Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

16 February, 2016

The MMO vs. single-player open world
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 7:23 AM

Chris Hughes over at Through Wolfy’s Eyes got into a discussion with Syl about solo play. I’ve been writing up a piece on that topic, so I found the discussion interesting.

I left a comment that I think cuts to the heart of the issue: What does an MMO give you that a solo open world RPG like Skyrim doesn’t?

If you think about most MMOs, they have a lot in common with MMOs. When I first played Morrowind many years ago, it felt like an MMO devoid of other people. But, even with a plethora of mods, millions of people don’t play Elder Scrolls games for the years on end like they do for MMOs. What’s the difference?

I have my thoughts, but I’d like to hear from people out there first. Besides other people, what do MMOs offer you that single-player open world games do not?


  1. I am not a big MMO player and have mainly played GW2 as a MMO. I play mainly solo in GW2 exxept in WvW ( = open world PvP in a specific map). I have also played Skyrim.

    There are three reasons why i prefer my solo MMO to have other player :
    - other human player bring life to the world that feels less artificial
    - the world exist and change even without me. In Skyrim i have the feeling that as sson as i leave an area this area die until my return
    - I love the unformal group play that appears during normal play. I love the feeling to be helpful to a random stranger. And i love the feeling of ‘ someone is coming to help me while I was desperate.

    Finally but this is two minor points
    - playing in coop with a friend is easier
    - there is a real economy

    Comment by Ettesiun — 16 February, 2016 @ 8:16 AM

  2. I think it doesn’t go much further than you already said yourself – “other people”.

    One doesn’t want to be the only intelligent entity in the entire game world. There’s a profound loneliness even in the best crafted open world games after a while, when you thoroughly realize how their innards work or where their story will or could go.

    The magic ingredient that makes a world out of a game is other people.

    Comment by qalice — 16 February, 2016 @ 8:32 AM

  3. People.

    Stupid answer in many ways, but the MMOs I have seen largely add a social component. It didn’t take long for me to effectively play the single player experience with added chat in MMOs because everything else – competitive or cooperative play, crafting/commerce, etc – turned more into a hassle than something that added value.

    The thing is, I *like* cooperative play, but it turns out that it works much more smoothly when the other players are friends, and ideally when everyone is sitting in the same room.

    I’m back to tabletop gaming for my shared world needs. And back to consoles for any CRPGs.

    The only shared world CRPG I play turns out to be Borderlands, because it lets you team up for parts of the game, even when one character is far advanced or behind, so there’s zero pressure to advance in sync with anyone. MMOs could do something like that, but it’d mean heavier instancing.

    I digress. TL;DR is, sad as it makes me, I’m not really missing anything from MMOs. I wish I really did, but anything that I look at with some form of nostalgia is immediately offset by stuff I don’t like. Meh.

    Comment by unwesen — 16 February, 2016 @ 8:34 AM

  4. I’ll cross-post.
    I believe this is one of the cases where my internalized feelings match closely with other’s and that has done a lot to drive development and sales.

    Look at single-player worlds that allow server-play and they basically are MMOs or in-between. /whatever.

    Then look at single-player open-worlds like Skyrim – and let me plug a new game I found “Rodina” trying to be Daggerfall in space.

    In some cases I think single-player games have been borrowing from MMOs. I look at the many mini-games and pocket-activities that each have achievements and rewards in games like Assassin’s Creed and get this feeling.

    I can collect notes, do sorties and other activities, but these can largely be seen as little systems that were “plugged” into AC. Build a giant open-world, populate it and then plug all these circular, leveled or rewarded mini-games and then add a main story with connected main quests.

    And, since I shamelessly plugged Rodina, I’ll state that it feels different in this respect because while it does have things you can do, they like they are more seamlessly a natural part of everything.

    I’m not sure how different that is from any MMO that finds systems to plug into a world to keep a player going.

    The fad in single-player games today seems to be *gigantic open worlds* /queue echo – which, as a side note, is interesting and a little funny if you go way back in time and look at a game like Elder Scrolls:Daggerfall.

    Comment by Jeremy Stratton — 16 February, 2016 @ 8:47 AM

  5. The linked article mentions achievement, and that achievement in the context of others, but even that is no longer the monopoly of MMORPGs.

    Steam is notoriously full of achievements, and you can display them on your profile too, creating your gaming persona. And there was a paper from Bartle a few years ago that suggested achievers are leaving MMORPGs because of their dumbing down, for single-player games.

