The RPG Scrollbars: Invasion – Azeroth (And Others)

As many hours as I’ve spent playing them over the years, MMORPGs always fill me with a touch of sadness for what they could have been. I’m thinking of the original optimistic dreams of people like Richard Garriott, talking of his world where players accidentally killing too many sheep would draw the wrath of a nearby, now hungry dragon, back in that innocent time before it was accepted that players would not only kill the sheep, but the dragon, and any other living creature within murder range. There’s many reasons why the modern theme park style ended up being dominant, but as stories from games like Eve regularly demonstrate, we definitely lost a lot in that philosophical and pragmatic shift towards PvE content and fixed interactions.

At least we’ve still got world events. I love world events.

World events are when MMOs dare to shake things up a little, usually scattering in a little chaos. The simplest example is that most do something every Christmas, whether it’s adding a weird and wonderful area like a snowy village run by Q in Star Trek Online, or decorating the capital cities and giving out free party favours, like World of Warcraft every Wintervale. Every now and again though, things get properly shaken up in ways that at once are a little depressing, because they show what MMOs could be doing but generally don’t, but are often all the more impressive for exactly that reason. Many players dislike them for their intrusion into otherwise orderly adventuring, but I’ve always appreciated them for exactly that. I like seeing worlds evolve, and have never been a fan of the way that MMOs primarily handle time as a factor of geography rather than ongoing storytelling to be weaved in and around the world as it happens.

What do I mean by that? Sticking with World of Warcraft, only the capital cities really acknowledge the current state of the world. Outside that, events occur based on your character’s location. The Lich King doesn’t begin his assault until you personally play the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. The war in Pandaria doesn’t kick off until you get there. Individual zones have their stories unlocking as you go from A to B – a character appearing for the next part of the story as you progress around the carefully level-controlled sub-zones. There’s the occasional exception, like the Cataclysm reshaping the original world, destruction of Theramore, and the appearance of trophies and characters appearing and disappearing from around the world, but generally you’re in your own little temporal bubble where everything is happening right now and for the first time. It makes sense. Nobody wants to be levelling up onto get to each arch-villain’s lair and be told “Wow, we dealt with that problem years ago. Northrend’s lovely these days!” But still, every now and again, it’s good to see a developer reach in, and instead of simply adding more content, giving what’s there a damn good shake.

Done right, world events are a rare chance to be both part of something bigger, and for everyone to enjoy the ride (as opposed to, for instance, features like being Emperor in Elder Scrolls Online, which you know going in is going to be the domain of the truly hardcore with a massive guild.) Even if you’re just throwing chips into a basket until something unlocks, that makes the something all the more satisfying when it happens – not to mention the fun of racing against other servers. Plus, it’s a chance for games to make better use of their old locations, rather than them just being places to hit up, drain of XP, and move on from without thinking about twice. It can be something as simple as who the Mayor of a capital city is going to be, as Guild Wars 2 did, or a big server-wide threat, or even a quest, like Opening The Gates of Ahn’Qiraj. If it’s a moment that takes you out of your regularly scheduled questing or raiding and ideally offers a temporary focus worth paying attention to, then I’m usually up for the distraction. After all, those mobs aren’t going anywhere. I’m also a big fan of re-using previous locations and bits of content and putting a new spin on them, like the floating city of Dalaran moving around as needed, and its original domed location quietly leaving behind a huge crater in the world for probably the rest of the game.

The trouble is that we don’t tend to see big world events very often, except as marketing for expansions and the like. In Warcraft’s case, the traditional pre-launch event has historically been some sort of invasion. A chance for the baddies to show off their power. A prelude to the fight to come. World of Warcraft: Legion has the half-titular Burning Legion due to launch assaults on various zones (as available on the PTR for a while now). Cataclysm had the mighty dragon Deathwing flaming zones and killing anyone caught in the fire. And then of course, there was the Wrath of the Lich King event. That was a memorable one, not least because it was based on one of the most infamous cock-ups in the game’s history – Corrupted Blood. This happened about a year into the game, when the Zul’Gurub dungeon was added. Its boss, Hakkar, could cast Corrupted Blood on players, which would bounce around and infect the party. It was only meant to work within the confines of the dungeon, but players soon figured out that if they zapped out of the raid and back into the world proper, they could spread it around the wider player community. The result saw players fleeing the cities, and real-world scholars studying it as an example of infection and even terrorism in action. If only a reboot could sort out that kind of problem in reality as easily as in games.

