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Mark Kern: MMO’s New Buzzwords: Dynamic Events

Column By Mark Kern on July 29, 2013

MMOs after World of Warcraft have long tried to imitate its success. This meant creating Theme Park worlds, where quest hubs and fixed attractions dominated the content and gameplay. While many publishers tried for a decade to capture the WoW audience, none of them ever came close and many actually failed. As gamers hopped on MMO after MMO hoping for that next “spark”, we became disappointed and jaded as nothing was ever quite as captivating as our first experience in World of Warcraft or other early MMOs.

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Now gamers are asking themselves if we even want theme parks anymore. There is a feeling they have been done to death, and frankly, our interest in them is fading. Even WoW is feeling the sting of fewer interested theme-parkers, as subscriptions have slipped yet again to 7.7 million this quarter down from 8.3 million.

Well it seems that developers and publishers have finally noticed. Instead of trying to recreate the theme park, we’re starting to see some new trends in MMO designs, hoping to reignite the imagination. Some have always tried to chart new territory, like Guild Wars with its no subscription model and no trinity, while others are just starting to (Secret World, etc.), and some are planning to in the future (Everquest Next). But the trend seems to be moving in a couple of distinct directions.

There are three major trends emerging: dynamic events, sandbox worlds, and emergent gameplay. Most know that I’m a big fan of dynamic events, and was thrilled that a mainstream developer like ArenaNet took the leap and embraced such events for Guild Wars 2. Dynamic events help make the world feel more alive, by having situations and events unfold in the world based on the state the world is in, the actions players have taken, as well as time and other factors.

The feel and promise of dynamic events is an exciting concept, and we relied on the concept for Firefall as well. We are, however, a long way from fulfilling the promise completely, as we are still learning about how to apply dynamic concepts to MMOs. In our own development, we had a hard time defining exactly what a dynamic mission meant in terms of concrete concepts. We ended up with a few principles that guided us: Location independence, situational variety, and risk/reward diversity. These aren’t all the things that can define an event, but to us this was the core of what we wanted to strive for.

Location independence was the hardest to implement from a code and design perspective. Most MMOs are designed for static encounters. You place monsters on a map, add logic for the encounter, and then move on to the next place on the map to do the same thing. Location independence meant that we would have to wrap up all the spawn points, objects and monsters and logic into a “package” and then be able to spawn that package anywhere in the world. It sounds simple, but its really quite complicated. What this does is to allow the server, and not the designer, to create and drop these events anywhere in the world depending on where players are, what they are doing, or other factors such as time of day. The idea is that wherever the server puts it, the event would “just work.”

The reason we wanted location independence, is to get away from the geographic “sameness” of MMOs and to move more towards a living world. Instead of zone where you always see the same mobs in the same places, we wanted to move towards a zone where what was happening and where things were happening changed every time you logged in. But we realized that it wasn’t enough to just place the event anywhere, we had to have the location actually change and influence the encounter. This is something we just started doing, calling these “event mutators” that drive the second criteria we’ll call “situational variety.” This means, depending on where (or even when), these events are spawned on the map, the mobs change, the objectives and story change, a boss might show up, or different mechanics might kick in during the encounter.

Lastly, we wanted risk/reward to vary dynamically as well. This meant that depending on the players,the encounter would attempt to balance itself for the skills of those involved, and also base rewards appropriately on the risk and challenge involved. The actual reward would also be highly based on where and when the event occurred in the world. Ideally players would pick up on this, and be able to have fun predicting the factors that determine the risk and reward, and seek out their favorite level or challenge or favorite or needed reward.

That ARES Mission Won't Always Be There... Or the Same.

Guild Wars 2 has a different focus on dynamic events, choosing to explore player action and consequence. They don’t so much rely on a moving world, but more on a fixed locations where dynamic events play out. However, their events are highly driven by “state” where the event can occupied by farmers, or overrun by centaurs, for example. The state of the world depends on the players and how they engage GW2’s dynamic content. Players go around and trigger these events or change the state of locations by their actions. This is a powerful concept, since players influencing the world is something much sought after but difficult to create.

Dynamic content is a great tool for MMOs, and one that will really enrich the genre given time. There’s a lot of technology that has to be created to drive these “smart events” and even more design experimentation and learning. Dynamic events also tie in nicely with the other two buzzwords we’ll be exploring in future articles: sandbox worlds and emergent gameplay.


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Mark Kern
Game maker turned two-bit writer, Mark Kern currently works on Firefall, the MMO Shooter. In between running Red 5 Studios and founding groups like LeagueForGamers.org, Mark covers topics on online games, game theory and industry trends. Follow him on twitter @Grummz.
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