Skyrim: Everything A MMORPG Should Be

Skyrim Nord

The backstory for my character was a Nord who recently went on vacation to work on his tan

I’m quite enamored with Skyrim. Partially because it makes me say things to my wife like, “honey, I’m going to play Skyrim, come get me in three hours” but mainly because it gives me everything I’ve always enjoyed in a RPG and always wished for in a MMORPG: freedom, immersion, exploration and a real sense of satisfaction.

Skyrim’s not perfect. The UI is awful, the combat is a little clunky and a lot of the voice actors sound like poor Arnold Swarchenegger impersonators but all of these things, for me anyway, are easy to overlook as you get sucked into a pure, honest and unashamed role-playing experience. The game doesn’t pander to you and it doesn’t patronise you but neither does it make your life hard for the sake of creating artificial challenge or immersion. There’s no mandatory grinding and practical concepts like fast travel and providing exits at the end of long, winding dungeons keep you from getting frustrated. It’s the perfect blend of hardcore and casual (something I’m hoping MMOs will get right one day).

But this post isn’t a review of Skyrim and if you want to check out in-depth thoughts about it then I’d recommend heading over to Nils’ wonderful blog for the excellent articles he’s written on the subject. What do I do want to write about though is two fundamental things Skyrim does very, very well and how, until it came along, I didn’t realise how much I missed in MMORPGs: a true sense of exploration and a lack of abundant and obtuse gamification.

I’m not going to harp on about MMOs of old and get all teary eyed and nostalgic for them but I honestly haven’t experienced a true sense of free exploration in them like I have in Skyrim since the days of Everquest, Vanguard and, heck, even vanilla WoW. Maybe I’m getting too familiar with them, maybe they are becoming too formulaic or maybe I’m just lacking imagination, but I’m starting to feel contained and boxed in with the newer MMOPRGs I’m playing (RIFT, Aion, WoW expansions). Instead of offering vast, open worlds that you’re free to explore, they offer obvious and confined single points of forced progression, making you feel like you’re following a fixed path rather than being free to forge your own destiny. The effect makes you feel like you’re playing more of a game and less like an inhabitant of a fantasy world.

Something less subjective though is definitely Skyrim’s bold refusal to give into blatant gamification (assuming I’m using the word correctly here). It doesn’t poke you in the eye with big shiny exclamation marks over quest givers, it doesn’t patronise you by holding your hand through content, it doesn’t shove a big fuck-off experience bar right in the middle of your face constantly (although the UI is beyond crap, the HUD is very minimalistic and subtle, adding to overall immersion), it doesn’t distract you constantly with ridiculous content grinds, and best of all, it doesn’t have any, ANY, horrendous achievement system (at least on the PC) popping up every five seconds. “Achievement: Killed 20 wolves whilst jumping backwards and wearing only your underpants!”.

Yes, I’ve just realised how much I despise the concept of achievements.

All of this isn’t to say that I don’t like modern MMOs though. I do and they are a lot of fun. But I guess playing Skyrim has revealed to me just how much they have changed and just far they are from the original ideals of traditional RPGs. I’d like to see a new MMORPG that goes back to its role-playing roots and doesn’t try and cater to every type of audience and constantly try to cause our neural pathways to zing with artificial achievement rewards. I’d just like to see a MMORPG that’s honest, brave and confident enough to offer a good, solid, online role-playing experience without being incredibly hardcore or unforgiving.

I’m glad Skyrim’s been a financial success, not just because it will mean we’ll see another Elder Scrolls game in a few years but also because maybe, just maybe, someone will have the balls enough to try and turn it into a MMO. That would be truly glorious.


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  3. My MMORPG History
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  1. amcl says:

    I had a bet with myself that you’d get it ;)

  2. Joc says:

    Very well written. I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on this as well. Sadly I can’t really imagine an Elder Scrolls MMO as anything other than using the world as the basis for a pretty lacklustre themeparkish mmo, losing everything that makes it immersive in the process and rather missing the point of doing it.

    Still one can dream…

  3. bhagpuss says:

    Not playing Skyrim so my comment derives only from what I’ve read.

    I think I’d have loved Skyrim fifteen years ago. It sounds like exactly what I was looking for then. Now, though, I realize as I read your fifth paragraph that some of those things you’re glad to find missing in Skyrim are things I wouldn’t want to be without. Although I completely agree with you on the Achievement thing.

    I just feel like my days of wanting to lose myself in another world to the point where I really feel I’m there may be over. I’m not sure I even find the concept attractive any more. I like to tab out every few minutes and web-browse or park my character and go and make a coffee. I’m far from sure I ever again want to look up from the screen and find I lost three hours.

    Immersion’s all very well, but the other side of that coin is loss of control. I think I may prefer to be doing something that’s more akin to knitting or whittling than subsuming my personality to a figment of someone else’s imagination.

    Guess I won’t know for sure until I try it out some day.

