One of the core thoughts in an MMO is that you can embark on your own adventure and do whatever best suits your character within the limitations of the game. While this may stand true depending on what you want from the MMO you're playing, do you really make a difference in the game? Does you killing a big bad boss after hours of raiding make a difference in the game? Does it matter if you build tons of houses and reap fields of crops instead of killing thousands of goblins? In the end this is all subjective and something only really you can decide on how it feels to you. But let’s take this thought a little further and explore whether or not you really can make a difference in an MMO world.
The Factual No
While this article will focus on whether you can feel like you make a difference, it also deserves a small section on why you simply cannot make a difference in an MMO at all. This may be self explanatory but MMORPGs are built upon certain rules that cannot be changed for risk of ruining the game and will get you banned, so therefore there is no way for you to actually change the game. Even if you submit something to the developers that ends up in the game world you are not changing the game, just slightly adding to it. But let us move forward and focus on that very subjective feeling, and we will do so through the different pillars that make up an MMO.
When moving around within an MMO's world there is always this sense of wonder and a lust for exploration the first time around with the game. You don’t really know what is ahead or how you can change that. Even if a theme park MMO doesn’t let you actually do anything to the world, a sandbox game can let you grow things, build things, find new things and even let you shape parts of the world. But does this really make you feel like you are making a difference? Sadly no.
No matter how many fields I grew in Archeage or how many new items I found and named in Vanguard, the things were already there in a sense and my impact didn’t make a difference at all. Even if I built a city in Star Wars Galaxies and became its mayor, this did not make a difference to the world. Sure it changed the world in a very small way but still an insignificant one. The world in an MMO is just what the world is, no matter what I do within the limits of the game. Not even Everquest Next or Landmark can change this. Your impact on the world is just a fantasy, one that the developers want you to believe in, but one that so easily breaks down.
MMOs have this tendency to paint you as the hero of a great adventure. Whether that is to save the world, unite factions or bring about the end of a long war, it always seems like it is up to you. There are of course a lot of exceptions to this rule, but none that have an impact on my argument. Even if the story often features epic moments where you change the world by defeating evil or by winning a long war, something which is made for you to feel special and know that your actions have an impact. But knowing that every other player is going through the same story, hearing more or less the same dialogue where they are the chosen one, it can feel a little stupid. If a couple of thousand of heroes whom all have saved the world in exactly the same way populate a world, that illusion where your actions make any sort of difference to the world shatters. This would also be the case for reaching a point in the story where the world changes because of your limited action in that story. You will still know that the same happened for everyone else and that the game had just run its natural course.
Creating a unique character might be the closest we have in MMOs of feeling as though we make a difference within an MMO. Knowing that you are exploring this world with thousands of other players and nobody will look like you would, in a sense, make you feel like you are having an impact on the game world. Right up until you end up running into a doppelganger of your character and another one, and another one.. This can happen in the starting zone or later into the game, but it will happen. Sure there are games with more advanced character creators like Black Desert Online, but even there you will find your MMO-twin soon enough, even if their eyebrows might be a little different. So no, even when the game gives you the illusion of creating a completely unique character, even this is taken away pretty fast since everyone is given the same limited toolset.
Crafting and Housing
Another pillar that I know has been used in various MMORPG PR campaigns is the crafting aspect, and sometimes even the housing, which both allow you to create unique stuff. That aspect of the game can therefore make you feel like you're making even a small impact on the world. Seeing how this barely even applies for real life, where the houses we live in look alike and are built upon similar design rules, housing in MMOs has been narrowed down even more, with fewer design options. What makes crafting something that makes a difference in real life is that you can experiment and create new unique inventions that actually change the world in some way, but in an MMO your crafting is limited to that world's set of rules and you can only create certain objects that don’t really affect the world around you. Therefore not even crafting can make you feel like you make a difference in an MMO.
Plagues and Other Bugs
The biggest thing that I can think of that might feel like you make a difference in an MMO, is when major game bugs occur which effect the world for a short time. The best example of this might be during the plague in World of Warcraft, also known as the Corrupted Blood incident. This was when a contagious debuff from a raid-dungeon which inflicted damage to players over time was carried to the world's cities. This ended up killing everybody in the city, including NPCs, and the players who brought this plague debuff outside of the raid really did lay waste to the game's cities for a little while. Blizzard was very quick to put a stop to the plague, however, since it affected how they wanted the game to be, and so the feeling of making a difference as a plague bearer died with it.
You Cannot Feel Like You Make a Difference in an MMO
So the answer to the question of "can you feel like you make a difference in an MMO?" Is quite frankly, no. The core of this answer lies in the limitations that all current MMOs carry. They all try their hardest to grant players the illusion that they can make a difference, but MMORPGs still have a long way to go to make those illusions feel real. Everquest Next could be a game with some promise in this area depending on how the game incorporates Landmark and its ideas. But in order to bring a true feeling of making a difference in the game's world, we would need the world to be permanently altered by our actions and choices without it being scripted beforehand.