One off events in MMOs, and the players who love them


Ideally this picture should show a screenshot from the recent weekend-long one shot event in GW2. It should but it doesn’t, because I wasn’t there. And the world event went on without me. A one off event, by the way, is any event that happens in a game world on one occasion only, like opening the gates of Ahn-Quiraj in WoW.

My traumatic experiences with one off events in RP MUDs

You’d think that players in virtual worlds would love it when exciting world events kick off! We know these persistent game worlds can get a bit boring, a bit stuck in their rut. What could be more popular than a big event to give everyone something new to do or talk about? You’d think, right?

Back when I was staffing a MUSH, we used to run staff-driven plots alongside player-run plots (which mostly, if I’m honest, revolved around romantic subplots.) And occasionally, one of the staff would have a great idea for a world event. We had plague, earthquakes, a tyrannical ruler demanding a census of all the NPCs and player characters, psychic vampires appearing in people’s dreams, and in one particularly adept piece of foreshadowing – a financial disaster and run on the banks.

From running these events I have learned one thing. Do not assume that players will find your event more exciting than their daily cybering. Do not assume they will be invigorated by the opportunity to interact with the new event or the NPCs involved.

And the other thing I learned is that players like to have the opportunity to opt in. When we posted up messages asking for volunteers to be involved in a plot, telling them only that it would involve dreams and nothing permanently bad would happen to their characters without their permission, we got a good number of volunteers for the psychic vampire plot.

The traumatic event of the title, by the way, is that when I introduced the royal census plot (not an opt in plot) one of the players contacted me and said their character would rather commit suicide than submit to the census. I was all about suggesting ways they might be able to make some cool plot out of dodging the census (and there were viable ways to do it) but the player was adamant. It was a DID NOT WANT moment. Since I wasn’t able (or willing, really) to stop a perfectly viable in game event just because one person didn’t like it, things continued on. It got a bit feisty IC – the upset player acted it out by disclosing her character’s feelings to a PC she knew to be a powerful loyalist. That player was upset OOC because she didn’t want to kill another player or force them to submit to the census, but it was the only avenue she felt open to her. And so on. It would have been easier all round if the upset player had just accepted that shit happens and laid low ICly for a week or so, hanging out with other disaffected characters.

And the lesson from this is that some players feel a strong sense of ownership of the setting or the NPCs. They don’t like it when things happen that they didn’t want to happen, and they don’t really like having so little control over the setting. Saying “just roll with it” to them is like lighting the blue touchpaper.

But in an MMO, or any game where you can’t just discuss things with the GM, sometimes you have to just roll with it. You are one character in a big world. Things happen that are not all about you.

My theories about events and control

I have a theory that there are two types of players who play virtual world MMO games. Neither are really thrilled with virtual worlds, but for different reasons.

  • Type 1 players prefer the game world to be mostly static, as a backdrop for them to drive their own goals and events. Maybe that will be through doing quests and raids at their own pace in a theme park game, or player driven events in a sandbox. They like plans, and knowing what they will do when they log into the game and events being explicable (e.g. if the price of ghost iron ore goes up, the Type 1 economy focussed player will know why or be able to find out.)
  • Type 2 players prefer the game world to be more dynamic, up to a point. They like unexpected, memorable things to happen, and get bored of the static world and static scheduling. They don’t mind being killed horribly by some random spawn epic monster while questing if it meant they got to see a cool epic monster, and then maybe stick around to get a raid together to kill it. They don’t mind being caught up in a huge in-game plague of zombies, or an exciting weekend event. They enjoy these things … up to a point.

Type 1 players don’t really like too much randomness in their gaming, unless directly caused by other players. They have things they want to accomplish in their gaming time and will be disrupted if they aren’t able to do those things. They will tend to be annoyed if the devs throw random events at them unless they have time to organise their schedule around them, in which case they might like the events quite a lot. As long as they don’t go on too long. They like being rewarded for making smart choices in their gameplay.

Type 2 players are up for anything that seems interesting, particularly if it breaks up their regular routine. They won’t fret overly if they miss out on one event or reward as long as there are other interesting things for them to do. They don’t like being punished for making gameplay choices based on what looks interesting.

There are also two types of dynamic event.

  • Event driven. An event that is triggered by something the players do. You see this a lot in single player RPGs.
  • Time based. The event will happen when it happens,  independent of the players (at least until it starts – once it is running, how it ends might be dependent on player activity.)