    I suppose Steam achievements are just one more thing that has been abstracted out of MMORPGs. Like MOBA PvP, ARPG PvE Progression, Facebook sociality, Bitcoin virtual currency etc. (Abstracting out is also mentioned in the Bartle paper). And these are all multiplayer too.

    MMORPGs perhaps put them all together into a magical whole: the virtual world. And the virtual world is what isn’t duplicated anywhere else. But the virtual world also has the whiff of the utopian, that it never really works out in practice, and it’s just easier to play one of the abstracted components (MOBA, ARPG, Steam cheevos etc.).

    Comment by Simon — 16 February, 2016 @ 8:50 AM

  6. It is other people. After three decades of playing online games, the ability to play with friends, make friends, and even deal with the not always fun randomness of other people is the big draw. I bought Skyrim during a Steam sale and played it for a bit. It was pretty neat, but 20 minutes into playing I was annoyed that I couldn’t share the experience with a friend.

    Right now I am not on the MMO horse all that much. I play EVE Online for fleet ops with a regular group. Minecraft isn’t an MMO, but I play on a server with a few friends. We are barely ever even on at the same time, but we email each other when we’ve done something new and we all go check out each others work, so it is still a shared experience. And then there is Diablo III, which I play solo 99% of the time. But I can and do group up with a few friends now and again, and just that potential makes me feel better about playing.

    I don’t think I “need” the full blow MMO experience any more, but some form of multiplayer or shared experience is still a requirement.

    Comment by Wilhelm Arcturus — 16 February, 2016 @ 8:52 AM

  7. It’s very simple. MMOs are real, offline rpgs are not. It’s the old “tree falling in a forest” thing. Once I realised that I could never take offline, single-player rpgs seriously again.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 16 February, 2016 @ 9:10 AM

  8. @Bhagpuss,

    But Bhagpuss, a tree doesn’t fall in the forest without you blogging about it :D.

    Couldn’t you do the same thing with a single player game? Make a character, explore the world, then produce one of your lovely posts with screenshots and text?

    This is my point about Steam. I can post screenshots to chart my progress through a game and all my friends see them in the activity stream. The activity stream also displays my achievements when I unlock them. I can chat with other players about a game in the Steam forums for that game.

    Since, with social networks like Steam, single-players games are themselves now social in some sense, why would you need a MMORPG on top of that?

    Comment by Simon — 16 February, 2016 @ 10:12 AM

  9. Singe player RPG’s like Skyrim and the like are all exclusively action RPG’s. If I enjoy/want a classic MMO control scheme, I can’t get that anywhere in a single player RPG.

    Also the economic component. I suppose that is an extension of “other people” – but specifically there is no viable economic mini-game in a single player MMO.

    Comment by HarbingerZero — 16 February, 2016 @ 11:24 AM

  10. For me I’d say it’s the permanence of the online worlds.

    In Skyrim I’ll play my character, but after a while I’ll finish the story, all the quests and whatever I care to do. Then I’ll shelve the game and only revisit it if I’m feeling nostalgic.

    In an MMO, I can invest into the world and my character for years on end. Until the games sunsets at some point, the developers will keep adding new things to do, new stories to experience, new places to explore. Even if you barely interact with other players, after a while you get the feeling that a part of you lives in that world.

    If you don’t reach that point, then an MMO is no different than a single player game. But once you do, that game becomes a second home.

    Comment by R'nageo — 16 February, 2016 @ 11:55 AM

  11. I think the question should be “What does SOLOING an MMO give you that a solo open world RPG like Skyrim doesn’t?” – no?
    Without it, you get the obvious answer: playing with other people. Only that so many of us these days actually means playing while there are other people ‘around’ and don’t actually want to engage socially or deal with cooperative aspects in MMOs. That is the real issue imho (even if I personally do understand it and Wolfy gave plenty of reasons why that is).

    Comment by Syl — 16 February, 2016 @ 2:45 PM

  12. Yeah, I assumed that given the context that the question would be clear I was talking about solo play in MMOs compared to a single-player RPG. Obviously the people are different, but if you have little interest in interacting with people, what is left? What is worth paying money for?

    Comment by Psychochild — 17 February, 2016 @ 12:00 AM

  13. Not sure if my phone ate my attempt to post, trying again: Solo play in an MMO still involves player interaction. It’s just that there can be a very broad spectrum of preferred other-people interaction playstyles.

