MMOs and the Myth of Persistence

Bhag has a post that got my fingers twitching on MMO persistence, or more accurately, why he won’t play Fallout 4.  Truth be told, when I hit the clickbait article title, I figured his PC was dead.  Or as Isey put it, he’s a hipster.  But we were both wrong.

There’s a chunk to digest in there but the core argument is as follows:

What matters is not that the worlds are still there, waiting, when I come back to them. No, what matters is that they won’t wait. With me or without me these worlds move on. Even my characters change in my absence. Those infuriating flurries of pop-ups and tool-tips that greet the prodigal player, informing him of the myriad changes to systems and processes and items and expectations that have happened behind his back are evidence of history, of existence, of a kind of ethereal solidity that mirrors life.

I am not quite sure what games Bhag is playing (other than GW2) but I can count on a single hand the MMORPGs (that distinction is important) that actually had stuff occur while I was away.  Or had stuff that I did in the game that actually mattered. I’d certainly like that to be the case!

I remember back in EQ, farming Nagafen (or heck, Plane of Fear).  For the first bit, it was a free for all since you had to wait a week for him to respawn.  Then rotations came into play.  Now EQ has instanced all these world bosses because they can’t manage expectations.

Aside from the e-peen of world first, what exactly did the Nagafen kill do to the world?  It was an empty hall for a week, then it restarted.  When I decided in BG2 that I wasn’t going to help Viconia… she was gone for the rest of the game.  All 100+ hours of it.  When I blew up Megaton in Fallout 3, it didn’t just magically respawn 2 weeks later.

You remember when Stormwind was attacked by Deathwing at the start of Cataclysm? Do you know when the walls were repaired? (answer: 4 years later).  It didn’t matter that for 3 years he had been dead. When you log in to WoW today, as long as you’re in the same expansion, 99% of the content is identical.  Mekgineer Thermaplug has been the end boss of Gnomeragan for 11 years.  He’s died thousands of deaths and Gnomes still don’t have a place to call home.  MMORPGs are meaningless skinner boxes, where your actions have no impact on the world.  The only people who have an impact are the devs.

Sure, the devs might come in with an expansion (or 20) but that’s no different than the modding community for single player games.  Oh wait, it is. You don’t wait 18 months between mods. What MMOs offer is the complete persistence to an old saved game.  It’s not much different than groundhog day (or a skinner box).  It’s like reloading a checkpoint, for months.  Or re-running that hard Super Mario level for the 100th time.

If you’re playing WoW, you could leave for a year and not see an iota of difference.  Most others are in the 6 month range of “new content” not necessarily “changed content”, which is typically reserved for expansions.

The true benefits, to me at least, as two-fold.  First, is the financial model allowing for a game’s life span to significantly stretch longer than a typical SPRG.  Mind you, that’s offset by sequel-itis (*cough* call of duty *cough*) where each iteration keeps enough of the core to be familiar but revamps other systems.  Sure, you get to keep your character name and acheivements, but they are by and large meaningless in the expansion (hence the sale of max-level characters).  Anyhoot, the finances make the game stable.  And to be quite honest, it’s rare to find a SRPG that passes the 100 hour mark (the same can be said of quite a few MMOs).

Second and most importantly, are the people, and the variable to the equation they become.  Meeting new people, engaging and having experiences with them, not seeing them online and then being happy when they do show up… that’s the benefit MMOs bring.  EQ was a glorified chat box where you spent half the time staring at a frigging spell book to get mana, might as well chat it up.

Would people play MMORPGS if everyone else was a bot or AI?  It’s the same game right?

NOTE: I am clearly generalizing.  Minecraft, EvE, ATitD, Istaria (Horizons), SWG (pre-NGE) are clear examples of how players impact the game – or more practically, are the game.

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