Experiencing Events, Impact and Player Mindset

From many of my previous ramblings it’s probably become apparent that I’m the explorer type who thrives on open adventure in MMOs; the unpredictable, surprises and taking the long road rather than shortcuts. I put less value on completionism, things like achievements, social firsts or best-in-slots. I’m in for the journey and the immersion in virtuality. Therefore too, there’s nothing worse to me than a world that’s fully discovered, fully mapped and fully understood. The moment we draw the last line in that picture is the moment we limit our world, the moment where it becomes small and finite – when hypothesis and speculation become hard fact and there is no more ‘may be’.

To a traveler and explorer “finishing a world” is the death of his playstyle. I want to stand at the shore of the southern sea and wonder forever what may lie beyond.

I’ve talked about dynamic events in GW2 recently and why I am at peace with one-time events of greater significance (even if it means I miss them sometime). However, the very diverging opinions on this currently hot topic have reminded me once more just how important it is to consider player profiles and preferences in MMO design discussions. There are areas where we will simply never agree and much of that is ingrained; we might as well discuss what tastes better, apples or oranges.

Still, I think there’s something to be said in favor of (well constructed) one-time events in MMOs that exceeds just lasting impact or significance. If more global events are realized in a way that allows for different playstyle approach, “missing a unique event” is not as horrible as it sounds at first. In fact, it is impossible to truly miss it. Let me try and explain why.

Immediate vs. Retrospective Experience

In the following image I (painstakingly..) attempted to depict a small scene of cataclysmic proportions. In case it’s not clear what you’re looking at, that’s A) a comet about to hit your world, and B) you curiously gaping down the crater the comet left behind. Yeah, you’re still alive – be grateful!

Event A / Event B

Now, ask yourself the following question: would you rather be:

A) The player who witnesses the comet’s impact, including all the excitement and epic/traumatic immediate effect that goes with this event.


B) The player who chances upon the crater later on, presented with the full scale devastation, wondering what may or may not have happened here.

The two experiences are mutually exclusive. If you have witnessed the immediate event, there is no question of what happened; you know. You are not going to wonder, speculate or investigate further to find out how the crater came to be. Most likely, you’re also not going to spend as much time on site “post cataclysm” analyzing the devastation.

Player B is presented with a different event entirely, yet an event no less. For him, the story unfolds in retrospective – in his imagination, in clues, in reports of NPCs or other players. Is that the lesser experience? Did he actually miss the event – or did he not much rather experience it from a different angle, a different point in time? The thought came to me when standing at the shattered fountain in Lion’s Arch last Sunday night, considering the damage done to this so iconic place in the game –

As always, click to enlarge!

Here’s a little secret: I still haven’t watched the one-time Halloween event on youtube. I didn’t go and check how the Mad King emerged. And I decided I won’t. Nothing can beat the scenario I have envisioned in my mind at this point. I have this epic idea of what happened and I want no youtube movie to take away from my imagination. The Mad King’s appearance in Lion’s Arch will forever be the stuff of legend to me, mysterious, notorious!

I like it that way. Maybe you do not. I’m sure many players would agree that the “main event” of  my little scenario above
is the comet falling down from the sky. If an MMO introduced this, they would want to be there just when it happens. However, the important part is that neither outlook is wrong, just like there are no wrong playstyles. There are different ways to experience events and different things to take away from them. Arguing the point would be as fruitful as arguing whether movies are better than books: some people prefer movies for their more guided experience (the camera is your focus), their concrete visuals and sound. Others rather stick to books that rely more on suggestion and imaginary effort, allowing you to stray. Both media have a purpose, a time and place.

Types of Events, Types of Meaning

Unique events in MMOs work especially well if developers invest on all stages of a scenario, the pre- and -post phases as much as the immediate event. Global changes lose much of their weight if there’s no aftermath for players to experience, no tangible impact on the world. Interestingly enough, while developers improve on creating events with (some) impact these days, pre-stage remains one of the most neglected areas. The only example that comes to my mind is the minor earthquakes pre-Cataclysm patch in WoW, with some NPCs commenting on them. I’d like MMO devs and storywriters to invest more time in foreboding details such as this…any better examples?

Naturally, not all events in MMOs can have monumental impact or narrative significance. Not all of them are designed to be collective experiences, either. Small-scale
events are usually created for individuals and may be repeatable without any “dramatic loss”. Group and raid events too with reset timers,
are very much of more self-defined and social significance. It’s players who attribute value to server firsts, second and third kills. It’s up to guilds which events are important content to them or not.

While events make up a large part of the content in today’s MMOs, they still differ in type and purpose. I personally agree that many should be repeatable in regular intervals – after all, why bother to design content and then not make full use of it? Still, there are events I consider special and where I believe it serves the “dramatic script” and narrative of the world we play in, that they be more unique. That’s part of the simulation – a world that has an ongoing story and therefore feels alive (opposed to groundhog’s day).

I’d like to see more of this in future MMOs, maybe delivered in frequent mini-patches. If designed and implemented well, there is no easy way for players to miss such scenarios – whether they happened at “one time” or not. So maybe event design, setup and finalization, are really the things we should look at, rather than asking for everything in MMOs to always be “repeatable”. If you find yourself in a brilliant field of snow one morning, blinking and breathing the cold air, how much does it matter that you missed the event of the snow falling?


  1. If nothing else, events that happen once let the game world *move on* and actually give a sense that time passes, that there’s life to the place. That’s valuable.

    Yes, I agree with your points as well. Just taking some thoughts further. 🙂

    1. This exactly. that’s what I also meant with a world that feels alive and has an ongoing story. the ‘broken record’ we play in for most parts of an MMO (between teh major patch) is very lacking to me – it’s okay for some events, but not for others. I absolutely want a world that stays interesting and unpredictable, not more and more of the same ‘dailies’. that concept gives me the creeps by now…
      it’s nice that ANet keep introducing more special events. Trion are also doing the right thing with the more frequent content updates. These are steps in the right direction.

      Ofc another such nice aspect would be if our chars actually aged; but am sure the majority of players wouldn’t want that! 😉

  2. I agree. The “all content to all people at all times” model is, in my opinion, just not feasible in MMOs. If we can never do a single event for fear that some people will miss it, then we remove any chance for us to have an impact on our virtual world. We can’t do anything permanent, for fear that someone will miss it.

    I love, love, love being present and part of a big event like the opening of the AQ gates, and I’d be really sad if I missed it. And that’s life. I’d much rather chance missing stuff sometimes than never have anything momentous happen.

    Also, allow me to complain again here about how the launch of WoW: Cataclysm was lacking in Cataclysm. We logged off in happy land, and logged back on again as though everyone everywhere had accidentally slept through the end of the world. Again, I’d rather have something happen that I might miss rather than nothing happen at all.

    1. Indeed. I too am more than willing to pay that price; I can’t ask for special things and then start crying whenever I’m among those who happen to miss it. my RL agenda is my business and my problem.
      and hey, is it even a new concept that players need to juggle RL and gaming? some MMO players are acting as if that was an outrageous idea…(they should’ve seen me when I was still raiding lol!). you can’t have it both ways – or maybe you can actually, if you’re willing to experience events in new ways (assuming the developers let you) as I tried to explain here.

      and I agree on Cataclysm, the main event was an incredible letdown in the sense that it wasn’t actually present. I think everybody was equally disappointed about that.

  3. @Liore: I like the way you summed up the Cataclysm. Slept through it …very apt description.

    @Tesh: I don’t think I could have summed up that feeling of time passing as you have. That’s really exactly it, isn’t it? In an MMO where time doesn’t pass, it immediately feels like disneyland: unreal, static, a joke for children.

    I’ve got a question though because I’m not sure I understand your thoughts on this …I get the analogy of the asteroid before/after. I think you’re right that those are 2 different experiences. However, I only understand not wanting to know what really happened to a very limited extent. Very limited.

    I’m like you, in that imagining the world is totally an awesome way to experience it. The thing is, my learning on Youtube about how an event actually went out would *not* change the awesome thing I imagined before. I think I would find it all exciting in the same way, because I’m always playing out how I would have liked to be there or what I would do if I were there. I don’t prefer to not know, though. A friend giving me the summary of things is exciting because they play the game too and I like their experience of the experience. Not sure how confusing that explanation was, but hopefully it’s clear what I’m asking. There’s fantasy, where we imagine exciting things and then there’s missing a fantastic event but being really excited to know what happened–and finding out. I mean I miss an episode of my favorite show. I don’t *not* watch it when I can, I will watch it. I won’t say to myself “Oh I missed it but I have imagined it was so awesome and I don’t want to spoil the episode in my head.” That make sense?

    The enjoyment is in not just imagining the fantasy, but sharing in it also right?

    1. Heh, maybe my point was 100% clear. it isn’t so much about willingly missing the immediate event, but understanding that well-designed events have more to them than one stage. there’s something to be said for the retrospective experience and for me, both A) and B) are finding truth – just in different ways. you could call one the spectator and the other the sherlock approach maybe. 😉 truth is not limited to the immediately visible world; we are too depending on our first sense and often forget this.
      therefore, there’s no real missing major events and it’s not the horrible, horrible loss some players make it out to be. not if they’re willing to put in some effort of their own, anyway.

      of course, if you missed that TV show and you have the option to rewatch it, you will probably do that. 🙂 however, if you couldn’t for some reason, would that be the end of the world? you would simply watch the new episode and from many clues given, you’d be able to puzzle together what happened before and re-create much of what you didn’t get to see. our human mind is rather awesome like that.

      I think the Mad King’s event also differs a bit from your TV example, as it’s not part of an ongoing show with heavy narrative. whether I watch the youtube clip or not, there’s probably not a great ‘information loss’ there. still, this is really my personal choice – I don’t think the real event could’ve been greater than what it currently is in my mind. 🙂 you’re absolutely right though that sharing is part of the collective experience (and I did my part by listening to others tales of the event, after all).

  4. Wow, this post made me think quite a bit, I never really gave experience B much consideration.

    I’m afraid though, that unless the game supports B with clues to piece together the storyline (similar to say, Bioshock or Doom 3’s audio cues,) I still consider it a lesser experience (imo) just listening to other players tell the story and go “oh you had to be there.”

    Perhaps this is my secondary completionist Achiever coming out to balance my primary Explorer side. My ideal would be experiencing the Before, During and After of every event. I want my cake, the icing, and to eat it all.

    What I’d prefer would be for a way for players who missed the big one-off event to replay or re-view what happened before and after. Maybe in a sense, supporting the B experience. I’m thinking of things like City of Heroes’ Flashback system where you can still see Galaxy City or Dark Astoria zones before and after some climatic event changed them. It wouldn’t be the same as actually being present at the exact moment with the social atmosphere of collected people, but it still lets you see what the designers made and imagine the rest.

    Alternatively, I’d like it if one can experience the whole event in their own time with their own personal instance/phase. Thinking of things like Guild Wars 1’s Searing of Ascalon, you can still see it happen even today by starting a new Prophecies character.

    The only thing you might lose is the social aspect, and I’m honestly not in favor of having too many people around to break lore immersion. I still haven’t seen a gathering of players at one of these events whom I really remember being part of the atmosphere, it’s just mass zergy chaos, out of game conversations and/or possible trolling a la the clock tower. Being able to invite a small group of friends into the story instance may be good enough, imo. It strikes me that social players might enjoy it more too if it were just their circle of friends. Maybe I’m wrong, who knows?

    1. Much of experience B) relies on player approach and also much depends on how well unique events get designed. they should absolutely leave tangible impact and ideally cover all stages. I already mentioned this to Doone further up though: humans are too reliant on their first sense, on ‘seeing’ things. our entire real world is currently set up around our eyes and we consider every experience lesser that does not somehow involve them.
      a deaf person, a blind person, they can absolutely experience the same intensity of an event as a ‘non-handicapped’ person can; which already tells much about how the term ‘handicap’ is wrong. people with 2 good eyes and ears are handicapped in their own way and untrained in finding truth and perceiving the world around them by means of other senses.

