Tobold's Blog
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Thought for the day: Persistence

It is claimed that a MMORPG is fundamentally different from a single-player RPG in that the MMO game has a persistent world: When you log off, the world continues to exist and things happen while you are away. In a single-player game the world freezes when you save it, and starts exactly there when you load that game. But is that really true? When you log back into a MMORPG, has the world really changed in your absence? Or isn't the change limited to other players having gained a level while you were gone, and the content of the auction house having changed?

In the current common model of eternal respawns, where it doesn't matter if somebody else killed the monsters you need for your quests while you were gone, because they came right back 5 minutes later, can we really talk of a persistent world? Or is a stupid Facebook game like Farmville, where somebody fertilized your crops while you were away, ultimately more persistent than a classic MMORPG?
I don't give much for persistence. Last night, I was flying over northwestern Zangarmarsh. There, about a hundred ogres were gathered cutting down huge mushrooms. It's only that the shrooms they were hacking away on were already cut down. In fact, I distincly remember them having been cut down when a very close relative of mine passed through that same part years ago.

So these ogres have been cutting down the same already-cut-down shrooms for about three years now. At least they are persistent! :)
something that's bothered me ever since our games started moving down the 'everquesting' road of mmorpgs. when it became apparently more feasible and risk averse to engage the players with the illusion of performing a quest, they more or less damned the persistence of the mmorpg.
Or isn't the change limited to other players having gained a level while you were gone, and the content of the auction house having changed?
That depends entirely on whether you redefine "a classic MMORPG" as a theme park game or not. The original definition was accurate when you were talking about MUDs, Ultima Online and to certain extent, EverQuest with its in-world raiding and long respawn times.

Current MMORPGs are not the same as the ones that were around ten years before. Like a telephone, the definition has changed. New features like text messaging or achievements were added, and old features like switchboards and world persistence were removed. So while the MMO part of the definition has (mostly) stayed the same, the RPG part has had more and more parts abstracted away. The transition from pen-and-paper RPGs to computer RPGs first abstracted away the freeform storytelling and emphasized statistics, and the transition from computer RPGs to MMORPGs started to abstract away world persistence.

So the real questions are: Is world persistence actually a crucial part of an RPG? Should it be? What is the bare minimum feature set of a game that could plausibly be called an RPG?
I see persistence is just a theoretical concept which is installed more or less into a game. Of course there are always limitations to persistence to make it more comfortable to rejoin a game even if you have been, let's say on holidays for two weeks. On the other side persistence gives you the feeling to be part of something.

In offline games there is some knd of persistence realized by taking over units from one level to the next for example.

In most mmos persistence plays a role but in the end you can start new with a new character and do everything again. Unlimited respawn helps with that as you mentioned.
Some things like old molen core and onyxia in wow you will never be able to experience again in that way it was because items, levelling and players have developed and even 60s won't go there with 40 people anymore. - By the way Onyxia is only 80 now isn't it? - Of course cataclysm is an interesting idea to bring some kind of persitence into the game as a whole by changing "everything" but in the end it is a change of the game world which could be done to offline games as well. The only diffeence in mmos is: you do not have a choice, you have to install the patch.
I think this largely depends on the MMO in question.

For WoW, there isn't much that changes, auctions, gear people own and levels mainly. But many other MMOs have much more extensive crafting and housing. And PVP too.

Other players of such games may erect new houses and structures while you are gone :) And the ownership of them changes too. By trade or conquest, depending if the game is more PVE or PVP oriented.

In my opinion, such games are much more persistent than WoW.
Yes, it's really true. There might not be as much change as one would want, but there has been some change. So they are fundamentally different models even if they are not radically different models.
I suppose EVE could be held up an an example where persistence actually matters. While players cannot move planets they can build and destroy stations and player sovereignty over entire regions of space is a persistent feature which has a big impact on gameplay.
If you want to talk about Persistence in a MMO you're going to have to get into the Themepark (WoW/EQ) vs Sandbox (Eve Online/UO Pre-Trammel/SWG Pre-NGE/AC/Shadowbane) type debate.

There's really no room for true persistence in a Themepark MMO, other than the player relationships which have a minimal role in that aspect.

In sandbox games like Eve-Online the player driven gameplay makes it possible and drives events around it.

It simply comes down to ownership and conflict. If players can't take 'ownership' of the game world for either the creation or destruction of areas that have lasting effects, you simply won't have any measurable persistence.

