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.
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.