This being a time when Blizzard was a little cockier about its license to print money though, it subsequently replicated the basic idea for Wrath of the Lich King. At least, something similar. Infected grain began at one of the ports, and subsequently moved to the cities. Infection was easily cured by other players or NPCs, but failing to do so meant turning into a feral zombie. As the days went on, the infection became hardier, the incubation period became shorter, and the whole civilised game was thrown into chaos. I still think this was brilliant. It did more to show the threat of the Lich King than any mwah-ha-ha dialogue or badass attack in a raid, and the inconvenience – while unquestionable – was short lived. For a week or so, it was like being under siege, offered the fun of being a zombie on the flip-side, in a moment that unlike just about every other in the game – including seasonal events – was never likely to be repeated. It gave such flavour to things, and remains one of my favourite events.

In fact, a great many of my fondest MMO memories come from world events. In Anarchy Online for instance, a game which was originally set up as a four-year battle between good and evil that would end with a victor… the fact it recently celebrated its 15th anniversary should give you some idea how that went… I remember wandering around the wastelands near the starting city. I logged off. The next day I logged back in and found a crashed spaceship smoking right in front of me. What the hell had happened? Had it just flown over my character’s head. Were they just too jaded to care? Also space related, City of Heroes had the Rikti Invasion, where the aliens from the backstory showed up in random districts, and heroes from across Paragon City assembled for epic battles to protect their streets. Perhaps most dramatically in recent years, Guild Wars 2 capped off the first series of its Living Story by letting its villain, Scarlet, destroy the capital city of Lion’s Arch. Not in an instance. Not if you were at that point in the story. Boom. Whether you were following the plot or not, it was gone. And needless to say, this wasn’t a simple matter, with everything from quests to the city’s world transport hub and vistas and other elements all having to be considered.

For a a good month afterwards, the place remained a smoking, poisonous crater, with key functions moved elsewhere while the city was rebuilt. It wasn’t finished for another year or so, as a completely different map. (If you log into Guild Wars 2 now, the first thing you’re likely to see is a cut-scene showing off the place’s new look… or you can just have a look at it here…) While I can’t say that the raw story leading up to this point particularly caught my excitement, it’s absolutely the kind of thing I’d love to see other games pick up on. For instance, Mists of Pandaria may have ended in a raid called The Siege Of Orgrimmar, but aside from a bit of redecorating and some new guards on the street, Ogrimmar wasn’t exactly changed in the lead-up to the experience. Having the next World of Warcraft expansion flatten Stormwind, leave Anduin a King in Exile, and have hideous monsters working out of the single safest location in the game? That’d be pretty cool. Certainly cooler than Deathwing just leaving a scratch on the walls to remember him by, or dropping a bomb on somewhere as out of the way as Theramore – a crappy swamp somewhere there’s really very little reason to ever go.

(I should add here that Mists of Pandaria did some interesting stuff with its ongoing story, attempting to be an expansion-sized world event as well as a regular campaign. Unlike the others you were meant to start it with the expansion’s launch, finding a beautiful, untouched land and over the climb to Level 90, pretty much just see the different factions and get a taste for the bad stuff to come. This culminated in the final location, the gorgeous Vale of Eternal Blossoms, where players… pretty much just did quests for a while. As the patches progressed the war stepped up, until villain Garrosh Hellscream unleashes a huge evil and the entire zone became trashed and full of monsters for all players. But that’s not typically how World of Warcraft rolls, especially with its phasing technology going hand in hand with players probably not knowing or caring about the latest story beats, and everything else being covered quite efficiently by Bellisario’s Maxim – “Don’t examine this too closely…” Wise words.)