In a game like UO this would have been my guild building a Castle and 'claiming' territory by enforcing its will via PvP on any agressors that attacked members or nearby neighbors. Over the years those conflicts built a reputation for the guilds name, the alliances formed up it, the players that participated in it, the pk guilds that were destroyed over it, the ensuing drama..

In Eve you do have the separation of hi-sec, low-sec, and zero-zero with bulk of persistance radiating out from zero-zero corps as they drive much of the game in their realm, followed by the interactions of other corps, and the player-driven economy.

But really even Eve-Online is a compromise, and games like UO and SWG before design changes had about as close as you'll ever see to persistence.

The term however is just going to get mulilated and morphed as we continue down this path of WoW clones and games on rails that completely avoid the risk of developing a a true persistant open sandbox game.
I've always been 50/50 on this debate. Sometimes I feel persistence is what makes an MMOG. However, I look at Guild Wars and feel very strongly it is an MMOG and it is fairly light on persistence.
I think it depends on the MMO. Games like Final Fantasy XI, where the bosses may take hours or days to respawn, change more than a game like WOW, where little to no change occurs other than what you just mentioned.

What about PVP centric MMO's? Can the argument be made that the world changes based on how many roaming hoardes of players there are, waiting to destroy you the moment you leave camp without friends?
Seems to me MMOs started out persistent (real world ganking, mob camping, etc) and every move away from persistence has been supported by players preferring to pay for that gameplay style.

For pve it sucks. World bosses, killstealing, ninjatagging, raid griefing - it was just a horrible unfun mechanic.

I think for pvp persistence absolutely rocks. I want to feel I'm in a war not a football stadium when I kill other players.

Warhammer Online tried to make a very persistent world in the form of a RvR world. It would be great to see someone make that work a bit more effectively than they did.

I'd love to see a Warhammer Online 2 made. Or DAoC 2 for that matter. I really do hope WAR didn't bury the desire to make accessible RvR MMOs.
World of Warcraft is nearly stateless. Almost nothing changes in the game world. They've shown persistence isn't necessary to successful MMOs.

Yet another reason why Eve Online is much more interesting from an MMO design point of view. Other games abandon persistence because it creates too many gameplay complications. Eve embraces it, the persistence of territory control in 0.0 is a primary gameplay mechanic.
player housing is one aspect that is persistent.

But that has sort of fallen by the wayside as of late where games like WoW where there isn't any of any sort whatsoever.

But back in the Ultima Online and Asheron's Call days claiming a piece of property was a big deal.

I also read about what they're thinking of doing for Guild Wars 2, where actions in the game have persistent consequences. (let a bridge burn down and you'll have to go around until it's rebuilt for example) We'll see how that pans out.
Warhammer Online tried to make a very persistent world in the form of a RvR world.

I do not consider PvP games in which the status automatically resets to be persistent. That applies to Pirates of the Burning Sea as well as Warhammer Online. Great, you won, you sacked the enemies capital, and next week you're back at square one of the RvR war. Not really "persistent".
There's persistence and there's persistence...or rather, degrees of persistence.

One always-on world, shared by players who can log on and have separate adventures at different times is a kind of persistence.

A world that changes over months and years, through developer patches adding and changing stuff, regardless of whether you were around to witness it or subscribed to the game, is persistence too.

From a shorter term perspective, an endless NPC respawn may create the illusion that the world is unchanging, but you're forgetting player interactions. Guilds and corps that change and reform and hit server firsts and burn out. Economic trends on the auction house. Population movement from one level range to another.

Then of course as mentioned, MMOs that allow for players to take ownership of structures and territory in some manner give rise to beautiful changes in a persistent landscape.

There's actually quite a bit more MMOs out there, with more persistent elements than WoW. LOTRO has player housing (though very instanced). WAR and Aion has fortresses and castles to be captured and a visible ebb and flow of two sides' influence. AoC has guild keeps. CoH has player bases and architect missions. Sandbox games like Eve and Darkfall go without saying.

Heck, a Tale in the Desert hooked me for a goodly while because of the old school persistence where you could visibly see the impact of every player, who can freely set up structures anywhere they like, and usually plonk down stuff to mark out territory. T'was fascinating how very human-looking settlements seemed to naturally emerge, with people building near each other, but not too near, and decorating their little plots of land with beauty and functional elements.
Also the state of Warhammer RvR can swing either direction in just a couple of hours. I actually have data on this: graphs of RvR history on each of the US servers.
Modern MMOs have only character persistence, not world persistence. If e.g. you drop an item on the ground in the middle of nowhere, when you come back a day later that item won't still be there. You can't carve your initials in a tree, break a window, or write "Dorfs rool" in blood on the wall of the local elf tavern. NPCs, if killed, respawn, and the world remains exactly as it was before you came, long after you leave.

