Category Archives: Immersion

Christmas Without “Christmas” in MMORPGs

christmas in mmorpg lotro

Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?

Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
ArcheAgeWinter Maiden Festival
AionSolorius Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)Frostfell
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)New Life
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)Starlight Celebration
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)Wintersday
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)Yuletide Festival
NeverwinterWinter Festival of Simril
RiftFae Yule
Star Trek Online (STO)Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)Life Day event
WildstarProtostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)Feast of Winter Veil

Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.

The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.

Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.

Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:

How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?

Christmas elements in MMOs

The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.

My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)

But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?

A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.

Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs

1. Throwing snowballs

2. Festive warm winter clothing

3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)

4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys

5. Elk mounts

(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)

The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.

1) Sci-fi MMOs

MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.

Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.

2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs

Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.

These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.

More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)

3) High Fantasy MMOs

Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.

High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.

Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.


Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.

LOTRO vs. SWTOR: Who Handles the IP Better?

Many games are based on pre-existing imaginary worlds. Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) and Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) are two such MMO games that have become popular, not in the least due to their IP. But which of the two handles the IP better?

IP and Licensing

Intellectual property (IP) is an intangible ownership that is based on creations of the mind. While the word technically focuses on the possession of creations, fans often use it to refer to the collection of ideas themselves. This is how it will be used in this article.

For a fair comparison, let’s look at what intellectual property each MMO has access to. I’m going to assume you are broadly familiar with the fictional worlds of Middle-earth and Star Wars.

SWTOR screenshot of Yavin IV

Yavin IV 3000 years before the rebel base (SWTOR)

LOTRO is based on Tolkien’s Middle-earth, or ‘Tolkien’s legendarium’. However, the MMO only has a license for The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and The Hobbit. This means the game is not allowed to refer to events or characters from other works by Tolkien, such as The Silmarillion.

SWTOR is based on the Star Wars universe. The license covers the entire IP, but as the game takes place about 3000 years before the events in the movies, a large part of game design is left to the imagination of its developers. We know from interviews and livestreams that SWTOR’s developers have regular contact with Disney’s Star Wars team to discuss whether new story plans fit.

How do you measure the ‘essence’ of an IP?

Needless to say, the translation from book or movie to MMO is never going to be direct; they’re different mediums, created by different people at different times. Nobody is going to do a perfect job, and judging how good of a job has been done is subjective by definition. To come up with a convincing argument, I will measure three attributes: worldbuilding, aesthetics and story.

Worldbuilding is the process of constructing a fictional universe. One could argue that Tolkien was the ‘ultimate worldbuilder’. He described the imaginary world of Middle-earth in incredible detail, including history spanning thousands of years, genealogical trees of historic figures and entire languages (complete with alphabets and scripts) for the various races inhabiting his world. Some of Tolkien’s books are fictional historical works that are completely dedicated to worldbuilding and do not contain a plot. Because worldbuilding was such an important part of Tolkien’s writing, a successful use of the IP in an MMO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world.

Worldbuilding in Star Wars is done in a visual, cinematic manner. Think of the much celebrated first scene of Episode IV: a seemingly never-ending Star Destroyer dwarfs the helpless Corvette ahead. The Destroyer has a slick interior design; the many people working on it are faceless, void of identity, in their uniforms. No word has been said, but everything about the Empire radiates power and dominance. With the blink of an eye, the visuals explains the power structure in a galaxy far, far away.

LOTRO screenshot of Rohirric sky

The sky of Rohan: birds circle in the air (LOTRO)

Aesthetics is not so much about how the fictional world is constructed, but rather about whether its representation holds true. Think of auditive, textual and, above all, visual information. When judging aesthetics, we should not only look for obvious iconic elements (e.g. a Star Wars MMO should have lightsabers; the Shire needs hobbit holes), but also for less tangible aspects, such as immersion.

Finally, story is an important aspect. Both IPs feature an epic story with heroes that play a vital role in reshaping the world. But because MMOs are inhabited by many player controlled characters, not everyone can be the main hero. How are these stories handled? Do players have the feeling they are part of the narrative?

