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Persistence: ourstory

We wee MMO players appear to be growing up. Back in the day it was enough just to kill a mountain of [insert your favourite monster here -- olthoi for me], return home laden with mega-phat lewt, rebuff and go do the whole thing again. Nobody really cared that the only dynamic and persistent thing about MMOs was the respawn schedule.

I’m older now, and somewhat wiser, and I want different things. Persistence, for one — real persistence, not the buzzword, game-box blurb version that really just means “the world doesn’t vanish when you log out.”

Or maybe it’s not just persistence we want, but persistent impact. As Wolfshead eloquently put it in a comment over at We Fly Spitfires:

The other component to all of this is the sense of “persistence”. The idea that the world persists, lives and grows even when you are not logged on. This allows players to create their own history and help shape the history of the world they play in. Without a robust sense of persistence in MMOs accomplishments are almost worthless and definitely cheapened.

Sadly many MMOs have a very small persistence quotient. WoW’s is about 6 minutes which is the average respawn time of an NPC. But that’s another issue for another day.

dali-persistence-of-time

The WFS post is actually about external acknowledgement of one’s achievements — lots of achievements in single-player games, lots of impact on the world, but nobody else gets to see you do it; but it’s not entirely surprising that the discussion should eventually veer to persistence, since one of the things many of us are seeking these days isn’t just persistence, it’s persistence of impact.

It bothers me increasingly that nothing I can do ever impacts an MMO for longer than it takes a given NPC to respawn. Sure, I can get a nifty title or piece of gear or whatever that proves what I did and lets me show off to my peers, but a) 58,756 other people also have said title or item, and b) Gorgonzola the Terrifyingly Stinky came right back 5 minutes after I killed him.

Okay, I don’t actually give a shit about killing Gorgonzola the Terrifyingly Stinky and even less about getting his phat lewt and/or title, but the point remains: other stuff moves me, like making something truly rare and even possibly unique, or having a diplomatically vital conversation that changes the course of a war, or whatever. We have different shinies-preferences, but we ALL love shinies or we probably wouldn’t be playing MMOs.

One of the things about persistent impact, as Wolfshead so accurately said, is that it creates history – and if you’ve only been playing MMOs for a year or two, you may never have had that sense at all (remembering a keep siege or raid for 3 weeks isn’t quite what I’m talking about). Back in the day, when games were small and server communities were probably about the size that some single guilds are now, server events actually were history — big stuff happened for the first time and everybody got to hear about it, knew the names of the few who had boldly gone, sent them tells of congratulation (as opposed to the smack talk people probably get now). Everyone knew and in some sense everyone participated in that event, even if they weren’t there in person — it’s like knowing where you were when Kennedy was assassinated or the Moon landings took place. Ironically, I had more of a sense of a world being shared and shaped back in Asheron’s Call than I do in the much more polished games I play today. Games are more polished now, but that also means they’re even more impervious to the players.

Another interesting thing I realised is that sandbox games seem to have an easier time creating their own type of persistent-impact history. Take EVE, for instance, where large-scale wars have raged across entire solar systems and everyone knows the names of those involved — and where changes in control over such areas can have a direct impact on how you play the game and even who plays the game. Sure, the central, safe parts of the game don’t change a whole lot, but that’s just the kiddy-pool part of the sandbox (and one I never dared leave in my two brief EVE stints, I should add). EVE has the added advantage of being played on only one server, which means that whatever happens affects everyone and happens on your server — not some other random server out of 200 possible servers out of eleventy-million possible players.

So scale might be an issue. When you have eleventy-million players all wanting to change the universe, it’s probably hard to design something to accommodate them all. Also, I’m sure it’ll be extremely hard to design and develop the kind of persistent-impact play the more mature MMO players now want (and I don’t mean age-wise, necessarily, though I do think there’s a correlation).

Nonetheless, if this persistent-impact thing doesn’t start creeping into multiplayer games soon, and by that I mean more than just the ability to decorate your own house or wear the “Gorgonzola-killa!” title, I suspect the more mature (read also: jaded) players will start to get restive. Hell, “start to”? We already are. We yearn for a deeper meaning to these games we play, which may be an unfortunate and unfairly heavy burden to lay on a mere game, but it’s still something many of us want. Besides, playing is an intrinsic human activity and the childish connotation now attached to playing games is pretty limiting anyway. There’s no reason a game can’t be deep and meaninfgul — games are, among other things, learning tools, and the best games are deep and meaningful (as well as, you know, fun). In any case, what with the brave new world of the internet, massively multiplayer games are blazing a whole new trail that includes vast social and community aspects, which means they may eventually have to deliver more than just short-persistence fun. Fun’s not a bad thing, it’s just not the only thing we play MMOs for.

