Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 16, 2011
In his excellent book, “Dungeons & Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games,” Matt Barton makes a comment I somewhat disagreed about considering the future of the genre. In it, he makes a contention echoed by a commenter yesterday that the a lot of the traditional, mechanical combat-oriented gameplay of those old-school RPGs are being done best in Massively Multiplayer Online RPGs.
They aren’t wrong.
But this doesn’t leave the single-player RPG a dinosaur. In the book, Matt seems to contend that the answer lies in more story and character focus. In single-player games, you really can be the hero and focus of the adventure, while in MMORPGs, by definition you really aren’t. Earlier this week, he clarified that position a little bit in the comments for his podcast that he’s not really talking about jRPG-style linear stories which have kinda taken over on the single-player front: the big slickly-produced voice-acted dramas that railroad you into a narrow range of actions. Rather, he and I see much more eye to eye about how things “should” be… where the game rather builds a narrative line around your actions.
Sort of like directing a reality show, maybe?
It’s one of those beautiful things in concept, but having taken a couple of stabs at it, I think it’s a tall order in practice. Maybe someday we’ll get there. But I think that in the meantime, I’ll be happy just seeing more baby steps in that direction. We’ve already seen some progress on that front with games like Fallout. More recently, some really interesting things have been done with dynamic quests and narratives in Soldak’s Depths of Peril and Din’s Curse. I have high expectations for upcoming indie titles Dead State and Age of Decadence, and Soldak’s newly announced Drox Operative as well. This kind of dynamic-narrative gameplay is harder to pull off (but maybe not as expensive) as the “Hollywood wannabe” approach, and it may not be quite what Matt has in mind. But it feels to me like steps in the right direction. Or at least interesting new directions.
I recently read through the CRPG Addict’s commentary on Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny. It’s been a long time since I played the game, but his commentary hits on so many things the game did right. And not much of that is the sort of thing that’s easily replicable in an MMO.
If you are talking about an RPG experience that features repetitive, mechanical combat where you play a single character, I concur that MMOs are a clear winner. They are terribly addictive in that respect, too – especially with good friends to share the experience. But even for solo adventuring, many MMOs provide a pretty good experience. These are good times, and this is the kind of gaming awesomeness I was dreaming of since I first read Henry Melton’s short story, “Catacomb,” in Dragon Magazine in 1985.
But what can single-player games do so much better than the MMOs?
- Really make you feel like the hero of your own story.
- Play a group of adventurers
- Turn based & tactical combat. Sure, this is possible in an MMO, but even fans of turn-based lose patience waiting for others to finish their turns. Tactics are possible in MMOs, particularly if you are raiding, but are pretty uncommon on a smaller scale. And the tactics are often not much more complicated than planning who is going to DoT and who is going to spam heals.
- Puzzles! Particularly of the adventure-game-ish variety. Actually any kind of single-use content. In an MMO, designers must usually avoid any kind of content that can be “solved” once and ignored forever after that. It’s a terrible waste of resources.
- Interactivity: The player can make a serious, lasting impacts on the world.
- Shorter, more intense experiences. Yes, I’m calling this a good thing. Not that I don’t love epic huge games. But in an MMO, the game NEEDS to command the player’s participation for as long as possible, to maximize revenue over the long haul. So they HAVE to kick things out into a big, long grind with massive time-sinks to keep people progressing (slowly). Single-player games can instead be shorter, more intense games that don’t have to be padded out with grinding and filler.
- Game-Breaking Imbalanced FUN! In Ultima V, acquisition of the magic carpet really “broke” the challenge of much of the game. I think that was deliberate. You aren’t competing with other players, and don’t have to worry about “fairness,” so what if something breaks the pattern of the game? In an MMO, this is a cardinal sin. In a single-player game, it can be key. It’s important to shake up the gameplay once in a while and change (some of) the rules … especially to the player’s advantage.
All of these are possible in an MMO. I mean, theoretically an MMO could be a single-player title played remotely with a multiplayer chat running on top of it. But I think these – and more – are some advantages inherent in single-player RPG design that are a poor fit for the constraints and demands of most MMOs.
What are some more? What are the strengths of single-player RPGs over multiplayer?
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