Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Single-Player RPGs Do It Better When…

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?



Filed Under: Design - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Bad Sector said,

    They don’t require Internet connection and can be played even from shoddy 3G connections that disconnect more often than any modem user at 1993 could even imagine 😛

    Save and load 🙂

    And can be modded!

  • Darius said,

    It’s been a while since I’ve played much mmos, but I like that in single player RPGs if there’s a cave or some ruins where no mortal has set foot for ages, you’re really the only character in the game world that has set foot there in ages.

    As opposed to say, waiting to raid the long lost cavern of forbidden lore and forgotten secrets until the last group is done touring it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That was always the feeling I got in an MMO, especially those MMOs without instanced dungeons. It felt less like a brave fantasy adventure and more like waiting in a line at Disneyland.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    The best and worst thing about MMOs is other people (much like real life!). If you get a good group together, you can have lots of fun, but there’s always griefers out there.

    Nothing breaks immersion more than other people too, it’s far more easy to lose yourself in a well crafted world when you’re playing alone.

    Really looking forward to the games you’ve mentioned, they should hopefully be better than the last few cRPGs I’ve played, which were a little disappointing for various reasons (Mass Effect 2, The Witcher 2, Dragon Age: Origins)

    There’s always Skyrim coming up too, although I’ll be waiting long enough for it to have plenty of mods available.

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    MMO refers to the medium of a game, how it is delivered to the player. The gameplay is separate, although I’ll admit a lot of (particularly current) MMOs tend to fall into very similar forms of gameplay.

    The reality is that you can do a lot of different things in MMOs. For example, Atlantica Online has not only a form of turn-based gameplay, but also allows you to control multiple characters in a party. Gameplay is reminds me of the old Ogre Battle style of games.

    Or consider a game like EVE Online which is nothing like an organized day at Disneyland. The environment of that game is not for everyone, but it only really works because it is online and multiplayer.

    If I can pimp my current work, too, Storybricks is our attempt to bring more storytelling in a shared environment to MMOs. Although we are going back more to tabletop gaming rather than single-player RPGs, I think there’s obviously a lot of shared DNA there.

    Not to say that single-player games don’t have their place; the CRPGAddict’s postings have made go back and play a fair number of older games. 🙂 But, I MMOs shouldn’t be damned just because the current examples are so limited.

  • skavenhorde said,

    I don’t HAVE to hook up with another party to do quests. I can go in any direction on a whim. I can play for however long I want. I don’t have to talk to people if I don’t want.

    Better SP games try to emulate real life activities like in The Witcher NPCs will crowd some kind of structure to get out of the rain. I get more connected with the NPCs in SP where as in MMO they truly are just quest givers with a bunch of blah blah blah.

  • EHamilton7019 said,

    Since an MMO needs to appeal to the widest possible audience it ends up with a lot of easy starter content that needs to be “cleared”, as a time-sink that “earns” you the right to play the endgame. A single player game does a much better job of regulating difficulty at all levels, so the earlier portions of the game don’t feel like they’re Farmville with swords.

    I’ve commented before on the way in which many older games made the earlier game feel initially hard, so that the later game would feel more satisfying. Just learning how to survive in the game was a major accomplishment. That made the fictional world feel dangerous, and made you feel better about becoming a hero in it. What use is there for exceptional heroes in a world where monsters live in a cave that’s marked with a big blinking red arrow, and obediently line themselves up in solo combat for every adventurer who wants to walk through it?

    I’m still in awe of that opening fight in Knights of the Chalice where it feels like the “home base” is under direct assault from a massive goblinoid horde that looks nearly strong enough to storm the keep. It’s a far cry from fighting level-5 rats, while level-75 guards protect the market full of item vendors standing 20 feet away from you.

  • Menigal said,

    I really don’t get this concept that MMOs have good gameplay. I’ve tried a few over the years and have always found them to be extremely dull, repetitive, and essentially just Diablo clones.

    Monsters roaming around with clear labels of what they are, breaking any sense of immersion by showing you level you need to be to explore this area. Rare NPCs standing around, symbols hovering over them showing what kind of interaction to expect, surrounded by hordes of badly named PCs who run and jump and constantly spout off metagaming terms or racial insults. Then the inevitable request for 10 bear asses, requiring a long stretch of clear time padding. A line of hotkeys along the bottom of the screen that hold a list of obsessively balanced but oh so dull skills that usually rely on several upgrades to be remotely useful.

