Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

21 February, 2016

Ninelives and the single-player MMO experience
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 8:13 AM

Back in the early days of my MMO development career, a question developers asked ourselves was, “Would MMOs still be fun with nobody else around?” The consensus was, “probably not,” as a lot of MMO gameplay was pretty thin and it was really the social interactions that were the focus.

Obviously things are a little different some 18 years later. But, perhaps it’ll be interesting to examine that question in more depth given a more modern context. And a new game Ninelives gives the perfect excuse to look at this question, as it is essentially an MMO without other players.

So, what happens when you take the players out of an MMO?

The Lonely World of Warcraft

A lot has been made of WoW’s streamlining of the MMO experience. Instead of waiting around for a group and dealing with the social overhead that grouping required, WoW streamlined away most of the group aspect in the leveling game; you can take your character from fresh newbie to max level without having to rely on a single other soul. People hailed this as an improvement in MMOs, but some wondered at the purpose of spending a subscription to play by yourself. But, this change lead some academics to look at the “Alone Together” phenomenon, saying that perhaps people really just wanted to play by themselves.

Of course, this caused some problems, notable when people graduated to the “elder game” of running dungeons and raids with other people. Some classes known for being easy to solo to max level with, particularly hunters, were known for being a real mess when it came to working with others. Some chose to ignore the dungeon/raiding elder game altogether and focus on working up alts. The staid predictability of designed content was more appealing to some people than the vagaries of dealing with others. From a development point of view, a focus on solo content damages the social fabric of the game, which helps with player retention.

But, at the end of the day, there were still other people in the game even if a good share of people didn’t choose to meaningfully interact with them on a gameplay level. From some random idiot stealing your ore node to finding someone to put a cool particle glow on your weapon, other people were still part of the game. This is true even in more recent games in the WoW vein such as FFXIV.

Can’t get catty with others in Ninelives

I read about a new game Ninelives over on MassivelyOP. It’s a game developed by a very small team, the core of which is two Japanese developers.

Not reading the fine print too closely, I downloaded it and logged on. I was distraught that I didn’t see anyone else trying this interesting game, until I noticed that the “multi-player” option on the character select screen was greyed out. I later ready that multi-player was to be added in the future. So, this is truly a single-player MMO-type game.

The game still has a lot of MMO idioms. The game doesn’t pause, the world is fairly open and able to be explored, there are quests scattered around the world, and portals leading to dungeons dotting the landscape. There’s even a stone with a 10 minute cooldown in your inventory that allows you to teleport around to bind points you discover. It feels very much like an MMO world you’re running around in.

A closer look at the game

Character creation is pretty simple: pick a race (which seems purely cosmetic), some very limited character appearance customization, and a class (two classes available to explore and a third teasing you by being unselectable) I’ve started playing a goblin mage in the game, and I got through most of the content in the game.

A goblin mage, Psychochild
And there’s the handsome charmer himself!

The game is very much an RPG. But, it doesn’t have levels, instead you have a talent tree where you buy abilities and upgrades with experience points earned from killing monsters and completing quests. Skills in a column cost a certain amount of experience, which increases as you go away from the center of the tree. The number at the top seems to indicate that you can only buy a limited number of skills; it’s unclear if this is a hard limit or if it will be increased as the game is developed. But, without levels, it can be hard to really judge enemy strength. A few times I got in over my head by attacking something that looked like a monster I was defeated easily, but SURPRISE! it was really a higher level variant.

The mage is pretty fun, focusing on doing ranged damage. The class tends to do a lot of damaging over time, and has a quick-casting (but mana intensive) magic missile you can use while kiting things. However, it can get a bit dicey in dungeons when you don’t have a maneuvering room and might stumble into more enemies. Important tip: if you body pull (move within range of a monster’s sight) you will generally only pull one, but firing a spell at a target will generally bring a bunch of enemies.

However, the mechanics make it hard to really kite enemies. Most of the snare abilities have very short durations. Some of the best ones have very long casting times, which make them of marginal utility while trying to kite. I found it pretty easy to get through trash by smart pulling and lots of resting, but a few bosses just kicked my ass all over the place. I rolled a “blade” character to try out the other class when I got frustrated by getting obliterated by a dungeon mini-boss after going through the dungeon for over an hour.

An ogre warrior, Rainlin
He’s a melee fighter, I swear!

