Last weekend, World Of Warcraft private server Elysium planted a single, awful seed. Server organisers coated one in-game item with a highly infectious virus. Within 24 hours of first infection, it had spread to over 7,000 players. This was Pandemic in Azeroth, an attempt from one fan project to deliver actionable real-world advice on surviving the Covid-19 pandemic to World Of Warcraft's fantasy denizens.
At its peak, the uncontrolled pandemic (brought to our attention by Kotaku) hit nearly 88% of Elysium's population. Following the first outbreak, server admins came clean about their part in the - until now, secret - event, and rolled back the clock. There was about to be a second outbreak. But this time, Azeroth would be prepared.
During the second outbreak, Elysium added quests to encourage good practice in containing the virus. Face-mask cosmetics helped slow infection, anti-bacterial spay could be squirted on items and NPCs to sterilise them. Quests might still have you killing 60 boars, but genocidal pig-slayers were now encouraged to keep clear of other players in a somewhat warped interpretation of social distancing. A symptom-checker based on advice from the World Health Organisation helped detect early signs of infection in Orcs, Gnomes and otherwise.
Right now you may be thinking, Corrupted Blood whomst? World Of Warcraft's own accidental outbreak is almost as well-known as Blizzard's MMO for the lessons it taught real-world healthcare professionals. But Elysium wasn't trying to relive a character-massacring tragedy from Warcraft's past - this pandemic had a point.
“We didn’t want to replicate [Corrupted Blood] because, in it, there’s death,” Elysium admin Rain told Kotaku. “In our project, for this particular event, players couldn’t die from it. I wanted to maintain the lightness of it and make sure it wasn’t too impactful on people.”
Pandemic in Azeroth was meant for education, not exasperation. It's also a sensitive topic - very real people are dying from a very real virus - and Rain notes that the event needed to maintain a certain "lightness" of tone. Deliver practical advice, without sending characters to their deaths.
Elysium's virus didn't kill, it weakened. Infected players only received a 5% stat reduction and a 10% decrease in movement speed. A pain, for sure, but not a game-ender.Characters below level 10 were also made immune - Elysium's population has apparently doubled since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, and Rain didn't want internet dickheads deliberately infecting swathes of new players.
"You always have those people, especially on a private server, that want to cause chaos, be The Joker of the world. They want to go around and infect people. So I didn't want people who just joined [to be susceptible].”
Not everyone was super happy with bringing real-world disasters into their fantasy retreat, mind. Rain reckons maybe one in ten players were "frustrated" or otherwise. But the experiment did, at least, work - cutting peak infection rates from 88% to 42%.
“If I could help even one person be informed, I think it’s worth it. We can all feel a little uncomfortable for a couple days if it can help people who aren’t in our situation.”