It's been fascinating to watch MMOGs evolve over the past fifteen years I've been playing them. They started out as text based worlds populated by a few hundred people with over-active imaginations. Today they're a mainstream hobby endorsed by celebrities like Mr. T and William Shatner. Whoulda thunk?
As the genre has matured so have the parameters of what defines an MMOG. One of my biggest gripes with them has always been that the worlds we play in are too often static and unchanging. You feel as though your character and his actions never have any real or lasting effect on the world around him.
Thankfully that has begun to change with the recent advent of a technology dubbed as "phasing". For those of you that haven't played Blizard's Wrath of the Lich King, phasing allows players to view a changed version of their world based on triggering events like the completion of quests. It's amazing that it isn't more talked about because phasing has and will continue to change the way we experience dynamic storytelling in MMOGs.
Zack Yonzon over at WoW Insider rightly claims that, "phasing is the new instancing." The advent of instances in MMOGs was groundbreaking. Prior to their introduction players had to cram into open-world dungeons together, falling all over each other in massive raids, camping mobs, and waiting in lines for a turn to kill the baddie. Nothing screams immersion like waiting in a line. Instancing has allowed us to experience more tightly scripted content geared toward a specific and more realistic number of fellow dungeon runners. It also allows a level of storytelling to occur in those dungeons that simply wasn't possible in open world environments.
Blizzard's phasing concept brings similar ideas behind instancing to the shared overworld that all players view simultaneously. Certain "trigger events" (like quest turn-ins) activate "world state" changes, but only for the player that triggers them. These events happen seamlessly without the need for a loading screen. This provides developers with a new sense of freedom when it comes to storytelling. That town you just defended from a marauding dragon might now have a crowd cheering you on as they dance around its corpse. Whereas before phasing, the dragon's body vanished and the citizens of the town still worried about an impending attack. Phasing personalizes the experience and lends an epic, consequential feel to your in-game actions.
[SPOILER ALERT] One of my favorite examples of phasing in Northrend is the Wrath Gate chain of quests in Dragonblight. This quest chain culminates in the massacre of combined Horde and Alliance forces near Fordragon Hold at the Court of Skulls. Here, Highlord Bolvar Fordragon of the Alliance and Saurfang the Younger of the Horde meet a grisly demise at the hands of the Forsaken. The subsequent destruction of the Forsaken army by Alexstrasza and her dragons not only makes for a cool cut-scene, but also permanently changes the world around the Wrath Gate. At the end of the event Fordragon Hold is completely abandoned and its inhabitants run screaming from their fortress. The Court of Skulls is doused in flames and the ground around Alexstrasza and her consort sprouts new, exotic life.
Unlike instances, you can't go back to a Fordragon Hold that isn't destroyed unless you visit with another character that hasn't yet triggered the event. [END SPOILER] This means that there are permanent consequences to player actions, even if they are not truly game changing. That concept is pretty new to the static theme-park atmosphere of MMOGs. There are a few exceptions of course (think Archet burning in Lord of the Rings Online – done via an instance), but they are few and far between.
The net effect of phasing is that you feel like you've directly affected the world around you. Your actions resulted in a change to your world. That's powerful stuff. The phasing we've seen in WoW is just the tip of the iceberg. We're going to see this technology used in amazing ways in future MMOGs. Player choice might finally factor into the version of the world that your character sees and interacts with. What if, for example, after making a momentous choice between good or evil in a game like Star Wars: The Old Republic, the world itself appeared forever changed based on that moral decision? You might actually feel as though you were shaping the world based on your choices. The fact that such a decision might be irreversible could influence your choice. It's like a choose-your-own-adventure novel where you can't flip back and redo your choice. The use of phasing for dynamic storytelling seems limitless and that's something to be excited about.
Aside from gameplay itself, storytelling is one of the most crucial aspects in crafting a memorable game. The advent of phasing will push the possibilities of storytelling to new, dynamic and exciting levels. One of my favorite gaming journalists of all time, Jeff Green, said in his blog Greenspeak, "I think [phasing is] going to go down as a landmark in MMO design and will influence games (and maybe not just MMOs) for years to come." I couldn't agree more. It's an exciting time to be an MMOG player and I have a feeling that the best is yet to come.
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I'm sad to announce that this is the last article I'm writing for Massively; at least for a while. My wife and I recently had a son and between the new addition and a demanding full time job, I'm finding less time to devote to writing. Rather than let the quality of MMOGology suffer, I'm passing the torch to my colleagues. I'll enjoy watching them continue to create the quality content you've come to expect at Massively. It has always been one of my dreams to contribute in some small way to gaming journalism and hopefully you've enjoyed some of my work here over the last year. The staff of Massively are truly a great group of people and it's been an honor to work with all of them.
Thanks also to you readers, without whom, none of us would be here! It will be fascinating to watch what innovations our favorite genre has in store for us. You never know what waits around the corner to surprise us and push the envelope of our expectations. Here's to the future!
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.