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The RPG Scrollbars: Invasion - Azeroth (And Others)

Defending your home away from home

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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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