Persistence

In a recent debate with Gevlon, he replied with the following:

You still don’t realize how obsoleting content is against the defining feature of the MMO genre: persistent world, defined as “previous gaming sessions significantly affect the current”. It’s a genre. It’s not for everyone. But if you throw it away, you are competing with MOBAs and I think LoL is a better MOBAs than WOW.

Now, the topic was at hand was a criticism of catch-up mechanisms. I, of course, disagree that there is anything wrong with the “End Game Content” model, but that is neither here nor there.

What I want to ponder on though, aside from the question of whether WoW has a persistent world, is whether a persistent world is actually a feature of MMOs, should be a feature, or ever really works as a feature. As I see it, there are three elements of persistence: Space, Consequences, and Advantage.

Persistent Space

In strict, technical terms I do believe that a “persistent” world is a defining feature of MMOs. Specifically, that the world exists. The alternative to a persistent world is a lobby-based world featured in a lot of otherwise throwaway action RPGs – the world exists as little arenas, created on demand, which disappear when you exit the stage. In WoW, Goldshire exists independently of whether or not you are to witness the shenanigans which transpire in the Inn. In fact, that shenanigans can transpire at all is because the world is persistent, e.g. meeting other people in virtual space.

At the same time… phasing and shard technology exists. Can we really say that Goldshire is a part of a persistent world if there exists Goldshire 1, Goldshire 2, etc? I am even conceding that Goldshire on Server 1 counts despite there being another Goldshire on Server 2. But these days, the Cross-Realm technology is almost a strict “Channel” system which (albeit seamlessly) drops you in a shared instance of the world, rather than “the” world. Does it really matter that there exists a Goldshire Prime somewhere that doesn’t turn off when you leave, considering you’ve never been there? So, arguably, we’re kinda already in a lobby-based experience, and it’s only shared insofar as other people get dropped in our lobby.

I’m not so much trying to argue against the notion that WoW’s world is persistent, but rather that the distinction is kind of moot these days. I do find that Azeroth is more overtly contiguous than many other MMOs, like FFXIV and GW2, which feature hard breaks at their borders. Cramming thousands of people into a singular space doesn’t exactly improve the gameplay experience, so I’m not sure what benefit that is supposed to provide in the first place. As long as people can naturally congregate and interact at will, I believe that’s enough to count as persistence.

Persistent Consequences

Way back in 2011, I pointed out the following:

One of the hallmarks of the MMO genre is a notion of a persistent world, but that persistence is always in tension with the fact that other players exist. Players say they want a world where consequences matter, that if a town gets burned down it stays burned down. But do they really want a world in which the choice of saving the town is never given to them because some noob 4 years ago logged off in the middle of the quest to put the fire out and the town burned down?

Persistence, on a more metaphorical level, means lasting consequences and mutual exclusivity. The town cannot be both burned down to you and not burned down to me, and still be considered persistent.  However, what is the desirability or utility of that persistence in the first place?

On the one hand, it can be used to good effect in games like EVE. If some Corp muscles into your star system, blows up your space station and then places their own… well, you’re out. That star system is now theirs, until the same thing happens to them at some point in the future. There are tangible consequences to game world actions, which persist beyond you switching accounts or logging off. There being finite space to fight over also underpins the gameplay loop of full-loot PvP – you care about moon goo because your ship blowing up tangibly reduces your wealth, so you need to control wealth-generating resources.

On the other hand, look at the player housing situation in FFXIV. The housing plots are finite and exclusive – if someone bought the plot you want, well, tough shit. The developers’ goals appear to be for these “neighborhoods” to feel real, and anchored into the game world. You aren’t just buying a house, but this particular house, situated in this particular location, exclusively.

And that’s dumb. Unimaginably dumb.

In FFXIV, it’s dumb because it serves no gameplay purpose. Getting a housing plot is a matter of having the money and clicking faster. After that, you simply continue paying the upkeep fee and that’s it. There are no gameplay elements to the neighborhood around you, and no homeless player is going to walk around gawking at your decorations. There is no reason to be there, specifically there, even for the homeowner themselves. Absolutely nothing changes if housing were instanced.

So, the only time persistent consequences makes sense is in player-directed ways, underpinning core game mechanics. And, as the term implies, the only way for persistence to make sense is for it to be consistent. Nothing else about the FFXIV world is exclusive or provides lasting consequences. So why have it?

