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Permanent Record - The Paradox of Online Worlds
by John Krajewski on 03/29/12 07:49:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I’ve been playing a board game called Risk Legacy, the latest incarnation of the classic board game, and it features a surprising take on the role of permanence in games. Over multiple playthroughs the rules and board will actually permanently change based on what happens in each game. Winning the game will let you found a city, placing a sticker on the board. Continents can be named after a victory by actually writing on the board (sacrilege!), and territories can be permanently ‘scarred’ with combat modifiers. Certain actions will have you rip up cards and throw them in the trash. What’s more, new rules are actually added to the game when milestones are achieved.

The effect this has on the game is transformational. While the base rules are nearly the same as original Risk, the act of playing Risk Legacy feels much more meaningful. You aren’t just playing a game, you’re playing a role in that game’s history. You’re making history, and everything you decide to do in the game is now tinted by this knowledge. Your actions cease to be transient and are suddenly important.

As perhaps the first dalliance into permanence in the field of board games (besides the more free-form D&D style games) I’d say the experiment was very successful, and it brings to mind how we’re using the concept in our field of choice, video games. How are video games using permanence to give relevance and meaning to the experiences they provide? The technology of video games makes this a much easier (and less costly) thing to implement, particularly with the advent of the internet, and while there are some very interesting uses of permanence I believe the surface has barely been scratched.


Saving the world

Permanence is easy to achieve in a game where the full world exists per-player, and single-player games take advantage of this wholesale. Destroying some great evil and saving the world is one of the most common archetypes of video games, and usually your character will be permanently changed along the way. It’s an established, standard approach to give meaning to what the player is doing, but it is meaning that is limited to the black-box experience of that particular game world.

Permanence in online worlds on the other hand presents both much more promise and many more problems. Now the player is but one of hundreds, even thousands of people, each whose actions must be as meaningful as the next. Surely not every one of them can be the savior of the world; and yet ‘they must’, according to conventional wisdom about video games and the well-established legacy of single player games. That’s how games work, the player is always the center of the world and should be made to feel important.

Thus a paradox is formed: the player will be the one savior of the world, and so will everyone else. How do games deal with this paradox positioned right at the foundation of these online games?

The most common solution to this problem implemented by games like World of Warcraft and its imitators is to only give the illusion of the world changing. That massive horrible monster plaguing the world that you and your guild of 50 just destroyed? Respawned in 15 minutes. The important mission the archmage needs you and only you to complete? Nothing will change if you don’t do it, and hundreds are doing it simultaneously to you.


Getting off the roller-coaster

As a solution to the paradox this approach obviously works, as millions of WoW fans will attest. The game is fun, and as long as the player is comfortable playing under a suspension of disbelief (as they’re already doing given the fact they’re in a fantasty world), it can prove interesting. You can still engage in permanent advancement of your own character with your friends, even if the world doesn’t actually change.
Nevertheless, it feels unsatisfying. The reality of this world is compromised at a basic level, and it gives the entire enterprise a false feeling. Nothing you’re doing really matters in this world, and how could it? If I killed the boss permanently, no one else would get to play. The result is a game that feels less like a living, breathing world and more like an amusement park ride, where everyone is going on the same roller-coaster.

While I would say this is the most common solution to the paradox of permanent online worlds, it is not the only one. Many games have player-controlled spaces which can be gained and filled with permanent enhancements.  ’Planetside’ allows you to push an enemy back to its spawn point, claiming all the land for your own team (though since you cannot destroy the source it is inevitable that they will regain their captured territory). ‘Eve Online’ has large swathes of zero-security space that players can dominate and develop, forming the basis of thriving economies and ecologies of resources. Eve’s approach is especially impressive, and the stories of subterfuge and destruction that occur in its world underline the fascinating scenarios that are possible in online worlds where their reality is not hamstrung by preventing permanent change.

An example of an online world where permanent change is fully embraced to great success is Minecraft. In Minecraft, permanently altering the world is the entire game. How do they avoid the paradox of online worlds?  They simply side-step it, and solve a different set of problems.  There is no roller-coaster ride of fighting evil and saving the day and the maximum number of players in a Minecraft world is in the dozens rather than thousands.  Building the world with your friends is the entire thing. Its meteoric rise to success highlights just how much players crave that kind of experience, a malleable world of other people where your actions have lasting effects and meaning.


A challenge of design

It feels like the video game industry sees one successful solution to a problem and assumes it is the only one. World of Warcraft created a fantastic online world nearly a decade ago, and its roller-coaster approach is taken as the only solution in countless similar games. Nevertheless, the fact that games like Eve and Minecraft are experimenting and pushing the boundaries of how an online world should work is very encouraging, and I believe developers that continue down this path of allowing permanent effects will find games of much deeper meaning and value.

Games like Minecraft allow us to craft these worlds, and it is only an iterative step to take that further. We have allowed characters to change and grow from the beginning, and we are just now allowing worlds to change with them. It is not a difficult to imagine allowing the interactions between players themselves to grow and change through player action. Let us bring rules to these worlds we create as players. Let us define our economies, our laws, our government, our justice systems. Let these worlds pulse with the same chaos of real life. To build an online world that allows thousands of players to interact simultaneously and then locking down this world into a static state is a failure of design, and most of these games are neutered versions of what is possible within an online world.

As designers of these universes we must find structures that promote and harness permanent change rather than prevent it. We must reexamine the solutions we have chosen to the design problems posed by these worlds. The technology to do this exists, it is possible and exemplified in many games already. It is at this point only a challenge of design, a challenge that we have not fully accepted.

