course it’s still obvious the world isn’t real, painfully so if you deliberately stretch the edges and put buckets over the head of NPCs or exploit the inability of a monster to navigate terrain, but each iteration of the series improves things (mostly; cue Morrowind versus Oblivion arguments…) It’s not just making a bigger world, Daggerfall was famously vast, it’s making a better world, a more interesting world. MMOGs, on the other hand, don’t seem to have moved on so much recently; not being intimately familiar with the technical side I can’t be sure, but I guess the challenges they face, of storing data about hundreds or thousands of players and their possessions and shunting that around networks, are pretty tricky before even getting on to the difficulty of player behaviour in a shared world.

The funny thing is, as Skyrim draws plaudits for its single player virtual world, Star Wars: The Old Republic is getting generally positive beta write-ups, especially for its story (or stories). It’ll be interesting to see if it can prompt similar debate over ways single player story-driven games can be improved by online components.

6 thoughts on “You’re tired of yourself and all of your creations

  1. Bristal

    I began my late entry into gaming with Oblivion on a console. Since I hadn’t played any computer or console games in 15 years I was understandably blown away and played for nearly a year, never even completing the main storyline.

    Then a random conversation with an acquaintance convinced me to try WoW. Despite the immersion breaking “respawning” of monsters, playing on a 13″ laptop, stupid player names and other annoyances we all experience, never looked back.

    It’s the loneliness of a single player world. No matter how amazing the virtual world, without humans to interact with, it feels like you’re stuck on a planet all alone. There may be friendly denizens, but they don’t really speak your language, nor have any capacity to relate, or share your conquests.

    It just ultimately feels empty to try to immerse myself in a single player world.

  2. SKapusniak

    TL;DR Version:

    Oblivion just wasn’t as good an open-world RPG as Skyrim or Morrowind, despite being a big technical advance over Morrowind, and Skyrim only being a bit more technically advanced than it is. Skyrim fixes and improves almost all the things that Oblivion got wrong, whilst MMORPGs have gotten a lot worse at scratching the open-world itch since the Oblivion era. A lot of people got into MMORPGs precisely to have that open-world itch scratched, rather than for the multiplayer per se, as Vanilla WoW had made MMORPGs newly accesible to soloers. Therefore a lot of Skyrim comment is to be expected.

    Long Version:

    The thing about Oblivion is that although it was a immense technical leap forward over Morrowind, in hindsight, once that improved tech faded into the background and became something you just took for granted, it turned out to be quite a severe regression in terms of the immersive and worldy qualities that both Morrowind and Skyrim had/have in spades.

    Some of that was simply down to the new tech being used badly, or being frankly broken. Inflexibly tight level scaling, full voice acting all by about six people, hundreds of exqusitely rendered dungeon environments that all looked and played exactly the same, ill conceived minigames, and super wonky physics. Morrowind only had voice acting for greeting lines, so having few voice actors worked just fine, level scaling was there but limited, dungeons had a bunch of variation — possibly because they were generally fairly short and that gave the designers time to populate them with all the bits of revealing clutter that gave them each a unique backstory — skill checks were used because minigames hadn’t even been thought of, and the physics couldn’t be wonky when you didn’t really have a physics engine,

    The other half of the problem was the world and the quest design. For all that the main quest isn’t particularly important to players in Elder Scrolls games, things don’t really work for the whole game unless that main quest acts as a backbone for the environment.

    Given these are worldy game, it needs to spring out of the lore of province the game is set in and reaches back into that setting to influence that lore in turn. That gives Oblivion a big problem. It’s sandbox province isn’t Oblivion it’s Cyrodil, but the main quest is all about Oblivion invading, and most of the bits of Oblivion you do in the main quest are the really boring ‘firey hell without even bothering to file of serial numbers’ parts rather than the intersting parts described in the lore (or shown in other games, or the Shivering Isles expansion). Cyrodil is only relevant because that’s where the Emperor hangs out, and out of nowhere at the beginning of the game it turns out he’s the load bearing boss keeping the gates of Oblivion closed.