But really, it’s not the specifics of what world events do that makes them interesting and makes me wish we saw them for more than celebrations. It’s impossible to spend hundreds of hours into these worlds and not grow attached to them. More than individual characters, more than plot points, more than villains, an MMO world is your connection to the fantasy. Seeing it bleed should have an emotional element to it. Fire in familiar streets. The familiar being ripped apart. Something to defend it from that you can at least temporarily buy into the idea of being an actual threat, in the way that the necromancer everyone knows just sits around waiting for new players to come kill him to get their newbie stripes just isn’t going to. It’s the same reason that teaming up with major series characters can be a thrill, despite knowing they’re technically no different to any other MMO. (Non MMO example – no TIE Fighter player can possibly not have had a slight shiver down their spine in the final missions, being assigned Darth Vader himself as their wingman). For the rest of your time, you’re pressing on into new territory and the draw is seeing everything unfold. During a good world event, you get to take a step back, to appreciate what you’ve got, the journey you’ve had, what this world means to you, and why it’s worth fighting to protect, beyond just free expansion stuff.

Followed by clobbering lots of demons for free expansion stuff, obviously.

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17 Comments

  1. Merus says:

    Guild Wars 2 made this kind of thing their goal with their Living World model, and they pulled off continual world events for a solid year of updates. I think their experience explains why no-one does it.

    Firstly, it’s extraordinarily difficult. GW2 uses an architecture that makes it easy for them to push out updates and run maintenance while the game is running, a necessity in an environment where you need to update quickly. ArenaNet uses the Scrum methodology, so they were shipping updates at varying levels of completeness every two weeks, with four teams rotating who was on deck for the month to give them enough lead time to build content. That’s at a scale most developers can’t maintain, and ArenaNet had quite a bit of broken content and developer burnout by the end of it.

    Secondly, players resent it. Part of the fun of world events is that they change the goals of the game and recontextualise the game, but if it’s all world events, then either the long-term goals are irrelevant, or the world events need to interact with those long-term goals in some way – which means that every two weeks you’re pushing out something that has to be balanced against everything that’s come before, without mistakes, or else players feel like they have to grind as hard as they can while this content’s up to make the most efficient progress on whatever goals they have. If there’s an update that players want to see again, you don’t have the bandwidth to support it, and it might break after you’ve closed it so you can’t actually relaunch it. The Super Adventure Box was ArenaNet’s first April Fool’s joke, a jumping puzzle dungeon themed like a blocky NES platformer, and it used non-standard physics that stopped working between the encore release and the next April Fools, and players took it very personally. If you try and have some kind of permanent stakes, like blowing up the major hub city for the game and leaving it destroyed, players adjust because there’s no agency for them. They don’t feel bad that it blew up because they didn’t have a chance to stop it (because unless you actually blow it up players don’t believe you meant it); they don’t feel bad that it’s still destroyed because they can’t do anything to fix it (because if you let them fix it then you’ve set a goal and players will see it as a challenge rather than a tragedy). And for PvP players, any thematically appropriate changes are unwelcome, as they mess with the balance, and seeing patch after patch adding new content for PvE players compounds the feeling that the developers don’t care about the PvP players.

    Thirdly, it doesn’t actually help you acquire new players. What ArenaNet was doing was novel, but news sites stopped covering it about halfway through, especially because when you’re doing new releases every two weeks, some of them are bound to be not worth people’s time. Players couldn’t tempt their friends by showing them all the cool new things that had been added, because of course they were removed soon afterwards as the plot moved on. New players don’t get to have the full experience everyone else had, and other games will boast more available content because they’re not building content to be removed at a later date. It’s hard to capture, after the fact, what went on; it requires a fairly deep understanding of the game to tease out the timeline, and video game historians are rewarded for breadth of knowledge, not depth. So what you have, essentially, is a game where for most players there’s been no updates for a year, and for the minority of players at the bleeding edge there’s stuff exploding every fortnight. It’s the raiding problem all over again.

