About the Laws of Online World Design – Part III

This is the third installment in a series of posts I’ll be making about The Laws of Online World Design, as explained in this introductory post. I will start at the top of the list, and work my way down until I’ve poked and prodded every law in the list, not skipping any unless I really feel like it. In this, Part III of the series, I’ll concentrate on the following law:

  • Persistence means it never goes away

Persistence means it never goes away

Once you open your online world, expect to keep your team on it indefinitely. Some of these games have never closed. And closing one prematurely may result in losing the faith of your customers, damaging the prospects for other games in the same genre.

Persistence in relation to MMORPGs

A loved child has many names: MMORPG, MMOG, MMO, Graphical MUD, Online World and Virtual World are some examples of names used to describe online games that share certain key characteristics. Persistent World is another name for them, named thus due to the persistent nature of the games; player progress, stats and equipment (and sometimes, but more rarely, even the state of the online world itself) are saved for each game and the data will persist from one day to the next, even if the player has been logged out/disconnected.

Compare that to other online games such as Counter-Strike, Team-Fortress 2 or Quake Live where your stats and equipment is wiped from one 10 minute long round to the next, or to some turn-based web-browser games where the worlds you play in reset to scratch every X months/years.

Of course, whether an online world/game qualifies for the description “persistent world” depends on who you ask, and what definition of the word you use. It has been up for debate.

Another interpretation of “persistence” in relation to online worlds is that implies that said online worlds are there to stay, that they’ll persist from year to year and will always be around.

Expect your online world to remain open indefinitely

Excluding MUDs (text-only “multi-user dungeons” that have been around for decades now), the oldest, still running, persistent graphical online worlds (or MMORPGs if you prefer – I do) on the market today have remained open for more than ten years, some homing in quickly on their 12-year (Ultima Online) and 13-year (Meridian 59) anniversaries, while another – The Realm Online – could celebrate it’s 14-year anniversary in March earlier this year. Both the latter remain active with small, but dedicated player-bases -while the relatively more popular Ultima Online is preparing to launch the beta-test for expansion number nine – Stygian Abyss (Incidentally, a beta-version of the new UO client that will be released with the expansion was released to the public today, and can be used on the regular servers!)

Since the launch of Ultima Online, which is considered to be the game that initially popularized the MMORPG genre, more than 180 other MMORPGs have been launched according to this list on Wikipedia (the list is longer but also includes ones still in development) – including, but not limited to, games like EverQuest, Lineage, Second Life, A Tale in the Desert, Guild Wars, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan etc.

While a number of MMORPGs have been shut down over the years, the majority of these games that have made it to launch are still running, and may still be running five years from now, though probably with smaller development teams and longer patch-cycles – something which seems to be a natural evolution for many MMORPG development-teams (but not all – some have only one project to focus on and throw all their resources at that project, while others are named “Blizzard Entertainment”). Before launch, the teams grow, and then grow some more. Immediately after launch, they remain stable while the post-launch issues and tweaks are done. Half a year after launch, people start drifting off – first splitting into live teams and expansion teams, then to other, newer projects (there’s always another project down the line).

Five/ten years later, depending on the success of the game and the size of the player-base, the team could be a closely knit group of veterans doing regular updates, maybe working on the next yearly recurring expansion pack. Or it could be in life-support mode; a team consisting of a tiny number of developers, kept alive only to keep the game up and running (the team that is, not the developers – they usually get to live even after the game is shut down), with very limited updates.

Some of these games never expect to run as long as they have. Take Anarchy Online, as an example. The original plan by its development team (led by then project director Gaute Godager and story developer Ragnar Tornquist) and was to run a four-year long storyline, at the end of which the game would be shut down, or maybe rebooted to scratch (along with all player characters). That obviously didn’t happen, seeing as the game is now in its ninth year of non-stop operation, with an extended storyline to match.

Premature closing of online worlds

How exactly do you define what is “premature closing” of an MMORPG and what is not? Some games have been shut down before they even launched, such as Midgard (Funcom MMORPG that was canceled in early development), Ultima Worlds Online: Origin (aka Ultima Online 2), Ultima X: Odyssey (aka the second attempt at Ultima Online 2), Gods & Heroes and more.

The reason for closing is different in each game’s case. Midgard was canceled due to the belief that it wouldn’t stand out enough in the myriad of fantasy-related MMORPGs that were in development at the time. The official reason for UWO:O being canceled was to avoid competing with it’s predecessor Ultima Online, which was still going strong. The cancellation of Ultima X: Odyssey seems almost accidental, as it happened after EA decided to close Origin as a separate studio and relocate all the employees – including the entire UXO development team – from Austin, Texas to new offices in California. Since most of the development team chose not to relocate, Electronic Arts decided to shut down the development of UXO entirely. Gods & Heroes was put on hold by Perpetual Entertainment, citing that focus would be on the development on Start Trek Online instead. Eventually the game went from “on hold” to “canceled”. Also part of that story is that Perpetual itself never got to complete Start Trek Online (which was picked up by Cryptic Studios), and has since shut down completely.

Did the above mentioned games, and others like them, close prematurely? If you ask the fan-bases those games built up during development, you might get some definitive nodding followed up by a four page long rant about the developers and how the player wasted X years of his life anticipating the game’s release.  The developers might agree or disagree, depending on the development status of the project at the time of cancellation.

Other MMORPGs have reached launch, but shut down since. Seed, Hellgate: London, Tabula Rasa, Shadowbane, – to mention some. The Matrix Online will, unless circumstances change, shut down at the end of this month. Did (or “will”, in The Matrix Online’s case) these games close prematurely? It’s hard to say. Again, those players who were active subscribers and actually played the games would perhaps say so. The developers working on improving these games on a daily basis might also say so. The studio executives, with their “operational costs vs profit”-point of view, might not.

Customers losing faith after prematurely closed games

Some players swear to never even as much as glance at another project that studios that have shut down their favorite/most anticipated MMORPG involved might come up with, and though it’s questionable how many actually hold true to such promises, hordes of angry would-be-players denouncing a studio (or its executives) as evil/lying/incompetent can give the studio an unwanted reputation that can stick around for years, and which could hurt the chances of success for any other projects they produce.

As such, it might be in the best interest of the studios to delay, in the case of already released games that prove incapable of meeting the expectations the studios had of them before launch, shutting them down – at least until their next project nears completion. You’d rather want your customers to migrate to another of your own games rather than to one of your competitors’, after all.

That’s all, folks! Tune in next time (whenever that will be – I write on a very random schedule) for more letters, words and maybe even whole paragraphs of text about another law of online world design: Macroing, botting, and automation!