Maybe it’s understanding the game better, but this character is a LOT more powerful. I was able to take on things early in the game that would turn my mage character to paste. It has a good blend of hard-hitting skills and AoE ability. Some of my attacks are still DOTs, but there are a lot of just heavy-hitting abilities. All warrior abilities use a percent of mana, so increasing your mana pool is pointless. However, warriors regenerate mana quickly as they get hit, so the only time you really run low on mana is if you’re not getting hit. I’ve been much less constrained by resources.

This character was also a lot more lucky. I’ve found a lot more named items, which is why he’s wearing a robe; it’s pretty beefy because it’s a named item. It’s more than just knowing the game more, as both characters have about the same number of kills.

There are not a whole lot of different abilities for each class. Both the mage and the blade rotate through 3-4 different abilities in most battles, with a few “oh shit” abilities you use when you get into trouble and a bunch of passives that give you other boosts. But, overall, it feels like solid MMO combat, particularly like more modern MMOs with limited active skill selections.

What makes something “feel like an MMO”?

Trying to define what an MMO is one of the favorite pastimes of lunatics. It usually devolves into a “I know it when I see it” situation, but let me try to describe why Ninelives feels like an MMO despite not having other players.

There are certain mechanics that are borrowed directly from MMO standard mechanics. An ability hotbar, quest givers and rewards, different rarities of equipment including named items, a zone map that fills out as you explore it, binding points you can teleport to, mounts that give you a speed boost around the map, “elite” monsters that are variations of existing monsters, summonable non-combat pets, etc. Of course, a lot of these mechanics have been borrowed from prior games; equipment rarities and named items were a part of Diablo before WoW expanded the system and incorporated them. But, what beyond some likely hand-me-down mechanics make something feel like an MMO?

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. The answer for a lot of people was still “the other people”, but there are a few interesting comments. In particular, I thought Tony’s comment was interesting: “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’.” Other people add chaos to the system, even if you’re not directly interacting with them. As people pointed out, it’s easier to have what feels like a “real economy” when there are other people than when a developer creates an economic algorithm that can be reverse-engineered.

But, I think there’s another important element here: the continued development of a game. Ninelives is currently in alpha, with a roadmap for future development. Sure, it’s pretty generic (and includes multiplayer way down at the bottom of the list), but I think this element of things potentially changing is one thing that helps make it feel like an MMO. The game in 6 months will probably be different than it is today. I think this is a little different than expansions and mods, as those tend to be optional and not necessarily up to the quality of the original. An MMO, on the other hand, has patches that you have to play with. And, unless the developers really mess up, it’s likely that the patches and additions will be more of the same of what you liked in the game before.

I think it’s that feeling that the game will be expanded that makes it really feel like an MMO.

Enjoying the experience

I recently reached maximum levels in the combat classes on my FFXIV character. Without the carrot of leveling up my characters, I’ve slacked off playing the game somewhat. I find myself logging on Ninelives and playing there. I’m not going to quit FFXIV soon (especially not with a new patch dropping soon!), but taking a break to play another game is a good change of pace.

Of course, I did run into an old MMO issue a few days ago: I lost connection with the server, which interrupted my game session. I was able to log back in a few minutes later, but perhaps this is another way the game feels like an MMO. :)

What do you think? Do you think a single-player MMO-like game such as Ninelives is something special? Or, just the evolution of MMO games toward what seems to be their single-player destiny?


  1. Thanks for flagging this one up. I did see it on Massively but I just skim-read and forgot about it. Following your post I downloaded 9Lives – very small download – and took a look. It’s really impressive for an alpha from a two-man team. It does indeed feel exactly like an MMO that no-one else is playing, which is odd. I wish it was an MMO and I hope it ends up becoming one because it’s atmospheric and intriguing. The visuals and music are terrific.

    It will be interesting to see whether I feel drawn to play it, given that it’s a single player title. My suspicion is that I will find the world too empty of life. I think that may be the true dividing line between single player and multiplayer virtual worlds – you’d need much better AI in a single player world to compensate and that is probably going to be beyond the resources of this team. Still, it looks very well worth further investigation.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 21 February, 2016 @ 3:18 PM

  2. Yeah. I find the gameplay pretty fun, but I think it would be a lot more fun with friends. On the other hand, the world is pretty small and a lot of the content is hand-crafted, so I’m not so sure it’d be a great game with A LOT of other players in the world like a true MMO. Might work better as a game where you set up servers for you and your friends.

