Not So Massively: The dos and don’ts of stealing from single-player games


In my last Not So Massively column, I looked at the right and wrong ways for other genres to steal from MMOs. But in our current climate of blurring genres, that’s a two-way street. Just as small games can benefit from borrowing from the MMO playbook, so too can MMOs take some cues from their single-player cousins.

Today, let’s look at the dos and don’ts of that.

Do: Have a clear vision

MMOs have an unfortunate habit of trying to be all things to all people and spreading themselves too thin in the process. Single-player games aren’t entirely immune to this, but generally speaking they’re a lot more likely to stay in their lane. No one’s going around saying we need to add arena PvP to The Last of Us.

I think a lot of the reason MMOs have a reputation for being low quality compared to single-player titles is simply that too many MMOs lack a clear vision. A jack of all trades is a master of none, after all.

MMOs should have a broad appeal, and you don’t need to completely tunnel vision on just one kind of content, but it’s important to have a clear view of what your game is about. If your game is mostly about PvE, there’s no need to dump a lot of resources into competitive PvP, or vice versa. If your game is only about running dungeons at endgame, make that the focusing of leveling, too. Don’t create hundreds of quests only to abandon quest fans when they hit max level.

Focusing on a clear vision makes it easier to cater to your fanbase and keep them happy, and it frees up resources to really perfect what you’re good at. That’s how you achieve real quality and begin to stand out from the crowd.

That is definitely a thing.

Don’t: Chop up everything into instances

Open worlds aren’t the sole domain of MMOs, of course, but they are a specialty of online gaming. By comparison, single-player game worlds are often static and lifeless. They don’t grow and evolve over time. They aren’t inhabited by other people adding their own life and color to the world. They aren’t as likely to come alive and start feeling like a true virtual world.

This is one of the main things MMOs have that single-player games will never be able to equal, and MMO developers should double down on that. They definitely shouldn’t compromise it by chopping the world up with a bunch of unnecessary load screens.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not entirely against instancing. It has a lot of good uses, and for some games it’s just unavoidable. But as much as possible, developers should err on the side of less load screens rather than more. It feels like these days the (mostly) seamless open worlds of older games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft are falling by the wayside, and that’s a terrible shame.

Do: Keep a consistent cast of characters

There’s a perception that single-player games will always be a better medium for telling stories than MMOs. I don’t know if that’s true — The Secret World would like a word with you — but there are definitely some things single-player games tend to do better.

One of the main flaws of the story in MMOs is that they don’t do much to develop their NPCs. They send you to collect a few dozen fire-goat kidneys, and then you move on to the next quest hub, and you never see them again. Some major lore figures might pop up from time to time, but you never really “get to know” any NPCs in a meaningful way.

Single-player games, by comparison, tend to have a cast of core characters who will keep coming back. You’re given time to get to know them, to come to love (or hate) them. It’s much more effective at providing an emotional hook.

This is a lesson MMOs would do well to learn. Instead of introducing to a new cast of NPCs with little to no personality every new zone, let’s focus in on some characters who can learn and grow alongside us. It would be perhaps the most important step in closing the gap between MMOs and single-player titles on the artistic front.

Don’t: Try to turn an MMO into a single-player game

I’m all for MMOs trying to bring over some of the more positive aspects of other genres. However, there’s a fine and often blurry line between borrowing good ideas from single-player titles, and just dropping single-player elements into an MMO without thought.

One example is forced soloing. I understand there can be many technical and story-telling advantages to putting major story moments into solo-only instances, but if you’re making a multiplayer game, you should be able to play it with other people throughout. I recently played through all of Secret World Legends with a friend, and it really sucked that I wasn’t able to help her with some of the trickier story bosses.

Another issue is trying to tell a story where the player is the singular hero of the story… in a world where they’re constantly rubbing shoulders with other singular heroes.

Personally I’m not so bothered by this — it’s just another thing to suspend disbelief for in my books — but I know some people find it off-putting, and I feel there may be more elegant solutions. I don’t think the best option is to make every player character a nobody without true importance — that can work for some games, but it’s not a good choice for an epic RPG — but there must be a happy medium.

I think the aforementioned Secret World Legends found a good compromise wherein the player character is an important person in the story, but not the important person in the story. NPCs acknowledge your power and importance, but the game doesn’t try to flag you as the only hero running around. The fact that you’re one among many is also part of the story.