    • Gordon says:

      Oh, I’m with you on the time thing. It’s why I could never go back to a game like Everquest which required 3-4 hour play sessions just to accomplish anything substantial. However, Skyrim is different. First off, it’s a single player game so you can save and quit at any time, even in deep dungeons etc and, secondly, each separate quest is usually quite small and manageable. It’s to the game’s credit that you just get sucked in willing :)

  4. Azuriel says:

    Instead of offering vast, open worlds that you’re free to explore, they offer obvious and confined single points of forced progression, making you feel like you’re following a fixed path rather than being free to forge your own destiny. The effect makes you feel like you’re playing more of a game and less like an inhabitant of a fantasy world.

    So you’re into sandboxes and not themeparks. That’s cool… but it seems to be a problem with the games you buy, not the games themselves. Fallout 3 and NV are among my favorite games, but I bought both not for the exploration/immersion (although those things happened on their own), rather because I’m interested in the setting and the sort of guided experience the series offers. “Here is this difficult, scripted encounter/moral choice/scenario. What do you do?”

    But I guess playing Skyrim has revealed to me just how much they have changed and just far they are from the original ideals of traditional RPGs.

    “Traditional” as in pen-n-paper, or traditional as in console RPGs? I think you’ll find that whatever the “original ideals” were, it is irrelevant to a generation that grew up with, say, Final Fantasy X and nothing before. FFX came out ten (10!) years ago next month, and FF7 is fourteen (14) years gone.

  5. Carson says:

    In the spirit of willful contrariness, I’m celebrating the release of Skyrim by finally playing Oblivion, which I missed at the time of its release (almost certainly due to MMO immersion) and which I picked up off Steam for a ridiculously low price a few months ago.

    I’m enjoying it, and it amuses me that I could write exactly the same comments about Oblivion as people are making about Skyrim and it would be pretty accurate. I think it’s fair to say that you know what you’re in for when you play an Elder Scrolls game.

    Although, I’m happy to say that Oblivion hasn’t replicated Morrowind’s “feature” of crashing to desktop several times an hour. Now that made for a love/hate relationship, I can’t count how many times I flew into a rage after yet another crash and swore that that was the end of it. Then, five minutes later, I’m back launching it again.. :-)

  6. cdn says:

    It’s been interesting read the blogs the last week or so. The general sentiment that MMORPGs have strayed too far from their roots and an SPRPG feels more like an MMO than actually MMOs these days gives me faith that someday we may see a (good) MMORPG focused on exploration, role-playing, immersion, all that stuff that’s really gone away since WoW became popular.

    It’s a real shame that “Sandbox MMORPG” means “Super hardcore PvP MMORPG” to most people.

    • Carson says:

      I’ve been of the opinion for quite a while now that if someone builds a high-quality sandbox WITHOUT brutal and mandatory PvP, that they could be onto an absolute goldmine.

      I would recommend some form of city-building as the high-end gameplay (don’t want to say “endgame” about a sandbox.. but the gameplay for experienced and hardcore players to get involved in) – look at the popularity of Sim Cities, Civilizations, all the way over the Facebook ‘Villes. I can’t believe that there isn’t a huge market that would love an MMO where they could work together with others to build a glorious city.

      • Gordon says:

        I think SWG took a good stab at making a sandbox game that wasn’t filled with brutal PvP and I enjoyed it. The sad fact is that the game was let down by so many other issues that people just assumed that the sandbox setting was the fault.

    • vortal says:

      Does anyone ever feel that PvP in a MMORPG feels weird? I quite like WoW but the presence of PvP in the game throws me off a bit sometimes. I wouldn’t say I’m the biggest fan of PvP in general but coming from an traditional RPG background it was certainly bewildering to see PvP in WoW as I strolled Azeroth for the first time.

      I think MMOs could do without them. PvP adds too much to a genre of game known for being a RPG just Massive, Multiplayer and Online.

      If I wanted to PvP I would have played League of Legends, a game based around killing each other in arena like matches.

      But I certainly wouldn’t blame WoW or any other of the more current MMOs for bringing upon PvP into the genre. Although since now ALL MMOs have to have some form of PvP, some change would be fine.

    • Gordon says:

      “It’s a real shame that “Sandbox MMORPG” means “Super hardcore PvP MMORPG” to most people.”

      Well said. I still believe that you can have a ‘casual sandbox’ game, it’s just that most seem to involve ridiculously harsh open world PvP.

  7. Ahtchu says:

    Good to see you’re enjoying it, and how much you’ve learnt about yourself and your gaming habits as a consequence. Games were always meant to be that way, the whole learning thing and all ;)

  8. vortal says:

    I’d also like to see more MMOs go the “traditional RPG” road. However it should not work the other way around, never will I ever want to have Bethesda tarnish their good reputation with another MMO. Not to say that it would be bad, if anyone could pull one off and make it work then it’s Bethesda. The point is The Elder Scrolls is a RPG period. No exception. It was never intended to be multiplayer and the story itself doesn’t suit the Multiplayer mood. I’ve played The Elder Scrolls since Daggerfall and I feel that making it multiplayer would ruin it (we all know TES games are MASSIVE enough).