So my theory is that Type 1 players (who are the majority of core MMO gamers) prefer the control and predictability of event driven dynamic events. One off events are fine as long as they have advance warning of exactly when, where and how long the event will be. Or if they run in such a  way as to not disrupt anyone’s existing plans.

Type 2 players like either type of event, but they especially love being part of the big memorable one offs. Anything where they can be justified in laying their regular routine aside to do the new stuff instead.

Suppose you gave a party and nobody came?

What if an event ran and players just don’t turn up it? Player run RP events often run into this barrier. It isn’t even because people aren’t interested (surely on a RP realm, you could find a handful of interested players for just about any RP). It’s a combination of poor word of mouth, players not knowing/trusting the organiser, or players having something better to do. How you decide that you have something better to do is a combination of what goals you were working towards anyway, what your friends/guild are doing, what rewards are on offer, and whether the event sounds interesting.

So it isn’t enough to just allow players to opt in, offer the chance to take part in something cool happening to the game world, and give plenty of advance warning. Players need rewards too. Plus if you want numbers, they need the chance to get the word out while the event is still on.

I do personally have a soft spot for unannounced surprise events though.

The best one off event I have seen in an MMO was the Rakghoul Plague in SWTOR. That is partly because it came with no warning. Absolutely none at all. I was on the fleet, chatting to my guild. Then there was an announcement on the local channel, news holos appeared on the fleet with announcements of an accident … and we were off to the races. EVERYONE was excited. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was racing off to Tatooine to investigate. And there were parts of the events that were accessible to lowbies as well as high levels.

It also lasted a week or two, which was plenty of time for word of mouth to kick in.

The second best one off event I have seen was a poetry contest in DaoC, which was run by one of the GMs but with lots of input from players. We knew in advance that this was scheduled, which gave people time to prepare and set aside time to attend. It was fun because there was a lot of player involvement.

I’ve seen plenty of other one offs, and the ones which were generally more memorable to me were the player driven events. Although they don’t always do so well at allowing everyone to actually take part. ie. you can go to a huge fancy ball and enjoy the atmosphere, but chances are you will be standing at the back watching events unfold. Similarly with large PvP raids, although you can usually at least hit something or play with the siege equipment.

Some have been more interesting mechanically with new minigames or requirements for the realm to work together to unlock an event. Others had more human input, or involved much larger numbers.

All of these can be cool, all of these can be fun, all of these can enhance the MMO experience.

Is it really all about control and rewards, in the end?

Maybe it is all just about control and rewards.

The players who hate one off events dislike having their previous plans interrupted (especially if the interruption lasts for a few days.) They don’t want to ‘just go with it’ or ‘enjoy the experience’ or ‘just not log in or go to that location while the event is on.’ They want their controlled, predictable environment back. They prefer to be in control of their own events and not have world events dropped on their heads.

Another category of players will be frustrated if a one off event gives really good rewards or some kind of achievement and they aren’t able to attend (maybe like in the recent GW2 event, it just doesn’t last long enough). They don’t want to ‘just go with it’ or ‘not worry because there will be something else next month and they can go to that’, they just don’t like missing out on content.

Devs need to try to keep these two groups happy, particularly the first set as they are quite a large grouping.

But also there are players who ADORE world events, love seeing the game world disrupted, like being part of something memorable, enjoy running around with a bunch of other people who all want to go check out the new event, and really love being surprised by the game world and other players. For everyone else: one offs are for these guys.

You’ll get yours. Meanwhile, try to just roll with it Winking smile

Gaming morality vs RL morality

Jim Stirling posted a video blog in The Escapist this week discussing why murder is pretty much the norm in video games but rape presents greater issues. I didn’t watch it because I pretty much never watch video blogs, but read enough of what he said afterwards to get the gist:  his current position is that this is OK because there could be good/ ethical reasons to kill (ie. in self defence, if it’s a zombie, etc) but not rape. So he’s taking a fairly sensible perspective, which might be surprising to people who have read his previous outbursts.


This post is not about rape, however. It’s more about how we do lots of things in games because we can, or because they score points or combos, or because they unlock more content or a cool cutscene/ kill scene. My partner is levelling an Agent in SWTOR at the moment and while I’m trying not to spoil the story for him, we do sometimes chat about when I made different decisions on my (dark side) agent than he has on his (light side) one. My Agent was also a kind of intergalactic Martin Sheen so I went for all the seduction options too. My beloved summed this up as, “So you shagged everything shaggable and shot everything shootable.” I said “Yes, obviously!”


