August 26, 2013

The Need For Permanence and the Impact on MMORPGs

I don't know if it is a function of my age or just a quirk in my psyche. Bear with me as we go back to almost a year ago.

When looking at DLC for Skyrim on the 360, I was presented with two choices:

  1. Dawnguard - a storyline about vampires trying to rule the land and the reformation of the Dawnguard that was dedicated to killing them. And:
  2. Hearthfire - an add-on that allows you to design a build a custom home at one of four locations in Skyrim.
Now, you'd think a rollicking tale of lopping off blood-sucker heads would be the one to get excited about. But man...I was way more excited about Hearthfire. To the point I spent about 3-4 hours do everything I could to max out the house.

Granted, it was easier for me to do it since I have already cleared the two main storylines. Now I have Heljarchen Hall in The Pale, because I'm a New England boy and if you aren't living in the snow, you're a wuss. I can go into my trophy room and look at the skull of the dragon I killed.

So why? Why be overly excited about building a virtual house? I am willing to bet I am not the only one who felt this way. And I think it has something to do with our desire for permanence, to have something lasting. Regardless of whether it is virtual or real.

In Skyrim I have built something that wasn't there. And it will remain there until the game is deleted or my 360 goes up in a shower of sparks. That speaks to something that is in all of us.

Look at Minecraft. It's an 8-bit game in the 21st century. If you hear someone describe it ("You create things in a virtual world" is the basic gist) it doesn't sound like it's any fun at all. Instead, it is one of the most popular games on the planet. It has more registered users (16 million) than World of Warcraft (9.1M) and The old Republic (under 1.0M) combined. Why?

Permanence. It's the ability to create something and have it be there, in theory, forever. It's creating a city in the sky (which more than one person has done in Minecraft) and having it be there as long as you want it to be.

And this is where MMORPGs fall short and why they lose subscribers. World of Warcraft caught the wave at the right time and rode a long, highly profitable crest. But it's subscriber base is shrinking fast. The old Republic was supposed to be the next big thing. I mean...Star Wars! How can that fail? And yet it is crashing spectacularly. Why? Why do MMORPGs always seem to rise and then fall?*

Partly it is simply because the new thing is always hot until it is the old thing. But I also believe it is because you can create a character, but not a home. Or a monument. Or anything**. You are a Level 80 character who can fell armies with a wave of your hand but you can't sit down at a table in your house that you created. And you can't build anything other players can see.

Let's be honest; part of the desire to have something permanent related to you is the ego stroke that is involved. It's why conquerors build statues of themselves or philanthropists gets wings of hospitals named after them when they donate money. And in an MMORPG, that can't happen because of the way they are built. You can't have a persistent world on the servers because each player needs to be able to do the same quests to level up. And while that makes perfect sense, it also builds in an eventual failure of the game. Because nothing changes. I kill a few guys in a quest and they reappear five minutes later. That's gets tedious after a while.

We want the ego stroke. We want the ability to point at something and say "I did that". And if we can't do that with a few million of our closest friends in one game, we'll move on to the next one and hope that we can.

I find it more than a little ironic that Star Wars: Galaxies actually had something like this, allowing you to build cities and even hold elections for mayor. But Sony so thoroughly screwed up the release of SW:G that it never stood a chance of succeeding. I wonder if The Old Republic would be losing subscribers if it had implemented a similar concept.

I hope someone does soon. I shouldn't get a bigger thrill out of building a home in a single-player game like Skyrim than in defeating some endgame baddie in WoW. But I do. Because in one that house is mine. In the other, there's six guys queued up behind me to kill the guy I just killed.

Which one is more satisfying?


* Okay, so there are two MMORPGs off the top of my head that do have some permanence: Entropia and EVE. But in the case of the former, you have to pay serious money to actually have anything of permanence. And the latter is basically a game that proves if you leave people alone with no rules, they'll act like a bunch of assholes.

**Yes, you can build weapons, armor and the like. But does anyone else in the world go "Wow, you have a sword made by Glokar??" when everyone can eventually make that sword? Now, if you could change that...say by making a ridiculously hard path to become a master artificer or swordsmith or what have you that only a few people can do in the world? You might have something there that could keep your subscribers coming back.


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