    Although that would mean that classes are in effect: what kind of combat you specialise in and what spells you are most proficient as; nothing more nothing less. So healer can also use destruction magic but has a bigger toolbox for restoration magic.

    As a mage (I’m that class in every RPG, I swear) I can still use mail armor, and swords, shields, hammer etc. I can use the sword and destruction/mysticism combo or the hammer and restoration/alteration combo (which is a lot like a paladin). So in essence classes mean a lot less and how you play means a lot more, which I guess is a good thing.

    Basically it only works one way. MMOs –> Traditional RPG. MMOs <-/- Traditional RPG.

  9. Longasc says:

    I made a fat (max weight) Nord and called him Egar after Egar the Dragonbane in Richard K. Morgan’s “The Steel Remains” & “The Cold Commands”.

    Skyrim is probably the most accessible and best Elder Scrolls game so far. Fallout 3 was already a lot like that though! It didn’t click immediately, just like F3. I always need some time to get into the TES games to get hooked. They also still don’t offer a proper windowed mode.

    Check the release dates for “The Elder Scrolls” games and Fallout 3 on Wikipedia. We already had this kind of game for over 10 years people just forgot that.

    I also like the minimalistic HUD / UI. Very nice contrast to the overcrowded hotbar-MMOs of today. That’s what they did very well.
    The inventory management is the goddamn awful part of the UI. Given that we are very often looting and searching stuff it really needs a serious improvement. This also reminds me of Oblivion, I had to change almost every key in controls to feel comfortable.

    Something Skyrim made me realize even more: I give a crap about multiplayer by now. It would be a lot more difficult to make a similar world/experience persistent for hundreds of players online.
    Regarding the unobstrusive HUD and the way quest works… come with me to Hoelbrak and roll a Norn in Guild Wars 2, Gordon! That already sounds almost like Nord. And the wenches are proper and smexy valkyries, too. :)

    • Gordon says:

      Skyrim’s HUD and lack of obvious achievements is a huge factor for its powerful immersion IMO. It’s nice to just be able to concentrate on what’s going on rather than things popping up in your face every five seconds. I love how there are no quest exclamation marks and combat damage numbers flying around too.

      And defo will be rolling a Norn in GW2 ;)

  10. Longasc says:

    P.S. think about Dragon Age, also often compared to MMOs. Doesn’t that show how unimportant other players are for a fantasy fix?

    What MMOs do nowadays is trying to become like the single player games in a way, instead of trying to be better multiplayer games.

  11. Nils says:

    Thanks Gordon. Now, if you just wrote my name correctly .. ;)

    On the topic, the question that really interests me is what exactly players mean when they say that a MMO should be like Skyrim.

  12. Barrista says:

    I was having this same thought when I started playing Skyrim yesterday. My husband has every Elder Scroll game since the 2nd game in the series (and they are still in our closet) so I thought I would give this a try.

    I think many of us who grew up playing RPG’s are missing that in today’s “MMORPG”s. I think of WoW, Rift, etc as more MMO’s with a few rpg elements. But it wasn’t just Skyrim that made me see this – even playing in SWTOR over the weekend beta made me realize why I eventually would go sour on an MMO. Even SWTOR gave a few options for completing the quests.

  13. [...] Skyrim: Everything A MMORPG Should Be ( [...]

  14. Syl says:

    I feel the exact same way as you. ever since playing Skyrim, it feels like I have re-discovered a long lost friend.
    also, if you haven’t read the current post on Skyrim over at Kiasa, I suggest you do – it sums it up beautifully for me.

  15. [...] It’s just happened with the release of Skyrim, as numerous bloggers sang its praises and wondered why MMOs weren’t doing the same ‘open world‘ [...]

  16. venkman says:

    I don’t really want to see it as a full blown MMO, but more on the likes of Borderlands where you can pick a few friends or a handful of strangers and play your quests out that way.. then you still get that sense of being the Hero or part of a group of Hero’s and not have to deal with Moron’s trying to mess with someone’s game.

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  18. hmm says:

    vanilla wow you can explore an open world? lol more like if you walk 3 feet passed what your level is your are auto targeted and killed. same with every eq ever made.

    im more into ultima online type mmorpgs..where you can wear a hat and ride a horse even at “lvl 1″ you dont need to be level 95 to put a hat on

  19. hmm says:

    i miss real crafting, blacksmithing and fishing, not hey you need to kill 1000000000 things to fish that lake

    true freedom i have missed so i hope skyrim mmorpg is true freedom, not bogged down by levels and level progression. even forced classes pisses me of

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