Massively asks, “Are MMOs truly as persistent as they claim?”, prompted by a blog post over at Player vs Developer. The Massively piece actually takes off in quite a different direction than the original blog post, because the post is about how much game developer changes to balance and systems affect the perceived value of a given character. But the question that Massively asks is more direct: are MMOs really that persistent?
And the answer is unequivocally no.
Back in 2004 the IGDA SIG for online worlds put out a report on the state of the medium, and they called it “Persistent Worlds.” And at the time, I complained on MUD-Dev,. Dave Kennerly, who was on the panel, commented,
I too find the PSW thing troublesome. I inherited the title and couldn’t think of a better one. The IGDA MMORPG White Paper? No.
Well, we can see where THAT debate ended up. 🙂
Most MMOs today use persistent extended character state. You have your character’s stats, their inventory, and fake inventory such as the contents of their house (really just alternate inventory displayed differently). The extended character state developed over time from basic character state. Early combat MUDs saved stats but not inventory. Then they saved inventory and stats, but if the world crashed, you lost your corpse with your stuff. Then they saved inventory and stats, and add a way to save corpses so that your stuff would still be there if the mud went down. Then they saved inventory, corpses, stats, and the contents of your house. Then…
You get the idea. All of these additions were really additions to the state of the individual character. The world itself was not even truly dynamic, since it was lagrely generated from static flat text files. Reboot the world, and all the monsters were deleted, and everything respawned from scratch.
This is not significantly different from a modern MMORPG where that sort of content is delivered on a disc — or even streamed! — rather than loaded from flat text files. Either way, even if the world permits changes, they are really just deltas on top of a static, immutable, unchangeable initial state. And really, most games do not permit changes to this stuff, for a whole host of reasons: rewriting the map may well make it less fun, for example.
The other stream of design here, however was the true persistent state world, and it’s unfortunate that the acronym or even the word “persistent” has been co-opted to some degree by the worlds that really aren’t persistent in their state. Simply put, this is a world where the static inital data set is made dynamic in some fashion, and changes made to the world can persist independent of their association with a character. A house in Ultima Online is there whether its user is or not.
Many of the persistent state worlds share several big characteristics. They tend to be highly object-oriented environments aimed at user creativity. They often have a strongly simulationist bent to them, a MUD-Dev term that refers to the notion that much of the world can be driven via algorithms rather than statically placed data (this can relate to where creatures spawn, or to objects made of wood being able to catch fire). The big factor, though, is that they save most everything.
There’s plenty of pitfalls there, not the least of which is the reduced control the designers have over the user experience. The layering on of user changes can lead to a world where nothing is coherent anymore, thereby ruining the careful guidance that a designer may have planned.
But persistence of this sort is a sliding scale. You can have partial persistence, you can have a base state that gets modified but is reverted to gradually, over time. You can have locations that offer it and areas that don’t. And there’s a lot of possible and fun persistence that MMOs are leaving on the table that has nothing to do with whether or not the designers are changing the rules.