“Limited-Time Content” And “Living World” Are Not The Same

My younger brother is back from summer camp today, but that doesn’t mean we have enough time to play a session and then for me to write down its results, so I’m going to keep doing the “articles about whatever Monday and Friday, campaign log on Wednesday” thing I’ve been up to last week. I’ve also pretty much run myself out of filler content, though, so I’m just going to rant about something I don’t like and hope it ends up being entertaining.

So here’s this bizarre idea that crops up now and again, the idea that you can make an MMO, an RPG society of some kind, or some other shared-universe experience more “realistic” by offering most or all content on a very limited time basis, “as it’s occurring.” So if it’s the old 3rd edition Living Greyhawk, for example, whenever you show up to your friendly local gaming store on game night, there’s going to be some kind of adventure going on, but each week it’ll be a different one. If you miss the week, you miss the adventure forever because it already happened and is now over. Or, an MMO where every two or three months the game updates and old content gets removed in favor of whatever’s going on right now.

This can seem genuinely immersive at fist glance, but it falls down so quickly under scrutiny that it really isn’t worth the costs (which we’ll get into later), because these “living worlds” never have the dedication to be genuinely alive. Except EVE Online. EVE Online totally does have a truly living world, and it has that by putting things almost entirely in the hands of the players. A living world doesn’t just mean that all events are limited time, it means that how the populace of players reacts to an event is the determining factor in how it resolves and that players can start events on their own initiative just by starting large scale conflicts between factions, whether those factions are built by the players from the ground up or pre-determined by the devs and then turned over to player leadership.

If the first guild to raid the Lair of the Red Widgets gets to decide whether to conquer the Red Widgets and subject their Red Widget dungeon to the guild’s rulership, to force them into a treaty whereby they will not leave the boundaries of the Red Widget dungeon, or to exterminate the Red Widgets altogether, that’s a living world. If the debate over what to do with the Red Widgets after defeating them becomes so intense that different guilds end up fighting one another in the Red Widget dungeon to prevent rivals from reaching the end first, that’s a living world. If some players respect the Red Widget right to life so much that they’ll actually side with the Red Widgets against the other players and try to prevent the dungeon from being cleared at all, that’s a living world, and bonus points if the Red Widgets can recognize the guilds that do this and become non-aggressive towards them.

If the Red Widget dungeon is an instance that resets completely for every new group who enters it and then vanishes after a month with a story update that plays out exactly the same regardless of how many people completed the instance and how they did it, that’s not even a little bit alive. That’s just limited time content. And limited time content is a super bad idea.

First of all, let’s just take a moment to appreciate the fact that Netflix exists. Both in general and in specific sense that this has serious implications on the buying habits of modern consumers. People love to archive binge on Netflix, and archive binging makes up a huge chunk of how people watch Netflix. Netflix has multiple wildly popular series which are released an entire season at a time and then stay in the archives forever. Netflix’s entire business model is founded on the idea that people dislike temporary content. It is, at best, anti-consumerist manipulation that convinces people to buy or play content they wouldn’t ordinarily, because they might miss it if they don’t.

Secondly, let’s consider the fact that Living Greyhawk doesn’t exist. It used to, and now it’s gone. This is not how Gary Gygax’s Giant-Drow series played out. He wrote those adventures clear back in the late 70s and early 80s, they formed a complete adventure path in the Greyhawk world, and you can grab yourself a copy of those adventures from the DMs Guild or Amazon or through perfectly legal data upload websites and read them today. Grab a copy of 1e AD&D rules and you can play them. You cannot play Living Greyhawk adventures. They tried very hard to be unavailable to the general public, and they are. The Temple of Elemental Evil and the Queen of the Demonweb Pits remain staples of D&D culture to this day, alongside other adventures of days past like the Tomb of Horrors and Keep on the Borderlands. The Kingmaker adventure path for Paizo is still replayed today, years after release, because it’s the adventure that let you actually take over the setting. I’m only scratching the surface of the most well-known adventure paths and modules. Each new Pathfinder Adventure Path and each new 5e Adventurers League season brings with it new adventures added permanently to the growing body of D&D history, some to gather dust in archives and others to become an enduring part of the culture for decades to come.

Good luck even finding a complete listing of the Living Greyhawk adventures that ever existed, and good luck finding a copy of even one of them available by any means, no matter how shady. They are out there, of course. It’s been less than two decades since the release of the first and less than one decade since the release of the last, so it’s not like they’ve passed from living memory. They exist and if you’re truly determined and have enough resources, you can get your hands on some of them. Some. Whereas you can get a complete archive of Paizo and 5e adventure paths at retail prices at any hour of day or night through an automated online store, and the same applies to most of the highlights of older editions that are now being republished in pdf format through the DMs Guild. Living Greyhawk adventures were intentionally kept out of the public eye, meant to be available only if you actually showed up and played while they were running, and they succeeded in consigning the adventures of Living Greyhawk to the dustbin of history by intentionally preventing hit adventures from spreading past their debut times and locations and likewise making archiving as difficult as possible. Go team?

Temporary content requires people to consume at a pace that’s unpopular, prevents good work from becoming an enduring classic of the medium, and is counter-immersive because it makes things just barely realistic enough to push lots of unrealistic things that used to be easily ignored into the spotlight. It’s a terrible idea top to bottom, and worse, it’s a half-baked take on a genuinely interesting idea, the idea that if players are fast enough or good enough or numerous enough, they can have a very real impact on the game world, and the failures of the half-baked versions might scare people off of the idea of a fully-baked genuinely living world that actually responds to player actions, whose content is limited by necessity because people come along and take actions that change things all the time.

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