Shaping changes in MMORPGs

There’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for some time, and a single phrase over at Bhagpuss’ recent article just reminded me of it. The post is about upcoming vs old games and the expectations surrounding them. He mentions almost in passing that devs could have much success in just making existing titles “forever games” by investing in them and refurbing them.

The point I wanted to develop is somewhat tangential to this. I had an idea some time ago that MMORPGs could do better to involve players and their characters in world-changing events. We tend to see big changes to zones, settlements or the environment only as part of a new story phase – usually in the form of an expansion. Cataclysm for World of Warcraft did this, also the plot of the first of the two “Knights” expansions did a similar galaxy shaking shift for Star Wars the Old Republic. 

My key idea here is that developers could opt to implement more changes, especially positive ones, by having the players get more involved in the process and not just the end result. We have a very recent example of this in the collective efforts over weeks to construct the dragon statues in Everquest 2. Players spent their time gathering materials and then making items to turn in to a NPC in order to progress the ‘construction meter’ of the statue in question. I wasn’t playing EQ2 when the event to rebuild the Wizard Spire network occurred, although I’ve read about it on forums and elsewhere, I imagine that fits the same model of cooperative content. 

Another example I am familiar with is the Isle of Thunder from World of Warcraft’s Mists of Pandaria expansion. Players completed daily quests towards a zone-wide progress meter (called the War Effort), each unlock would then open up a new piece of the zone’s story and move the characters further into the zone – changes occurred based on this progress meter: the construction and later expansion of a foothold and widening of target areas for the daily missions. It was ephemeral content as after completing the story no-one would go there again, but perhaps that’s a development effort sacrifice worth making as stories of “what you did” and “were you there” have power in a gaming community. I certainly remember that island very fondly and really enjoying logging in to see new content when each unlock occurred. In WoW people still talk about the original Gates of Ahn Qiraj event all these years later; it is due a reappearance in WoW Classic (phase 5 apparently): the first time I’d not started the game, this time around depending on when that phase unlocks I may, just may, have a character at 60 to experience it first hand. 

The inspiration for this article wasn’t really just about content unlocks though. Rather I was thinking about more deliberate and cooperative options to shape a zone or story. Our characters as heroes are often slaying impossible foes, defeating whole invading armies and solving cosmic crises. But do we ever clean up after ourselves? What about getting involved in the rebuilding of sacked settlements, the restoration of devastated environments and, perhaps, even a minor choice in the direction such changes go? I would find it motivating, sometimes, to have a chance to reconstruct and renew the worlds we are defending rather than just fighting a new fight as soon as the last one finishes. Maybe a few different projects could be offered by NPCs and our heroes could effectively join different or even rival factions in working to further restoration efforts in one or more directions? 

The only example I could think of along these lines was the one-off political event in Guild Wars 2 where players back in 2013 voted to support either of two candidates for the council of Lion’s Arch (Cutthroat Politics) by their actions in support of one or the other. That gave players some limited agency, although with any political situation one side has to lose, so the devs may face a substantial minority of the player-base voicing their discontent with results if content like this is done once again in future.

The question I still have to ponder then is what sorts of content could be done in future along these lines. I imagine Everquest 2 will do similar events in the future as the game has a successful history of running them and the most recent example was very popular. I’d personally love to see some kind of restoring Teldrassil, or replacing Teldrassil event in World of Warcraft Retail – a very large scale meta event over a good chunk of time where the Cenarion Circle or similar cross-faction organisation works to undo the damage done by the Battle for Azeroth war via collaborative efforts; with each milestone showing updates to the zone(s) to show, for example, a new World Tree growing. What type of event would you want to see, and in which game?

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