The world of online gaming is changing. As the gray area between single-player and MMO becomes ever wider, Massively OP’s Tyler Edwards delves into this new and expanding frontier biweekly in Not So Massively, our column on battle royales, OARPGs, looter-shooters, and other multiplayer online titles that aren’t quite MMORPGs.

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Good article, as usual, Tyler. Thank you!

While you make interesting points throughout, this comment section suggests to me that the real problem lies in the fact that everybody seems to have a different idea of what makes a game “good”, versus “bad”.

Hard to choose a route when we can’t even get consensus on a destination, y’know? :-)

I suppose it would be helpful if games in general tried to communicate more clearly to potential buyers what they were, and what they were not — what features they prioritized, and which they didn’t.

But, we both know that for every EVE Online or Second Life game out there which clearly transmits: “We are this kind of game — if you like this, come play” there are many game-marketers out there who believe that implying a game will be “all things to all gamers” will help to sell more copies during the crucial early sales period.

I suppose they wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work. :-(

My take on it, anyway. Thanks again for tackling a contentious topic well!

Jon Wax

I’d disagree with vision and change it to purpose

Gaming is supposed to be fun. It’s so rote and mechanical that we accept functional over fun. Yes there’s minimal crashing but that’s a pretty low standard

So beyond that…what’s the point? No man’s sky is a good idea but once you stack money and gear…what’s the purpose?

This is where I believe organic conflict is necessary for a healthy game. Not premade aggro based on lore. That’s more rails. But honest contact between 2 parties in achieving goals is the key.

Of course if the devs purpose monetary security then content is irrelevant. You get what you predictably get.


I’m playing a single player RPG called Tyranny. Before the game even properly started I made decisions that effected the game world and the story. An NPC hated my guts for something I did during the prologue, so despite trying to play as a relatively good character who shows mercy, I had to attack him and his faction to progress. I ended up killing his entire faction as the game progressed, because my choices influenced the story. Obsidian designed the game so player’s decisions would have consequences.

While some MMOS pretend to do something similar, it’s all fake, player decisions don’t really effect anything. In ESO, I saved the world in an instance, but in the meantime the world was still in danger for other players to save. Being the “chosen one” means nothing if everyone is chosen.

A game where I’m just some guy, who works with other players (even if it’s just me soloing quests to help my faction out), and everyone can have a permenant impact on the story and world, would be cool. But, probably very complicated and even impossible to make.


I think themepark MMOs today borrow too much from single player and action RPGs. I feel MMOs now shy away from making compelling content that plays into it’s greatest strength. Namely,their persistent, huge game worlds. I feel like there is way too much focus on instanced and single player story driven content. I’d classify most themepark MMOs as online single player RPGs with co-op as an option.

There is very little incentives to actually communicate with other players in themeparks MMOs these days.


I like soloing MMOs, because while I don’t like partying with people to play a game, I do like having other people around so it’s not just the same old boring NPCs.

So, the key thing for me is scalability.

I like being able to solo bosses, but a party should also be able to fight that boss.

I also like being able to explore the world, without being trounced by mobs that are higher than my level.


The full saying is “A jack of all trades is master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” It actually meant the opposite of what people think it means today. Just sayin’.


I had to look this up, and it seems like the added phrase is more modern and is not referenced in any literature until the 21st century.


One example is forced soloing. I understand there can be many technical and story-telling advantages to putting major story moments into solo-only instances, but if you’re making a multiplayer game, you should be able to play it with other people throughout.

I would agree with this, every game should at least try to incorporate proper co-op experience in the story, especially MMORPG games. Every story can be rewritten to allow for at least one extra person, especially stories in MMORPG where your choices don’t really matter.

I just wanted to add that the opposite is much, much worse – when the MMORPG forces every player to go through specific parts as a part of the group of players, without ability to do it solo. A lot of people can have a lot of reasons when they want to progress in game by themselves, without being grouped with other players (for example they may not want to inconvenience other players when they know they may have to stop playing at some random point when doing a dungeon, or they only have limited amount of time which they cannot waste on waiting 30 minutes in queue for a dungeon which gates any further content in game or which is the only place to get specific cosmetic item). And FORCING players like these to group up with other players at any part of PvE content or story is absolutely wrong – all it does is encourages paid customers to quit paying and quit the game which is always bad for everyone (less money for developers is bad for every kind of player).


My experience with trying to do SWTOR Flashpoints once each to experience the story and be done with them.

