Editorial: Why Skyrim Is The Opposite Of A "Single-Player MMO"

by Adam Biessener on Nov 23, 2011 at 07:04 AM

Since Morrowind broke Bethesda's Elder Scrolls series into the mainstream, people have described the games as "single-player MMOs." The breadth of content available in Todd Howard's sprawling open worlds may be comparable to the better sort of MMORPGs, but the fundamental hooks that draw players in are diametrically opposed. We'll use Skyrim as our example here, as all three of the latest Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion, Skyrim) share the same basic design while Skyrim is far and away the best execution of it. World of Warcraft will serve as our MMO exemplar, since that's what everyone means when this comparison is brought up nowadays.

Forget how skill advancement works with leveling up, content scaling methodologies, and perk trees. That stuff is important – trust me, I couldn't be happier with the evolution of the nitty-gritty RPG systems in Skyrim – but it is peripheral to the core issues we're looking at. The universal gamer fantasy that Skyrim expresses so well is fundamentally different from the World of Warcrafts of the gaming world.

Skyrim is about making your mark on the world.
Blizzard can cut together all the in-engine cutscenes and phased zones it likes, but it's simply not possible to equal the depth of interaction a single-player game is capable of with today's MMO technology. Bethesda gives you all the tools to break their game, and invites you to do with Skyrim what you will. If you want to kill all the quest NPCs in town and make a big ol' corpse pile in the town square, hey, you're the hero. Do what you want. Save the world, ignore the suffering of the common folk, just go exploring the countryside – whatever your heroic fantasy is, you can act it out in Skyrim. Sure, you killed the Lich King in WoW. So did everyone else. Don't you feel special?

Skyrim is not about game systems and power growth.
I know it sounds silly, but hear me out. Yes, Skyrim presents all the usual RPG hooks to entice players to get more powerful. Perks are great, and finding an awesome new weapon is a wonderful feeling. But becoming more powerful is rarely an objective unto itself like it is for many MMO players in the endgame. I don't dive into a haunted barrow in Skyrim because I want the loot. I do it because I want to see what's down there, and experience whatever story the decrepit crypt has to tell. I pursue long, difficult quest chains because I honestly want to help the deposed beggar-king get justice (or perhaps to stick it to the arrogant, scheming nobles currently in charge), not because there's a blue item at the end of it. The difference between that and the approach I have to running Stonecore for the nth time (because it has a blue item at the end, duh) could not be more stark. Not least because...

Skyrim is not about challenge or accomplishment.
There's the odd Frost Troll (seriously, that guy is a butthole) that poses a genuine threat to you in Skyrim, but the real accomplishment in Skyrim is in not removing all challenge by overpowering yourself in one of the many possible ways the game allows. Smithing, Enchanting, Sneak, and even Alchemy can break the game in their own ways with just a little creativity on your part. That's not to say you can't have interesting fights with some combination of self-imposed limitations and/or use of the difficulty slider, but it's on you to create whatever difficulty or lack thereof you want. High-end fights in MMOs offer the player no such luxury; to beat any difficult encounter your group will have to min/max itself to some extent. I don't mean to denigrate either approach to difficulty, but this does mean that...

Skyrim is about experiencing the content the way you want to.
Everyone who saves the Wildhammer clan in WoW's Twilight Highlands has the same experience. I have daily discussions with my co-workers about the different approaches and outcomes we have in Skyrim. It doesn't matter that we're playing on different difficulty levels with radically varying effectiveness in our character builds – we are all able to play out whichever heroic fantasy we've chosen. Nobody cares if dual-wielding is objectively less powerful than a sword-and-board setup (which it totally is, because shield bash is crazy awesome), because the game doesn't require anything approaching an optimal build. Try bringing a sub-standard combat approach to a WoW dungeon and see how long you last before the group boots you. You'll probably have a better time in Skyrim, because ultimately...

Skyrim is about catering to explorers, role-players, and other second-class MMO citizens.
I've never been in a guild or visited an MMO message board that doesn't have its share of people complaining that they can't play the game they way they want to (remember melee Hunters?) without being ostracized, criticized, and otherwise hated on by the rest of the community. Role-players have had to make do with limited emote sets and no control over the storyline in almost every MMO out there (R.I.P, Star Wars Galaxies). Explorers get thrown the occasional bone (hat tips to, DC Universe Online and Rift), but it seems like every game makes its world more linear than the last. There are good reasons for these decisions on the parts of MMO designers, but diving into Skyrim after putting hundreds (thousands?) of hours into a mainstream MMORPG exercises parts of your inner fantasy nerd that you may have forgotten existed at all. Heck, if I have this reaction to the game as a hardcore achievement-driven MMO player, it's easy to see why my Twitter feed, gaming forums, and real-life interactions are all Skyrim all the time.

I love MMOs for entirely different reasons than I love Skyrim – all that min/maxing in character builds, tactical optimization, and endless progression paths are near and dear to my heart. As much fun as I make of running Stonecore over and over, I spent my evenings doing just that because I was having a blast with it. RPGs are a broad genre, though, and I hate to see the Elder Scrolls series lumped in with games that scratch a distinctly different itch. Besides which, Skyrim is the leading candidate for my personal Game of the Year...can you tell?