Certainly, two of those promises have come true. Our worlds are traveled by thousands upon thousands of users daily, and the characters we have created are truly the stuff of legends who have saved these vast worlds countless times. But the one thing that has still eluded us all this time... persistence.
The funny thing is, it's not because we can't program or realize persistence in our games. We have the technology and expertise to do that just fine. We don't have persistence because persistence isn't profitable.
We can't call any of our worlds truly persistent worlds. Sure, they may be there when we log off, and they may continue to "change", but they never truly differ. Now, some of you will argue semantics with me here, and that's fine. You'll be screaming at your computer monitor or other internet-ready device, saying things like "My world is persistent! When I log off, it's still there! That's persistence! Ur dumb, noob!"
But what's going to change when you log off? What part of that world is going to be different when you get back? Maybe some of your friends won't be online, or maybe your guild will run an instance while you're gone, but would you notice if no one told you? What we have here is truly the old adage "If a tree falls and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?" Now, in our MMO world, we have an answer -- no.
Any change you commit to the world around you will be repaired in less than 10 minutes. No matter how many times you floor Edwin van Cleef, he's still going to get back up and run the Defias Brotherhood. No matter how many times you down Illidan Stormrage, it won't matter. He'll just respawn in the next instance, and Azeroth is no better off than it was before you walked into the Black Temple.
In fact, 9,999,567 people in World of Warcraft will have absolutely no clue your raid even bothered with Illidan. 9,999,567 people also don't even know you exist, or care if you exist. You know, people are killing Illidan as I write this column, or as you read my column, but do we care? No, of course not, because those people aren't us.
On a deeper subconscious level, we're not actually playing with one another. All of those thousands of other people are more of a backdrop than anything we seriously care about. Sure, we might team up with them once in a while to do a dungeon, but even then the group's efforts mean nothing. And even while we're in the group, we're there with the intent to better ourselves, not better the community or server population at large. A group is nothing more than five people playing a solo game working together. The lack of impact on the world certainly aids in the creation of this effect, as does the "everybody's special" game design philosophy. AKA, the paying customer is always the hero, no matter what. No other player can be elevated to a higher position above other players, because everyone is paying the same monthly fee and deserves the same treatment.
Yet, marketing divisions don't want true persistence. To a degree, their logic is right -- if we made an entirely persistent world, quests could only be done once. By the time the game is a week old, all the problems of the world will be fixed by the heroic users. But what marketing and the game design boys upstairs barely consider is a semi-persistent world.
While the game can fall back on respawning monsters and repeatable static content quests, there is plenty of room to innovate through a dynamic event system. I'm not talking about the events where you kill some special mob for a day and then turn in their corpses for medals and stupid rewards. No, I'm talking about events that could shake the face of the world itself. Let the decisions of the players have repercussions on the vast universe. Make the player think.
To those of you who don't believe it's possible and think I'm crazy, I refer you to the history of Asheron's Call. AC is known for their brilliant live events, wonderful history populated by the achievements of players, and the ability to let the players have a large impact on the world around them. Cities have been lost due to player inability to properly defend them from siege. The story of the Shard of the Herald, the last remaining shard that kept the great demon Bael'Zharon imprisoned, became a central plot point in a massive story arc. Players were told that if the shard was destroyed, the demon would be released. But other players, in search of better loot and weaponry, believed that once the shard was destroyed it would release more powerful items like the destruction of other, similar shards, had done.
Players were forced to take a side and enter a PvP enabled dungeon, where walls of "Shard Defenders" protected the shard room and "Followers of Bael'Zharon" attempted to fight their way through for the right to destroy the shard. Bael'Zharon, even imprisoned, granted incredible powers to traitors to the shard defense cause. Players were being forced to make decisions that did have an impact, and the world of Dereth had become truly persistent.
Sure, some players were elevated in popularity above other players. But I think if you ask anyone who participated in that event, popular or not, they're going to tell you they had an amazing about of fun and most likely look back on it fondly. They probably even tell the story to their friends, mostly because it's a great story to tell. Can you truly tell someone about the time you raided Onyxia and have it mean something truly amazing and unique, instead of a feat that 4,999,999 other people did?
Obviously, this method isn't foolproof. We have enough idiots on the internet who woul rather ruin the game for others than play it appopriately and wrap themselves into the intrigue of an amazing piece of story. Then again, on the other side of the fence, we have GMs and administrators that would rather let these people ruin the events than initiate kicks and bans. Heaven forbid you offend one paying customer by kicking him temporarily. It's a much better decision to let the person ruin the fun of the many, many other customers participating in the event.
True repercussions, true decision-making, and true dynamic content would not only bring about true persistence, but it would also bring about an amazing amount of fun. It will make any game deeper in content, social interactions, and strategy. It will keep your customers paying, just because they want to know what happens to them next.
Forget endgame. Let's really change the world.
If you're interested in checking out Asheron's Call in time for their 100th patch, you can grab yourself a free trial from Turbine for 14 days.
Ever want to pwn jme? Well now you can! This weekend, Saturday, 6 PM, be in PlanetSide and fight Colin and the rest of the Massively.com staff! Of course I'll be Black-Ops and have waaaaay more health and stamina than you... but you can probably still pwn me. Look for the character ColinBrennan, because I'm completely obvious like that.
Colin Brennan is the weekly writer of Anti-Aliased who's persistent about persistence. When he's not writing here for Massively, he's over running Epic Loot For All! with his insane roommates. If you want to meet him or message him, you can do so in Second Life during his office hours of 12 PM - 2 PM EST on Tuesdays and Thursdays (SL: Seraphina Reymont), or send him an e-mail at colin.brennan AT weblogsinc DOT com.