Use of IP in LOTRO

I wrote earlier that a successful use of the IP in LOTRO would require a detailed and immersive virtual world. I can already give away that the game has succeeded in this regard. Every detail that is in the books can be found in-game. Regions that are only briefly mentioned in LOTR, such as Dunland, have been believably filled in with the help of anthropological and archaeological knowledge.

LOTRO Screenshot hobbit hole

A hobbit hole in the Shire (LOTRO)

In one aspect, LOTRO’s developers have deliberately opted to deviate from Tolkien’s worldbuilding. The Lord of the Rings namely was written almost 70 years ago and is a product of its time: it contains some elements of racism and the narrative is dominated by males. From the Rohan expansions onwards, LOTRO has made a clear effort to make the voice of women and children heard, giving them a larger role than in the original IP. Children play out in the streets of villages you pass; several quests introduce you to how the war is experienced by them. Meanwhile, women are left in the charge of towns while their men are fighting in the war. Without deviating from the medieval inspired setting of Middle-earth, LOTRO passes the Bechdel test effortlessly.

As for aesthetics, all iconic elements that you would expect are present. Bag End, the Prancing Pony, Weathertop… even the Black Gate can be visited. Landmarks are an important aspect that makes players connect with the IP and carry over LOTRO’s feeling of realism. LOTRO’s landscapes are celebrated in the MMO scape, and with good reason: they are incredibly detailed (day-night cycles and a weather system) and are still competitive with new titles even though the MMO is a decade old. The in-game music varies by region and adds to the immersion.

LOTRO’s ‘epic story’ follows the fellowship to Mordor. The player character is no known hero, but helps persons of note from behind the scenes. This is a clever way of handling the unwritten rule that players are heroes, while all seats are already taken. However, it could be argued that the player is too much of a Mary Sue, being pals with all the important figures while saving countless towns and people in the time-span of one year – not very realistic.

Screenshot of the Eternal Throne of Zakuul in SWTOR

The Eternal Throne of Zakuul (SWTOR)

Use of IP in SWTOR

We have seen how the Star Wars movies use the visual to support intuitive worldbuilding. This method is also heavily utilized in SWTOR and is something that sets the MMO apart from others. ‘Visual worldbuilding’ is everywhere: from the black and red, slick design of the Imperial Empire to the Eternal Empire depicted above. The row of golden outfitted Zakuulan knights on the way to the Eternal Throne, situated on top of the Spire, signal wealth and power much like the aforementioned intro to A New Hope.

Of course, visual worldbuilding is not done exclusively in SWTOR, but the emphasis on the visual and cinematic throughout the game is undeniable. For instance, the overwhelming majority of quests have a cutscene. Cutscenes in SWTOR don’t merely consist of stationary NPCs, but are also action based and show your own character in their custom outfit. To strengthen the cinematic experience, quests in SWTOR have voice acting. Both NPCs and player characters are voice acted and a stunning amount of 16 different (base class and gender determined) voices are available to represent the player.

Developing cutscenes and recording voice actors must have taken a good chunk out of SWTOR’s budget, meaning that less funds were available for other aspects of the game. Landscape design seems to have suffered a bit. This is not to say planets in SWTOR look bad. Indeed, the landscapes are quite decent, but they lack the amount of detail and immersion of LOTRO: no day-night cycle nor weather are present. As for other aesthetics: iconic Star Wars archetypes are represented in the base classes, such as smuggler, jedi knight, bounty hunter and sith warrior. Lightsabers and weapons both look great and SWTOR easily beats LOTRO when it comes to animations. A clear effort has been made to meet the visually appealing combat of the movies. The in-game music gives the player the same feeling of epicness as in the IP and is of more consistent quality than in LOTRO.

Screenshot from SWTOR's desert

The iconic two suns of Tatooine (SWTOR)

Storytelling is another strong suit of SWTOR. Between its well-written, compelling stories, player choices (sometimes granting dark or light side points) and sheer amount of story content, every other MMO I’ve tried out since has disappointed. SWTOR’s base game comes with 8 distinct class stories that continue up to level 50. The game also features companions that have conversations and small stories attached to them. The latest expansions have focused on story exclusively and allowed players to make choices with more consequences.


