What makes this genre unique is the massively multiplayer aspect; playing as an adventurer in a world occupied by other people. But what makes a game within the genre special is how that aspect is integrated with its design. An MMO can excel for very different reasons than a single player RPG can, and I often feel that developers are trying too hard to blur these differences, resulting in a failure to fully realize either style.
Playing a single player RPG like an Elder Scrolls game can put you into a certain mindset where you feel like this world is your sandbox. The game doesn't have to worry about anybody else's preferences or decisions. Quests, enemies, loot, as well as their difficulty, rarity, and strength, are all designed to accommodate one player's journey through the game world. The art, writing, and world design all help those experiences feel as organic and immersive as possible for you when you inevitably encounter them.
An MMO, on the other hand, opens up so many interesting opportunities and design choices. Encounters can now be tailored for a multitude of different people. The experiences you have don't have to be hand-crafted for you and tuned to a difficulty that's appropriate for how many hours you've spent roaming around in order to feel immersive or engaging. They can just exist for every player in the game to be conscious of and take part in simultaneously. If that's what makes the genre unique and special, then that's what should be nourished and treated as the most important aspect of the game's design. "How do we use this amazing attribute of the genre, and make our content as awesome as possible with that in mind as our foundation," as opposed to, "We've got other people running around this player taking part in the world, but we still want that one player's experience to feel as tailored to them and polished as an Elder Scrolls game can offer."
An MMO's design doesn't need to be cut from the same cloth as a single player RPG's. I wish developers could understand that when an MMO's content is fundamentally built around the genre's most outstanding and appealing qualities, you will tend to make a better MMO. What makes an MMO's experiences appetizing is the potential a player has to share those experiences with others in real time. If the game doesn't nourish that potential, then you get games that might as well be AAA single player experiences and instead are structurally and financially worse off because they are accommodating servers and pulling potential away from great single player content it could be offering by letting others "infest" your sandbox. Or, when you do play with others, it doesn't feel meaningful because everything gets scaled and manipulated under the hood to preserve the game's perceived integrity while you were solo.
Should every single aspect of an MMO be unrelentingly unsoloable all the time? Of course not. In my opinion though, I do think the massively multiplayer aspect of the genre should be considered an absolutely priority and a foundational pillar of design when making one, rather than just a feature. I think that this why so many older MMOs that were designed this way encapsulate the feeling of a real living world so well, and are considered more socially driven. I think that's what we're all craving, and also what we're missing.
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