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