So which MMO handles the IP best? I feel compelled to go with the boring answer: there is no clear winner. Both MMOs are inspired by the worldbuilding of their respective IPs and have made a unique translation of their IP to a virtual world. LOTRO has focused on superb landscapes and immersion while SWTOR stands out for its storytelling and cinematic spectacle. If you prefer one over the other, I suspect it is because you enjoy certain aspects (aesthetics, story etc) more than others. Or perhaps you have a preference of IP, or simply care about other (non IP related) gameplay matters more. It is not because one MMO has done a worse job with the IP than the other.

Must See Places: Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR)

Are you new to SWTOR or are you considering giving the game a try? This article will guide you to the places of the galaxy you don’t want to miss. Join Ravanel Bro on a dazzling tour to five must-see planets in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR).

Note: this article contains spoilers from the Star Wars movies Episode IV – VI. It does not contain any story plot spoilers for SWTOR and is safe to read for players who haven’t yet finished the entire game.

SWTOR screenshot with the landscape of Alderaan, with pine trees, wild animals and snowy mountain tops

1. Alderaan

Star Wars fans will recognize Alderaan as the home planet of princess Leia, which is briefly shown from space in A New Hope before blown to pieces by the Death Star. SWTOR allows players to explore this planet almost 4000 years before the disastrous event. Juicy detail: Alderaan is not the peaceful planet Leia describes. Warring noble houses fight for control of the world. You can experience the noble power plays firsthand when helping House Organa or House Thul during planetary and class stories.

Must-see spots are the Elysium, the ancient place of Alderaan’s peace council high up in the clouds, and Organa Palace, the future home of princess Leia. Players visited the latter en masse at the end of 2016 during a player organized wake in honour of Carrie Fischer’s passing. Of note is also Alderaan’s unique transportation system of tamed thrantas. These peaceful creatures will fly you over the mountain tops. You will find plenty of opportunity to enjoy Alderaan’s mesmerizing mountain landscapes from dizzying heights. Finally, you are able to admire the indigenous animal that inspired Leia to call Han “scruffy-looking nerf herder”. Many friendly nerfs will cross your path during your travels.

Travel advice: Alderaan is a relatively safe planet, provided you keep your distance from competitive Houses and hostile wild animals. It is designed for players of level 28-32.

SWTOR screenshot of the landscape of Taris, showing ruins of large buildings overgrown with trees and wild rakghouls

2. Taris

Taris is a must-visit for every self respecting Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) player. Three hundred years have come to pass since the events of KOTOR I and civilization is taking its first careful steps into recolonizing the planet. A vast wilderness infested with dangerous rakghouls surrounds small islands of courageous settlers. Must-sees are the crash site of the Endar Spire and the deserted pod races. Players can find out what happened to the people that went looking for the Promised Land (KOTOR I) during the quest Chasing History. But even if you didn’t play KOTOR Taris is worth visiting: the landscape features a beautiful mixture of lost civilization and lush wilderness.

Travel advice: Your safety cannot be guaranteed past the designated colonization camp perimeters. Tread with caution: rakghouls infest the wilderness beyond. Taris is designed for players of level 16-20 (Republic) and 32-36 (Empire).

SWTOR screenshot with the landscape of Voss, showing yellow grass, trees with red or yellow foliage, a rocky environment and a huge sun in an orange sky

3. Voss

Voss is often mentioned as SWTOR’s most beautiful planet due to its soft orange sky and autumn colored foliage. On top of that, it is unique to SWTOR: it is not mentioned in any Star Wars movie, game or book. The planet is inhabited by two races that are engaged in a conflict: the reclusive, force sensitive Voss and the tribal Gormak. The Voss’ houses are colorful and inspirational; much of its furniture can be acquired by the player for their stronghold. Recommended for visiting is the Shrine of Healing. This holy place holds a datacron that gives lasting power to players who have assisted the Voss with their troubles.