    While it was a hell of an experiment, ArenaNet have mostly fallen into a typical big update model, the ‘Living World’ now meaning story patches. They’ve played with having the ‘current’ endgame zones slowly evolve over time, and seed in special events for a minority of the player base that act as small world events, but players largely see them as a distraction from the main course.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I think there’s a fairly big difference between endless world events, and simply more than we usually see. One of the big problems with Guild Wars 2 was that it normalised them and made it so if you slipped behind you had no idea what was going on in the world. Also, their Living Stories weren’t particularly exciting in content, and Scarlet wasn’t that interesting as a villain.

      But, conversely, I think things like the mayoral candidate event worked pretty well because there was a direct link between what the players were doing and the overall goal. Likewise, the zombie plague was incredibly disruptive and that obviously annoyed the hardcore players. But at the same time, it’s such a small scale ‘of course this will end’ event that I think it’s worth the brief pain for the chance to have such a different experience while it lasts. Should they be happening all the time? Oh, god no.

      • LexW1 says:

        Richard, the zombie plague did not primarily annoy the “hardcore” players. This is a nasty myth, mostly repeated by people who weren’t there, and I wish people would stop spreading it. The “hardcore” players, like me, were level 60. The zombie plague was at worst a minor inconvenience at level 60, because the zombies maxed out at that level (being players), and were much weaker than an actual non-zombie character. Plus, it was very hard for the zombies to take down level 60-63 NPCs, taking a concerted effort from many zombies. It was basically fair and pretty fun at level 60. I enjoyed it when playing my 60.

        However, the people it did screw were the casual players (few of whom were 60) and the altaholics. If you were trying to level in the zombie plague, especially in the 10-40* range, you would find a level 60 zombie or several of them going around systematically killing all the quest NPCs and flightmasters (so no flying out of the area). They couldn’t kill you, because you could simply out-walk them (zombies were slow), but the NPCs wouldn’t do that. So you couldn’t complete quests, and you couldn’t easily leave (this being before everyone had mounts all the time). Players like me would fly in to sort the situation out, but NPCs took a while to respawn, and as soon as we left, or took our eye off them, other level 60s intentionally became zombies to continue to grief the lowbies and stop them playing.

        So let’s not have a cool gaming site with a good writer like you repeating that nonsense as if it were true, please. The zombie plague is a good example of an event that looked great at max level, and great from the outside, but did not stand the test of actual gameplay, because it unintentionally made unpleasant level 60 players griefing lowbies into a viable activity, and really meant anyone not max level couldn’t level much during that period. That was the problem with it – had it merely disrupted the daily grind of “hardcore” players like me, it wouldn’t have been an issue.

        It could all have been solved by scaling zombies to the zone they were in of course, but they didn’t do that.

        * = Above level 40 few people found it worthwhile to grief, as the number of players in the 40-60 range was way, way lower than the 10-40 range, and they were spread out among a lot of very large, very empty zones with widely-spread quest NPCs.

    • Chillicothe says:

      “Players resist it”

      Hoooooooooooooooo boy ain’t that an understatement.

      The infected grain event. EVEN THOUGH we knew of beta players finding tier 5-quality gear around lvl 77, EVEN THOUGH a month from now the new expansion would launch, EVEN THOUGH this allowed something that hadn’t been done before and pushed a neat “show don’t tell” mentality towards the narrative, people whined. Whined with the whine of people who figure that their whines are the marching orders of others, and that when they were unhappy, everyone happy was wrong.

      It was something (amongst many somethings) I should’ve seen coming in hindsight. But who can guess just how far the genre, the company, or the game would fall making sure the unhappy were happy…and the happy unhappy.

