With the World Cup going on, I’ve been thinking about events, big and small. Events can bring people together around any game, and it’s no different when it comes to MMORPGs. Though in some of the more modern MMORPGs, sometimes it feels like things are a bit on autopilot. Everything is programmed in and left hands-off, and it makes me nostalgic for the days of active GM participants and the sometimes chaotic world of active live events in games. Nothing quite replaces the feeling of turning a corner while questing, only to come face to face to a lore character, or to stumble upon one off in a plaza somewhere before the inevitable crowd trickling in turns into a massive gathering. There’s just a sense of excitement that’s often missing. Though GM and lore character events needn’t be limited to special events, either. An ongoing investment with the community builds when these appearances take place.
Yes, having live events and GMs in game requires money behind the effort. Development costs in general on major games has gone up, and MMOs are already a multi-year development investment without revenue streams coming in during that commitment. When it comes to free to play games, where 10% of players paying anything at all can be considered successful, dominating the scene, it’s not surprising these live appearances have been swapped for flip a switch time-limited events.
Yet, as a community tool, as a break from questing and scripted content, it’s invaluable and it’s missed. Some classic examples of these appearances are even still mentioned today. When people talk about Ultima Online and Lord British, the slaying of Lord British inevitably comes to mind. It wasn't supposed to happen, and that's partly why it was so memorable. Introducing some form of surprise, different experiences on different servers, and ways for players to have an impact, even for just a moment. Once, during an event in The Matrix Online, some antagonists appeared in a park. Roleplaying, and stealthed, l told them off in chat, that they'd be stopped and brought to justice. One noticed my comment among the others, and threatened my character's life. That was better than any scripted encounter. It was on the fly, it was responsive, and it was personal.
In The Matrix Online, hearing Morpheus speak to redpills in a park, people spreading the word over chat, IM, and voice chat, telling friends to log on ASAP and get to the corresponding coordinates. These are methods to get the community involved in active ways and in events that are not carbon copies of each other. The events were scripted in terms of overall story, but they played out with some different dialogue, and could even sometimes end differently on different servers. People lament "MMO tourism" and lots of players don't feel a reason to stick around once they've been through the existing content. Reintroducing regular and involved participation by GMs could be a valuable investment if done right.
Making your game stand out these days can be hard, but a strong community almost always works toward helping player retention. Whenever friends ask for recommendations, one of the categories they're curious about is the community. If there are elements of the unexpected, good events, fun and unique experiences, it relieves some of the sameness and autopilot feeling. If events happen once and never again, which is something Guild Wars 2 is attempting with the Living Story, and The Secret World tries with its own holiday events, it gives a "had to be there" incentive for current players to both enjoy and tell their friends.
There are still dev and GM-led events happening in games today. The Lord of the Rings Online has scheduled appearances during events on each server. Multiple games have “play with the devs” sessions, often streamed on Twitch or plugged on social media. But, for the most part, the easier and cheaper, same experience is more common. Playing with the devs in PVP on Twitch is one thing, but having Morpheus, Ghost Widow, or Scarlet Briar show up played by GMs to interact with players, it would keep some of the magic of being in a virtual world alive.
Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her contributions at RTSGuru. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez