Ideas on a Persistent World

I have one main complaint about the MMORPG genre. At the end of the day, I just feel so damned inconsequential in the world. Despite succeeding against impossible odds (OK, more often, trying and failing against impossible odds), nothing really changes. Maybe I get some cool loot, but that’s it! Even the best games for interactivity don’t seem to feature much more than “zones of control” where you can locally have a small-ish influence if you “win.” That, to me, is criminal — computers can maintain so much more than just a rudimentary dice-roll combat simulation! (I’m not pooh-poohing the idea entirely, though — Zones of Control often provide fascinating subgames. I just think they can be extended…)

I’m going to propose three spheres of “permanent” interaction between player-characters and persistent online worlds:

  1. Personal-social and historical
  2. Economic
  3. Legal

Before I begin, as usual, I’m not trying to suggest that these ideas will single-handedly (triple-handedly?) solve all of the problems of persistent interaction with an online world. I’m trying to write up some ideas I’ve had in the area of making a player feel like a permanent part of the world history. I’ll revisit some of this later when I write a post I’ve been pondering (or respond to Tuebit’s post) regarding player death. This is a long post, and it probably rambles a little bit, but I’ve been nursing these ideas for quite some time. Please bear with me!

Personal-Social and Historical Persistence

I think this area has the most potential for meaningful, permanent or semi-permanent player interaction, because it reflects directly on the player-character. The most detail I typically see in player interactions with the world is the slow accumulation of standing (or lack of standing) with the various NPC factions that make up the game world’s citizenry. This is a great start, and pretty fun… Few things were as great as being incapacitated by a group of Imperial Stormtroopers, only to be saved by that spawn of Rebels just ahead! However, that’s a pretty rudimentary model of interaction with NPCs, and I have a few ideas on how to improve that:

Factional standing should be meaningful. It shouldn’t be built/destroyed simply by grinding out the endless deaths of several hojillion enemies, although that should certainly play a part in it. I’d like to see success and/or failure at quests be at least as important — you simply aren’t as important to your faction unless you can execute on missions that you are asked to undertake! Also, the effects should go beyond the static banter dialog of NPCs and whether they aggro and/or defend you when you encounter them in the wild. Attitudes, willingness to volunteer information (including other quests), and the like should all be part of your factional standing. This also helps considerably when trying to design a game world to be accomodating of Extremely Dynamic Quests — another topic I plan to devote a nice, long entry to at a later (but not too much later) date. But clearly, your fame ought to accumulate as you become more successful at more remarkable tasks. “Hey, you’re the hero who changed the fate of the Battle of Blue Hill! I’ve been looking for you, and I need your help…”

On the other hand, I see social standing as a great way to implement a “death penalty” for players who are incautious. I envision a world in which death is relatively rare, but incapacitation isn’t. A character who falls in battle a lot clearly needs to re-evaluate his/her role and strategy, and probably doesn’t enjoy a great social standing. NPCs probably aren’t as willing to negotiate heavily on rates for goods and services. Maybe if you’re really awful, people mock you publicly. Maybe they even toss you spare change and junk equipment to help you re-establish yourself after your latest massive beating. I mean, come on, you’re clearly a loser!

But, it’s also nice to think that death (of the perma flavor) should be a possibility now and then. (Maybe we could even introduce crazy storytelling arcs that require some sort of noble sacrifice at one point — think of the potential for emotional involvement!) In this case, it would be great to know that your character has the potential to cause permanent changes to the world. Maybe a street in a major city gets named after you! Maybe even a statue! That takes the sting out of death a little — you’re a Famous Person from History! (As an aside, one thing I desperately want to see in an MMO type game is a persistent log of major events in the world, including players’ names and maybe even some dialog or screenshots, snagged automatically…)

Enough about this. I’m going to combine two topics for the next section…

Economic and Legal Persistence

One thing I deeply enjoyed about Star Wars Galaxies (in fact, probably my favorite aspect) was the sandbox/world-building aspect. I maintained a successful (if small) armor shop with one of my characters, and it was a source of a great deal of fun! Custom armor orders for characters, who would then wander the world in “my” armor (even bearing my brand logo!) — what an ego trip! Decorating my store was also great fun. Then my friends got together, and we built a fairly successful player city, and got to run a small chunk of the world the way we wanted to. Whee! This is an aspect of an RPG that I’d like to recreate. But we can go further… Player cities are cool, but they had relatively little effect on the game’s system of laws. Let’s give even more control of laws to the players, a la ATITD! Maybe a very few dedicated players can rise to national-level political positions of power and influence. They can then control some very major laws (which players can then choose to obey or not, with consequences attached to each). These laws can bubble to finer-grained states, cities, and guilds, each of which can change certain laws at their level of influence. Maybe a guild — or even a whole city — can end up becoming a drug addict haven! Maybe there’s a tax-free Shopping Heaven. But why stop here?

Let’s see legal contracts and torts! A crafter needs a certain type of resource? Great, submit a contract — first player to provide 2500 units gets 10 credits per. Or whatever. You took the contract and didn’t produce? I was counting on that — pay restitution! Player bounties, it goes without saying, are attractive (although certainly not without griefing potential). Merchant travelling long distances? Hire guards! Etc, etc — the definition of the legal system is almost entertaining in itself. This whole idea really amuses me — think of the contract signed by the hale adventurers in The Hobbit!

Depth of these types could allow gameplay to feel more important to everyone in the game. I know it certainly interests me to try to spec out a world like this! I look forward to suing your ass in game Real Soon Now!

About Tachevert

A cofounder of www.WorldIV.com and full-time geek, Tachevert writes about whatever strikes his fancy. Despite the inherent contradiction, he can often be found videogaming or attempting to run.
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