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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.

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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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The Virtual Line

Tobold has an interesting post up today on what he considers the defining characteristic of games: “a game is a risk-free environment in which you can try out various actions for fun or for learning without fear of the consequences, because the consequences aren’t real.”

The second paragraph is this:

As you can see there is a growing trend of “games” turning into “ungames”. There are many reasons for that, one of which is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Once you climb up that pyramid high enough, you are leaving the real world needs behind. If somebody’s needs are for status and achievement, he can fulfill that need in a virtual environment, and these virtual environments are usually designed to offer a lot of that status and virtual achievements for less effort than it would take to achieve something in the real world. There are now a sufficient number of people who are sufficiently well-off that they can spend real money on virtual status symbols or game achievements. That is bound to be used by those who are still lower on the pyramid and are just trying to make a buck. The danger is that people become confused about where the border between real and virtual is, which leads to stories like the Chinese guy who murdered a friend who borrowed and then sold his virtual sword.

Hagu knocks it out of the park with the very first comment:

I think “”played” to earn real money” is a bit restrictive.

In real life, if I had a $5 bill, a glass I paid $20 for but with no resale value, and a manuscript I spent 1000 hours creating, then I would be increasingly unhappy with the item being destroyed.

I would regret far more the lost of an item I spent hundreds of hours acquiring than a D3 sword I can sell for $5

The question I want to ask, though, is this: where is the border between real and virtual?

I am not asking that to be cute or contrary. I am literally asking what difference does it make? When have the consequences of a game not been real? Is the emotion you feel by reading fiction different to you than the emotion from an encounter in the real world? Is the frustration you feel at work different to you than the frustration you feel playing a videogame? Anger? Sadness? Disappointment? Embarrassment? Social pressure? Joy? Victory?

One cannot derive nourishment from a virtual apple. A virtual fire will not stave off hypothermia. Beyond that though? How exactly “real” is, say, Security under Maslow’s hierarchy? As any parent, victim of a crime, or survivalist can tell you, security is, at most, a state of mind. A paranoid schizophrenic won’t feel safe in a padded cell; conversely, there are people who voluntarily live in Detroit and St. Louis, the two US cities with the highest violent crime rates as of 2010. If you can feel safe without actually being safe, I think that begins to call into question “consequence-less gaming.”

When I play videogames, I do not think of the stresses of the day, the drama, the frustration with my job, or really anything from the real world. About the only difference between my gaming state and actually having no stresses, drama, or a frustrating job is that, perhaps, the feeling would persist beyond the end of the gaming session. Then again, biologically, we are designed to take things for granted; happiness has diminishing returns. Nevermind that (arguably) the persistence and permanence of anything is just wishful thinking on our parts.

Obviously, the subjective solipsism rabbit hole can get pretty deep.

I am not advocating that virtual relationships are as equally valuable as real ones, all other things being equal. If someone has the choice between a friend IRL and a game friend, I hope you would choose the one whose couch you could actually crash on. I just think it should be recognized that gaming is not really all that far removed from real life as Tobold (or Syncaine for that matter) might suggest. And that the things you experience in your head are as real to you as anything else; phantom limb pain is still pain.

The Chinese guy who murdered his friend over a game item gets our attention because the item wasn’t as “real” as, say, a family heirloom with no monetary value but priceless sentimental value. I’m suggesting that perhaps that is a distinction without all that much difference. Is the attachment to one more real than the other? Is murder more “understandable” over one than the other? The virtual sword isn’t real, but the emotions are.

“It’s just a game.” Sure. That folded American flag is just cloth and dye too. It’s what it means to you that matters. And meaning only exists in your head.