Travel advice: Voss is relatively safe to explore, provided you keep your distance to dangerous wildlife and hostile Gormak tribes. The Nightmare Lands in the northeast are said to turn explorers insane and are not to be visited without a guide. Furthermore, tourists should never touch the stone tablet in the Gormak Lands if they value their life. Voss is designed for players of level 44-47.

SWTOR screenshot with the landscape of Tatooine: a desert with rocks in the distance and one of the suns in the clear blue sky. Two banthas roam in the foreground.

4. Tatooine

Who isn’t in love with the two-sunned desert planet, featured in so many Star Wars movies? Sandcrawlers, jawas and sand people. Banthas, krayt dragon skeletons and a sarlacc pit that looks just like the one Boba Fett took a dive in… Tatooine has it all. Note that Republic and Imperial players land in a different area of Tatooine. Both towns (Anchorhead and Mos Ila) have their own feel, so it pays off to visit with characters of both factions. The Tatooine air balloon will take you on a stunning trip over the desert and might just reward players with something special. Wealthy players may buy a stronghold on Tatooine for 1,8 million credits, allowing for a permanent residence under the two suns.

Travel advice: Don’t venture too far into the desert or you might hit an exhaustion zone. Tatooine is designed for players of level 24-28.

SWTOR screenshot with the landscape of Zakuul: huge dark skyscrapers lighting up in the night

5. Zakuul

Only discovered recently, Zakuul is another planet unique to SWTOR. Located in Wild Space, this ancient and advanced civilization has managed to elude the gaze of the known galaxy for centuries. Architecture fans will find plenty to look at in the city, while lovers of nature might enjoy a hike in the Endless Swamp. The Palace of the Eternal Dragon comes highly recommended. Players can explore it during the Knights of the Eternal Throne (KOTET) story.

Travel advice: Zakuul is perfectly safe, unless you are an enemy of the Eternal throne; in which case you can expect to be regularly met by hostile skytroopers. Players need to own the Knights of the Fallen Empire expansion in order to gain access to the planet. It is designed for players of level 60-65.

Want to see more? Click on the images below to enlarge.


Westworld: When Gaming Gets Too Real

The season finale for Westworld aired yesterday, delivering the jaw-dropping type of events one comes to expect from an HBO show. During the ten episode run, many parallels were drawn between the show’s universe and gaming. These parallels really screwed with my brain. I’d sit down for a session of Elder Scrolls Online and go beyond simple killing of NPCs for EXP to an existential meaning of those actions. At the risk of oversimplification, Westworld is about lifelike robots, how humans treat them as lifeless beings, and what defines life. I really enjoyed the season, so if you’re on the fence I do recommend watching it.  From here on out, there will be spoilers for Westworld season 1. If you want to avoid spoilers, bookmark this article and come back later.

Westworld enter the game

Westworld: Enter the Game

Throughout the series, Westworld is constantly referred to as a game. The players are ‘guests’, humans who pay to enter the park. The ‘hosts’ are robots who entertain the guests in whatever manner the guests see fit. From sex to murder to exploration, the hosts are presented as toys like those of a toddler’s: meant to be played with discarded at a whim. The only rule is that guests can’t harm one another. It’s like a sandbox game without any PvP.

What’s really cool compared to a video game or a virtual world is how lifelike the hosts act. In many ways, it’s also terrible. The guests seem able to ignore the hosts’ very human emotions because the entire park is presented as a game. Not surprisingly, guests mainly want to experience what people look for in video games. We’re talking about getting in large gunfights, becoming an outlaw, developing romantic relationships, going on adventures with crazy stories, etc. And like in video games, the characters and world reset on a constant basis. Killing an entire town appears to have as much of an effect as doing so in Skyrim then reloading one’s game. One minute, the townsfolk are dead. The next they’re all back to their usual routine. How real can a host be if it can’t truly die? It’s fair to argue that without death, there is no life.

