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.