The Soapbox: Single-player open worlds will never equal those of MMORPGs

    
35

These days it seems like sprawling open worlds are becoming an ever more popular choice for single-player games, from the newer Assassin’s Creed titles to the upcoming Horizon Forbidden West. Despite the popularity of these games, though — and despite the fact I myself enjoy them at times — I can’t help but feel this in some ways the wrong direction for gaming to go.

The thing is, single-player games aren’t great at being open worlds. That is one area where the MMORPG is always going to be superior.

To be clear, I am not saying that MMOs are superior to single-player games across the board. I don’t think that’s true. But each genre of game has areas where it especially excels.

Single-player games, for instance, tend to be the superior choice for presenting story choices that actually matter. Star Wars: The Old Republic has made a great effort at presenting compelling narrative choices, and I enjoy that about it, but at the end of the day the choices just don’t feel as meaningful as they do in BioWare‘s single-player titles.

By the same token, open world single-player games can still be fun, but all things being equal, MMORPGs are always going to provide the superior open world experience.

The great failing of single-player open worlds is that they are static. Developers can try to wallpaper over this — they procedurally generate the world each time you play, they can have random events, they can add DLC with new areas — but they still largely exist in stasis.

When you log in, you know everything will be just as you left it. When you log out, you know nothing will change until you return. When you play, you know you will encounter nothing the developers didn’t design for you (unless it’s a bug). When you return to an already explored area, you know there will be nothing new to find.

MMOs aren’t like that. We often complain — sometimes with justification — that certain themepark MMOs are too unchanging, but even the most static MMO is still more dynamic than any single-player title.

First, there’s the simple influence of other players. Of course in some games — like EVE Online — players have enormous control over the state of the game and its world, but even in games where that isn’t the case, other players add color, texture, and unpredictability to the experience. It’s true that sometimes the influence of another player can be negative if they’re killing your mobs or being toxic in chat, but other times they may provide helpful assistance, or they might just add interesting character to the world by, say, rolling a character whose only purpose is to sleep on a bridge.

There’s also the possibility for hidden content — little Easter eggs that add texture to a game. Single-player games can absolutely have Easter eggs, of course… but eventually, you’ve found them all, and that’s it. MMOs are always adding new content, sometimes including hidden content that may not appear in patch notes. As a result, you never quite know when you’re going to find something new in an MMO. You rarely if ever reach a moment where you know, with certainty, that you’ve seen everything that game has to offer.

MMOs are always expanding and evolving, and new content is delivered regularly, assuming the game is in good health. Single-player games might get DLC sometimes, but eventually the well runs dry, and the game sees its final update.

Now, this is ultimately true of MMORPGs as well, as they do eventually shut down or enter maintenance mode. But the scale of time involved is vastly different. Single-player games might continue seeing new updates for a year or two if you’re lucky. MMOs can continue growing not just for years, but decades.

We don’t even know what the upper limit for an MMO’s lifespan may be. Many of the oldest MMORPGs are still running with no end in sight. Right now, there are high school students who weren’t even born when EverQuest launched, and it’s still getting annual expansions.

Both MMOs and single-player open world games can be a bit of a time-sink, but the long-term persistence of MMOs make them a far better investment for your time.

If I jump into World of Warcraft right now, I can hop on a Nether Drake mount I earned when I was a teenager (I’m in my thirties now), and immediately use it to explore new content. No single-player title rewards your investment like that. Any rewards you earn cease to matter once you inevitably finish the game.

Not all updates to MMOs are in the form of permanent new content, either. Sometimes they’re about changing the existing content, potentially in radical ways. World of Warcraft redesigned two entire continents in Cataclysm, and Guild Wars 2 has seen the city of Lion’s Arch destroyed and completely rebuilt.

These changes are sometimes disruptive, and they can cause frustration if over-used, but employed judiciously, they are an incredibly powerful story-telling tool and one of the best ways to make a game world come alive.

By comparison, the open worlds of single-player games might also change, but only in response to a player’s actions, and you can always just reload your save to go back to the way things were. It’s just not the same.

Finally, and related to the above, MMOs have the chance for one-time events — singular moments that occur once and then never again. These were more common in the early days of the genre when GM run events were still common place, but even today they still occur from time to time, and nothing in the single-player realm can equal the thrill of being there for something that will never be seen again.

When I think of my favourite games of all time, most of them aren’t MMOs, but when I think about the most epic singular moments from my gaming career, they’re almost all from MMOs.