    It never really all gelled because it didn’t have the connection to place and the lore of the place, that both Morrowind and Skyrim’s main quests have.

    So, despite its technical and commercial success, I don’t think Oblivion really came out of the oven quite right, whilst WoW had already made the great leap forward for MMORPGs if you were not a natural multiplayer or social gamer. For pretty much the first time ever doing it solo was an actual supported play style. Which meant these big worlds that MMORPGs had always had now opened up and became accessible to all the people who in the past would have stuck with single player games.

    And with WoW’s success multiple AAA MMORPGs were coming out every single year, whilst there was/is pretty much only Bethesda left making these huge world single-player AAA RPGs — Bioware make an entirely different style of game despite nominally working in the same genre — and some of those were post-apocalyptic Fallout jobbies, set in a grimdark dystopia, albeit an amusingly satircal grimdark dystopia, which is not of world everyone wants to spend time hanging out in. So it’s not surprising that the MMOs got all the excitement.

    Fast forward to today. There’s lots of MMO players who got into them for the big free-roaming world to be in rather than so much the social multiplayer (although that doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate that social aspect). Despite this audience every new MMO released seems to becomes less worldy and more linear; the old standby WoW has arguably completely broken its sense of world with warp-speed leveling, phasing and ever more linear questlines, the next big MMO release is a Bioware title meaning we all expect ‘plot/story’ rather than ‘world/backstory’, whilst any time a desire for ‘sandbox’ is mentioned it’s read as a desire for high impact open-world PvP…

    …and then Bethesda’s latest Skyrim cake comes out of the oven tasting absolutely delicious, completing nailing most of the ingredients they got wrong with the Oblivion cake, although the icing is still rather slapdash and they’re not going to win any marks from the 5 star Michelin Chef for presentation on the plate.

    Not surprising that Skyrim is getting a lot of talk among many MMO players.

  3. Zoso Post author

    @Bristal I think that’s where gradual improvements in AI (or slightly more sophisticated scripting, at least) are getting better at making a believably populated world, albeit one more suited to generally antisocial gits (I don’t think Melmoth or I come out terribly high on the Socialiser part of the Bartle test) who don’t chat much.

    @SKapusniak “cue Morrowind versus Oblivion arguments” indeed; very well put, along with the wider picture. Better than the original post really!

  4. Jim

    I was checking out the hours played data on Xfire…an occasional amusement and always taken with a grain of salt…and I noticed something interesting. When Skyrim released Every Single fantasy mmorpg saw rates drop between 20-30%.

    Interesting how many of us are explorers isn’t it? And maybe dev’s can learn a thing or two from Bethesda before they give us another $100mil on-rails experience.

  5. Jeff

    Morrowind tasted so terrible, and without any icing at all, that you couldn’t pay me to try the Oblivion cake. Skyrim is smelling kind of interesting from a distance, even without Michelin stars. (Which go up to three.)

  6. Nobody

    clever allusion, yet incorrect :-P

    having played oblivion and fallout 3, i feel about skyrim the way you did about oblivion.

    i’m confused, is the problem with mmos the world or the quests? i thought the idea of the post, and most of the positives i’ve read about skyrim, was the open world?

    i agree that the number of on-rails type quests has hurt WoW, but i would argue that the game world still has more freedom than skyrim’s. who cares if the virtual world is open if there’s little to do beyond the main quest? imo, we’re going the wrong direction with this argument. as i remember, oblivion had an arena you could fight in. is there anything similar in skyrim? i haven’t seen it yet in any videos. sure, you can clear dungeons once, but then what? can you build/create/alter the world in any way?

    my biggest grievance against ALL rpgs, be they offline or online, is the crutch of quest/level progression. i guess that’s the #1 reason why i’m not drinking the skyrim koolaid. i’m afraid that too many players are distracted by the pretty exterior, when in fact there’s little different or new under the hood. i see more hope for mmos and rpgs in general in a game like minecraft.

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