    Some soloists may just enjoy have the sense of other real live players around them, adding more unpredictable spice and the potential to have an expanded interaction. Some may go a step further and play alongside each other, helping out in the moment, before going their separate ways. Still others may enjoy more organized cooperative play, just not on a set schedule, and welcome a more drop-in, drop-out open grouping affair.

    Still other solo players may be fine with the distant effect that other players have on the game’s economy, as a market to sell to, or a source of supply. Or as an asynchronous opponent via leaderboards (something some singleplayer games also include these days, blurring the boundaries further.)

    Not all player interaction falls under the automatic umbrella of “grouping in MMO dungeons or raids,” which is often time-consuming, set schedule activities the common self-described soloer dislikes partaking in.

    Furthermore, there’s also the possibility that a player who primarily solo plays may welcome the sporadic opportunity to group, when a whole bunch of factors align. Playing an MMO allows for that option, whereas a singleplayer game precludes that option.

    Comment by Jeromai — 17 February, 2016 @ 2:18 AM

  14. @Jeromai

    But I think many people who are playing primarily single-player games for things like open world, immersion or a storyline (think Skyrim), also have another game on Steam which they play occasionally play for group sessions. This could be TF2 or DOTA2 for PvP, or something like Marvel Heroes or Torchlight 2 for PvE (or even an Ark PvE server, which are actually quite popular).

    This is the gist of Wilhelm’s post above, I think.

    Perhaps this comes down to some particular issue of personal taste? (Which we are trying to identify here?). I used to play primarily MMORPGs up until early 2013, soloing a lot, but also a fair amount of grouping. But then I moved to Steam, and am only going back to MMORPGs if one comes along that is unabashedly group-centric (waiting for Camelot Unchained).

    That said, most of my friends on Steam are from GW2 WvW, and I still read the MMORPG blogs in addition to the general gaming websites. So in some way perhaps MMORPGs are still the dream or the standard.

    Comment by Simon — 17 February, 2016 @ 8:58 AM

  15. Single player open world games are not quite complex enough to fully emulate (and populate) the randomness and trends that you can experience with an MMO in “single player mode”. That said, someday, someone will make one. I’ve always thought it wouldn’t be too hard to make single player PvE WoW (questing, 5-mans, full auction house, crafting, “busy towns”, “busy quest zones”, LFG, etc.). That’s how I played WoW. Sure I was in a guild, but I wasn’t there to socialize or to showoff achievements/pets. An occasional “hi”, a friendly trade/craft or helping a guild mate with a group quest what all the socializing I did. Otherwise, I just did quests and LFG 5-mans.

    No one has mentioned this yet, but one of the biggest advantages of single players games vs MMO is time commitment. Being able to stop, save and exit within a moment’s notice is nice. With an MMO you have some obligation to finish what you started, especially if you are working with others (multiple failed attempts at a group quest, bad/weak group in 5-man, etc.).

    Comment by Tony — 17 February, 2016 @ 6:55 PM

  16. I posted something related to this about a year ago, regarding the concept of a “shared experience” where players play within the same game, but they don’t necessarily play together. It’s the premise of a game I have partially developed (which I’m now holding for a VR experience).

    Jay Gischer Made a reference on that to child development and the nature of “parallel play”.

    In reference to MMORPGs however, I would hazard my opinion that this has been poorly capitalized upon, never any deeper than “players like to solo”.

    Comment by Rog Dolos — 18 February, 2016 @ 4:13 AM

  17. Thanks for the insightful answers, as usual. Nice to see I can still get some people interested in commenting on my blog. :)

    There’s also an interesting discussion over on Google+:

    A comment from there that might have gotten eaten from the blog:

    Chris Smith wrote:

    Even though I don’t usually play with people I don’t know, having people AROUND is something that is very familiar from the real world. In a single player sandbox, most of the NPCs are just standing around waiting for you to interact, or have limited “life”. With an MMO, there are people moving around doing their own thing. In that respect, it FEELS closer to what I’m familiar with, even though I don’t spend time interacting with them (also like real life)

    Addendum: I wouldn’t pay a sub these days unelss I had a static group to spend time with, so I think the difference between a “solo sub/solo sandbox” wasn’t something I was thinking about.

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 February, 2016 @ 6:31 PM

  18. Ninelives and the single-player MMO experience

    I wrote a previous blog post asking what separates out an MMO from a single-player game beyond just the other people in the MMO.

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 February, 2016 @ 8:26 AM

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