I was there when the Karka attacked Lion’s Arch. I was there when Emma opened the way to Tokyo. I was there when Garrosh poisoned the Vale. I was there when a 50-foot developer avatar dueled a Guardian of Gaia. I was there when we took the fight to Lost Shores, and I was there when we held the walls of Harbaburesti.

When you put all this together, you end up with something that’s more than the sum of its parts. No matter how well crafted, single-player open worlds are still just games. You play them, and then you shut them off when you’re done. But open worlds in MMORPGs cross the line to become something more than a game, an actual virtual world. They still exist even when you’re not playing. They grow, and evolve, and even develop rudimentary cultures among their players.

There’s a certain degree of psychological fakery going on here — a kind of willing suspension of disbelief. Realistically most of my MMO gaming sessions don’t involve some kind of emergent gameplay or amazing discovery or world-changing event… but it’s the possibility that’s thrilling.

It’s that thrill of potential that makes MMO worlds come alive. And that’s what keeps me — devoted solo player that I am — coming back to MMORPGs time and again when I want an open world experience.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
Advertisement

No posts to display

35
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Marc Hill
Reader
Marc Hill

the things i remember from games are generally from single player games…. Kalross attacking a Reaper, Aeris dying, the suicide mission, waves of apocalypse tanks to destroy an enemy, killing the archdemon and dying, the first time i initiated a global thermonuclear war….i really dont have the same sense of wonder and enjoyment from any MMO, there are a few things that cant be replicated, but overall i get more satisfaction from doing something in a single player game because you know, hey i did that. this is MY story

Reader
Jim Bergevin Jr

In terms of the sense that MMOs are changing on a regular basis, giving the illusion of progressing through a story or … living world if you will. That’s not necessarily a good thing.

I used to play Neverwinter Online regularly from Beta up to after launch. Destiny 2 was also a favorite of mine from the time it launched. However I had to stop playing both games due to time constraints of the real world for a time.

When I went hopped back into both games to pick things up again last year, I found all my quests and missions were null and void due to updates to the storyline in each game. I was completely lost and had no idea what to do or where to go. The only alternative was to abandon everything in my quest logs. That’s something I never like to do.

So I logged out of both games and haven’t been back to either one. If I can’t pick up from where I left off, after taking a breather from a game, causing me to miss out on a huge chunk of content, I have no desire to continue playing. After all, wasn’t a big complaint of subscriptions was the feeling you had to log into the game religiously with no break?

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

Well:

– About only finding in-game what the Devs add: that is only true if there is no modding/custom content community. In fact, games built around the idea of sharing player-created mods and content are often even better in getting to the players experiences other than those created by the dev than MMOs are.

– About the length of support: first, the right thing to compare MMOs to isn’t a single game, but a franchise, and those can keep being updated for as long as, if not longer than, MMOs. Second, an active modding community can keep creating content literally decades after the game first released; Sims 2, for example, see new player created content in the portals created to distribute it almost daily.

– About long-term persistence and keeping old rewards: not only NewGame+ as a concept existed at least since the 80s (Zelda 2 had it by a different name), it doesn’t matter nearly as much for offline games because you can simply cheat and mod your way to previously earned rewards.

– About change in MMO words being “better” because the player can’t undo it: here we have to disagree. I find being able to control how and when the world changes, including being able to undo the changes, to be a huge, immense advantage for offline games.

– About one-time events: again we will have to disagree. I hate one-time events and would prefer if they didn’t exist, to the extent I often keep away from MMOs while one-time events are running (and if later I find any reward for the event I truly wished I have, I instead leave the MMO). The very reason I chose games as my main entertainment venue is due to being able to replay experiences I liked, so one-time events go against everything I enjoy in gaming.

So, no. I don’t find open world to be intrinsically better in MMOs. In fact, being able to allow players to break the world, and then roll back the world-breaking changes, is such a big advantage — and one that MMOs can’t copy — that I believe offline games actually have the advantage. The strengths of the MMO genre lie elsewhere, in the player-to-player interaction, which is something offline games can’t copy.

Reader
Justin Baard

I deal with people all day every day at work, have you ever considered perhaps that not everyone WANTS to play with a bunch of randos online.

