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The Theft of Single Player Stories By Multiplayer Games

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So, I’ve recently started playing Final Fantasy XIV. For those of you who don’t know, Final Fantasy XIV is Square Enix’s most recent attempt at an MMORPG after the mixed results of FFXI back in 2002 and the miasmatic and toxic original FFXIV release in 2010.

I know this is Only SINGLE Player dot com, but stick with me.

Now, I’m no connoisseur of MMOs. In fact, I avoid them for the most part. I’m a huge fan of the single player experience, the idea that I am somehow the only competent individual in the entire universe and it’s up to me to save the world from some incomprehensible evil. Or pay off my home loan to some crooked raccoon with secret mafia connections.

Damn you, Nook.

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That’s not to say I don’t enjoy them occasionally, however. Despite my love of the significance I am afforded in a well-crafted single player experience, I am not opposed to the concept of being a small part of a greater whole, working my way from a green-faced, wet-eared novice to someone of note in a sea of other nameless, unimportant schmucks. The idea of becoming important despite your inherent smallness in the game world is not unappealing.

There is also something fulfilling in the feeling of camaraderie – or perhaps competition, one eye on the boss the other on the DPS meters – you build when working through tough content with 4 or 9 or 24 or 39 other players of varying skill levels (and mental capacities DON’T STAND IN THE FIRE YOU FOOLS) and establishing yourself as exceptionally skilled in a group of your peers can be a huge motivator.

It’s a terrible shame, then, that so few MMOs go that route in their actual stories, opting instead to focus on the same old, worn-out tale about how you are important and somehow it is up to you to save the entire world.

It baffles me, with such an interesting and fresh avenue to video game storytelling available to them, that many of these games choose instead to tread down such well-worn and frankly unimaginative roads, that they choose to go the route of making you out to be the chosen one, either explicitly or implicitly. They tell you that your story is the story of the world you’re in rather than just one story of hundreds (or thousands or millions). They tell you that you are somehow the only hope this world has left despite the fact that everyone else around you is equally equipped to handle the same threats… and you have a sneaking suspicion they’ve heard that exact same tripe.

Hell, most of them probably just finished doing the exact same “mission of dire importance” as you. What banal nonsense.

I suppose in a way, making you a small part of a big whole runs contrary to the idea of empowerment that so many games strive for, that making you out to be the hero of the story is what gamers crave. But it doesn’t change the fact that MMOs do this sort of thing so poorly. Because in MMOs, no one is the hero. Or everyone is. Which is the same as saying no one is.

Okay, so that’s not entirely fair. There’s no reason MMOs can’t do such a storyline as well as any single player experience. But there are plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t. The biggest of which is that it’s entirely disingenuous.

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Whenever some hapless NPC goes off about how important I am individually to the fate of the universe I’m playing, I feel cheated and a little betrayed. Because I know the guy that was just here before me (and is now dancing naked on top of a mailbox) heard the same thing. And the guy traipsing up behind me will hear it when I’m gone. It’s like when your parents put your stupid macaroni art on the refrigerator and told you that you were the next Rembrandt and you later find out that it’s just stupid macaroni on a page and you’ll never be an artist and your parents were lying to you about how special you were all along you’re doomed to die alone and unloved in a cold, uncaring world of misery and hatred.

…moving on.

You might argue that it would be silly to have the “heroes” of the stories be NPCs (because every story needs heroes, right?), to which I might agree. Forcing you to play nursemaid for the inept but still somehow epic and significant protagonists of the world is both anti-climactic and dull; World of Warcraft taught us that. But my response, then, is find some other story to tell. Find some way that utilizes the strengths of MMOs – exploration, coordination, camaraderie – and stop trying to subscribe to the conventions of another genre of games.

One of the worst offenders in this regard was City of Heroes. Before all the ten or eleven City of Heroes fans get on my case, let me first say that I loved City of Heroes. I feel like it was the quintessential superhero MMO (and yes, I realize there wasn’t much competition) and I was exceedingly sad to see it go. However, the idea that my superhero is one of thousands flying around in the same city was so deflating to me that I had a hard time taking the game seriously as anything other than a purely mechanical experience. And for someone who values immersion and roleplaying as much as I do (yes, I’m one of those people), that can be a death knell for a game.

And all of that is to say nothing about the destruction of immersion that such stories run into when faced with the necessity of repetition in MMORPGs, most of which are based on the idea of repeating (or “grinding”) the same content over and over and over and over and over again. Far better, I think, to battle some nameless soldiers in a game’s dungeon rather than Arthas the Lich King, or Ifrit the Primal of Fire, or Lord Recluse, or Tequatl the Sunless, or whatever other named and epic characters the world has to throw at you.

