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Another Perspective on Live Content

Editorial By Guest Writer on August 04, 2009

My name is Steve Williams, and I am a Senior Systems Designer at Carbine Studios, working on their unannounced MMO. Before I was a systems designer, however, I got my start in the computer gaming industry as one of the Live Events Gamemasters for The Matrix Online (MxO), an MMO that launched back in 2005.

In those days live events were Matrix's risky plan to help provide a game world that had a developing story and an ongoing relationship between players and important figures from Matrix lore. We knew the issues up front with live events, best summed up as: "they are not fun... unless you are at one."

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In this article, I wish to break my experience with MxO down into three parts - what we did at Matrix, what the goals are in doing live events, and what I think we can choose to do as an industry to make viable live events in any MMO. Rachel covered some of the more fun parts - writing short stories, IM conversations with players, and more. In this article I cover the more standard responses we gave.

Today I'll talk a little about what we did and what went wrong. Tomorrow I'll delve into goals and means to make Live Events a reality in modern MMOs.

With multiple servers to hit and an aggressive story-telling schedule, we set to work providing three main groups of content to players, which I personally call the "Meet and Greet", the "Hear Me, Zion!", and the "Oh No, Bad Guys!" These silly names underscore the main forms of contact the Live Events Team (LET) would have with players.

"Meet and Greet" - From one-on-one contact to whole factional meetings (think all the Alliance players on a WoW server being invited to a party in Stormwind), famous and infamous characters of the Matrix universe would interact with the players. As The Merovingian, for instance, I might encourage players in my faction with advice, information, rewards, and most of all - recognition. The goal with Meet and Greets were to give smaller groups of players the chance to truly interact with an NPC in the world. My favorite of these were as Seraph, finding lone players and challenging them to a duel - Seraph in the movies fought Neo to learn his strengths and weaknesses, and presumably Seraph is present to accomplish the same goal with the player. While not economical, the interactions at this level were easily the most impressive.

"Hear Me Zion!" was my name for events in which an NPC character would impart information and story progression to whichever players were present - sort of the digital equivalent of standing on a soapbox and shouting at a crowd. These event types caused us the most trouble. Players of all stripes were present, and, at first, our ability to regulate the player crowd was nonexistent. Over the weeks we ran Live Events we got more and more powerful tools to help manage crowds and allow the largest number of players to enjoy the interaction as possible. Morpheus showing off Neo's Code to any players that happened to be at his location was a good example of this sort of interaction.

Last are the "Oh No, Bad Guys!" events, in which we spawned hordes of NPC enemies - and sometimes fought alongside the players to eliminate them. This event is what many people think of when they think "live events" and will play much further into my discussion of the means in which live events could work in the modern MMO environment. An example of this would be spawning a horde of vampires then an LET member fighting with the players as the movie character Niobe.

With these three storytelling tropes we were able to tell some impressive stories and build up an appreciative fanbase.

But, there were problems. We didn't scale well to even the relatively small playerbase of The Matrix Online. We were frequently harassed by players or finding ourselves not able to help players who desired to play along with the story.

We also fell victim to tools that, in hindsight, we should have used ourselves.

First and foremost was the scaling issue. To me the issue was the fact that live actors have a finite ability to work in multiple spaces for large groups of people. The scaling issue was the fact that a live events system cannot entertain enough players as a portion of the entire playerbase to be either cost-effective, fun enough for the players, or of a professional quality that players paying for a service would expect.

A player with time on his hands could easily spam text, stand on an actor's avatar, harass players who were playing along, attack inappropriate targets and bring them to the performance area... the tools seemed to be in the hands of players, not ourselves.

By not controlling the scene of the event, we lost a lot of players who would have otherwise truly enjoyed our work.

Recruitment was our best solution, trying to convince players to play along rather than cause trouble for the performances. We had good success with acknowledging some of our tormentors - in the same manner a teacher may acknowledge a student who is acting out in a classroom. Others were intractable and we developed client tools to stop them.

Among our tools were silencing players, a bubble around our characters which no player could enter, invulnerability, killing mobs instantly, and much much more. Each tool, however, diminished in part the organic feel of our events. As digital actors we were relieved but also concerned that we were removing ourselves too much from the other players by using these fancy tools.

In hindsight, this may be true, but there is also something to be said for markers to indicate when someone or something is important to the player.

The final issue is the hardest to admit, which is that some players became experts at playing the "Live Events Game" as some people called it - they knew how to draw out LET members who were present, they knew how to act and talk to get our attention easiest. They always seemed to know where we appeared (through communication networks with others) and what our business was. Since these people made our lives interesting and easier, many of them received a disproportionate amount of "face time" with our characters compared to others.

We grew to recognize these players and empowered them to spread information and lead others, but I always considered this the most unfair part of the job.

The opposite was also true. Many times we would walk around a corner into a group of players, and find them completely uninterested in the experience we had on offer. This is completely fair and appropriate for the players, but it also incurred a time cost that really accumulated over time. We had to extricate ourselves in character from this group, move away from that group, go invisible, find another group, set ourselves up in an out of sight location, walk around the corner...

Add to all of these woes the planning and prep-work that goes into an event, the attention to detail in typing text (we eventually got cut-n-paste enabled for chat so we could spell and grammar check first!), the long hours at the keyboard, and it really looks like Live Events is a foolish way to spend your staffing dollars.

With impact on all of our players being questionable, and players having the upper hand in disrupting events (even with our fancy tools), it was no wonder that the LET was discontinued after SOE acquired the game.

Our learning experience with MxO has been largely ignored by the industry as we continue to concentrate on building static worlds with static content. There are ways in which we can make these things work, and I'll talk about this the next time.

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