The way in which the gaming brain makes decisions is not usually around morality so much as min-maxing, high scores, or winning the game. Maybe there is some power fantasy in there as well, especially in immersive settings. Where morality does come into gaming, it’s often around roleplaying or ‘staying in genre’ or ‘telling a good story.’ Some players always project themselves into the game, or prefer a heroic stance. But if a game awards points for a kill, double points for shooting people in the back, and triple points if you shag the corpse afterwards, then a lot of people would go for the necrophilia without a second thought. It doesn’t seem quite right  to blame players for doing madly immoral things in games if the game was designed to reward those activities.


And that’s why it is down to game designers to act like grown ups when it comes to deciding what actions get rewarded. If you reward it, they will do it.


Another way of talking about games that reward ‘madly immoral’ activities is the concept of moral hazard. This is where people are encouraged to do hugely risky (or just unwise) things because someone else will pick up the tab if things go wrong. In EVE recently, players found an exploit in a new patch and exploited it crazily for a couple of weeks before reporting it. CCP (after being prodded by other players) duly retrieved the ill gotten gains, released a comment about how clever their players were, and let it go. There’s no major punishment in EVE for this type of exploit – other than massive publicity. I assume the rewards for reporting exploits are decent also. Incidentally, EVE players are the craftiest in the world in the same sense that Carlsberg is the best lager in the world.


This is not however a snarky comment about EVE so much as noting that all sandbox games really struggle with empowering ‘good’ players to keep the ‘law’ and control or punish bad ones. The ideal platonic sandbox game would probably have a player run militia and legal system, in practice this is very hard to do without very active support from staff. Partly because naughty players can just log off when the cops are around, but mostly because the information you need to prove crimes is held by the system, and it’s generally hard to think of good punishments other than bannings. Because cop players pretty much have to be in collusion with staff to get the information they need (unless you’re in a hardcore RP game where baddies will volunteer info OOC so as to make a better story), the whole thing is subject to accusations of bias and can easily end up being both ineffective and actively bad for the game.

So even the players who disapprove of exploits have limited facilities to find out about exploiters in game or punish them. Especially if they are part of a large and powerful alliance. This is why people will tend to shrug and leave it to the devs to handle. So again, it’s down to the devs of a sandbox game to keep a close eye on what activities they are rewarding and make some judgement calls on whether emergent player behaviour is something they want for the game or not.

On rewarding tanks and healers

Gordon of We Fly Spitfires posted a provocative  guest post last week, suggesting tanks and healers should get more rewards than other characters?

His thinking was that this could address both the supply and demand issue (giving better rewards encourages more people to take up the less popular roles) and also rewarding people for taking on more responsible/stressful tasks. That’s how real life works after all … isn’t it?

I think this is a bad idea on several levels, but to come back to the real life analogy, this is the same reason that teachers and social workers are paid less than lawyers and CEOs, even though their jobs are recognised as being very important and they are often understaffed. And the main reason is that it doesn’t much impact the bottom line. The people paying the CEOs and lawyers feel (for some reason) that their market value is higher.

Or in other words, as long as the majority of players prefer dps roles, they won’t want to pay to feel disadvantaged or to feel that the developers prefer the tank and healer classes. I think current gen games are taking the better route by making it smoother and easier for players to try out different roles on the same characters. And the social rewards for playing the undermanned roles will eventually filter through.

The other reason is that a lot of people who take up careers in teaching, the ministry, social work, etc do it because they feel some kind of a calling, or enjoy other rewards of the work. You don’t need to pay through the roof to get these people, they’d do the job anyway.

There is still a balance point where more rewards would attract more and better qualified candidates. Unfortunately, in MMOs, rewarding the social aspects of group friendly classes acts against the other trend which is being more accessible to soloers.

Or in other words, devs could create awesome group content rewards and that would effectively reward tanks and healers because they get to do it more easily … but people would complain about feeling forced to group.

Other reasons not to overly reward tanks and healers

  • Plays into ‘special snowflake’ syndrome which already affects tanks and healers disproportionately.
  • What are you going to reward them with exactly? More gold, reputation, badges or gear will just mean that they gear up more quickly and are no longer motivated to continue running the instances. Maybe a random pet – a little tank pet might be cute, especially if you could get it to shell dps who stand in the fire.

