What MMOs can Learn From Skyrim

Yesterday’s post garnered some interesting responses both here and on G+. Several pointed out that MMOs do contain a gameplay element that cannot be satisfied in single-player games. This is quite correct, but not particularly applicable to my own situation, where it’s not strictly an issue of not having the hours to play but of an irregular schedule. I would have to win the guild lottery to find a group that fits with my itinerary.

Also, so I’m being crystal clear here, single-player sandboxes, Skyrim included, have a number of fairly predictable flaws. A search on YouTube for something like “Oblivion goofs” will reveal some of the many glitches from that game, and Skyrim shares that in addition to having a UI that’s (implausibly) worse in many ways. Opening up options and increasing a world’s interactability also increases situations that weren’t forseen by either the developers or the code. This tends to result in a game that is, as Tobold points out, in a game that’s easier to break than your average MMO.

This is so because MMOs, to a far greater extent than single-player games, see ongoing development where such oddities and balance problems get smoothed over. In this process the openness of a Skyrim would inevitably be lost. Ported as-is, it would make a very sloppy MMO.

Still, there are lessons that MMO developers could learn from Skyrim and the Elder Scrolls series in general. Just off the top of my head, World of Warcraft has chairs that you can sit in, for example – most MMOs don’t. It’s a tiny thing that makes the world more interactable. What else might be done, even in the context of WoW?

A decent crafting system would be a good start. One of the more popular starting areas is a forest, for example – what if there was a lumberjacking harvesting ability and a tradeskill you could use lumber for, and you made trees – every tree, mind you – interactable? Well, obviously a lot of areas would be promptly deforested! But there are ways around this. You might have a (possibly repeatable) quest for the Arbor Society of Azeroth, where you’re given a packet of seeds and asked to replant them across the zone. Or the tress could be coded to regrow naturally over a period of time. You might want to make a forest zone bigger to compensate, but I don’t think bigger zones is a bad things – and fast or instantaneous travel is considered a necessity these days anyway.

Weather is another thing that increases interactability and immersion. What if there were ruins out in a desert that were covered up by rolling sands most of the time, and only occasionally revealed when the winds were right (i. e. at intervals not easily predictable)? What if, in truly appalling weather like we have here in Ohio, you took exposure damage unless you were in shelter or had some level of magical protection?

You can see that we’re swiftly moving away from something like WoW, despite its nice little touch of having chairs you can sit in. As we can come up with these ideas, we move farther and farther into that territory, and the game we imagine gets bigger and bigger. I’m tired of small games, and the most hard-beaten path of MMO development is leading to smaller and smaller.

Skyrim is a big game, and I’m not talking about the size of the landmass, which is incidental. Weather has a real effect on gameplay (without doing damage, normally,) and there are even abilities that let you control it. I can sit in the chairs and pick up the items on the table. Every single person in the game can be talked to or stolen from, most can be killed and they have actual behavior. When I showed up at the Jarl’s hall in Whiterun early one morning, the Jarl and all of his coterie were sitting around the table eating breakfast. I know these procedural behaviors break down from time to time and cause things that may be amusing or frustrating in equal measure, but they also grant the game a depth that is simply not present in any MMO I’m aware of.

4 responses to “What MMOs can Learn From Skyrim

  1. I do not see it. My concern is cost.

    What is being proven in the market is the “big dollar” MMO’s are not working. Rift, though considered a copy of WoW, is 100% more stable, well developed and a well made MMO…PERIOD. Yet the numbers keep falling. Any other MMO is being forced into the Free to play realm to make ends meet. Who wants to spend millions upon millions now on such a market that is so unstable.

    But, using your thoughts…adding the code to do such huge sweeping ideas could leave such a game in development hell. We need to look at the current engines…are they capable? When we look at Bethesda’s engine, it consists of many parts…which are being used in today’s MMO’s (WAR and Rift are two examples)…why did they not use the ideas from Oblivion for example? There is more to this than “Lets add this…” – Logistics must be unreasonable, or else we would be seeing Bethesda’s fruits.

    Do not get me wrong, it is not that I am against such an endeavor…but realistically speaking, I do not think the tech is advanced enough to get this done in less than a 10 year development cycle.

    For now, we can only hope that Guild Wars 2 (which has been under development now for…5 years?? ..wiki notes start of 2007?) can show us an alternate MMO playing field with it’s dynamic systems and change to how we play an MMO, because SWTOR doesn’t offer anything new (story? who cares…good for one play through). If GW2 fails (I doubt this..but, what if?), then the sandbox will be dead for MMO’s.

  2. The last bit is something that always bugged me in WoW. 4 AM? Gyran Stoutmantle is still chilling outside his tower. That dude is a machine!

    Taking damage from weather is something i’d not be interested in. It takes really bad weather before any old human can’t survive. Some stuff, putting on a coat in the winter, drinking a shit-ton of water in the desert, isn’t really fun if its simulated.

  3. One point I’d like to pick up is the thought of hiding content behind a Random Number generator (in your example, rolling sand dunes). This would be okay for something small, and there has to be *some* way of predicting it, even if it’s not mathematical. Something like ‘reading the signs’. In this case, the wind changes direction, and in, say, 30 minutes the content is opened up. With the change in direction being noticeable in some way (weather veins, flags flapping etc).

    The problem with this, in an MMO format, is that you CANT hide content arbitrarilly. It would feel unfair should this content be important (for example, a quest objective, or a large raid encounter).
    WoW’s only locked-content remains unlocked when the key is found (or, in the case of the PvP dungeons, swaps about, but is always open for someone). It would probably pass muster if it contained something small, like an easter egg, or perhaps a rare, mid-level spawn, or a world boss even, and those who’ve read the signs can race to get there first.

    MMOs are designed like trees. Trees with a huge trunk and tiny little twigs sticking out of it. Where the trunk is the required levelling experience, and the twigs are extra fluff. I whole-heartedly endorse the beefing up those twigs with something more substantial and thoughtful than “Omg, that NPC is called Linken and he’s wearing a green hat”. One way to make the extras more substantial is to have the world react. And not in a scripted way, like in Cataclysm (although, that was step in the right direction). The world should feel alive because it’s doing things itself, rather than waiting for a player to arrive and do something.

    Reminds me of an old saying:
    If a rare mob spawns and no-one’s there to kill it, does it have a loot table?

    Frankly, it should, and if it’s not killed it should eat up all the other wildlife around it, so that anyone who DOES come along finds their quest objectives missing and a big fat wolf waiting in the darkness.

  4. The word I come back to is “exploration”. Many single player games allow you to explore the world and see what’s out there. Talk to people. Wander to random parts of the map. Actually think about what you are seeing.

    This could be done on an MMO, and it would be fun. In fact, the original World of Warcraft was more exploratory, it seems to me, than the latest expansions. It used to be that the whole World was designed together, and you really could go look around and see what you can see.

    There’s one big problem, though, which I’m guessing is why Blizzard has moved in the direction they have: hours played. Exploration games lose their appeal after you’ve played through them 2-3 times. In an MMO, they have to come up with something that’s worth doing 100 times over. Lately, Blizzard has focussed on the reputability aspect and dropped exploration by the wayside. Could they bring it back? I wish they would. I wish some MMO would. I like raid night, but I sure do miss the exploration, story lines, and characters that show up in single-player RPGs.