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Som Pourfarzaneh : The Multiplayer RPG Experience

Columns By Som Pourfarzaneh on April 03, 2015

The Multiplayer RPG Experience

180+ hours into Guild Wars 2, I’ve only recently begun digging into its assortment of dungeons.  Sure, I’ve dabbled in my fair share of pre-level cap PvP and open world small parties, but I’ve been waiting to hit 80 to sink my teeth into the game’s group content.  As I mentioned in last week’s column, I’m no stranger to dungeons and raids in MMOs, and have historically sought out group content commensurate to my level.  I find ArenaNet’s open world content to generally be very engaging, however, and am now getting into GW2’s dungeons after taking inexplicably long to hit the level cap.

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Guild Wars 2 is different from most MMORPGs in several ways, including its focus on dynamic events over static quests, promotion of collaboration over competition in PvE, and living story narrative.  It mostly seamlessly combines the single-player experience that you’d expect from an RPG with the opportunity for MMO gameplay at every turn, without forcing you to do either.  You can, for example, tackle your Personal Story instanced quests by your lonesome, or just as easily invite others to come along.  Granted, those quests might not be as intricately divergent as something you’d find in a single-player title, but they are pretty epic and nicely tie into the larger narrative.

Along the same lines, Guild Wars 2’s dungeons provide for two different types of gameplay: Story Mode and Explorable Mode.  The former allows you to play through the instance with an eye on furthering the narrative involving the game’s iconic party, Destiny’s Edge, while the latter provides for a more challenging and complex dungeon experience.  With its cutscenes and character-driven content, Story Mode feels like a multiplayer analog of the Personal Story, and does its best to offer the same type of immersive storytelling that you’d find in a single-player RPG.

Guild Wars 2’s Story Mode dungeons beg the comparison to multiplayer content in other MMORPGs, and more interestingly, single-player RPGs.  With the exception of a handful of games - Star Wars: The Old Republic’s class stories come to mind - most MMOs take a one-size-fits-all approach to group content, assuming that you’re there to punch things and can read up on the story on your own time.  Conversely, GW2’s Story Mode allows you to sit through (or skip) cutscenes and chat with NPCs as you go along, which is great for quest text readers like yours truly, and provides for a sort of single-player experience within a multiplayer context.

Similarly, Story Mode paints an interesting picture when portrayed in reference to single-player RPGs, or more germanely, the potential for multiplayer experiences in single-player games.  I play a lot of multiplayer games with a good friend, and find the experience to be additive, rather than detracting from the immersion.  For the most part, these games are action-adventure affairs such as titles from the Saint’s Row, Borderlands, Trine, Diablo, and Torchlight series, which easily lend themselves to multiplayer modes.  They’re not necessarily the most immersive experiences with the diverging storylines that you’d see in, say, a Mass Effect or Elder Scrolls game, but they do give enough primacy to their respective narratives to make them an integral enhancement to gameplay.  One would think that adding a second player could be potentially jarring to the single-player experience, but I find it to be the exact opposite.

Is there space for the same kind of additive multiplayer experience in single-player RPGs?  That certainly seems to be the kind of direction that MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic have chosen, particularly with the latter being a self-professed evolution of the single-player Knights of the Old Republic series.  Thinking along the same lines, would a multiplayer Skyrim work (outside of an MMORPG framework like The Elder Scrolls Online)?  For that matter, would any game as immersive and player-focused as a single-player RPG work in a multiplayer context?

There are examples of traditionally single-player games tacking on multiplayer PvP modes, such as the more recent entries in the Assassin’s Creed and Mass Effect series.  There are also co-op modes in classics like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Neverwinter Nights, limited co-op in games like Fable II, and separate multiplayer modes in blockbuster titles such as Dragon Age: Inquisition.  Furthermore, we’re seeing full co-op in newer indie games like Divinity: Original Sin, which seems to indicate that the interest in multiplayer in traditionally single-player RPGs is substantial.  Still, the question should be asked, are these multiplayer experiences on par with what you’d be getting if you played them solo?  Or is some of the personalization of the roleplaying experience missing when it’s translated to supporting two or more players?

In effect, I think the question is one about the potential for a multiplayer RPG that feels as immersive and custom-tailored as a single-player one.  That type of game would presuppose an autonomy for each player in terms of character progression, exploration, combat, and story, with the common link of playing through the game together synchronously (or asynchronously, but that would appear to be more within MMO territory).  The closest examples are again Guild Wars 2, with the opportunity to participate in each others’ Personal Stories and Story Mode dungeons, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, with the class stories and hallmark Bioware dialogue wheels that act as a voting system for party decisions.  But could this work for a smaller multiplayer RPG?  I.e., could you have a truly multiplayer Dragon Age or The Witcher?

With the appropriate design direction and resources, it seems totally feasible to create a true multiplayer RPG experience in the vein of Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, and The Witcher.  Moreover, I think it’s possible to do so without going the action-RPG route à la Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance or employing secondary game modes as in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  As strange as it may sound, that experience might be something like a smaller multiplayer slice of Guild Wars 2 or Star Wars: The Old Republic, or it could be in user-generated content such as Sword Coast Legends’ DM Mode.  More interestingly, it could be something completely different which takes into account diverse roleplaying styles and provides for a joint multiplayer experience that is just as immersive and satisfying as a single-player RPG.  Somebody make that game!

What do you think about the potential for multiplayer experiences that are comparable to single-player RPGs?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and a Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.