My biggest issue is what having that many people active does to my sense of immersion. User IDs over everyone’s head, people acting like morons, talking about IRL shit, endlessly jumping, trolls, etc. I don’t feel like I’m part of that world at that point. I feel like I’m just in an extension of the world I already exist in.

I do not want to have to rely on strangers to complete a quest. I don’t want to make friends online; I barely have the time for my IRL friends working 40+ hours a week.

This argument is inherently flawed, as you’re comparing two completely different things. You may as well be talking about the benefits of playing a train sim versus an arcade racer.

Not everyone has the time (or will) to live two separate lives, one with a monthly fee. I can play games in spurts of 30mins to 2 hours. I’d rather spend that jumping back into a game where I know the last thing I was doing, than potentially have to deal with real people doing the annoying things real people do.

Reader
Castagere Shaikura

Bethesda is releasing a new version for Skyrim. That game is more than 10 years old. Something to do with mods. It’s been the mod community in single-player games that keep them playable for years.

Reader
Justin Baard

Wouldn’t know, I don’t revisit old titles often and I honestly think that’s one of the weaker entries in the series because of how simplified it is. Combat was better but literally every other mechanic took a major hit. No amount of mods can fix that.

Reader
Deltath

The entire premise of this article is flawed. This idea that these MMOs are amazing living, breathing worlds that change and grow and reward years of play is mostly pure nonsense. MMOs have one upside to them and that’s the social component. If that’s what you’re looking for, then it can scratch that itch, but otherwise.. they’re almost uniformly worse videogames.

First off, their gameplay ranges from terrible to passable. Even the best MMOs fall into that “oh, the combat isn’t bad… for an MMO” category. I would rather play and enjoy the combat from Tales of Graces (not an open world game, but here for a point illustration) a hundred times over before touching the boring snoozefest that is something like World of Warcraft.

Single player RPGs also are immediately rewarding and continuously rewarding. Everything in them is pure gameplay or story or meaningful progression. Every MMO I have ever played (I’ve played hundreds) has tiny pockets of fun and meaningful gameplay/progression sandwiched between dozens or even HUNDREDS of hours of mind numbing piles of human waste. Countless hours of grinding; inane, pointless dialogue; boring combat; menu/equipment management; literal sitting around for queues doing absolutely nothing but running in place or watching paint dry. Meanwhile, a game like Breath of the Wild is a non-stop experience of enjoyment.

Moreover, very few MMOs are actually open world. Many are heavily instanced, disjointed and zoned. And virtually none of them have the number one hallmark of an open world game.. the ability to go anywhere and do anything. While technically when you start a character in World of Warcraft, you can explore the lion’s share of the first two continents.. you can’t do anything in those areas other than walk around and probably die from the hordes of enemies that can see you from a million miles away. 100% of the content in the game is gated behind HEAVY amounts of leveling, questing, faction building, etc.

They literally aren’t the same kind of game and trying to compare them in this way is nonsensical.

Also, the premise that things change in MMOs and don’t in single player games is inaccurate and quite frankly, disingenuous. Things change in an MMO not because of anything within the game that the player does or for any meaningful reason beyond the fact that the companies occasionally sell you new content that sometimes changes existing content. And honestly, this often upsets gamers. There’s a reason most WoW players these days play Classic. They got tired of all their favorite questlines and zones just disappearing arbitrarily overnight when the next expansion dropped, being replaced by content that was often worse.

It’s not like the player got to do anything to make an impact on the world. For six years, a zone was one way, then suddenly maintenance hits the server and the next day it’s unrecognizable and without any meaningful buildup or logic to the changes, sometimes.

Meanwhile, single player games give you as the player the ability to impact the world. If you kill a big bad dragon in Dragon Age: Inquisition, it stays dead. If you nuke Megaton in Fallout 3, the city is forever gone. What exactly happens in World of Warcraft after you save Darkshire from Stitches? He just respawns a few hours later and raids it again. Forevermore. The same with every FATE in FFXIV or every event in Guild Wars 2.

I even like some of these games. I think FFXIV is a good game with a great story. But let’s not pretend that players are making their own indelible marks on an ever changing world. At best, MMOs experienced one time through with good story and content (like FFXIV) can create the illusion of change in a stagnant world. But the more you play, the more you realize that’s all smoke and mirrors. You have no impact on the world, you’re just along for the highly scripted ride. The only emergent gameplay is generally just meaningless PVP or particularly bad dungeon runs with strangers.