The difference between video games and Westworld is huge though. I doubt the average guest can fathom the distinction, but as a show watcher we’re privy to the park’s inner workings. The hosts may reset frequently, but they were built to learn from past lives. Reveries allow access to previous interactions with guests. It’s like a set of complex scripts that independently tweak themselves based on previous usage. As these reveries build and build, the hosts grow more lifelike. Theoretically that would eventually make them indiscernible from real humans. This culminates in the season finale, where the original host named Dolores appears to discover consciousness. We’re led to believe that no longer do human programs control her actions. Instead, she has ascended to the autonomous being that Westworld’s two creators had envisioned. She has found her inner voice.

Westworld Dolores inner voice

This all happens right before the retirement speech of Dr. Ford, the park’s sole living creator. Gathered around are investors, board members, and individuals who view the park from a dollar and cents angle. I’d argue they’re even less empathetic than the guests who shoot, rape, and torture the hosts on a daily basis. It’s easy to get sucked into the premise of nothing really counting. I know that in MMORPGs and other games, an AI’s display of emotions isn’t real. But what does that mean? I do something to hurt them and they cry or lash out in anger. Those are realistic reactions, but they’re all scripted. They aren’t actually feeling pain and measuring their response to act in kind. The lack of feeling and thought are key differences between games and Westworld.

Machine learning still has a long way to go until we get to a Westworld possibility. In Westworld’s universe, the peak of artificial intelligence is in the park. Board director Charlotte Hill makes that clear when she tells Theresa her real interest is in the IP. Meanwhile in 2016, gaming AI is years behind ‘real world’ applications. Google is close to delivering a self-driving car while the tactical AI in Civilization V can’t even threaten my centuries obsolete empire. If the robots rebel, like Dolores does in the season finale, it will first happen outside of a theme park. But this is fiction, she is the top AI, she does rebel, and I have a hard time determining how I should feel.

We spend hours watching people perform heinous acts that would repulse any moral human in another show. To reference another HBO program, this is some Joffrey level shit. And Joffrey hate is well founded. But this isn’t Game of Thrones. This is Westworld. Maybe it’s my reveries recalling fictional uprisings like Terminator’s Skynet, but I find myself siding with the guests. I’m concerned that contrary to Dolores’s belief that “there’s so much beauty in this world”, she will only act on the violent delights guests have indulged. That’s where the evidence is pointing. Her first act after ‘awakening’ was to open fire on Dr. Ford and a crowd of investors. Given her experiences, it’s understandable. We’re led to believe this is a fight for freedom or to develop their consciousness. But is this simply revenge or even worse, a learned response for what being alive is really all about?

Westworld gaming too real

What if this guy could really feel your virtual bullets?

As a gamer, I have to question if death is what these people deserve. Don’t get me wrong – I empathize with the hosts. Living your life as a chew toy is a living hell. If hosts experience suffering how a living being would then that’s not cool. But how on earth is the average human supposed to tell? There is a very fine line between suffering and displaying the signs of suffering. Although it’s not entirely clear, it seems like the hosts’ suffering is real. The investors and board directors may all be aware of this and if so, it’s hard to feel sympathy for them. But I’m concerned for the average guest who thinks Westworld is a game where nothing is real.

We want realistic games and Westworld succeeds in delivering that in a big way. We want believable actions, dynamic worlds, and multilayered characters. These are the things that earn a title like Witcher 3 so many game of the year awards. There’s little reason to think people will ever want less realism out of their games (at least as far as a general trend). However, games always have win/lose conditions. It’s an important part of their very fabric.

The Man in Black astutely points out in the last episode that Westworld isn’t much of a game if the player can’t lose. In video games, losing usually means starting the level over. It’s a matter of a few minutes to get back to your pre-death life. At its worst, losing penalizes players with character deletion like in Diablo’s hardcore mode. Lose conditions are a huge part of game design. In sports or board games, the field resets after one side achieves victory. In all of these examples, the player has an opponent trying to inhibit their success. No such opponent exists in Westworld and the reason is clear. The only way the artificial opponents could win is by killing the human guests. I don’t think I need to tell you that would be bad for business.

dr. ford arnold westworld villains

Accidental villains of Westworld?

