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.
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.