      • LexW1 says:

        The reasons players didn’t enjoy the event was because it basically legitimized griefing lowbies 24-7. It didn’t have to. Bad design did that.

        They weren’t “resisting” in some petty “no my grindz!” way. They were resisting because the event was fun at max level, but became incredibly un-fun when you saw a max-level zombie literally walking around all the quest NPCs, merchants and flightmaster in a level 15 or 25 zone and one-shotting them, before proceeding to one-shot lowbies as they got off the the gryphon, or stupidly tried to wait around for NPCs to re-appear.

        There were so many people griefing after a few days that it was totally impossible to avoid it by changing zones, and nowhere near enough people like me were flying in to stop it.

        There two groups of people happy with the zombie plague:

        1) Those who played level 60s exclusively (which is fine, nothing wrong with that).

        2) Horrible little griefing scumbags. Of which there were apparently a very large number on every server! They loved it! They could prevent weaker players from doing anything or enjoying the game at all, all day long!

        But according to you, that doesn’t matter.

        The whole problem with it could have been fixed, as people pointed out at the time, by making it so that when you were a zombie, you were scaled to the level of the zone (i.e. if the zone is level 15-25, like Redridge, you were set to a level 20 or maybe 25 zombie).

  2. Amake says:

    Yes, instanced worlds is the way we like it – entertainment consumed at our leisure. It’s why we have DVD box sets of TV shows, paperback collections of comic books and single player video games.

    It would take guts for a developer to run a game independent of the player’s interaction or even being there. In fact, when you put it that way it seems quite contrary to what videogames are for. To have the story develop on its own terms, even end, and let players keep up as best they can, why, it would be almost like real life.

    There should be place in the world for one game like that. I’d like to see it sometime, even if I wasn’t among those lucky enough to be there myself.

    • malkav11 says:

      The way world events happen on someone else’s schedule is a big part of the reason I don’t like them. I can arrange everything else about my leisure time exactly how I want to spend it, an MMO should absolutely not be an exception. The other big reason is that they’re ephemeral. They represent something that cannot be revisited or experienced by later arrivals, and so they’re either completely trivial (like most of GW2’s Season 1), or they represent a big, important thing that only a subset of the players got to experience. That’s not what games should be, if you ask me.

      I mean, there’s no avoiding some degree of ephemerality in a multiplayer game simply because playerbases change and evolve and fall away. But there’s no sense in compounding the problem any more than you have to.

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      phuzz says:

      Eve Online is pretty close to this. There is instances for some PvE stuff, but in general you have one massive galaxy which changes over time.
      CCP (Eve’s developers) do add new lore and NPC stuff from time to time, but really the biggest changes are all player led.
      It’s possible now to dock up at a player run station and logout, only to find next time next time you login, that the station was destroyed and the area claimed by another group, and you’re now sat in your clone at a NPC station and your old home is gone.

  3. Someoldguy says:

    Runescape has had its problems but I will credit the developers for being willing to do this kind of stuff. Some of the evolution of the story from the “Third Age” where we began at launch to the “Sixth Age” has been through personal quests but recently a fair amount of it has been through world events. They don’t always remodel the world itself but they’ve been happily indulging in internecine warfare among the Gods.

    Wisely though, they’ve kept big world events to under one per year, so that the criticisms raised by Merus about the pace of change are less relevant. Meanwhile there are the more temporary events for christmas/easter/summer fun and recently they’ve even had battle events to lead into the graphical overhaul of small areas of the game world.

    The idea of a world where the players evolve the content themselves seem to have moved on to the 1st person survival genre. To be honest I’m quite happy with that, because in most games there’s virtually no meaningful interaction with other players outside of the binary choice: peaceful cooperation to get rich or no-holds barred warfare to break their stuff / steal their stuff / kill their character. EVE is inspiring for the scale of it and players are more invested because most equipment was built by them, but it is no different in the end.

