Vague Patch Notes: MMOs are still just games you rent

The look.

When I was a teenager, I accidentally stole a few games from a video rental place. You might wonder how you accidentally steal something, but it turns out that it’s actually remarkably simple: Amidst an intensely chaotic move off of an island and to the mainland as your father is placed in rehab after you’ve been acting as the adult for two years when you’re 15, a couple of games you rented from a video place wound up just in the stuff you brought with you by accident. And by the time you realize it, well, you aren’t going back to that island for a long time.

I enjoyed renting video games when I was younger, of course. But in a way, I’ve never really stopped because I play MMORPGs. And more than any other game type that exists, MMORPGs live in a space where they are games you fundamentally rent. You pay money, and then you get access to the game for a while, but you never know when that’s going to change. And yes, that’s true even if you avoid monthly subscriptions.

Our younger readers may not be as familiar with the practice of renting video games because it increasingly became not a thing as time marched on. Back in the 8-bit and 16-bit era, though, it was kind of de rigueur to rent a lot of games before buying them. Heck, sometimes even instead of buying them outright.

This was as true of long games as it was of anything else. My first experience with Shining Force II, Landstalker, Phantasy Star IV, and Super Metroid all came from renting copies and playing them with focused intensity over the course of a weekend. If I was very lucky, it would be over multiple weekends because saved games were stored on the cartridge, so there was always the chance that someone else would rent the game, and then they would delete your save to start a new file. Or they’d just pick up from your save. It was kinda messy.

In some ways, it was an interesting experience because just as in MMOs, you had no idea of what you were going to get, and the games were always changing, whether you liked it or not.

Boo, says I.

Obviously, games were not getting patched at the video store. But you could rent Mega Man 2, play until nearly the end, and come back the next week, only the game might not be there any more because someone rented it and then broke it. Sorry, you’re out of luck now; start a new game. You could sometimes find yourself discovering a game and then never seeing it again, and if you didn’t remember the name… well, good luck finding it years later.

We all understand that something you rent is something you don’t own, but that goes the other way as well. Something you don’t own is rented to you. And that includes MMOs, which you never own. When you bought an MMORPG, you bought an access pass. You did not actually buy the game, just the option of playing it.

And there’s no promise that the game you bought at the time would still be available in the future.

The thing about patches to MMOs is that they are necessary. New content is necessary. New systems have to be put into place. Balance has to be addressed. Every patch is going to alter your experience, and for the vast majority of MMOs, ideas about what makes an ideal night of content and what should be driving players forward will change over time. You are not promised that the evolving version will be something you will like.

For some people, this is seen as a betrayal. But even if I were inclined to say that World of Warcraft should have the same ideas about what makes compelling content now as it did 20 years ago, who’s to say I’d be right? Would I still be playing it in that case? I definitely am not still playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas at this point (yes, that came out the same year), and that franchise has evolved and changed over time.

MMOs are, by definition, rented. They are going to change because you are not holding on to a fixed copy. My CD-based copy of StarCraft does not realize that it is not 1998, and it will install just fine. But my original game discs for Final Fantasy XI just contain the client data for when it released. If I install from there and try to launch, it’s going to update.

And on some level this kind of sucks. It sucks to have a game that you love that is actually just rented, one you can’t buy. There’s a reason why people will sometimes cling to physical media or hold fast to rogue servers emulating outdated versions of still-live games, and so forth. There’s an instinct to say that at least physical media will never let you down or be patched away.

But… that’s also not true, is it?

Dance Dance San d'Orialution

I had a copy of Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo (all right, it was Final Fantasy III on the cart and title because it was the North American release, chill), but it died from being played straight to death. I lost a memory card for my original PlayStation and thus lost a bunch of progress and wound up losing some games along with it. Physical media can be lost or damaged or otherwise fade away, as sure as everything else.

Last year, two of my columns were about the things you leave behind and things that linger in MMORPGs. Some of what we miss in older versions are older times, potentially simpler times. That’s hardly all of it, but it does mean that even if you can make the game the same, you can’t make the people the same. You can’t make the world the same.

Or to be more succinct, everything is rented. It’s an experience, and you get to have it, but not every experience gets to be revisited endlessly. And that blows, and it hurts, but just like aging and changing, it’s the only game in town. We either learn to deal with it or we break straight down the middle.

If you’re lucky, the changes an MMO goes through are ones that make you happy, but you can still indulge in remembering simpler times. You can’t reclaim them, but they’re part of what makes you who you are now. You are the product of a tapestry of threads, all pulled together, everything woven together. That includes the stuff you can’t go back to.

Sure, I might wish I could see parts of Final Fantasy XIV that are gone now. They live on only in my memory. But some day what I see now will live only in my memory. And at least to me, that’s part of how I deal with loving games that I know are only rented for a time. The emotional impact – the part that sticks with me – is going to make more difference than whether or not I own a moment in time.

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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