Once upon a time, there was an acronym we used for certain sorts of virtual worlds. We called them PSW’s, for “persistent state world.”
Most virtual worlds today don’t actually have persistent state. Oh, your characters do, but not the world. In fact, the ability to affect the world has fallen dramatically since the days of Meridian 59 and Ultima Online. M59 featured shifting political balance, and UO had full world state persistence. If someone killed Bob the baker, he was gone. If you dropped something on the ground, it stayed there until it rusted away (or more likely, someone came along and grabbed it — and that someone was just as likely to be a monster as it was a player).
It took half an hour to 45 minutes to save all of the world state in UO, by the way. Which meant rollbacks to your character if the server crashed. 🙂
These days, never mind stuff staying on the ground. There isn’t really a ground to drop stuff on anymore, and Bob can’t die. The idea of living in a world with actual history therefore seems slightly outre to many, as can be witnessed by some of the reactions to Zenke’s interview with some of the Red 5 designers.
That said, there’s also a bit of lack of awareness of virtual world history displayed by them in the interview as well. As many have pointed out, they seem to not to be too aware of games like A Tale in the Desert, World War II Online, Planetside, Asheron’s Call, and for that matter even the various ways in which this was handled in UO and SWG. And there’s plenty of other games that are pushing these ideas further, whether they make it out the door but garner small audiences (Wurm Online) or never make it (Wish). I could go on and on, because the examples are many.
The challenge here always seems to lie around the granularity and sophistication of what is persisted. You can’t have a one-shot complex quest be used up and consumed by a single player. Therefore you have to re-use stuff. Therefore the stuff you re-use has to be generic enough to be recombined and re-presented in myriad ways. And pretty soon you are back at the challenge of creating procedural systems that create interesting content. Then you can make that content persistent and make it interact with other stuff in the world.
There’s a zillion things that have been tried along these lines.
- Spawners that grow in power and overrun stuff.
- Spawning spawners.
- Player cities and housing, which are persistent elements affecting the landscape.
- NPC factions with tilts based on user actions
- Keystone quests that affect regions of the game, spawns, or large-scale events
- Territory control games.
These things all create emergent narrative as users change things.
In SWG we were trying for something we called “dynamic points of interest.” These were whole set pieces, such as little quest blocks, narrative staged stuff, puzzles, encounters, etc, lifted right out of the sort of dynamic encounter tables you used to see in pen and paper games. Originally, we did it in UO with orc camps and mage towers, but as housing filled up all the empty spots you eventually never saw them spawn!
The SWG ones would spawn on the map (which was procedural in part specifically so it could accomodate spawns like this) and make themselves room — flatten areas, create the burning sandcrawler, etc. Then they would hang around until destroyed or resolved. Unfortunately they got cut from the game during beta. Some of them worked, though, and at their best, they were kind of startling — the escapee slave girl running up to you, handing you a data disk, then looking around fearfully. “They can’t find it!” she would tell you. “Don’t let it fall into their hands!” Then she would run away, and group of Stormtroopers would spawn, and kill her. Then you’d hear them saying “She doesn’t have the disk… sweep the area…”
Anyway — glad to see the dream of a more dynamic world is still alive. I still think that in the end, the answer to this lies in providing players with tools and freedom, more so than just providing narrative nuggets of any sort, and really EVE Online is the evidence that this can work. It just may by nature make for a less friendly world and therefore less audience, in the same way that a wilderness park is not as friendly as a theme park, but holds far more riches for the discerning visitor.