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City of Heroes Column: Dynamic Events

By Matthew Miller on February 05, 2013

I mentioned in my first column how I got started playing online games with MUDs such as Gemstone, and how they captured my imagination in a way I didn’t know was possible. One of the things that these games did was Dynamic Events that were not simply pre-scripted encounters that ran automatically, but were run by game masters and administrators, and had a special sense of involvement I’ve seen replicated only a few times since.

In Gemstone, I can recall two specific types of these events, the Town Raid and the Wandering Merchant. Town Raids were simple, yet awesome. Town in Gemstone was a “safe haven” and monsters never breached the gates and roamed the streets. Well, almost never. Every once in a while monsters of all levels would invade the town, roaming the streets and the only safe place to be was indoors. There was great rewards for those brave enough (and high enough level) to take on the roaming bandits or orcs and save the town.

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I don’t recall what the criteria was for these raids to take place was, but I believe they happened on weekend nights when the server population would be high enough to fend off the attack. That makes the most sense, because if you were a low level character (like I was most of the time) venturing the streets was a quick way to get yourself killed. You wanted enough characters online to deal with the threat quickly, so Friday and Saturday nights would be ideal.

The second type of event that I saw was the Wandering Merchants. Days before one of these arrived, a crier would let everyone know that a merchant was coming in a couple days, with wonders heretofore unseen for sale. When the merchant arrived there would be two services offered, buying limited edition gear, and customization of your existing gear.

For those that don’t know, Gemstone was a pure text game. When you /looked at another character you got a basic rundown of the appearance of the character and items they wore. If you wore a cloak, a player would simply see “cloak” or “(color) cloak” when /looking at you. Customization broke all the rules. You would pay a crazy amount of money to the merchant (a live GM) to customize an item you wore. The more flowery the description, the more it cost. I have no idea what they used to measure gold costs, but every time I heard what stuff cost to customized I thought that amount of gold was unattainable.

That simple cloak might get customized into “a flowing violet cloak made from the fur of a displacer beast, trimmed with feathers from owlbears and a cockatrice.” Players had some amazingly customized gear the longer the game went on. I want to believe that the merchant even was triggered when too much gold had been created in the game world. It was an excellent money sink for high level players.

A couple MMOs experimented with dynamic events, like EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies, but eventually EQ moved most of their GM events to their “Legendary” server (which cost about twice as much per month to play on). SWG would occasionally spawn Darth Vader and his death squads to kill Rebel players in large areas like Theed, but I heard that if they ever wanted those NPCs to speak during the events they needed to have all dialog and actions cleared through licensing. Makes sense, and I can see that as a huge drawback to doing those sorts of events in the future.

Eventually SWG got into the business of supporting player-driven events. Requests could be made to the community team to have props and NPCs appear to help with role-played events that the players created. But player generated content is a whole other subject I’ll get into later.

Lest I forget, City of Heroes also ran events and invasions. I and many players fondly remember the “end of beta” invasions we did for City of Heroes and City of Villains, but they were such a drain on the resources that we did them as sparingly as possible. I’ve seen similar invasions in other games as well, like Star Trek Online, but they never occur at the same frequency that they did back in my days playing Gemstone. It’s pretty easy to understand why big MMOs like WoW never do dynamic events run by game masters. There are only so many people needing to serve tons of servers and a wide spread of characters all over the game world. It simply can’t happen, logistically.

I really do wish that dynamic events run by real people could make their way back into MMO gaming. Too often events are simply mechanical spawning of enemies with rote actions needed to be performed by the players. I hope that new MMOs like Pathfinder Online and its sandbox nature can build in the proper tools needed for some cool GM driven events that are run on a frequent basis. I miss those days.


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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