The MMO edge: persistence and permanence

There’s a conversation about social play and soloing that’s been going on in the blogosphere, in one form or another, for years now. I was struck by one of Tobold’s recent posts, WoW the Single Player Game? — in response to a post from The Godmother about Cross-Realm Zones where she mentions that she “liked it when it was quiet“, Tobold asks,

[W]hy do people who “like it quiet” play a massively multiplayer online game? Wouldn’t let’s say Knights of the Old Republic be a much better game for them than Star Wars: The Old Republic?

Many of his commenters focus on the fact that WoW’s mechanics and systems aren’t set up to handle large player numbers in one area, discussing competition for quest spawns and resource nodes. Michael of Gaming for Happiness echoes my feelings, though, when he comments that “Why do I not just play KoTOR instead? Maybe it’s just me, but playing in an online world just seems to make everything seem more real. My actions more meaningful, my efforts yielding greater permanence than I can find in single player games.”

This really struck a chord with me. I’ve been playing a lot of The Sims 3 lately – I go through phases of this, and I’m well and truly entrenched at the moment. (I even bought some shiny new DLC as a birthday gift to myself.) I really enjoy The Sims 3, and Steam tells me I’ve racked up over 400 hours ingame – although I’m sure a lot of that is idle/AFK time. And yet, something about The Sims 3 feels wrong to me, and always has — it’s the fact that I’m completely alone in the game world.

Saskia's stylish pad in Lucky Palms

So my Sim is living out her life, interacting with her neighbours, winning hearts, making friends, and they’re all NPCs. In the houses I’ve never visited, NPC Sims are sketching out a rudimentary copy of sim-life, but the town is virtually stagnant apart from what I do.1 If there were other players around, even if I never socialised with them directly, my little town would feel a lot more real – I’d know that behind all those front doors, other Sims were living lives just as varied and interesting as my own Sim’s. Someone might buy the Perfect-quality fruit and vegetables I can grow. Someone might sell me a beautiful photo they took in Shang Simla.

But playing alone, nobody else’s actions will ever make an impact on my Sim’s life, and everything I “achieve” with her is equally meaningless. Any variety I encounter is just the result of a random number generator, not the dynamism introduced by other players.

Not that games automatically have to be ‘meaningful’ to be fun, of course. But I think MMOs have trained me too well to expect a certain permanence and persistence to what I do. When I make items to improve my crafting skill in an MMO, there’s someone around who’ll buy them from me. When I earn an Achievement, my progress is highlighted to anyone who cares to look. Even if I never say a word to another player, the world feels more real, more immersive and ‘alive’, because I know there are other people around all doing their own thing.

As one commenter, Josh, noted over at Tobold’s discussion, “[t]here’s a difference between quiet and silence”.

I talk to my neighbours, in RL, about once a year. Yet if they were suddenly replaced by timer switches who turned the lights on and off at the right times and robots who drove their cars off to work and back home again every day, I’d damn well notice the difference, and living in my house would suddenly start feeling very lonely and isolated. I may not want to interact with my neighbours, in game or in RL, but I want them to be there.

Saskia plays some blackjack in a nearly-deserted casino

  1. There’s actually a third-party patch that vastly improves the game’s background story progression and growth, but the patch author adamantly refuses to support the Steam version of the game, so I’m out of luck.

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5 Responses to “The MMO edge: persistence and permanence”

  1. November 23, 2012 at 17:32 #

    It’s funny, you reach the opposite conclusion to me, but for the same reason. I prefer single player games to busy or full MMOs (with the notable exception of EVE) specifically because the MMOs lack continuity permanence or the opportunity to meaningfully change the world. At least when I kill a dragon in Skyrim for example, it stays dead and I can find its bones when I ‘re-walk my path. Nothing you do in most MMOs changes anything, and its why I’ve always had a hard time immersing myself in them. EVE had this problem as well, but with a single shard and a much reduced need to rely on killing NPCs to make up game content, it offers a different experience.

    • Vespers
      November 23, 2012 at 21:16 #

      I love MMOs.. much like Siha, I feel quite strange playing games where I’m just plodding along alone (with the clear exception of RPGs, which I love more than MMOs); even Minecraft I never play except on servers where I can build so other people can see. However, I too have always had a problem with the lack of ability in many MMOs for what a player does to actually affect the game world in any way visible to either them or other players in a persistent way. I really enjoyed raiding in WoW partly because it was a thing I could do where what I did helped to make a difference in a way other people could see.. even if it was only the other members of the raid team, and only for a week, not permanent.

      EVE does make quite a difference in the world of MMOs though.. what with the way that, for instance, even a single player can put up a POS, a (semi)-permanent structure which affects the way other people can interact with the game. Or how an alliance in nullsec can construct outposts, jump bridges, and system upgrades. These things may not be on the same level as the ability for your actions to change the story or landscape in many modern RPGs, but they do allow players to have a far greater impact on the landscape of the game than in the vast majority of MMOs.. one reason I love the game.

  2. November 27, 2012 at 08:51 #

    I agree, although I’m not quite sure Sims would benefit that much from living next door to a person-controlled family – chances are you’d end up with the neighbours over all the time, kicking your bins and trashing your garden :(

    I did, however, always feel like something was missing in single-player exploratory games like Morrowind and Oblivion – it’s one reason I loved Wow so much when I started playing it. It’s pretty lonely running around a big old world on your own, even if it is pretty!

    • November 27, 2012 at 12:50 #

      Yeah; obviously sandboxy games like The Sims would need some sort of anti-griefing mechanics when going multiplayer. It’s not that I want to interact with other players necessarily, though, it’s just that they stave off that lonely feeling you describe. It all feels a bit pointless without them – which is weird, but true :)

      I sort of regret missing out on The Sims Online, tbh, the Sims MMO that EA tried. Apparently it flopped pretty badly and was shut down years ago, though I haven’t heard much about whether it was actually fun or not.

  3. a.
    January 26, 2013 at 19:34 #

    is it just Pescado’s mod that doesn’t work with Steam? because Nraas also has such a mod (a quick google search does show people discussing the mod in a steam community)

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