Skyrim is making quite the noise at the moment; not just among classic RPG lovers but a large circle of MMO players too, realizing just how much they have missed that sense of wonder and adventure in the online world. No doubt it is a certain kind of MMO player who feels this loss most acutely – I know why I do and like me, many MMO players have actually started their journey decades ago, as console gamers, as tabletop and pen & paper players, as lovers of the fantasy genre as a whole. These past days I have felt as if re-discovering a long lost friend and exploring the world of Tamriel has been an almost poetic experience. I kid you not. Within the first few hours, I’ve been inside my favorite Robert Frost poem and been the hero on my cherished old D&D covers. What more could I possibly want from a game?
|“He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.”
I don’t know how to call this essence that we can feel when a fantasy game, book or movie is being true to its core. This strange magic that happens when somebody does it right and takes us there with him. The difference between a work of passion (and geekdom) maybe and a generic work of fail that we can all tell apart. Some games have soul, some don’t – you can feel it and see it but not nail it down on single criteria like graphics or combat.
Me and a friend of mine like to call it “high adventure” and we borrow from the opening of Conan the Barbarian there. Or we call it “epic bombast shit” (EBS©) in a not-so-srs attempt to qualify the seriously atmospheric and epic fantasy from its ugly mass-market siblings.
Either way, Skyrim has it; this sense of magic and awe, of being there in this vast world with dragons in the sky and darkness lurking around the next corner. It has its minor flaws, as others have already pointed out, but at this stage it’s entirely beside the point for me. Again: what else could I possibly want?
The “Skyrim MMO” deal
Right after entering Skyrim, I said “man, if only this was co-op. I would need holidays”. Indeed, the world of Tamriel screams for companionship; sharing the travels and adventures with a few more people who don’t happen to die on the way or get stuck under the stairway like their NPC equivalents. I would love nothing more than a co-op mode for maybe 2-4 players.
The MMO idea now, I am not so sure. I commented about this before, and my initial negativity stems from the justified scepticism of what a developer might do to Skyrim in popular WoW-fashion. That idea is frankly a nightmare and I care little whether WoW’s gamification trend came from the players or the developers, I would never want to share Tamriel with WoW’s current MMO achiever crowd. Ever.
I’m far from opposed to online modes though or sharing games by principle. Why did I become an MMORPG-player in the first place, if not because I prefer to have more than NPCs around me? But for this to work in Skyrim, we would have to take a close look at all the aspects that make the game so dear to us right now – and at how to protect those. How can you retain Skyrim’s scale, open world and playstyle freedoms in an MMO while maintaining a sense of meaning? This is something Bethesda has managed to balance: open world vs. meaning. They show us too, that not all satisfaction in an RPG is delivered by means of a classic definition of “challenge” and immediate “hard rewards”. There is great joy in adventure and exploration.
The answer to the question might already lie in the online world: FPS games. Times before we’ve noticed features of online shooters and communities with the potential to improve things for MMORPGs too. It was my better half though who tipped me off when pointing out what he liked about Skyrim and as an FPS-player, always disliked about WoW –
“…This is what the players want: freedom. Let me play the game however I want and with whom, don’t tell me what to do or how to play. Let me choose my difficulty, whether to use console commands or not. Don’t tell me when to grind or what items I need or where I should go. I’m not an idiot. This is what the …[insert random Blizzard insult here]…still don’t get.”
A popular dilemma of MMOs is the accomodation of player X; to appeal to a variety of players within the same game, to offer dynamic content and different levels of difficulty. All of that can simply be summed up as a basic issue of player freedom. If you realize that you cannot deliver for everybody, why do you even try to define the game in the first place?
Several weeks before Skyrim’s launch, I tipped my toe into Red Orchestra 2 – for lack of alternatives and the wish for quick, cooperative play more than anything. I joined the friendly banter of my partner’s clan on teamspeak and tried to hide my cringe-worthy attempts at mimicking the FPS player. Yet, I never fail to be impressed over how readily the FPS industry has delegated their server administration to the clans who represent their loyal player base. If you log into RO2, you’re met with a long list of player-hosted server types, each offering their own rule sets, map and itemization choices, number of players allowed. Whether you choose to play in a smaller group, use aim-bots or loathe any kind of mod, there’s a place for you.
This is what I would want for a “Skyrim online”. A chance to choose how I play it and to share it with a limited amount of like-minded players. A developer can never look after so many individual choices, but I can. And I would join such a game in a heartbeat.
Skyrim shows us that the RPG and MMO player alike love the scale and freedoms of an open world. FPS games have shown for years that the best way to cater to a mixed audience, is to let the community configure and moderate their own servers. Why should we not adapt this for online RPGs in the future?