Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Persistent Worlds

Long term games. Role-playing, 12 hour marathon sessions of such-and-such. This post is somewhat inspired by an upcoming (2008?) expansion to FFG's Descent, which adds a campaign system to the tactical dungeon crawl. And some of my recent experiences.

Board games are often beloved for their 'play and forget' aspects. You can start a boardgame quickly, and it makes no demands on your time before and after the game. This is a start contrast to other 'hobby' games. Miniatures demand time painting and sculpting. Collectibles demand time sorting, planning, and devising (deck-building/army building). Role-playing demands prep time from the GM, and require players to carry information from game session to game session.

As gamers age, add families and commitments, board games begin to appeal above other games because of this lack of commitment away from the table. But there still remains in some people the desire to build something lasting within their hobby. Online MMRPGs tap into this. Join World of Warcraft and you are immediately part of something large. The game goes on around you and you experience bits and pieces. Put the game down for a moment and when you return you find your position identical, but the environment has shifted - a living game.

There is obviously some desire to see this sort of persistence in board games. It's not for everyone. Some people bundle this desire into "theme", but it's a whole nut by itself, most often called 'campaign play' - the idea that each playing of a game impacts the next time the game comes out.

One of the best examples in my experience is the old GDW game Imperium. In this 1970's space wargame the two sides fight a short-lived strategic war. Generally the war ends when one or two planets or outposts change sides. One side wins the war - "game" over. But the game doesn't actually end there. You roll some dice and play a 5-10 minute mini-game of peace, and then the next border skirmish/war breaks out - with players in a similar position to the end of the last war, or game. Players can play two wars back-to-back, or keep track of holdings and continue to play the game with an ever shifting series of planets and fleets. Persistence.

Imperium is a good game, taken up to greatness because of the ease of what is often called 'campaign' play. Descent (as mentioned earlier) received some derision early on due to it's complete lack of 'campaign' play. The next expansion will change that, bringing persistence into the game.

An obvious inspiration for Descent is the Heroquest/Warhammer Quest line of games. These games have the same theme as Descent (fantasy dungeon crawls), but had campaign systems from the very beginning. Even granddaddy Magic Realm provided a campaign system.

But a persistent world doesn't need to be tied to a fantasy adventure game. We have yet to see a designer (probably an American or Italian, given their design tendencies) bring the idea of persistence into an economic game, or any genre of game using 'modern' design features.

Perhaps the oft-requested Civ-lite game should be a game that plays in 'mileposts'. Short 60-90 minute games that reach stopping points where one player is deemed the winner, but the game is set up again next game for the next age of the game. Players could even change.

The Lords of.. series approaches persistence in-game by suggesting that players can enter and leave the game as they wish - that the players have no need of being static, and it might be possible to even win the game by playing for the first or final third of the game.

I'm sure there are other persistent worlds built within boardgames. It's an interesting piece of the attraction of games in general - and probably the one that inspires the most loyalty1.


1Obligatory footnote. It's not a surprise that campaign systems inspire loyalty. Invest more time into a specific game and you will feel more invested in it. What a surprise eh?

2Second Obligatory footnote. The second impetus for writing this is a persistent browser game that I'm involved in called Imperium Nova. It's an economic/negotiation space empire game. Mostly inspired by board games, the main mechanics are economic. Even warfare carries a hefty monetary cost. But it really serves to illustrate how electronic(computer/console) games have fully embraced persistent worlds. It's a selling point of many of these games. The microchip takes care of the math and the note-taking, leaving the player free to remain involved in an ongoing game. Persistence is a strong selling point3.

3But it still hasn't been applied much outside the Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Military genres.


MrHen. said...

yI have always been interested in persistent gaming because I like the feeling that the time I spend is worth more than just the fun I am getting at the moment. Unfortunately, the biggest problem for me has been finding other people willing to invent similar amounts of time. As such, the only real experience I have is various video games and Magic: The Gathering, which really does not count as persistent. But the idea has always intrigued me. Especially with an economics flavor.

Dani In NC said...

I'm in a similar situation to mrhen. I would like to play games that have a bit more meat to them and possibly carry over from one session to the next. However, my playing companions don't want anything that deep. I'm in charge of researching and picking new games so I am slowly inching them towards games that are more complicated than Clue, but I do meet with some resistance if I stray too far away from what they know.