“I’d like to watch the cutscenes, I’ve never played it before.”
Vote to kick initiated
You have been kicked

“I’d like to watch the cutscenes, I’ve never played it before.”
Cutscene starts
“Spacebar spacebar spacebar HIT THE SPACEBAR AND SKIP, NOOB!”

And finally, in the rare case of a group that didn’t do either of the above:
Dramatic moment happens, character wearing what appears to be bikini armor made of skittles wins the Drama roll and is the one to take the lead in the cutscene. Bonus points because she picked the Darkside option when everyone else in the group picked Lightside.

Yeah, can’t say that the idea of experience the the story with a group of random strangers has much appeal for me.


Yea, that’s one of the major issues with being forced to do content with other people instead of soloing. I don’t play FFXIV but I remember doing dungeons where other players who already done them before many times would queue up and rush them to the point of one new player still having “viewing cutscenes” icon above player character but the other impatient players already killing the boss without the new player. And the opposite, which was just equally bad: there was a couple of story-related dungeons, Castrum Meridianum and Praetorium, they had a lot of LONG cutscenes, which were skippable at first but then Square Enix made them unskippable, meaning you’re forced to view them even if you, for example, leveling up on alt account or doing it for specific rewards or just helping a friend to do them and already seen all of the cutscenes before.

Both of approaches are bad and both would be easily fixed if there would be an OPTION to anyone to complete the dungeon solo or at the very least with a group of NPCs.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

I’m going to add the many, many, many times I’ve seen people ask for help with questing and been told in chat “You can solo that.”

I’ve spent a lot of time doing story quest lines with other people in various games and finally decided, even with friends, its good for about an hour at the most.

Options are always better for everyone. I’d be more than happy with the option to solo dungeons so I could actually enjoy the dungeon experience, instead of running like crazy from one fight to the next.


Don’t do.. story driven, aka railroading the experience, aka controlled narrative
Don’t do.. cutscenes (see above)
Do .. Allow players to choose their own pace
Do .. take inspiration from single player games UI and QoL, it is often better

Matt Redding

Secret Worlds (even before legends) really screwed up by forgetting it was an MMO. The whole original game is designed as a single player adventure game with group content tacked on as an afterthought; it’s like Ragnar Tornquist thought he was making an online single player adventure game. I am convinced one of the main reasons the initial game launch was such a failure was primarily because people found it was group-unfriendly. (I have a lifetime subscription to the game which I bought after the launch so don’t mistake this as a prejudiced attack on the game, this is due criticism). Specifically:

– while it is possible to group in the overworld, the game isn’t set up to scale difficulty in combat or adjust xp during leveling type play, as far as I remember. If someone wants to play as a healer they can really only do so in dungeons. It’s superflous to play as a healer while grouped with friends in normal leveling content, and you cannot clear various mandatory solo events (forced boss fights) in a healer build.

– If multiple people share the same quest, everyone must do every step separately, which in the case of many quests immediately breaks them as they require interacting with persistent and shared elements of the environment.
For instance to calm the ghost of a witch in one quest you have to touch some runestones in a certain order and there’s a timer. If anyone is trying to do the quest right on your coattails it will be screwed up for at least one of you, or both if someone bulls ahead and touches the runes while you are. The entire quest is like a ride at an amusement park, each person who wants to do it really needs to wait for the person ahead to finish the whole thing (about 5 minutes) which includes a scripted run through her haunted house first; this is of course a problem if a group of friends are trying to do it … or even if anyone outside your group tries to do it. A literal queue to do a quest over and over?

– the instancing system used by the server attempts to keep every instance in every zone to a minimal population, in part to keep a desolate, lonely vibe. It’s also probably to keep down the number of environmental quests getting tripped up by players, too. The upshot is it’s actually a hassle to group up with friends as you have to link and teleport to meet up; AND it makes it feel like you’re almost alone in almost every zone all the time. Even when there were a lot of people playing the game you’d almost never see a bunch of people – except during world events when suddenly 200 people would pop in for a boss fight and then bail. You know how sometimes in a regular MMO some high level person buffs a newbie as they run by and saves them from a tough mob? Won’t happen in this game; and there’s no crafting nodes to harvest so really the only competition would be for quest spawns or rare spawns.

Really at the end of the day every MMO needs to actually think about these questions:

how will this game play for someone solo?
how will this game play for someone with a dedicated partner (i.e. bff or spouse)
how will this game play for a traditional group?
how will this game play after the initial rush of new players stampedes through a zone and there are only a handful of people in each zone when the zone events fire?
what barriers will a new player face if they start 6 months or a year after launch?