[The Spoony Bard is a biweekly GameSetWatch column by writer James Bishop that probes the depths of the characters, dialogue and writing in video games. This week, it veers slightly from its normal course to look at World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies and the ever-changing nature of MMO games.]

Somewhere between teleporting back to an area that was unfamiliar and wandering around until something looked right, I’d become completely turned around. Nobody I knew was on, and I had a map, so it wasn’t like I was going to get stuck somewhere but the feeling was still disconcerting. Somehow, the city that I once knew seemed buried below something altogether different.

That didn’t stop me from trying, though. I took a lift that I could tell was a new addition to an upper tier in hopes of getting a better handle on things. I figured the zeppelin would be around there somewhere, and it was, but the routes seemed to be changed so I turned back around and descended again with a vague inkling of where the reagent vendor was that I needed to find.

I had come back to find the world not as I had left it. I was lost in Orgrimmar.

The Persistent World In Flux

The definition of persistent world, at its most basic, means a world that can always be accessed or a world that is always available. In a sense, it is constant with a seemingly implied notion of being devoid of true change. But a world without change would make a fairly boring MMO.

There would be no patches, no new content and, well, nothing new at all. Because it’s persistent, it becomes reliable. Once you learn the layout of a certain area of the game, you have that knowledge stowed away for future use. You can recall that it and put it to use at any given moment and at some point it simply becomes habit.

As I said before, however, changes must be made in order to achieve progress. This kind of change often comes as the addition of new content melded to the carcass of the old. Changing an existing piece of content is more like patching in a way, as patches often replaces old content with new instead of merely adding something new. Retroactively changing what we know can seem almost like an affront; it sometimes feels like an attack on our memories.

It’s part of the reason why so many players seem curmudgeonly about the whole thing. Whenever something this drastic happens, it means other players—and themselves—can no longer experience exactly what they once did. In a very real way, it can feel like your own personal narrative is coming to an end. While that might be true, however, thousands upon thousands of personal narratives only make up a single chapter of what World of Warcraft has been and will be.

As an example, I never played “Classic” World of Warcraft. I picked it up a year or so into Burning Crusade. Due to this, my first character was, naturally, a Blood Elf. In a manner of speaking, I came as part of a second wave of players—one whose experiences never included an Azeroth without Silvermoon—and I’m sure the arrival of the Burning Crusade was seen as the end of the game as the original players knew it. Players often have a way of exaggerating just how distinctly different the before and after experiences will be.

Sometimes, for good and for bad, they happen to be right regardless of their exaggerations.

A Community Divided: Star Wars Galaxies

There are many horror stories out there that begin with some form of, “When I first started playing Star Wars Galaxies” but then end in sadness of one kind or another. The majority of them have similar conclusions, though. When discussing the nature of a persistent world and the changes implemented to them, it’s inevitable that Star Wars Galaxies will make a cameo. While the developers came to the conclusion that they needed to revamp the existing structure of the game, the community vehemently disagreed. The “empire” truly was divided.

It’s not all that surprising that players felt slighted when looking back on the timeline. In the course of a single year, Sony Online Entertainment introduced two major upgrades that completely redefined both combat and characters. The Combat Upgrade and New Game Enhancements came out within seven months of each other in 2005 and, as a direct result, people who once actively explored the galaxy “voted with their feet” and left. The Combat Upgrade disappointed many fans but it was really the New Game Enhancements that was the bitter pill to swallow.

The facts speak for themselves, really. The overhaul was announced just two weeks prior to implementation. Two days before the upgrades went live they released Trials of Obi-Wan, a new expansion to the game. The community’s displeasure was so overwhelming that they even offered refunds for anyone that had purchased the expansion and been disappointed with the changes to the existing game by the New Game Enhancements. It was not pretty and Star Wars Galaxies never truly recovered.

The Ramifications Of Real ID

Blizzard is no stranger to uproar either. Beyond the typical displeasure of gamers at changes to the game, the backlash against the use of Real ID was truly something to behold.

Though Blizzard, and by extension Papa Activision, argued that implementing a system which required folks to post under their legal names would cut down on the massive amounts of trolling on the forums and provide a way to chat with friends across characters easily, the denizens of the internet argued back that it would only make online harassment translate that much worse. Given something as simple as a name, stalkers could track the online movements of any player they wished.

After the immense backlash, Blizzard eventually ceded the point and refrained from requiring Real ID integration for all accounts though it may only be for the time being.

The way most MMO developers word things explicitly states that they retain the right to change their minds or at least implies it with their choice of language, such as “at this time” and similar phrases. But they did at least back off in order to consider what their customers actually wanted.

Diverging From Persistent

When I logged out of my latest session of World of Warcraft, I had taken a good look at the world map. Not as much as I’d thought was different.

There were a few new cracks in the earth and things shifted around in some cities but most of what was there before still was there now. The talent changes cut down on complexity in terms of number of choices but opened up new kinds of stratagems. The addition of being able to fly in Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms is a change welcomed by all.

Azeroth may be a persistent world but it need not be constant.

[James Bishop is a freelance writer for various outlets, an editor at the gaming blog Hellmode, holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University and is not fond of the Oxford comma. He can be reached via Twitter or at jamesrollinbishop at gmail dot com.]