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But I think the thing that bothers me most about this convention is the fact that many of these games would probably make perfectly functional or even exceptional single player experiences – the niggling suspicion that the MMORPG beast is stealing potentially great single player games. I can’t tell you how much I would love a Final Fantasy game with the character creation and customization mechanics of FFXIV, not to mention the expansiveness and exploration and even the aimlessness. City of Heroes was the same way. It’s been too long since I’ve been able to play a superhero game in which I have been able to create my own colorful, spandex-clad hero (this is a vastly undertapped market and I really think someone should jump on it, preferably with the Saints Row 4 engine).

I just can’t help shaking the idea that all these MMOs are coming out at the expense of the single player market.

Granted, single player experiences are often tightly corralled and the idea of turning FFXIV or CoH into single player games as they are (or were in CoH’s case) is ludicrous. But there’s no reason they couldn’t have been designed from the ground up as single player games.

I guess at the end of the day I just feel like too many developers are jumping on the MMO bandwagon – probably for monetary reasons but I don’t want to be cynical – but don’t want to put forth the effort to make a game that really capitalizes on the potential strength of the genre. MMOs have every right to exist, of course. But I feel like if the creators of a game want to tell a story in which one player is made to feel important and powerful, then they should make a single player game. And I think making such a game into an MMO is not only taking away something very special from the single player experience but also undermining the very idea of a massively multiplayer online game.

What about you, fair reader? Are MMORPGs stealing perfectly functional single player experiences? Would you jump on an MMO that did not over-stress your own, personal importance and instead emphasized your part of a larger whole? Or do you need to feel important and powerful within a game world (no judgment, as I said, I love to feel important)? Or maybe you think that an MMO is only there to be conquered and raided until your fingers bleed, story be damned (to which I would argue why bother with a story at all?). Sound off in the comments below.

Reid Gacke
Writer, journalist, teacher, pedant. Reid's done just about anything and everything involving words and now he's hoping to use them for something he's passionate about: video games. He's been gaming since the onset of the NES era and has never looked back.

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11 Comments

  1. As one of those 11 City of Heroes fans allow me to say… it seems weird to presumably be a fan of the superhero genre then find it jarring for your CoH hero to be “one of thousands flying around in the same city”. You do know that Superman and Spider-Man live in shared world with thousands of heroes as well, right?

    Whatever floats your boat, personal preference and subjective opinion aren’t quite debatable. I just find that a odd hangup to possess given the nature of the genre

    1. There are not thousands of heroes in Marvel or DC. Hundreds MAYBE. And they encompass an entire world (in some cases, an entire universe), not just one city (even a huge city like Paragon). If they’re all in the same place at the same time, there is some serious shit going down. But the problem with City of Heroes is that that was the status quo. It was all the damn time. Crossovers are usually pretty major events in comics, but in City of Heroes it was all the time. I get that not everyone is bothered by that, but it bugged me.

    2. Also, I am happy that the very first two replies I got were from City of Heroes fans. It was a great game and I’m really happy to hear that there are people out there who appreciated it. I don’t mean to suggest that I hated the game, I just didn’t like how ubiquitous the MMO genre made the heroes.

    3. Conversely Destiny’s worlds felt small and underpopulated…..

  2. Let me help fill in your quota of City of Heroes fans. However, I’m not going to get on your case about it. When I played City of Heroes, I didn’t team much or at all unless I absolutely had to. Most of my experience in the game was to play as single player. I played on a low population server, so really it was like being the only one of a few heroes. Took little imagination to be like Batman, Ironman or Superman or Antman or heck, Squirrel-Girl, I was a one of a few who came together only occasionally as a team.

    I guess I don’t get how you think a MMORPG would work as a better single player experience, because it’s kinda in the name that they aren’t. I may just not understand what you’re trying to say. Perhaps, I haven’t the experience. The only MMORPG I played and enjoyed was City of Heroes. I’ve tried others, but I came to realize it wasn’t MMORPG I wanted to play but COH with its awesome character creator and the ability to be the hero or villain if only for a moment.

    1. But that’s exactly what the Stories are single player campaigns, that’s what I hate about MMO’s. The multiplayer aspects are just bolted on to that, you’re all the same Hero campaign.
      While I agree NPC’s shouldn’t be the hero, it’s because I don’t think any multi-player game even needs “a hero”, that’s the single player, single hero syndrome. That’s the crux of this issue, the main problem with all MMO’s.

      Multi-player games shouldn’t have singular Campaigns at all. They should have many campaigns, with many heroes and Villians, simultaneously.

      A true Multi-player World, would be a dynamic world, full of separate dynamicly created events. No set narrative or reucurring actions, if you’re not present for a specific event, you miss it. If your character dies they stay dead.
      To pass on your gains to another chosen character, requires effort, in raising and nuturing your successor. With no guarantees they will even live long enogh to inherit your wealth and power.