    We’ll see how it develops. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 21 February, 2016 @ 3:35 PM

  3. Back for Blaugust last year, I wrote this piece on the things that make me happy in MMOs – . In the final paragraph, I express a very similar sentiment to Tony; MMO environments feel a lot more real and alive, because there’s that randomness and therefore a uniqueness of experience that cannot be had in traditional games. If we both play through Super Mario World individually, we will not have such a dramatically different story to tell. But MMOs offer a degree of freedom of choice and on top of that, a world that is sometimes unpredictable. I will quote myself here: there is a kind of magic happening (especially when soloing) when an MMO world comes alive and the game stops feeling like a game but instead, holds its breath to allow for a moment of fragile illusion.

    Great social encounters likewise, are a kind of magic but a very different one that can potentially disturb the above. I certainly prefer no company when in explorer mode.

    Comment by Syl — 21 February, 2016 @ 8:05 PM

  4. If what “feels like an MMO” is indeed hotbars, quest givers, gear-progression, etc. then this explains to me why MMORPGs have been such an unfortunate letdown the past 10 years. Stuck in the same paradigms and everything begins to feel all the same.

    I was kind of hoping this topic would lead towards a game with new insights rather than a subset of what has gone before. This is exactly why the MMO development space grows more in directions of business model than gameplay or social structure.

    I’m sure it may be appealing to an aging crowd of MMO players that want a subset like that, but it sure seems like a shrinking audience now. I found this oddly depressing. =(

    Comment by Rog Dolos — 22 February, 2016 @ 1:27 AM

  5. Syl wrote:
    I certainly prefer no company when in explorer mode.

    Depends. Sometimes when I’m exploring game mechanics it can be useful to have a like-minded soul along for the ride. But, sometimes that involves, “Here, you hold this while I stand waaaaaay over here.” ;)

    But, yeah. Just like in real life there are times when I want to be around people and times when I just need some time alone.

    Rog Dolos wrote:
    If what “feels like an MMO” is indeed hotbars, quest givers, gear-progression, etc…

    Well, first I’d argue these are more trappings of an MMO rather than what defines an MMO. As I said in the post, some of these elements come directly from other types of games; MMOs weren’t the first games to have minimaps, but they did refine them into a pretty standard package that we could categorize as an “MMO world map”.

    But, the core of your comment is really about innovation, something I’ve posted about before. We can decry the sameness of MMO interfaces all we want, but the reality is that some of those elements have been adopted back into single-player games. Ninelives is a pretty good single-player RPG that just happens to have an MMO type interface. It works fine even without other people around.

    The other reality is that people are slow to accept change. Radically redesigning the MMO is more likely to alienate the existing audience than to awaken interest in a new audience. Blizzard didn’t throw everything out when creating WoW, they just refined existing elements and gave it the trademark thick layer of Blizzard polish. I think any game that wants to succeed as an MMO needs to keep in mind what existing player expectations are and carefully measure how far they’re going to push. I would agree that I would like to see MMOs push a lot further than they have been. But, the recent successes in the area haven’t exactly pointed to this as a winning business strategy. FFXIV saw success when they got rid of a lot of the innovations in the original version and started cleaving closer to the WoW model; I think this is a vital lesson to learn for anyone who wants to make an MMO as a business venture.

    Comment by Psychochild — 22 February, 2016 @ 7:39 AM

  6. Since trackbacks no longer seem to be a thing my blog supports (or perhaps that anyone even uses), a few links from other blog discussions I’ve seen:

    Bhagpuss wrote Happy Together : GW2, Ninelives
    Syl wrote Recap: Playing Alone Together, referring to my prior post on this topic.

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 February, 2016 @ 8:51 AM

  7. The closest I can think of coming to a single-player MMO is playing Elite: Dangerous on solo mode. Supposedly the economy is still in MMO mode where if I go to a system and sell a bunch of resource, then that will affect the prices for other players in their game.

    The idea of a single-player MMO is interesting, but a lot of the reason I like MMO’s is because of the herd warmth you get when playing around other people. Ninelives sounds like going into WoW or EQ in airplane mode. I kind of do that in EQ2 when I play around in almost forgotten zones like Zek.

    Comment by Tyrannodorkus — 17 March, 2016 @ 7:43 AM

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