late morning sunday design ~ Deep MMORPG Persistence

Oh jeez it’s like LMSD is all I do these days! I guess that’s why I started it, though — to get some cool words and ideas out even without some force demanding at my brain that I do so! Our topic today is persistence in MMORPGs and I’m not just talking about persistent characters or persistent worlds… well, you’ll see.

MMORPGs have done persistent worlds, and persistent characters. It seems like all you need these days to be considered ‘massively multiplayer’ is to have persistent characters, storing stats and items and whatever; like I talked about in my previous MMORPG-themed LMSD, this feels like it’s moving in the wrong direction: why even bother going through the trouble of making it massive if you’re going to work it like a single-player experience?

What I’d really like to talk about today is not just persistent worlds and persistent characters, but rather persistent worlds AND persistent characters working together. A world is nothing without its inhabitants, and characters are nothing without their environment — why is this relationship so blatantly mocked? Maybe it’s just because it’s easy.

Explaining myself: Players are not bound to the world; they exist on this separate plane, raised up and apart, where they can only interact with it indirectly and are removed from it whenever they log out. Sure, this is fine and all, but even with persistent world and persistent character, there’s something missing when the world feels half-baked and untouchable (you can interact with NPCs by doing dumb quests for them and sometimes by buying things from them. nothing you do can affect them in any way.), and the characters are blinking in and out of existence endlessly.


There are games that have done exactly what I desire. There is one game in particular that has a massive world that you can feel the massiveness of, and I love the heck out of it for one week out of every year and then swear off it for the other 51 because I can’t have fun playing a game that makes the chores of a second life (no the game is not Second Life) feel so fulfilling. With ‘learning points’ you can purchase the ability to freely attack and kill other players (of course they can fight back), meaning anyone could possibly attack you — but for the most part don’t, because the ability is expensive and they would still be treading on questionable moral grounds. Still, it’s amazing when you have a world filled with player-made settlements (there are no NPCs at all, only wild animals and players), rare but rather frightening murderers, and farming, and trading, and my god I’m making myself want to play it again.

Haven and Hearth

So like I was saying, it’s not impossible for games to have a real persistent link between character and world. In H&H, which I just linked, a sleeping character appears in the world. Plants grow in real-time, and other players build things. They build everything. If there is something that is built, it was built by a player. It’s amazing just walking away from large settlements, seeing the roads and what has been built, and finally running into a smattering of trees when before all of them had been chopped down (too close to the settlement! people use lots of wood!).

Other games like Urban Dead (yes I mention this again) leave you there while offline, whether you’re a zombie or a survivor. You fade away after a few days, but it’s still a good example. Players who are offline are a very important part of the game.


Let’s stop with examples. Players and the world can be held at arm’s length, or they can be woven together with intricate detail.

What is an “offline player”? I’m tired of this “vanish into nothingness” crap!

Let me change the world, damn it!

This post has descended into meaningless rage! I’d like to say “maybe I just don’t like MMORPGs”, but that isn’t true at all — I just think every MMORPG that follows ‘the formula’ is crap! Don’t even start about them not following the formula because it’s been forever since I’ve seen an MMO that isn’t about logging on, using very little real skill to go around killing a bunch of shit to level up (and get some more meaningless crap for your pockets), and logging out again. All of the ones that seemed like they had a possibility of an interesting combat system turned out to be falsely MM — that is, persistent character but server-based multiplayer.

When someone says MMORPG, most people probably think of one kind and don’t even consider that it is a very limited scope. There is a very limited scope of massive that is currently being touched by (I don’t really like to say it I swear I’m not just a screamin’ indie) the mainstream.

There are some games that hold firm to their rare MMO ideals despite the server load and being absolutely completely free.


… I think that next time I think about writing an MMORPG LMSD, I just… I’ll just remember how insane it makes me and I just won’t. Yeah. That sounds good.


About Droqen

Droqen is a game designer/developer/creator/etc. from Toronto, Ontario. View all posts by Droqen

One response to “late morning sunday design ~ Deep MMORPG Persistence

  • PleasingFungus

    There are a few other MMOs that do similar things to what you’re describing – for instance, EVE Online, and Wurm Online. Both have worlds that are primarily shaped by the players – EVE Online has an entirely player-run economy and massive, months-long wars between player-formed alliances, whereas Wurm Online… well, it’s Proto-Minecraft: The MMO. (Imagine Minecraft if it was an MMO, so you had to grind tree-chopping to raise your tree-chopping skill, for example. That’s Wurm Online.) There’s also something like Eskil Steenberg’s LOVE, which is definitely unusual for an MMO, has a world shaped by the players (literally – with terrain deformation tools), etc…

    …there are MMOs out there that are doing something different – my last paragraph only scratched the surface. So – why aren’t there more?

    The fundamental reason is that DikuMUD-style MMOs (Everquest, World of Warcraft, etc) are comfortable for players. They’re generally designed to be ‘solo-able’, so players don’t have to engage with the game more than they would with a normal, offline hack-and-slash; they basically form, at the low levels, drop-in drop-out co-op games, and at the higher levels, one-team cooperative games on the same scale as a common FPS. With the more sophisticated MMOs mentioned, you have to put much more of yourself into the game to enjoy it – the goals of the game are primarily social, about finding a place in a social hierarchy composed of other players.

    In WoW, essentially the worst thing that can happen to you is that you die – losing a few handfuls of cash for repairs and a few minutes of progress. (It’s worse in raids, but raids are played by a relatively small percentage of the player-base, pretty much because they are so much more demanding…)

    In EVE Online, you can die while in a capital ship – losing something forever that’s worth hundreds (thousands?) of real-life dollars.

    There’s a lot of stress there!

    The more you put of yourself into a game, the more you can reap from it. That’s why an MMO like Hearth & Home or Wurm Online can be so rewarding – because there’s the threat of death or theft of everything you’ve worked so hard for. Because it’s a second life, a world in which players can authentically interact with.

    Some people want that from games. Most don’t. Most people just want something to distract them from their ordinary lives; a theme-park of a world, guiding them from one place to the next, one quest to another, and telling them that they have Achieved something and that they are Amazing Heroes as they go.

    The oldest MMOs – the MUDs – were much more persistent and interactive than most modern MMOs. Many of them had unrestricted PVP, worlds with monsters that would never respawn until the server was reset, and so on in that vein… but it was the DikuMUD lineage, father of Everquest, grandfather of WoW, that eventually prevailed.

    Most people don’t want persistence.

    After all, if they wanted a real, living world, with persistence, social dynamics, trading, robbery, murders… couldn’t they just step outside?

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