When ZeniMax Online Studios released The Elder Scrolls Online, it was an okay game, but it wasn't the game a lot of fans were hoping for. That might be okay, though, because there are other MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) that are more like Skyrim in spirit than this one.
The Elder Scrolls franchise – which includes the single-player RPGs Skyrim, Oblivion,Morrowind, Daggerfall and Arena – is known for its freedom-oriented gameplay that lets you go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone you want to be at any time. Instead of a multiplayer version of that, The Elder Scrolls Online delivered a limiting, super-directed experience that trapped players on a narrow, grinding path all the way to the maximum level.
Some players and critics said that the MMO genre and The Elder Scrolls were just too different to be merged, but that’s not true at all. If you’re looking for a more open-ended, you-driven online gaming experience, check out these other MMOs.
The Ultima franchise of RPGs was a big influence on the development of The Elder Scrolls, so it’s no surprise its online spin-off is a close relative.
Ultima Online took the “be whoever you want to be” mantra of Skyrim to an even deeper level. You could be a cartographer, a lumberjack, a powerful mage, a sailor, or even a shepherd herding sheep. As in Skyrim, you could become a wandering murderer or thief on the run from the city guards, or a vigilante crossing the world doing good deeds.
What Ultima Online lacked was a story, and an immersive first-person camera. The game is played in 2D from an isometric, top-down view. If you can get over that, though, no other MMO in history has offered players more freedom to do what they want. Ultima Online is still up and running nearly 17 years on, though it’s not quite as open-ended as it once was.
Few people have heard of Meridian 59, and it’s so old that you could almost call it a proto-MMO. Released back in 1995, it never achieved the hundreds of thousands of players common in later online games, but it was a cult hit with the fans who knew about it.
Meridian was a contemporary to the two earliest Elder Scrolls games – Arena andDaggerfall. The graphics look about like those games did, but don’t let that stop you. It might be the closest to The Elder Scrolls experience on the list.
You enter a world a blank slate, able to learn any skills you want. You can go anywhere in the world right away, and even the game’s art style, real-time combat, and first-person perspective are reminiscent of The Elder Scrolls.
Meridian 59 is now open source, free and operated by a small community of fans. Its population is sparse, and its graphics and interface are archaic, but it’s worth a look.
How can a spaceship simulator be similar to Skyrim, you ask? Well, you have to look beneath the surface at the underlying game systems and design philosophy.
The Elder Scrolls single-player games are fundamentally about players telling their own stories, on their own terms. EVE Online is entirely about that. While there are quests and a background story, they're pretty minimal. The real tales are the ones spun by the various organizations of players as they war and trade with each other.
It’s not a game for the weak. Wander far from your home system and you might just get shot down by another player, but if you have the stomach for it, you can travel anywhere in the galaxy and make a name for yourself as a trader, a pirate or a soldier in a vast army. Some players even play the game entirely as a stock market simulator.
Star Wars Galaxies
We’re saving this one for last because alas, Star Wars Galaxies is gone forever.
When it first launched, it was a paragon of the sort of player-driven, emergent, do-anything-anywhere gameplay we love in The Elder Scrolls. But a while after its launch, the developers overhauled it with the “New Game Experience” (NGE) update, making it more like EverQuest and other highly structured MMOs. The game was eventually shut down.
It’s a pity, though, because many players believe it was the best MMO ever made. Whether you wanted to be a thieving smuggler or an Imperial medic, you could do it. You could even build your own city, or form a band or dance troupe and play live music. Star Wars Galaxies had a realistic player economy, with prices fluctuating and limited streams of money – much like the cash-limited merchants in Skyrim.
Galaxies is gone, but another Star Wars MMO from BioWare called The Old Republic is now live. Unfortunately, it’s a straight World of Warcraft clone with added story elements.