The hard part will be figuring out how to let people have a persistent impact on games without derailing or even destroying the world — and, of course, how to let eleventy-million players all have a little impact on a world. One of the things that’s going to have to happen, as far as I can see, is that the choke-hold of quest-driven play is going to have to loosen somewhat, so that players aren’t on rails anymore; which means more EVE-type sandbox design and less WoW-type amusement park design. Even if all you can impact is how other people play the game, if other people are the game (as they are in most sandbox games) then by impacting them you’re impacting the world in a larger sense, for good or ill. (Which is another issue, of course: impact can be “bad” impact… but it’s still impact, and it still creates a shared history, which is ultimately more meaningful than if no impact were had at all. We don’t just remember the good stuff that happens to us in life, and shared crises create bonds too.)

It may also mean that “fair” gameplay has to go. In most games, everyone starts from the same spot and player intelligence and skill matter less than the ability to hit the right buttons in the right sequence, which any half-awake chimp can manage without breaking much of a sweat. This bothers me somewhat, because I know I’m crap at twitch-based anything, I’m crap at running around people trying to kill them, and I’m probably not very good at combatty stuff in general — so I would suck. On the other hand, I’m really good at finding stuff, getting stuff, making stuff and selling stuff, and I’m a kick-ass negotiator when I want to be so diplomacy wouldn’t be out either; which, in a brave new-new player-based, persistent world might be enough to let me carve out my own niche and, more importantly, find my own fun.

It’s not like I don’t do that already: in most games I play I ignore the adventuring part to whatever extent I can, or indulge it only as a hobby, which means I’m often trying to buck the system (with more or less success depending on the game). I’m sure there are many fighty-type players who get as irritated as I do when they have to do stupid crafty- or harvesty-type things they detest just because the game is trying to mix and match what players do in some attempt to artificially vary gameplay. While most of us don’t fit into a single playstyle box 100% of the time, we do have a style and we do have stuff we prefer doing; less “fairness” might mean more freedom to indulge our preferred style. Like I said, the thought of possible “unfairness” makes me twitch, because I like fair, but I’m not sure the lowest-common-denominator style games have to use these days to be accessible is necessarily fair or good for the industry as a whole.

I’m not saying we should scrap all MMOs as they are today. I am saying that lots and lots of people are discussing the persistence thing, and lots of us want a deeper experience from our games — and lots of us remember a deeper experience. The thing is, small servers aren’t coming back and that first-time, MMO-virgin experience is more and more remote, so it’s time to move forward.

Here’s hoping.

  1. HarbingerZero
    July 9, 2009 at 7:47 am | #1

    Yeah I’m ready for this too. The weird thing is why it isn’t happening. The Elder Scrolls team has proved its possible to create such a world, so what else is holding us up?

    On server size, I think the super server works great for EVE, but for classic fantasy MMO, I prefer the old days of significantly smaller servers. In EQOA I recognized virtually every name in the game, even if I didn’t know them personally. I miss those days. The bigger the server, the easier it is to hide in the crowd of anonymity and throw poo at everyone.

  2. July 9, 2009 at 9:09 am | #2

    “The hard part will be figuring out how to let people have a persistent impact on games without derailing or even destroying the world — and, of course, how to let eleventy-million players all have a little impact on a world.”

    Yes, that’s the hard part. How can you make anything in a game truly game changing or persistant when you have to make it so that eleventy-million players have the same chance at participating? I don’t know the answer.

    I think Star Wars Galaxies did this to an extent with player cities. It was cool to travel over the map and stumble upon player run villages or to see the large player cities actually show up on your map. Of course, we all know how well that ultimately worked out.

  3. July 9, 2009 at 10:05 am | #3

    I think WoW took a step in the right direction with their phasing technology, unfortunately it’s only used in WotLK.

    They way it doesn’t ruin the world is that it (appears to be) is tied to the character and what they completed.

    i.e. My main has done a quest line in Dragonblight that lead up to an attack on a vast fortress. When I first got there the area was in the preparation stage. When I was done with it, the place was a mess with people fleeing about screaming in terror. When I go back there later, it’s never in the preparation state for my main. If I go there with an alt who hasn’t helped to the point of making the place a mess, it’s in the preparation stage.

    Essentially a small portion of that zone is instanced and I’m popped into either A – prep timeline or B – messed up timeline depending on whether my character has messed things up or not.

    Another example is helping the Ebon Blade take over an enemy area and turning it into a base camp. My main did the quests so now, to him it is a base camp he can shop, mail, rest or repair at but my alts will see it as hostile territory and need to perform the quests.

    So it persists for a character that does it but doesn’t change it for everyone else.

    Another use is in the Sons of Hodir area where you recover relics for them. As you do, they are prominently displayed in their little outpost (and become a source for dailies quests).

