The paradox of online worlds
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.