      There will be improving and aquiring of skills, but no leveling up, no endgame, no differentiation into PvP and PvE. The
      worlds History evolves from the interactions and consequences of the
      actions taken and to experience an individual event, you must be present. Only much later may an evemts significance become apparent, as a major historical turning point.

      In a dynamic changing wold many thousands of individual events occur simultaneously. Which become world changing and which meaningless, depends on how the worlds evolves and history is written afterwards, not before.

      Single Player MMO’s (My definition of a WOW clone) are at saturation point, those who like them, already play one or more of them and the overall numbers, don’t change much, if at all.

      MOBA’s are one alternative, but for the Single player gamer who want’s a Multiplayer World to live in, niether M0BA’s or MMO’s fit the bill.

      Star Citizen has the potential to be the Dynamic Science Fiction Universe.
      No potential Dynamic Magical Fantasy Universe stands out, yet.

      1. Right, exactly what Uhuru said. It’s not about making MMOs into single-player games, it’s taking stories that belong in single player games and forcing them into MMORPGs. No one person is supposed to be the grand hero, the chosen one, the warrior of light, whatever. It’s supposed to be everyone working together. That’s the mechanics of an MMO, so that should be integral to the plot. When you’re trying to tell the player that they’re special, you’re telling EVERYONE that they’re special in a way that is impossible for everyone to be.

  3. “All the ten or eleven City of Heroes fans?” Come on, that’s a low blow. Surely you realize the game maintains a sizeable and passionate following even three years after it’s closure.

    As far as your actual point, I usually just think of the other players as people playing the same game. Them experiencing the same storylines I am doesn’t diminish my experience any more than when we’re simultaneously playing through the latest Batman: Arkham title. The difference is: I can see them.

    I’m aware it’s silly that we’re all occupying the same narrative role, but until now I’ve only been amused by it. It was immersive enough for me that enemies and civilians said things like “Oh no, it’s Dr. Mortiman!” and “I heard Dr. Mortiman robbed the bank,” respectively, because the story aspects and the multiplayer aspects were mostly separate to me.

    Except for that last sentence, I’m speaking in general about my experience with MMOs. I played the villain content of “City of Heroes/Villains” almost exclusively, which isn’t quite as good an example of what you’re talking about as the hero content. But in Runescape (for example), it was still completely normal for two player characters to stand next to each other and discuss having just beaten Underground Pass. That’s the same as saying “You’re the lone hero who ventured into the caverns beyond West Ardougne, navigated the many dangerous traps and challenges therein, and slew the self-proclaimed son of a chaos god? Me too!” Then again, you could hold the same sort of discussion about a Skyrim quest. Just not in-game.

    If all we changed about an MMO was the players’ central status in the storylines, what would be the difference? We’d still all be playing through the same preordained paths. We’d still occupy the same role in the larger universe as the other players. Maybe you had some more specific ideas in mind?

    1. As a fan of City of Heroes myself, it probably was a low blow. It was a solid game but it didn’t have as much of a following as some other games. It was a cheap shot for humor, sorry :-P

      It pleases me that so many City of Heroes fans have called me out on it though!

      As for your last point, my own point is that MMO developers can be creative with how they adapt their storylines. There are ways to do it without every single person having beaten Arthas or Deathwing or Lord Recluse or whatever. Make the threats unspecific. Guild Wars 2 did a pretty good job with this. Sure, there was a lot of repetitive content, but it was unspecific enough that it felt like they were things that could be repeated.

      “Oh no, the centaurs are attacking this strategically-important bridge again! Time to fight them off!” that sort of thing. Set in a world of constant threat and struggle, there’s plenty of content you could do that isn’t so specific that it is unimersive.

      But again, I recognize that it may just be me. I don’t like the idea that everyone in the world has done the exact same thing (in your Skyrim example, those are separate game worlds so it’s less relevant), but I’m also the kind of guy that rerolls a character because I notice a lot of people are playing the same race/class/gender as me. So…I might have a problem.

  4. Mulitplayer games steal single player game ideas I think for the competition/grind element the MMOs create. Not many Single Players would do the same mission 100 times to get a better piece of armour for instance…. It allows studio to skimp on content and still keep people interested increasing the future revenue potential.
    My experience is limited with MMOs admittedly – I played WOW to level 50 then quit but mostly as a solo player. Destiny was horrible – the same few missions repeated ad infinitum…

    1. Pretty much exactly why I haven’t found much enjoyment with Destiny. Aside from the fact I’m having to try new games all the time and don’t have time to grind one game, it’s incredibly boring to me to have to go back over and over again to do the same mission. I love Destinys’ worlds, there fantastically designed and look beautiful, but there’s just nothing to do…unless I want to go fight the same boss day in day out.

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