    There are a few other places it is used which is neat and a step in the right direction IMO.

    I could see this applying to world events where someone might do something or complete something and it could have an impact on the world.

    Looking back, EQ’s Sleeper was sort of a persistant event. If you awoke the Sleeper the zone changed and it couldn’t be done again on that server by anyone else.

    It was met with mixed feelings.

    • July 9, 2009 at 10:25 am | #4

      Oddly enough those player-only impact-instance dimensional pocket thingies really put me off — they did that to an extent in LoTRO too (or did back in beta, dunno if it’s still the case), where I could be wandering in one version of StartingVillage001 and Mort was seeing entirely different things on *his* screen. It made me feel weirdly unphased (geddit? ;)).

      It’s certainly the easiest way of achieving some kind of ongoing persistence for the player right now… but it still seems ultimately meaningless in terms of the greater population/world/community.

  4. July 9, 2009 at 10:15 am | #5

    I don’t think it’s a realistic request, economically. The only way to make it happen is via user-generated content of some kind, otherwise, how do you design content that will be consumed once by .0001% of your player base and still make money?

    Sandbox games only generate history when they’re full-on PVP, and while PVP fans make a lot of noise, I think they’re the minority. When you can’t interact with other players beyond trading items with them, then by default there must be coded entities to interact with. My most ‘historic’ memories still hearken back to Ultima Online when it was new and wild, and I DO agree with you that those games make the most impact, but I just don’t have the time to live in a gameworld in order to take part in history-making events anymore.

    I remember Asheron’s Call, and Horizons, and seeing these big server-changing events happening, and they were kind of cool, but generally something I just observed since I had a job and by the time I’d get home to log in, the event would already be over, forever.

    I do like when game worlds advance, though. Remember when EQ2 added the gryphon towers and the spires, and it was up to the players to build them?

    OTOH, all those kinds of events were pretty grindy, and the same mature players who want to change the world are the ones who want the grind removed from the games. Changing the world requires a lot of effort, in or out of game.

    Sorry to be Debbie Downer, I just don’t think its going to happen. I’d love to be proven wrong, though!

    • July 9, 2009 at 10:23 am | #6

      I do remember those EQ2 events — a couple of my characters are still using the old “Gate Caller Sky Seeker blah blah” (or some such) titles, as it happens. Which is ironic since I don’t much care for titles, especially the way they take up the entire damned screen in some games *cough* Vanguard *cough*, but those always seemed quite poetic to me.

      As for downing Debbie… I know, it’s a long shot, but I’m not so sure it’s impossible. I’m not asking for world-shattering impact every time, necessarily. I’m not quite sure *what* I’m asking for (and the devil, as they say, will be in the details), just that it’s more than what we have now.

    • Tesh
      July 9, 2009 at 1:00 pm | #7

      Pete, when history is constantly being written, rather than being occasional “semi-live” events, you can always jump in and tell your own story, no need to always live there in hopes of catching the big stuff. That’s what Wolfshead was getting at by mentioning the ability to write your own “history” in a dynamic game. That’s what a more dynamic, living virtual world can offer; the ability to continually change things.

      Of course, *that’s* a big task to set up, true.

      It’s also good to note that the PvP aspects need not be fighting toe to toe. They could be many, many ways to indirectly affect other people.

      • July 9, 2009 at 3:02 pm | #8

        As a non-designer, I can’t conceptualize how this would work. Everything I do in a game has to have code behind it in one form or another, right? So how do you generate code for all 500,000 players of a given game to have their own unique story?

        The only thing I can imagine is a ‘Matrix-like’ world where everything is ‘live’ so as to allow emergent gameplay, but y’know, most people in the Matrix were telling pretty dull stories.

        I have a real life if I want to tell a mundane story. In a game, I want to do heroic things. And I’m not sure how you let 500,000 people each be the hero.

        Again, I’m no game designer. It just seems like you’re asking devs to code an AI Dungeon Master to watch over each player.

        Going back to Horizons, building a house was pretty cool. You put it together brick by brick, and while there were a handful of blueprints, it *did* feel like you were making a mark on the world.

        But what happened? The hardcore players used up all the plots, and when casual players finally gathered enough resources to buy a plot of land, they were all gone.

        If I sound like I’m arguing, I assure you I’m not. I want to believe!! I just need help getting there! :)

        • July 9, 2009 at 4:00 pm | #9

          It’s ok Sculley, we understand. :D

        • Tesh
          July 9, 2009 at 4:47 pm | #10

          It’s more about using dev time and resources to make tools for players to use, rather than building rails for the roller coaster. People then use those tools; it’s not about crafting a story for everyone, it’s about letting them craft their own stories.

