One of the big problems I see (at least to me it’s a problem) in MMORPGs is that all these worlds are called “persistent worlds” because they’re online whether you are or not, but in most of them, they are indistinguishable from a multiplayer server game hosted on a local computer. Ask yourself this: If a MMO, for example World of Warcraft was changed to a multiplayer server you host, that could have up to say 100 people on it, but when you log off, it saves the progress and shuts down the server, how would the experience be changed?
There would be no one around when you started up the server and unless there’s a global system for people to connect when your server comes online and you have a schedule, the population would be small. But what difference would it make to the actual world? When you log off WoW or any other themepark mmo, what has changed when you log back in? Nothing substantial. Everything is where it was before, all your quests can be resumed as they were before, it’s as though you saved the game in a singleplayer game and logged off. For me, this goes against the whole value of creating a persistent virtual world. If the world is static, then it may as well not be persistent. If it’s all changed through instances and phasing, then how is it different to a singleplayer game or a multiplayer game with chapters?
I don’t think persistent worlds are being used to their true potential and should be so much more. Worlds should be dynamic. There should be ecology, population dynamics, migrations, changing resources and resource availability, all of it influenced by player interaction on a macro scale, rather than the actions of an individual player in an individual storyline. A persistent world where the world revolves around all players individually but also simultaneously is incoherent. If my character is the main hero that saves the day single handedly, how can the person standing next to me also be the main hero that saves the day single handedly? If it’s my decision that causes a war, how can it also be that other player’s decision that causes the war?
I think part of the main problem with MMORPGs as they have been designed is a lack of consideration for the world that is supposed to be persistent and treating the game design as you would a singleplayer or private server based multiplayer game (such as Diablo for example). By ignoring the concept of a persistent world and focusing on the adventure of the individual character, the world is simplified and turned into a linear experience. Even if you make it more “sandboxy” by not having a set quest line but having options of places to go and things to do, there is still generally a linear progression due to gear or skills that an individual character goes through to experience the game. Depending on the design and kind of progression built into the game, this can vary the experience greatly. Personally I still think Ultima Online had one of the best experiences, as you can go anywhere and do anything, but some areas would be very hard if you were not a well skilled and equipped character, but you could go with a group still. However that world still lacked in significant changes to the world, as the technology didn’t really exist at the time. They tried it with ecological spawns, but couldn’t make it work because players were just killing everything so the system never got a change to kick in. What it did have was world events and storylines that didn’t revolve around the player, but were larger events that players participated in, such as invasions of cities, attacks on storyline villains that really did only happen once, and the political machinations of various factions as their ideologies conflicted. So while the world itself did not change hugely (but was still more dynamic than more modern ones) the political landscape and history of the world did change. At one point an entire city was destroyed. This level of change is generally slow, with significant changes taking months or years, so is not perfect, but it does better capture “persistent world” than the linear quest lines systems of many other games.
I think that MMORPGs would benefit from a change of focus from individual characters to “persistent world” in order to make a more immersive and dynamic experience, creating somethign with a great deal more longevity and replayability than the current standard design. By focusing on a truly persistent and changing world, there is much more scope for a game to grow and change, and with the emphasis on this level, makes changes easier to implement, as the entire quest line system does not need to be changed every time you make a change to the world. This also addresses a common issue with these worlds in that the content is passed within days, with nothing new to do after that. This is a problem as the content that takes such a short time to get through takes months to develop and implement. This is not a sustainable method of design for something if you intend to have people playing for a long time (unless you are Blizzard).
So my plea to MMORPG makes is this: If your game would work just as well as a single/multiplayer game hosted by players rather than as a constantly online server, don’t design it as a MMORPG. You’re setting yourself up for an expensive and inefficient method of content generation.