    These are things I hate seeing in a single player RPG. In fact, I’ve just started playing Divinity 2, which does a lot of these things, and I find it really prevents me from connecting with the game. Yeah, I’m still enjoying it for now, but it’s more like an action/arcade game than a real RPG, and I never think of my PC as “me”.

    Single player games give you a world to explore. MMOs can give you a giant map with lots of mostly meaningless backstory, but what you get is a chatroom with Diablo enbedded in it, crowded with semi-literates complaining about any aspect of the game that deviates from the MMO-norm.

    Yes, there are exceptions, but I think RPGs would be better off if they stopped trying to copy a style of gameplay designed for addiction and the obsession with DPS and kiting and all the other MMO crap. Instead, they should focus on a more “realistic” style that draws the player in. At their best, the TES and Fallout games are good at this, but even the games that try to compete with them go for the MMO-style, and I think that hurts them in the long run.

  • Calibrator said,

    MMOs are not my cup of tea – mostly because of the reasons already mentioned but let’s be honest: They are often only a digitized & enhanced variant of “cowboys & indians”.
    If you like that, great, but gamers like me rather want to make up my own story rather than be part of a “horde” that only has to decide what to attack next.

    MMOs are simply an entirely different beast compared to “normal” CRPGs – party-based or not. A genre of it’s own, even if the looks are practically the same and a large part of the gameplay mechanics are similar or even identical (fighting, inventory, communication etc.).

    IMHO that’s the reason MMOs won’t the “future of CRPGs”, regardless how many followers they got.
    Even if single-player CRPGs vanish into the “underground” someday – like text adventures – there will be people programming shareware of freeware games and perhaps evolve the genre like text adventures grew into interactive fiction.

    So, yes, MMOs may be the “commercial future” of CRPGs but they are not as a type of game.

    In addition to the many reasons already mentioned here single player games offer one major feature that can’t ever be matched by a multiplayer game: They make you a dictator, deciding what to do and when to do it.
    This level of freedom can’t be replicated in multiplayer games, even if your horde consists of only one person (yourself).
    This freedom also affects the pacing of the game/plot. You decide when to grind and/or improve your equipment to tackle the next part of the quest. In an MMO you might have to consult with your group first.
    No unpleasant surprises like player killers or having to deal with cretins and infants.

  • xenovore said,

    Brian beat me to it, but I’ll go ahead and echo what he said.

    Bad Sector nailed the primary strength of single player games: no network connection required.

    Everything else… I’ve played MMOs along-side single player games for a long time now (since MMOs were still called MUDs), and I can unequivocally say that any other issues are design issues. As Brian said: “MMO refers to the medium of a game . . . The gameplay is separate.”

    In other words, if you’re going to say that anything sucks about MMOs, lay it on the MMO designers, not on MMOs in general. (E.g. “player killers” cannot kill other players unless allowed by the design; “Monsters roaming around with clear labels of what they are”: design. )

    All the complaints described above are potentially solvable. But some are harder problems to solve, and since designers are lazy and suits are cheap… “Look WoW does that, and everybody likes WoW, and WoW makes a lot of money, so let’s just copy it.” …That’s why the current crop of MMOs are virtual theme parks; nothing inherent to “MMO” there.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    There’s laziness and trends, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think the some of the design goals of an MMO are fundamentally different from those of a single-player RPG. It’s not saying that an MMO *couldn’t* be designed that way, but it would probably not be the way to success.

  • xenovore said,

    Quote: “…it would probably not be the way to success.”

    Certainly not in the minds of the big-time publishers like EA and Activision. But even for so-called “AAA” MMO developers, there are indications that some designers aren’t happy with the status quo; e.g. the design of Guild Wars 2 appears to be bucking the trend (or attempting to, at least).

    And from reading the various blogs on the subject, there is plenty of indication that there are many players out there that are tired of the usual theme-parky stuff, so I believe something else could be developed and be successful.

    At any rate, I totally think that any design barriers for MMOs are fully in the minds of designers and players… I mean, you just did it: “I think the some of the design goals of an MMO are fundamentally different from those of a single-player RPG.”

    And I’m saying, they don’t have to be.

  • Barry Brenesal said,

    A lot of good ideas, above. I’d just add as my two cents that I worked for 4 years as a GM/writer/scripter for an MMO, and the number of OOC, thieving, and game-abusing types were pretty high. On the other hand, when you hooked up with roleplayers and had a good character yourself, it was all worthwhile.

    But I like being able to play when I want to play, and not get booted out of the game because of server issues. So singleplayer is the way I’ll play, when I choose to play an RPG.