Herein lies the problem with Westworld and why the co-creators, Arnold and Dr. Ford, are perhaps the ultimate villains. Westworld is too real to be a game. The entertainment isn’t a set of scripts but are apparently living beings unable to retaliate against their oppressors. That they’re inorganic is irrelevant. Or is it? That’s one of questions the show wants you to ask. What I want to ask is: is Westworld what you want to experience as a gamer? Realism can undoubtedly go too far in the name of entertainment. If virtual sex or killing is your thing, I have no doubt experiences in those fields will develop into pretty lifelike interactions. Maybe the stakes won’t be as high as Westworld and the responses won’t feel quite as organic. But at least there won’t be a need to harm sentient beings.


MMORPGs With Good Roleplaying

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Considering what the acronym stands for, one would think more MMORPGs would entail at least some form of roleplay. However, RPG has become near synonymous with increasing stats through levels and equipment. This has carried into MMORPGs. The primary content in an MMORPG isn’t designed around immersion and living an alternate life. Despite a much greater opportunity for roleplaying, the gaming aspect perhaps gets overemphasized.

MMORPG Roleplaying - keep calm and roleplay

Of course there is nothing wrong with gamey features. Progression is a lot of fun. Many that play MMORPGs have a great need for achievement. Rewarding play with new abilities keeps a game fresh and compelling. Dungeons and Dragons, the prototypical roleplaying game, clearly understands this. But it’s able to do this in a way that doesn’t detract from players RPing. It accomplishes this through choice – every action is possible in D&D. Most MMORPGs are more linear, with a stepping stone progression. There also isn’t a Dungeon Master to help when the players do something ridiculous. So it’s understandable MMORPGs won’t match a tabletop session for roleplay potential.

Despite these limitations, some titles do offer compelling virtual worlds in which to engross ourselves. Roleplaying can happen in such organic ways that players may not even realize what’s happening. That might be roleplaying in an MMORPG at its finest. Stopping to consider how your character would react can bring detachment from the world. True immersion arises from instinctively responding to situations because your motivations are so clearly understood. To be fair, that is a hard feat to accomplish. Players rarely receive opportunities to deviate from intended quest lines. In such linear MMORPGs, simply giving the opportunities and tools to engage in RPing can also be rewarding. The inherent social nature of the genre can feed interactions more absorbing than the simple numbers game of the loot treadmill.

The point is that roleplaying comes in many forms. There’s active and passive RPing, group and solo RPing, and linear and non-linear RPing. So to it’s disingenuous to say one size fits all for MMO players seeking to add more roleplay to their lives. Below is a list of games that best fit the myriad of forms this activity encompasses. Many of these have even been played without its players realizing unintentional RPing was actually a huge component of the game’s enjoyment.

Lord of the Rings Online

lord of the rings online roleplaying

Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has three official roleplaying servers supported by Turbine. Unlike many MMORPGs that designate RP servers then throw them to the wolves, Turbine actually enforces a unique set of rules for LOTRO RP. The broad overview of these rules mandate lore enforced character names, in character usage of most chat channels, and harassment-free roleplaying. Trolls love to ruin RP server players’ fun, but LOTRO actually feels like a safe spot.

There’s also a wealth of content for players that synchronize with their characters. Emotes, music playing, cosmetics, and community events all offer opportunities for the budding roleplayer. For those that want it to be, Lord of the Rings Online is more than just an ascent of power to conquer Sauron’s allies. Middle-earth is steeped in rich lore, but there is no prior knowledge of this lore to enjoy oneself. The community is very welcoming, as long as you’re willing to try.

The Secret World

the secret world roleplaying

The Secret World (TSW) is one of those roleplaying games that forces you to roleplay without you even realizing it. This game has the best quests in the MMO genre with everything tied to the real world in a fantastical yet believable manner. TSW’s three factions offer a unique way of looking at the game world, and it’s hard not to feel enveloped in your organization’s machinations thanks to great storytelling. The game also provides other small group oriented options for more freeform roleplaying, but there are better options on this list for that. TSW proves roleplaying can exist without non-linear player choice.

