Freedom of choice and player-hosted MMOs

Skyrim is making quite the noise at the moment; not just among classic RPG lovers but a large circle of MMO players too, realizing just how much they have missed that sense of wonder and adventure in the online world. No doubt it is a certain kind of MMO player who feels this loss most acutely – I know why I do and like me, many MMO players have actually started their journey decades ago, as console gamers, as tabletop and pen & paper players, as lovers of the fantasy genre as a whole. These past days I have felt as if re-discovering a long lost friend and exploring the world of Tamriel has been an almost poetic experience. I kid you not. Within the first few hours, I’ve been inside my favorite Robert Frost poem and been the hero on my cherished old D&D covers. What more could I possibly want from a game?

“He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.”

I don’t know how to call this essence that we can feel when a fantasy game, book or movie is being true to its core. This strange magic that happens when somebody does it right and takes us there with him. The difference between a work of passion (and geekdom) maybe and a generic work of fail that we can all tell apart. Some games have soul, some don’t – you can feel it and see it but not nail it down on single criteria like graphics or combat.

Me and a friend of mine like to call it “high adventure” and we borrow from the opening of Conan the Barbarian there. Or we call it “epic bombast shit” (EBS©) in a  not-so-srs attempt to qualify the seriously atmospheric and epic fantasy from its ugly mass-market siblings.

Either way, Skyrim has it; this sense of magic and awe, of being there in this vast world with dragons in the sky and darkness lurking around the next corner. It has its minor flaws, as others have already pointed out, but at this stage it’s entirely beside the point for me. Again: what else could I possibly want?

The “Skyrim MMO” deal

Right after entering Skyrim, I said “man, if only this was co-op. I would need holidays”. Indeed, the world of Tamriel screams for companionship; sharing the travels and adventures with a few more people who don’t happen to die on the way or get stuck under the stairway like their NPC equivalents. I would love nothing more than a co-op mode for maybe 2-4 players.

The MMO idea now, I am not so sure. I commented about this before, and my initial negativity stems from the justified scepticism of what a developer might do to Skyrim in popular WoW-fashion. That idea is frankly a nightmare and I care little whether WoW’s gamification trend came from the players or the developers, I would never want to share Tamriel with WoW’s current MMO achiever crowd. Ever.

I’m far from opposed to online modes though or sharing games by principle. Why did I become an MMORPG-player in the first place, if not because I prefer to have more than NPCs around me? But for this to work in Skyrim, we would have to take a close look at all the aspects that make the game so dear to us right now – and at how to protect those. How can you retain Skyrim’s scale, open world and playstyle freedoms in an MMO while maintaining a sense of meaning? This is something Bethesda has managed to balance: open world vs. meaning. They show us too, that not all satisfaction in an RPG is delivered by means of a classic definition of “challenge” and immediate “hard rewards”. There is great joy in adventure and exploration.

The answer to the question might already lie in the online world: FPS games. Times before we’ve noticed features of online shooters and communities with the potential to improve things for MMORPGs too. It was my better half though who tipped me off when pointing out what he liked about Skyrim and as an FPS-player, always disliked about WoW -

“…This is what the players want: freedom. Let me play the game however I want and with whom, don’t tell me what to do or how to play. Let me choose my difficulty, whether to use console commands or not. Don’t tell me when to grind or what items I need or where I should go. I’m not an idiot. This is what the …[insert random Blizzard insult here]…still don’t get.”

A popular dilemma of MMOs is the accomodation of player X; to appeal to a variety of players within the same game, to offer dynamic content and different levels of difficulty. All of that can simply be summed up as a basic issue of player freedom. If you realize that you cannot deliver for everybody, why do you even try to define the game in the first place?

Several weeks before Skyrim’s launch, I tipped my toe into Red Orchestra 2 – for lack of alternatives and the wish for quick, cooperative play more than anything. I joined the friendly banter of my partner’s clan on teamspeak and tried to hide my cringe-worthy attempts at mimicking the FPS player. Yet, I never fail to be impressed over how readily the FPS industry has delegated their server administration to the clans who represent their loyal player base. If you log into RO2, you’re met with a long list of player-hosted server types, each offering their own rule sets, map and itemization choices, number of players allowed. Whether you choose to play in a smaller group, use aim-bots or loathe any kind of mod, there’s a place for you.

This is what I would want for a “Skyrim online”. A chance to choose how I play it and to share it with a limited amount of like-minded players. A developer can never look after so many individual choices, but I can. And I would join such a game in a heartbeat.

Skyrim shows us that the RPG and MMO player alike love the scale and freedoms of an open world. FPS games have shown for years that the best way to cater to a mixed audience, is to let the community configure and moderate their own servers. Why should we not adapt this for online RPGs in the future?

8 comments

  1. Melmoth

    I think I may have a t-shirt made-up with ‘Epic bombast shit’ printed on it. Most splendid!