      this is getting slightly off-topic I know, but it’s an incredibly fascinating topic to me and it applies to experiencing virtual events too. our ‘secondary’ senses are a lot more stunted in MMOs by default: smelling/touching is impossible and hearing unfortunately is not required in the same way (it is rather crucial in more realistic FPS games though). still, our characters are given different tools and approaches to solve a situation. we can ‘hear’ things by talking to NPCs or players, we can follow clues and use our imagination rather than always being presented with everything on a silver platter. a good story is as much about the things it’s telling you, as it is about the things it’s leaving out. 🙂

      what I would personally find interesting in an MMO that features lots of unique events regularly, would be if the developers tested new tools in terms of getting players up to speed; why not introduce something like a news gazette? or a town board (maybe an interactive one with pictures/movies)? special ‘market crier’ NPCs? …it doesn’t seem as if they’ve tried very hard thus far to play around with options. but it’s simple really – how do we hear of news in the real world? what ways are there to inform us? there’s a ton, from visible impact and clues, to retrospective tales etc. I’d like to be more of a sherlock again in MMO worlds rather than a pampered cinema goer.

  5. My experience has always been that events may look pretty, but it is the unresolved mystery that makes them think. Single events can be isolated. Mysteries encourage us to look at everything else, searching for any possible clue, any possible connection. That means players learn more of the lore and develop communities to talk about it. More than “show, don’t tell” that may be the way to deliver stories, by not delivering the whole story.

    1. True thing which reminds me of my educational studies. it’s a core principle of teaching that for the best (aka most longlasting and profound) learning effect, you should always try to tell your students as little possible and as much as necessary. the more they can still do themselves, work out themselves, the better the outcome and effective insight. there’s nothing worse than a ton of ready-made information unloaded on someone without giving them the chance to unravel things for themselves (make their own journey), at least for some parts.

      I’d say this also applies to MMO events – if you care at all for their impact on your audience and memorability.

  6. After the halloween event ended, the Lion Arch’s fountain is gone. There is a giant plug in place for close the gate to Mad King’s realm. No sure when teh fountain will be back, or if it will be back, or how it will be back. IMHO, it is a good opportunity for Anet make an event where players help to rebuild the fountain. Maybe getting mats, or looking for artisans for craft the statues, maybe make sure Eir help to craft new statues, let’s hope that Anet come with good ideas.

    Now, the Lost Shores event is coming and a new zone and a new dungeon will open after that event. But there are some changes at LA, as some sign with a picture of a giant crab at the beach and giant whales dead. They hint something big is happening.

    1. Yeah I’ve seen the whales – I hated that I can’t help them (yet!).
      I love what ANet is doing with the events, the little hints and clues, the different stages of ongoing scenarios. I am incredibly excited for this November. Halloween was off to a very rocky start for me, but things are on a roll now.

      I would absolutely love if the fountain was going to be rebuilt via player effort! =) it’s already noteworthy that they didn’t just ‘magically restore it’ and while I hope it will be back in some shape or form, I hope it won’t just be a copy of the old thing!

  7. I linked to this post in one I did yesterday. Very interesting discussion, both here and at Azuriel’s blog, where he takes pretty much the polar opposite point of view.

    On the Lion statue, I do think it is cultural vandalism to destroy it. Had it been an actual statue, its loss would be a news story on a par with the Taliban destruction of the Buddhist statues a few years back. I don’t believe that just because it’s in a video game it doesn’t count.

    In a decade or three I believe we will look back on acts of wanton destruction like this with much the same nauseous disbelief with which we regard television companies’ routine wiping of the master video tapes of countless shows in the 1960s and 1970s. What was lost then can never be replaced, but fortunately we can in this case at least be re-assured that the code still exists and the statue can be restored, if not in game than for some future Museum of Video Arts.

  8. I was on board with the whole idea of one-off events until last night’s rather disastrous Lost Shores opening event. If you are going to do one-off’s make sure your servers can handle the stress. Prepare for it. People want to remember how awesome the event is, not that it was a slide-show with 2 minute long lag that ends up with you being dead. It was frustrating and a massive turn off.

    Not just that, but if you’re running events for over one weekend then they have to be perfect. 2 out of the 3 events related to the Lost Shores i tried this morning were bugged out and Anet had confirmed this – bearing in mind i believe this is an “invite your friend to play” weekend, it was a massive cock-up.

    If this is the way they are going to move forward then I guess this will be the start of the end for it all.

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