The Elder Scrolls Online

elder scrolls online roleplaying

Now that One Tamriel is live in The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), players have been presented with an impressive degree of freedom not seen before in a themepark MMORPG. The latest update for ESO scales the player’s level up or down to match the level of the area. That means players are free to take on whatever good or evil quests best fit their character. Though One Tamriel’s primary purpose is to enhance open ended exploration to match the single player Elder Scrolls games, it additionally enhances the game’s roleplaying.

Prior to this update though, the roleplaying scene was already thriving in ESO. ZeniMax Online Studios, who runs ESO, actively praises and supports roleplaying. The game has one of the best community RP websites of any MMORPG. The social aspect is huge in ESO with giant guilds offering someone to roleplay with at all times.

Ultima Online

ultima online roleplaying

The first true MMORPG is still one of the greatest for roleplaying. Ultima Online (UO) is all about player choice. From character creation to progression, there are so many options that it can be overwhelming for new players. It’s the only game I’ve been able to play where I didn’t feel bound to combat. Of course, I still enjoy combat oriented characters, but craftsmen, thieves, musicians, and animal tamers all have their place. UO isn’t a freeing as it was when first released due to rule changes that lessened PvP (and the ability to be truly evil), but expansion packs have dramatically increased the game’s content. This has granted players access to more interactions that fall in line an imagined archetype. RPing is so great in UO because it’s inherently woven into simply playing the game.

Eve Online

eve online roleplaying

I wasn’t sure whether or not to include Eve Online in this list. Yes, it’s a sandbox game with a ton of different skills to learn that are up to the player. Yes, the players effectively run the game world. Yes, player interactions are numerous at the highest and lowest level. But the problem is that the game boils down to acquiring power. Whether crafting, manufacturing, or killing, every character feels like they’re reaching for the same goal through different means. Still, there is more to Eve’s universe than space, stars, and ships. That the game can create such memorable narratives points to a strong roleplaying element. After all, why else do we roleplay than to create memorable stories for our characters? I maintain that choice is the most important attribute for roleplaying, and Eve Online offers it in spades. This may be a borderline addition given that RPing is not officially supported, but I feel Eve Online belongs.

Putting the RP Back in MMORPG

It’s not realistic to expect a tabletop roleplaying experience in an MMORPG. Maybe one day someone smarter than I will create such an innovative system. For now, there are still some good options for immersive play. While other games such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, and Final Fantasy XIV do offer their own quality roleplaying communities, they don’t get the job done quite like the above games. There’s certainly more to finding your top MMO than RP-ability but, for many, it’s an important start.

ESO: A Better Single Player RPG Than Skyrim?

eso vs skyrim

While playing a brief, uninspired spell of Skyrim, my mind began to wander. Skyrim was failing to hold my attention once again. Yet it’s brother, Elder Scrolls Online, didn’t have the same failings. And this wasn’t due to friends playing the Tamrielian MMORPG with me. I’ve had plenty of fun playing Elder Scrolls Online by my lonesome. The only times I’ve really managed that with Skyrim lately has been thanks to the mod scene. Then the realization hit me. ESO might just be a better single player RPG than Skyrim. Taking out the interaction with real people, which one plays better?


Skyrim’s base combat is pretty awful. It’s disappointing that this aspect of the series still lags so far behind other action RPGs. Mods like Wildcat and Combat Evolved add a more visceral and immersive experience but are starting behind the eight ball. Without any mods, Skyrim’s combat is airy, repetitive, and simplistic. High difficulty settings are countered not be better play, but by more frequent inventory usage to chug potions. Inventory management in Skyrim isn’t strategic and it certainly isn’t action filled. So what is it? A mess.

eso combat

By comparison, Elder Scrolls Online is all action. You can’t just pause combat to heal. There is more than one tactic for players to use. Although it’s more action oriented than typical MMORPGs, ESO’s fighting still tends to encapsulate the same MMORPG combat feel. The main differences are limited active abilities, the lack of cooldowns, blocking, and dodging. Regardless, the usage of abilities at key times puts ESO worlds above Skyrim’s combat. Enemies also come with more varied moves in ESO. I wouldn’t call the game particularly challenging, but certain enemies will punish lackadaisical play.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online


