Vague Patch Notes: The specter of MMO persistence in single-player games


Recently, we got a great letter from a listener asking about an issue that he’d been having with single-player games compared to MMOs. Essentially, Justin S. noted a persistent problem… with persistence, because MMOs last forever and single-player games just don’t. So how do you keep playing and get into a game when you know it’s not going to last? Here’s the full question, as written:

I’ve been playing MMOs for about 15 years and ever since is started them I’ve always had this issue where I struggle to enjoy single player games. It seems to be mainly caused by the lack of persistence. I know this character will only exist during this adventure and there likely won’t be more. That being said, I have managed to find enjoyment in some single player games, but it usually takes a bit to get into them and that nagging feeling of this being finite is always there. My question to you is do either of you deal with this? Any tips to not think about it as much?

Now, this was a podcast question originally, but I asked immediately if I could claim it for a full column because the topic at hand is one that I can both relate to and one that fascinates me because Justin’s right here: When you’re used to the idea that your progress and accomplishments will last forever, it’s a big change to suddenly have a situation in which your actions are only good enough to last for one go-round. But I think unpacking it also involves asking why we value persistence so much, especially when MMOs aren’t always as persistent as we think.

In some regards this should be obvious. MMOs are persistent experiences, but we are all aware that MMOs can shut down or otherwise be cut short. (Riders of Icarus isn’t shutting down yet, but you’re probably not going to play it any more regardless.) But I don’t have any interest in playing a “gotcha” game wherein we all note that MMOs can sometimes say goodbye, especially when there are a lot of games that have remained very operational.

Yet even there… some of that persistence just isn’t the same as it used to be. It can’t be. Things do, in fact, change quite a bit.

At one point in Final Fantasy XIV, assembling a full set of upgraded Ironworks gear took time and resources and energy. I could go out and buy the whole thing without a problem from vendors in major cities. If I ever wanted it for glamour purposes, it would be an almost trivial task to accomplish and barely requires me to work at it. Yesterday’s rare item is today’s common baseline.

“But that’s part of the vertical progression in the game, not horizontal!” And you’re right! But that has changed, too. At one point you needed to get Thaumaturge to a certain level to play a caster; now you don’t, but there are a lot of people who still have those 26 levels of Thaumaturge and nothing else just for that all-important Swiftcast. You used to need secondary levels to unlock your main job; same deal. Crafting used to require levels on certain crafts for secondary skills, but that’s not the case any more. You don’t need to be an omnicrafter if you don’t want to.

You probably are because if you like crafting, it’s all synergistic, but you don’t need to be.

Yes, that's a dragon.

And I’m not even getting into games like World of Warcraft that have overhauled their systems so completely that they are basically no longer the same game over the years. The point is just that for all we talk about persistence, even in games where not a lot has changed, things still change in a lot of ways over time. We must accept as prima facie truth that MMOs are only mostly persistent, that our stockpiles of resources and effort may be changed over time, that we’re looking heavily toward that “mostly” part as a whole.

The fact that they’re mostly persistent does still make them different from single-player games, though. Look, I love Saints Row: The Third endlessly, and I will still sometimes launch the game and tool around in my custom cars causing mayhem just for the fun of it. But there is also nothing else for me to do. Unlike an MMO, there’s no new content in the pipeline.

Except, well… that’s also sort of not totally true, isn’t it? MMOs go into maintenance mode all the time. Not all of them, but as much as I love the original Guild Wars it’s never going to get new content added to it. When playing it, I am ultimately adventuring in a static world, just like in the aforementioned game. There is X amount of content and that’s it.

“But not every MMO is like that!” No, it’s not. None of the Big Five is in maintenance mode (otherwise they wouldn’t be the Big Five), and a lot of other games are receiving steady streams of new stuff to do. But it helps us, again, to understand what we’re talking about here. What does it benefit us, critically, from pretending that MMOs never run out of new stuff and hit an ending? What does it help us to act like we don’t eventually hit a completion moment?

In that regard, MMOs and single-player games actually are less different than we think. The difference isn’t that you never run out of things to do; the difference is that you run out of stuff a lot faster with single-player games, because they’re based on a shorter update schedule. A single-player title is going to be active for a couple of years at most, in all likelihood; a good MMO has years and years of content to be added, and it’ll probably be stuff you do over a longer timeframe anyway.

And yet just as I acknowledge all of this is true, I also know the feeling of starting up a single-player game and thinking that there’s less point to this game because it’s only going to matter for this playthrough in the first place. So how do we deal with this?

Bad dog!

Part of it, at least for me, is to focus on and enjoy single-player games that offer me things that I cannot get as successfully from MMOs. A great example, at least for my personal preferences, is Shovel Knight. I love that game and all of its stylings and tropes and everything; it’s also a side-scrolling action game that feels very different from anything I could expect from an MMO. I don’t worry as much about the temporary nature because it’s just a different experience.

But I do think another part of it is also recognizing and embracing the fact that MMOs can be temporary, and limited, and not actually as persistent as we tend to think of them. To realize that while persistence is definitely more of a thing in MMOs, it is still transitive. It is about the experiences and joys that you have while going through these experiences, not about everything mattering forever.

Heck, in some ways MMOs could be argued to be less persistent. I can start Shovel Knight over from the beginning and still have the same experience as the first time I played it; I can’t do the same for Final Fantasy XI. (Nor would I actually want to, to be clear.) Many of my MMO memories exist only as that: memories, experiences that mattered to me.

And that is, ultimately, what every video game provides. Memories and experiences that resonate with us, from story to gameplay to simple weird moments. So my tip to you, Justin, would be to focus on that, to embrace and acknowledge that memories and their transitive nature are not problems but benefits to be embraced. You cannot uncross a river, but maybe you don’t need to. Maybe it’s enough to have these moments of memory in every game.

Seek out the memories you can’t have elsewhere, and enjoy them for what they are. That’s what helps me, at least. And as always, thank you for exploring and building memories with us, too.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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