    I think you really have to be an addict to a particular MMO to get truly invested in the storylines and pixel cities. For anyone more casual it’s like an endless soap series on TV. If you drop in now and then to watch, if too much has changed it can be so baffling you lose interest. Whole families have gone, others have joined, all the dynamics have shifted. Meanwhile a regular MMO is more like a long running comedy like Big Bang Theory. If you jump in to an episode at random you may not know whether Penny and Leonard are currently an item, but you know that you’ll be comfortable with the Leonard-Sheldon-Howard dynamic immediately and up to speed on the rest in minutes.

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    Jekadu says:

    The Scourge Invasion was absolutely fantastic. For the space of maybe two weeks the normal rules of the game ceased to apply and emergent gameplay ruled supreme.

    It was some of the most fun I’ve had in World of Warcraft. I know some people absolutely hated how the event messed with their routine, but I call them party poopers. Being killed by a zombified player was an opportunity, not a penalty! How large could you grow your feral fellowship? What was the biggest brain you could manage to munch on? How much of a capital could you control, and for how long?

    Good memories. I’m still hoping the event will return one day. A good MMO knows how to mix things up to keep things interesting.

    • LexW1 says:

      Given it was mostly max level players using the event as an opportunity to grief level 10-40 players, it’s hard to agree with you. If the zombies had mostly being playing as zombies, or if the event had scaled them instead of making them the same level as the player, it could have been awesome. Instead it was a massive griefing-fest. If you were max level the whole time you might not have noticed, of course. I didn’t until I tried leveling a character a few days in. Until then it was good clean fun! But then I found out what was going on for a lot of players (back then, something like 70% of people who were logged on at any time were sub-max-level – very different to later or now, where it’s like 50%+ are max level), and it wasn’t cool.

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    cpt_freakout says:

    World events in MMOs are great. I only played through the City of Heroes ones, and they were a blast. I think what makes them so memorable on the design side (not so much on the players’ side, which varies according to each person’s/team’s experience) is that they bring the entire world together for a relatively brief moment in a somewhat paradoxical move: it grants players the feeling that they’re making history by actually taking some of their mastery over the world from them. In other words, by introducing a novel narrative element that suddenly makes sense out of the entire world and its ‘inhabitants’, these events offer a kind of generalized meaningfulness, the kind that surpasses the one you can share with some stranger over a quest you might have in common.

    I resigned from MMOs in general a long time ago, but there’s always that promise of a generalized meaningfulness lurking at the back of every new MMO. The problem is that to sustain it for a long time, to make an MMO constantly meaningful, it would basically need a different mindset from the themepark/sandbox divide… it would need a team of ‘world curators’ in addition to the programmers and artists and whatnot. Basically, a world run by storytellers, continually analysing the world’s history and the role of the players in it, crafting new myths and environments. I remember there being an Egypt-based MMO like that, which people remember very fondly, I think, but it was never a big hit, wasn’t it?. Perhaps we do need to feel important all the time, whether it’s because the world sets out an illusion that it’s centered on you (themepark) or because you can make the world in your image (sandbox).

  6. Jabberslops says:

    I want WoW to have another Pandemic event like the Corrupted Blood fun time years back.

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    gritz says:

    Best MMO world event ever (other than the assassination of Lord British) was definitely the awakening of Bael’Zharon in Asheron’s call, back in 1999 (2000?).

    The big bad lord of shadows had been freed, and for a few weeks one of the devs would play him during prime-time hours, going from town to town, launching players into the sun, demanding fealty from high level PK’ers, and… eating delicious cakes.

    link to asheron.wikia.com

  8. LexW1 says:

    The main problem with most world events is their artificiality and the desperate need developers feel to provide temporary rewards (often pretty cool ones), instead of letting them speak for themselves. If they were really that fun, they wouldn’t need to give a magic turbo horse or a helm that’s on fire or whatever.

    These combine with them often being used merely to push people to re-up their subs, rather than because they make sense, to make a lot of these events seem pretty cheap/tawdry/lame.

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