In fact, far from rewarding tanks and healers, I think that if the disparity continues it’s likely that their rewards will be more spaced out. To encourage the players to keep tanking and healing instances so that the dps can have their shot too. Anyone remember Utgarde Pinnacle at the beginning of Wrath – only instance which dropped a purple tanking weapon. It was run a lot. Because all the warrior and paladin tanks wanted that drop.

That’s how to get more instances running.

And on another note, why don’t we have achievements for different roles?

I don’t get behind extra rewards, but wouldn’t it be fun to have some achievements for tanking 100 instances, or healing them? Or completing some instance or raid in all of your character’s possible hybrid specs, just for fun?

Maybe that’s all the reward people would need.

But devs have been very reluctant to include class specific achievements, even when (as in WoW) they’ve been very explicit that achievement points are pointless and meaningless.

Rewarding team play

Ferrel@Epic Slant and Psychochild have been discussing how best to reward team play in MMOs.

Ferrel is a guild leader. His problem is that people don’t like showing up to progression raids ie. where they meet with limited success, may be frustrated, may wipe a lot, may incur a lot of repair bills and don’t get many rewards. He looks for solutions that will give better rewards to progression raiding than to  less challenging content. He asks why success is the only thing that is rewarded. He also complains that DKP systems are set up to reward players, not guilds.

His observations are correct. Although DKP systems reward players because it’s easy to administer and it works. Even the most basic DKP gives points to people for turning up to raids. These systems are set up to reward constant and consistent attendance which is what most raid leaders want to reward. Not only that but people are rewarded for sticking with the same raid group, they see their DKP total build up.

If players aren’t enjoying progression raids and you are a progression guild, then find other players who do. Maybe progression raiding really isn’t for everyone. Maybe some players just don’t enjoy it and handing out better rewards will only make them more miserable because they feel that they must play in a way they don’t enjoy. Maybe people have a bad day at work and just aren’t in the mood for a stressful progression raid some nights.

One problem with  the whole raiding setup is that after you have beaten the encounter, you have to keep farming it for weeks of boredom so that the rest of the raid can gear up. That’s the real problem. Of course people get bored of farm content, of course people are reluctant to spend every raid night smashing their head against a brick wall of frustration. If your core problem is human nature, then no reward system is going to fix it. Go back to the beginning and look harder for a problem that you can actually solve.

This isn’t a problem that sports teams face — and the semi-professional sports team is one analogy for a raid group. They meet up every week, they have scheduled practice and training sessions, and then they have weekly matches against other teams. This makes me wonder whether the rated battlegrounds that Blizzard plans to implement may yet be the saviour of the raid game.

Guild leaders like Ferrel believe that if only people were more loyal to their guild, they’d happily keep showing up for the frustrating progression raids and boring farm raids. They wouldn’t, they might feel bound to show up more but if they’re really not enjoying it then they’d also burn out and leave the game. You can only nudge people so far. And there will always be some people who enjoy progression raids and some who don’t. Some nights where people are in the mood for it and some where they aren’t. And labelling people as selfish because they stop coming when they’re bored is just ignoring the real problem and asking them to burn themselves out instead. Is that really a good long term solution? Or would it be better if you didn’t have to keep putting together weekly raids to content with which people are already bored?

Or is the problem connected with having so much emphasis on difficult group content? That naturally means that pressure falls on the weaker members of the team to shape up, and that if you have a bad day, your team suffers (and boy will they let you know about it.) And unlike battlegrounds which are over in 20 mins so you get another chance to pull your socks up for next time, a raid will occupy a whole evening.

What you can do is make farm raids more fun, and either turn them into more social events or invent some fun challenges to keep people’s interest. It won’t work for everyone but there are worse ways to spend a night in game than chatting to friends while running through some cool encounters that people like even though they aren’t especially challenging. Particularly if rewards are structured to help your guild or alts or friends.  And even then, devising a system that locks people into the same farm raids for months on end is going to run dry eventually.

Psychochild tackles a different problem altogether: how can game designers reward the actual learning process? Is it possible to reward people for not chasing loot single mindedly, and to de-emphasise individual reward?

If I have learned anything from raiding casually, it’s that the learning curve is still just as fun when it is slower. That it’s OK to take a night off from progression raiding and come back to it later. That you don’t always have to be on the cutting edge or racing the rest of the server to feel a sense of achievement from your first kills. I wish I could think up a good reward scheme to show other people the same thing. I think it would make for a much happier raid experience all round, and less stressed out guild leaders too.

In any case, it was a fascinating set of posts to read, if only to see how two people come at an issue from very different perspectives.