That is not persistence.
I think we ought to differentiate between micro and macro persistence, and personal and cooperative persistence.

Micro-persistence would be how things like the AH or character levels and items persist.

Macro-persistence would be the alteration of major game areas or quest hubs.

Personal persistence is things like phasing, or completed quests. I get exalted in WoW with a faction, and they say nice things about me as I walk by. I do a phased quest, and a Scourge base is now a good guy base. But none of this is visible to others.

Cooperative persistence is where my actions change your game's world state. I go and conquer shadow vault, you don't have to. I save the villager's children, and now you can't.

WoW has had limited incidents of cooperative macro-persistence. The opening of Ahn-Qiraj and the retaking of the Sunwell both involved players doing dailies and quests to change the game world (ultimately to enable these raid instances). This, however, highlights the issues with themepark games and macro-persistence - the only way to do it is with carefully planned and scripted events.
Claimed by whom? Cite source(s).

I've never imagined anything of the kind, and indeed my strong affection for the MMO as a form of entertainment is in large part predicated on the unchanging nature of its environments. I like being able to go back a year or five years later and see everything just as I remember it.
You all keep using that word. I don't think it means what you think it means.

Persistent means that a world persists. Persist meaning "Lasts longer than it should, Does not change."

It doesn't mean that the world changes while you are logged off, just that it is still there on the server. This is in contrast to other non-mmo games where when you turn the game off, the game world ceases to exist.

MMOs are the very definition of persistent in that when you turn the game off, the same world persists for other people to continue playing in.
You have posted on this point before. Yes, there is static content but if all your friends have levelled past it, hasn't your world changed now? Certainly things like the AH are constantly changing too.

I think many MMO players would love a truly evolving persistent world with player created or affected content but the technology just isn't there yet.
Wasn't one of the hallmarks of Asheron's Call (and it's subsequent sequel) the idea that the world could change? They could drop a lake in a valley and put a dam in the end of it, or drop a tower in a zone and put people all around it?

Seems like a great idea to me, never understood why other gaming companies pick up on an idea like that.
Persisence is almost a holy grail for mmos. Sure it looks cool, but it gets to messy for most people to deal with including devs. So we build a world that can't be changed, or changes are quickly corrected.

We had a good talk about why things changed from persistence and the problem of explotation over at syncaine's blog.
I would argue that the concept of persistence is separate from that of change or player impact on the world. As Tobold rightly points out, the world does not really change while you are offline (raid instances are an example of how the world can change while you are logged off - the raid dungeon is instanced and will reset in a week).

However, all persistence is that the world will continue to exist while you are offline. This might seem irrelevant to you because the world will more or less be the same when you log back in, but it is important to other players because they can continue to play while you are offline.
I understand your frustration concerning the language of the creature. But these PW's seem to exist and persist solely to give us a place to 'evolve'. If the world changed while we were offline, wouldn't it be an evolving world and not as persistent? As players, we are lacking the ability to permanently change the world.

As for that stupid facebook game, zynga has made over 200 million in revenure from social networking games. To date they are claiming over 30 million players, it took wow over 4 years to reach 1/3rd that number.


Uh, yeah. Thats not stupid if you ask me.
Was doing some old preBC quests yesterday for the Loremaster achievement... I had to go see Varimathras to finish a quest.

Due to the wrathgate questline, where Varimathras left the Undercity, no way I can finish the quest...

World has changed, indeed :)


I think many MMO players would love a truly evolving persistent world with player created or affected content but the technology just isn't there yet.

Keep your eye on Love -
just to add to Jeromai's comment:
A Tale In the Desert, has to have persistence, else you would have to be online when other people contribute/interact to your work, by voting, adding their resources, etc.
Just imagine if the puzzles/riddles/aquaeducts would vanish when you log out.
In most MMO's time does mostly stop for you when you log off. The mobs will happily waiting for you to return and slaughter them.

But where an MMO world is different from a single player world is that you can't turn back time. You can't stop and load yesterday's save point if the day went bad. Most of your actions have persistent consequences.

Unfortunately a lot of MMOs are trying their best to even stifle even that with respecs, endless repeatable content, and reducing the journey to the top to something trivial.
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