Again, it really comes down to whether or not you’re seeking the social aspect or not. But even then, I’d much rather play 4 player couch co-op with my wife and our two closest friends in a Tales game any day of the week. Or even play something more akin to an MMO but with more opportunity for story and legitimate gameplay, like Borderlands or even Diablo.

Reader
Jim Bergevin Jr

Thanks for writing this. Saved me the time of putting down the same sentiment. I started out in single player games, then moved to MMOs when Guild Wars released. After 16 years, I decided to take a break and get back to my huge back catalog of single player games. I have found the experience enlightening as the single player option is superior in every way except for the social aspect (which is highly overrated to begin with given the amount of trolls you encounter).

Reader
Deltath

I hear you. The article just really makes it seem like they’re the same in every way, except MMOs just simply being better because of the model. I didn’t even touch on the fact that most of them don’t update until you’ve purchased an expansion (which isn’t any different than DLC except it usually costs $40-$50 instead of $5-$15) and many people are already paying per month or swiping the CC regularly for semi-required microtransactions in some. Which for me really hurts the experience more.

Reader
Castagere Shaikura

This was a perfect write-up. Lately, I’m not finding any joy from MMO’s like I used to but I kept trying. The latest dumb thing I’ve been doing is buying expansions in the hope the games will get better. They just get worse with grind systems that are not fun to me.

Reader
Roger Edwards

MMOs aren’t like that. We often complain — sometimes with justification — that certain themepark MMOs are too unchanging, but even the most static MMO is still more dynamic than any single-player title.

Tell that to Ultan Foebane. He’s been standing in an unhitched wagon outside of East Bree for 14 years.

ScreenShot_2020-03-31_192500_0.jpg
Reader
KoboldWhite

Open worlds are shallow and overrated time sinks.

Reader
Robert Mann

Heh. These games do MORE than MMOs with the space. They tend to present greater variety while also having greater detail.

MMOs can very well do more with the space in many ways, although some of that can be simulated. They… don’t though. MMOs seem content to have that space feel like a single player game with people talking trash in world chat and occasionally swinging by to be more or less a disruptive rather than enjoyable factor. There’s, essentially, zero reason to CARE about those other players and what they are doing unless you enjoy PvP, which is a turnoff to many, and then only until so long as you are in conflict.

To be blunt, I’ve had deeper interactions with these NPCs in terms of cooperation and conflict, than with any player to date. Not because they are better at it, but because the game design was more open to ideas beyond the same old MMO tropes.

Reader
Utakata

While I can attest that MMO’s (or the ones I’ve play ‘n played) feel like a Simon & Garfunkel song at times, it’s just that single-players open world seem like the loneliest places in the RPG world. Sure, maybe they can attune the NPC’s to give that isekai feel of becoming your friends. But it isn’t the same as having real human beings to converse with. /sigh

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

“When you log in, you know everything will be just as you left it. When you log out, you know nothing will change until you return. When you play, you know you will encounter nothing the developers didn’t design for you”

Umm… yes. That’s kind of exactly what i want from any game. I don’t *play* games where the game world changes so dramatically that I have to start over every single time. If I wanted to experience that, I could just try to do a complex sand painting in a windstorm, or on the beach just before high tide.

And in the games I play that are “open world,” I can have a lasting impact – if I kill a named NPC in Fallout 4, they stay dead. If I build a little outpost in my single player save of Ark, that outpost will remain until either I destroy it or one of a small handful of in-game mechanics flattens it.

If I do something in any MMO that I have ever played, nothing changes. I rescued the village! But it is still in peril. I can even save it again, if I want. I defeated the Evil! But he’s still there, or is immediately replaced by an even Bigger Evil that I need to stop. Nothing can change, because everything has to be ready for the other thousand Chosen Ones standing in line behind me waiting to take their turn at saving the universe.

I tried Star Wars Galaxies not long before they announced the shutdown – Tatooine was one massive abandoned city, and the “immersive open world housing” had resulted in nothing less than game breaking levels of urban sprawl. Thanks, but I’ll stick to Fallout 4, where I can flood the Commonwealth with my army of scrap-parts Protectrons hauling goods between my settlements. And my junk-fleet in Space Engineers, cobbled together from my own half-baked designs and whatever random scrap I can capture from the Space Pirates without utterly trashing it. Or my overcrowded menagerie in Ark, because I suck at building there too so instead I just spend all my time taming more things that I don’t have anywhere to put. ( OnO )