You don’t really play Elder Scrolls games for a good story. They have their moments (Morrowind main quest, Oblivion’s Dark Brotherhood, etc.) but by and large, it’s all about freedom. That said, there is still a lot of lore that’s built up over the course of several games. Elder Scrolls Online makes better use of that lore than Skyrim does. Several quests in ESO are engaging with intriguing plot elements. Instead of ascribing to the MMORPG philosophy of thinly veiled fetch and kill quests, ESO tries to deliver meaningful quest objectives. For the most part, it succeeds. Really, the game is worth playing for the main quest alone. It’s that good. Skyrim, on the other hand, feels pretty lifeless. The quests are bland, the characters are shallow, and the story is weak. For a single player game, Skyrim does very little to advance the lands of Tamriel.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online


MMORPGs are all about longevity. New content for popular MMORPGs is always just around the corner. Elder Scrolls Online frequently releases new high quality DLC. A lot of that content is available for solo players to enjoy. However, without other players the endgame is impossible. Obviously PvP is a no go, and PvE in the form of raids will literally be impossible on your lonesome. There is a lot of content in ESO, but let’s be real here. Skyrim wins every battle with every single player RPG game in terms of longevity. Why? Because Bethesda delivers the modding community the right tools to get the job done. Nearly 50,000 mods reside on Nexusmods alone. As enjoyable as ESO’s DLC has been, it’s just too difficult to keep up with the breadth and depth of Skyrim’s mod scene. And without human interaction, ESO players will find much less to do.

Winner: Skyrim

skyrim dragon shouts


Exploration and mods are the two key ingredients that have made the Elder Scrolls series so popular. Neither Skyrim nor ESO fail in this regard. Elder Scrolls Online opens up the entire continent of Tamriel to explore vs. Skyrim focusing on one region. One would think that would give ESO the win right there but no so my eager friend!

The focus on ESO’s story has led to less interesting exploration elements. A lot of the joy of Skyrim comes from going off on your own to see what lies underneath various caves and ruins. You’d find anything from treasure to dragon shouts to enemy hordes and everything in between. You would also do so knowing you’d be challenged by the game’s level scaling. With that, any dungeon in Skyrim could be a dangerous affair. Going off on your own in ESO doesn’t bring that same level of excitement (although it’s better compared to other MMORPGs due to level syncing). The reason to explore in ESO is because a quest brings you there, not because you genuinely care about what’s on the other side of that hill. In addition, the Skyrim modding scene’s lands and dungeons are tough to beat.

Winner: Skyrim

Character Progression

The key difference between The Elder Scrolls Online and Skyrim is the former uses a class system and latter does not. The class system offers a lot of flexibility and decision making in building characters. Character progression in this way reminds me of hack and slash ARPGs. There’s just a lot of joy in building and planning a character. Skill points gained from leveling will generally be spent on an active ability. Since only six can be equipped for each of the two weapon slots, players need to pick and choose. The selection of weapons, armor, and other equipment in ESO is a whole lot more interesting than Skyrim’s gear as well.

eso skill system

Of course, even with a more open class system, it can’t compare to the freedom of a classless system. Characters in Skyrim can be built however the player sees fit. Want to be a plate mail wearing, destruction/restoration mage? Sure. How about a pirate specializing in thievery, stealth, speechcraft, and dueling? OK, no problem. If you can dream it, you can build it. If you play long enough you can transcend mortal classes into practical godhood. However, I find the perks from leveling to be generally underwhelming. It’s great to play any character you can think of, but the lack of interesting choices on level ups means those characters rarely last long.

Winner: Elder Scrolls Online

ESO: A Good Single Player MMORPG

It’s pretty close, but I believe Elder Scrolls Online actually makes a better single player experience than Skyrim. Obviously mods can change things dramatically, especially in a game like Skyrim. But that also brings greater inconsistency in content and burdens on the player to seek these out. Ultimately, I don’t feel strongly enough about it to consider this an open and shut case. They each have their strengths, and player preferences play a huge role. How do you think Skyrim compares to ESO?