    Your sentiment is my sentiment: on my first day of play I tweeted “My only disappointment with Skyrim so far is that I’m unable to undertake this astonishing adventure experience with a band of merry friends”.

    As you have expressed in your post, I don’t need my RPG to be massively multiplayer online, just make it modestly multiplayer online and I’ll be deeply, deeply happy.

  2. Syl

    Haha, count me in on a few shirts then, please! :P

    I thought about the ‘MM’-issue while writing this myself; but really, who defines just how massively multiplayer the game needs to be? when does a co-op become an MMO and vice versa? and do we not already play MMORPGs with our same bunch of friends / guild, anyway?

    I think the current concept creates more issues than it solves. if players manage their own communities, you’ve effectively changed very little and avoid dissatisfying many players by defining the game and goals for them. there’s still the option on most FPS servers that a stranger can join and meet new people – this option is not lost.
    I’m sure this would work well, at least for the online gamer who doesn’t always need an “AH and massive PvP” and whatnot. there are different approaches to MMOs, after all.

  3. Tesh

    I’ve written about this in a few places over the years. I’m all for private servers, and I think the indie underground of MMOs, aided and abetted by Storybricks, has a lot of potential to make things far more interesting by allowing players to self-select their coplayers.

    There *are* tech issues, and as Psychochild is quick to note, quality control issues (see: Exhibit A… WoW privat servers), but I do think that companies need to leverage the “modest multiplayer online” desire. It’s a potentially lucrative niche. Private walled communities always are.

  4. Syl

    @Adam
    I do wonder if one reason this hasn’t been done yet isn’t fairly simply: greed. why hasn’t it been done already when it’s common practise in other online genres? there’s obviously lots of money to be made, but can you quite reach the same numbers that you’ve been milking MMO players for via subs, F2P and maybe soon pay-to-win?
    The ‘Blizzard model’ lives from a community that isn’t cooperative in its core anymore, but competetive. and I could imagine they wanna keep things that way simply because of profits. I am more than happy to be proven wrong, though.

    @Tesh
    I remembered you when I wrote this; you’re one of those who were also always in favor of offline WoW, iirc. I’m sure there would be technical issues to be solved, but in essence there’s no reason why an online RPG world couldn’t be released and maintained the way an FPS could that the same clans are playing for years and are also buying every expansion of.
    unless of course, the developers don’t think it’s lucrative enough. then again you just said it yourself, there’s money to be made.

    still, call me negative – I think companies like Blizzard want to keep control; they don’t really care for the quality of cooperative gameplay when they talk about massively multiplayer – they care for the quantity to be had. and you want your players to compete; to buy things; to wanna “win” things. otherwise, there’s not the same cash in RMT or pay-to-win. how would you apply PTW in a game like Skyrim? pointless.
    I don’t like to admit it, but I think FPS developers are a lot more in touch with their playerbase than MMORPG devs that treat their customers like sheep.

  5. thenoisyrogue

    Syl,

    I would think that if you could promote a server whose community had the values of the old time Everquest model then you could attract back to the game a lot of gamers that left due to the community not being what they wanted.

    Up the price a little bit to keep the droolers out, as they won’t want to pay more to be around a few old fuddie duddies. The only drawback that I can see is that the good players who presently keep the droolers occupied would jump ship as well, leading to long term effects on their bottom line.

  6. cynwise

    Having not played Skyrim yet I don’t have a lot to add based on … well, anything, really. :) But I found the post thought-provoking nonetheless.

    I find it interesting that most of my playtime in WoW these days is in non-traditional endeavors – twink PvP at various levels, organizing a battalion of gnome clones – and that while I’m happier now doing these things, there’s a nagging feeling that because I’m not engaged in the pursuits of the masses (endgame … anything, really) that I’m doing it wrong. I’m not, I know I’m not, but the feeling remains.

    It would be interesting to consider if that feeling would diminish if there were different kinds of defined player-created communities to choose from. I’m not even sure it’s a good thing – it’s nice to move back and forth between different worlds and spheres of activity – but it’s an interesting line of speculation.

  7. Syl

    Lo, Cynwise! it’s an interesting thought; I never felt like I was “left out” from the greater game when pursuing my own mini-goals in WoW, but I agree it feels somewhat defying the purpose. or maybe it just proves to us that hardly anyone really plays ‘massively multiplayer’ inside MMOs, anyway? I’m not sure there’s such a thing in today’s WoW where most people raid 10mans and PvP has never been massive either.

    maybe WoW is a bad example (GW2 seems to intend for big server action PvP) – from that PoV I don’t see how player-hosted servers would change your gameplay. you can still have 100 people or more on a server, if you want to – and how would you interact with more than that… to be honest, things like AH / economy aside, the massively label is a bit of an empty catchword in many MMOs currently out there.

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