          Yes, people will tell mundane or silly stories, but that’s their choice. If they really want to feel like a hero in someone else’s story (and a lot of people do want that, no doubt), single player games do that just fine, and often with better stories, with tighter pacing and more *meaning* in context of the game world.

          The “heroism” in these MMO things is fleeting and vapid. Maybe it’s nice for a pat on the back and some social puffery, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t mean much.

          The point of playing with other people is to tell your *own* stories, at least in my mind. Killing Onyxia when hundreds of other people have as well (and she comes back next week for farming) is a weak substitute. Doing something nobody else has ever done and then telling other people about it seems to me to be the essence of MMO (or tabletop) gaming.

        • July 10, 2009 at 5:33 am | #11

          (I guess we’ve reached the limit of nested replies?)

          “Doing something nobody else has ever done and then telling other people about it seems to me to be the essence of MMO (or tabletop) gaming.”

          Well, I agree with you to a certain point, but only to a certain point. And I’m drifting off the ‘how’ question and into the ‘why’ question, now.

          If I headed off on an expedition to climb Mt Everest, I think I’d have a pretty fine story to tell after (if) I returned, in spite of the fact I wasn’t the first one to do it and that there was no persistent impact of me doing so.

          “The “heroism” in these MMO things is fleeting and vapid. Maybe it’s nice for a pat on the back and some social puffery, but it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t mean much.”

          Maybe heroism isn’t the right word. How about an impactful story (yeah, I’m making up words now). Example: I’m the first person ever in a game to create a broom for sweeping out my virtual house. That’s a mundane kind of persistence and I don’t think I’d remember it for very long.

          However 12-15 years later, I still remember some of the conversations and diplomatic discussions I had with the leader of a house full of PKers that moved in next to my guild’s house in UO. We weren’t PKers and just wanted our house to be a peaceful retreat, so we were very uneasy when the PKer guild built right next door, but I managed to contact their guild leader and make an arrangement that served both our guilds nicely.

          There was no persistence there, no permanent impact on the world, and alliances were a dime a dozen, yet it was a very satisfying ‘adventure’ for me.

          Example 2, in EQ 1, one of my friends wanted to be a crafter but the materials he needed were only available in Highhold (??) and at the time, the journey there was very dangerous. We put together a “Fellowship” to make the trip, starting in Halas. Not all of us made it to our destination. One poor fellow ran off a cliff in Blackburrow (though that was close enough to the start that we waited for him to return). Another died at our destination (that’s how we learned there were aggro mobs in what we thought was a safe area) and there were several other losses along the way. Time after time someone would sacrifice themselves for the rest of the expedition, leading fierce beasts away from our company.

          No persistence, thousands of other groups probably made the trip, yet I still remember it, still know the people I made the trip with, and it was a decade ago that this happened.

          Point is, I don’t think taking Onyxia down is a weak substitute. The fact that other people have done it doesn’t mean it isn’t an interesting challenge to overcome for me and my team.

          I don’t need to be the only one to ever do a thing for an accomplishment to have meaning. Overcoming a challenge is always a personal win.

          And I still don’t understand how you provide unique adventures for 500,000 people, let alone 5 million. :)

        • July 10, 2009 at 6:40 am | #12

          @Pete re nested — aye, I haven’t cranked it up too much because I find it silly when text columns get smooshed down too much. :D

  5. Tesh
    July 9, 2009 at 11:51 am | #13

    Ysh, get out of my head! Actually, great article. No complaints. It’s just that you’ve nailed some things that I’ve had in mind, and very strangely, you’ve used a term that I’ve built a pending article around. It’s scheduled for early next week, as I should have it done by then, so keep an eye out for “Gorgonzola”.

  6. July 9, 2009 at 2:30 pm | #14

    Absolutely correct! I think it is human nature that we want our actions to have an impact in this world and in fictional worlds.

    It meant a whole lot to me in EQ1 and EQ2 when we would get server firsts and top 10 game wide firsts. It meant a lot when I would win a particularly rare item.

    It still felt somewhat silly though. Every week we could just go back and repeat the achievement. At least back then though everyone knew we had done it.

    I wish that my actions would have a lasting effect in game. Even if it was a microscopic one. Perhaps in time we’ll see some of this.

    • July 9, 2009 at 3:01 pm | #15

      “I wish that my actions would have a lasting effect in game. Even if it was a microscopic one.”

      Oh, me too — exactly! It doesn’t have to be a BIG effect, because I think having lots of little effects would end up providing the same sort of sense of creating a world and a history — possibly moreso than single large but rarer events.

      Even so, I can only imagine how difficult this kind of thing would be to put together in worlds with thousands of users.

  1. July 11, 2009 at 7:45 am | #1
  2. July 13, 2009 at 7:14 am | #2
  3. August 19, 2010 at 8:41 am | #3

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