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Game Designer


Bernardo Del Castillo
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I agree with your analysis, it seems that this ability to actually shape the game world is the way to go, but as you said, it can be a bit aimless when you can't generate a meaningful narrative for it.
As you also noted, I would say that the biggest component to most MMO environments, is the social aspect, not necessarily the conversation and direct interaction, but the sense of competition and achieving feats just to be the best and get the best. In this sense, their playing is closer to a sport or an academic study than a creative endeavour.

I know someone who used to play WoW semi professionally, with raiding as a serious responsibility, and techincal aspects such as skill rotations and gear stats ad their main driving force to play the game.
A good friend of mine also plays wow, but more out of interest in the lore and the story. Both cases are valid, but I find Wow a bit too structured in that sense. I wish it explored into the user generated universe. Generating user narrative.

I remember an old mmo that I used to play: Ragnarok online. It allowed you to take over guild castles and customize their defenses for a weekly war, where other guilds would try to siege the castles, and take over. This actually generated a lot of depth in the universe, similar to what eve enables with its over-arching economy. And I find it great.

However I think this has limits that should be considered regarding the nature of the audience. For one a lot of playing audience has the purpose to "troll" on virtual worlds. Many other players simply don't have the will to modify the game world creatively, and it could lead to stagnant or seemingly boring scenarios (like real reality tv). And the more massive, the more devastating effects it can have in the effective functionality of the universe. Anarchy is a very interesting experiment, but I'm not sure how possitive it could be in the long run for the game.

I think there are some extremely interesting MMO aspects in games like Dark souls or journey, Dark souls with the Tolling of the bells when a player completes a certain task. And journey with the careful limitation of the player's interaction. I would find it interesting to create a world WITH an intelligible directed narrative, but that also organically intertwines the user input, but i find it extremely hard to implement effectively without greatly limiting the options of the players. Is it even possible?

anyway, nice article, good questions.

John Krajewski
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@Bernardo very good point and one I agree with, simply allowing raw interaction will surely result in trolls/griefers overrunning the system. However I believe that's a solvable problem, as you say by intertwining player interactions carefully, structuring the system to direct player's impulses (creative or destructive) in an interesting and overall constructive way. In this way it's like building a society, a system of laws and governance that promotes the best of humanity and redirects us from anarchy and tribalism.

A system that allows 50 billion ISK embezzlement schemes is a success in my opinion, and I like to think I'd believe that even if it was my 50 billion embezzled. It's poking holes in the walls built by the players - interesting for the wall builder and interesting for the wall poker.

Ryan Marshall
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Pre-scripted quests and an ever-escalating series of Big Bads, each of whom is defeated by the player character and friends, are not an inherent part of the MMO medium. Ultima Online was doing just fine before EQ came along and codified things by adding in those elements of single-player games, mostly by adding in a couple of additional grind tracks (you must progress through new dungeons and raids! you must acquire newer gear with bigger numbers!); this allowed broader appeal to those people who didn't see the point of just living in the world, crafting perpetually-useful gear for yourself and friends (that would wear out and need replacement), and exploring the wilds.

And of course, the broader the appeal, the less focus goes into the original elements.

Some people wanted a story integrated into their MMO, which created tons of problems all over the place. Somehow, they want to maintain the ability to do something meaningful while experiencing a scripted narrative, which is a pure contradiction. In order to introduce a world where the players actually matter, they need to get rid of all of that artificial stuff.

I think SWTOR has hit the logical extreme in storytelling, since they actually went out to produce a movie-like experience (actually, eight distinct movies) with their game.

With any luck, someone will bounce back from that by creating a purely sim world, with no NPC quests or over-arching plot, where the players can define things on their own terms, based on the consistent mechanics which define that world. If money exists, players can build an economy from the ground up, and set their own quests with rewards paid by the poster. I'm not sure how big the market would be for something like that, though.

John Krajewski
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And of course I would call old-school Ultima my favorite game of all time, sadly that game no longer exists. It was unsustainable as it was with the raw interaction it enabled, and nearly every future game has followed the EverQuest/WoW forumla as you state.

I think a game that returned to that Ultima style, but with a design that prevents rampant griefing and more intricate interactions would find a very huge market.

Darren Tomlyn
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A dynamic setting - (especially player influenced/controlled) - is one of the powerful elements computers have to offer, in regards to the games that use them. Obviously, as we've seen, it's not entirely limited to computers, but no other medium can match the potential computers have to offer.

Obviously, single-player games, where such alterations and changes in the setting can be pre-scripted etc., are far simpler to make.

For many reasons, Massive-Multiplayer-Online games are generally behind single/limited-multi player games in their capabilities, and yet their potential can be so much greater, given their scope. Even Eve-Online's ability to alter the setting is very limited - (Player-owned stations etc.). (In consider Minecraft to be played with as a toy more often than as a game.)

The key to (computer) games reaching their full potential, is in realising and understanding the ways in which players can affect the games themselves, both directly and indirectly - including setting, gameplay and gameplay mechanics, as part of playing the game itself.

Kim Simmons
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I've always felt the "every one's a hero" concept of MMO games to be completely flawed. When I sit down and engage in a virtual world, I do want it to be changed through my input.

But I don't think promoting permanence in MMOs is the solution. In order for your input to be worth anything, you got to give it an enormous time investment or else the world will just run away from you. I for one want the game to pause when I'm not around. The entertainment value drops the more time I'm forced to invest in a game, rather than willingly investing it.

John Krajewski
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Why would your input have to be an enormous time investment to be worthwhile? In a game that you could, say, build your own house, you get a real sense of permanence for you personally that would be meaningful and not take enormous amounts of time. Changing your corner of the world is a good way to permanently affect things. But yes if you want to change something on a global scale it's going to require more time investment and collaboration if there's going to be any stability in the world.