Persistent Advantage

The final element of persistence is really an off-shoot of the previous one: persistent advantage. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it because, conceptually, it does nothing good for any game. I mean, I guess it could be argued that in EVE it’s nice to be able to log into the game years later and fly around a reasonable ship. But I would argue that that is not so much because one’s advantage has been maintained than there being a low barrier to (re)entry. Sort of like, I dunno, logging into WoW and breezing your way back up to the current level cap and snagging some easy gear from a vendor.

The truest form of persistent advantage is essentially the attunement. And it’s terrible for all the same reasons it was in 2012 and earlier. It gates content arbitrarily, based not on skill or merit, but seniority. It squeezes out the middle class gamer, who either gets into a guild that carries them through the attunement, or they forgo whatever is gated behind it. In this case – and in all cases, really – the “challenge” is one of logistics. It’s difficult enough corralling 10/20/40 people into one place at the same time, much less adding pointless bureaucracy on top of it.

———–

So, taken together, the desirability of persistence is vastly overstated, honestly. Persistence is a tool to achieve a specific effect, not some ideal or higher calling. WoW and all the rest are still MMOs by any reasonable definition of the term, in spite of allowing you to actually quest and explore locations without having it all be destroyed by a failed Deathwing raid years ago.

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Posted on November 10, 2017, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. You are probably right that “persistence is overstated” in a sense that most people don’t want it. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a genre-defining feature and taken away, the game will become another genre. I agree that more people will play PUBG or LoL than Classic WoW. But it’s not relevant. The relevant things are:

    – are enough players play classic WoW for being classic WoW to pay for development+profit?
    – do we have a chance to beat LoL?

    The answer for the second is given: Heroes of the Storm didn’t beat LoL.

    EVE has a unique niche and therefore is not at danger of being beaten out by a different game. They can only close if they are so bad at BEING EVE that people rather not play (they are getting there with rigging).

    The ultimate answer is: “I, Gevlon, want a persistent World in all possible means (space, consequences, advantage). If a game is giving me that and not technically unplayable or shamelessly rigged/P2W, I prefer this game over the best MOBA, FPS or adventure game anyone can dream of. I’m ready to pay subscription for this game, up to $50/month.” This is a statement of the Wallet. If there are enough like me, the game can be made for profit. Since this niche is empty, the first one making it will bank all the money.

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    • It’s perfectly fine to desire such a game. I just don’t agree that your hypothetical game is the only real definition of an MMO. I think the MMO term is broad enough to encompass what pretty much everyone colloquially agrees are MMOs, e.g. WoW, etc.

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  2. If anything, MMOs are defined by a combination of transience and persistence. Too much transience, and you have a lobby MOBA. Too much persistence, and you’ve got a Minecraft or Dwarf Fortress game.

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  3. As usual this is a “definition of terms” argument. You’re allocating your set of meanings and labeling the aggregate “Persistence”. Someone else will allocate different meanings. There is no objective definition by which to asses the accuracy of either claim, no recognized authority to call upon to arbitrate. Until the concept of persistence in massively multiple online roleplaying games achieves sufficient critical mass to crystallize within the culture all discussions are notional.

    I would contend that there is no paradox and no truth in the statement “The town cannot be both burned down to you and not burned down to me, and still be considered persistent.” That would be true if you were discussing a town in the “real world” but neither real world logic not physical laws apply to virtuality. It is self-evidently entirely possible for the town to be both burned down and not burned down to different players at the same time. I have been there and seen that and I’m sure you have too. And that’s not even moving to the supposed reality as it pertains for the avatars rather than the player.

    Virtuality as represented in MMORPGs suffers or enjoys the same degree of cognitive dissonance as time-travel, with the difference being that we can experience it directly (if vicariously) rather than just read about it. Even that sentence falls apart as I’m writing it. We just do not, as humans, have the language to discuss these concepts adequately – yet.

    For my money, MMOs are persistent and persistence is both an important and defining characteristic of the form. That far, i agree with Gevlon. I suspect, however,that my understanding of what constitutes “persistence” would diverge from his, and yours, to such a degree that an objective observer might not be able to perceive we were even discussing the same concept.

    (Reposted due to WP weirdness – apologies if it duplicates)

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  4. The world of Ashes of Creation ( https://www.ashesofcreation.com/ ) will, in theory, change depending on player actions.

    Specifically, player activity will determine where settlements and, ultimately, cities will be established, which will in turn have a direct effect on the surrounding regions.

    Release is a way off; but given the game’s success on Kickstarter, it suggests that there is an appetite among players for a game like this.

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