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Victor Wachter: Holiday Events

Columns By Victor Wachter on December 22, 2009

Holiday Events

Around this time of year, things start changing. Snow covers the ground, shops are decorated with wreaths and festive ornaments, and new dungeons open up with monsters bent on destroying the holiday season. Yes, the holidays in MMOs are pretty much like our own world.

There was a time, back around the turn of the century (I think we get to say that now that we are going into a new decade) when holiday events weren't universal in MMOs. My history could be wrong, but I recall the first holiday I ever participated in was the 1999 Ultima Online "Santas vs. Reindeer" event, two years after the game was released. For the first several years of the MMO's existence, holiday events were hit or miss and those games that did hold them often recycled the same content year after year.

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But today, they are everywhere. If you are playing pretty much any MMO this year, you'll encounter the holiday event, all dressed-up in red and green and its in-world cultural neutrality. They are more feature-packed and ambitious than ever before.

Silver Bells and Whistles

In-game holiday events are expensive in development terms. They are essentially small content patches that don't make much practical business sense at first glance. They are temporary, offering little long-term value to gameplay, so there is no gain in terms of retention. They offer little to the new user experience and are, in fact, often tailored to the seasoned veteran. There is a small amount of potential to win back past customers, but the fact is that the most likely pool of possible win-backs are playing another game that is holding its own holiday event.

So why do it? There are a number of reasons, with a range of sensibility behind them. First and foremost, you pretty much have to hold them to keep up with the competition. That may appear to be a flimsy reason, but it's actually pretty valid. When a competitive game is giving out gifts and candy for the holidays and your own players are getting nothing, resentment starts brewing in your community like the kid who only gets socks and underwear for Christmas. Publishers don't want eyes to wander, especially when those eyes will be looking around stores that sell other games.


Holiday events can build community.

Because MMOs rely so heavily on loyalty, publishers have to be sure that attention stays focused on their product. It's important for the MMO to wedge itself in there between shopping, family dinners, company parties, final exams, movies and other holiday season priorities. Players could easily lose interest in the game over a month that is so full of activity, and that interest may not magically reappear come January. But if there's a funny hat to be had for logging in sometime in December, you can be sure that MMOers will make the time, loot whores that we are.

Holiday events are also huge community builders. They strengthen bonds between guildmates who virtually celebrate together. They create whimsical chatter on the forums. They generate gigabytes of screenshots that propagate to blogs, Flickr and Facebook walls. It's an effect that lingers. Even if community members forget what brought them closer a couple of months later, the fact is that they are often stronger for having spent the holiday together.

The upside for designers and artists is that they get to move their creative gears in another direction for a little while. After a year spent confining their creativity to content that fits the lore of the land, they get to play with the holidays and make them fit in the context of their world. EverQuest and other fantasy game developers can showcase the cultures of their world through analogous holidays. Star Wars developers can revive Wookiee Life Day, with a great mix of camp and reverence. Games set on Earth like City of Heroes of Champions Online can add the context of their game directly to the holidays we're celebrating right now (And since those last two games both have awesome costume creators, players also have that much more opportunity to immerse themselves in both the game and the season).

Bah, Humbug!

But just like a real holiday, there are some downsides to all of the festivities going on across the game world. Hardcore players may resent the introduction of a time-sensitive grind that they have to initiate to maintain their unbroken string of achievements. Some players will question the wisdom of investing so much time and so many resources to ephemeral content when bugs and balance problems persist.


Sometimes Christmas events just go wrong.

In today's world of growing microtransaction presence in MMOs, the holidays are also revenue opportunities for many games. Personally, I have no issue with this, but then again I normally draw my paycheck from MMO revenue, so I'm biased (I'm working outside of MMOs at the moment. It hasn't been announced publicly, but there's a good chance that the game I am with is on your holiday shopping list). But item sales aren't universally accepted among gamers, and many dislike the added sales pressure coming from the game.

Finally, things break. A holiday event can contain a lot of content and often is not tested to the extent that a regular patch of equal proportions usually is. It harms the overall tone of the event if Santa's reward can be sold for outrageous sums of money or one-shot every noob you come across. Bringing the servers down to fix these issues gives fuel to the Scrooges and generally degrades the goodwill among men that you were trying to build.

Outside of the event, I'd like to ask that you stop by the forums of your favorite game and wish happy holidays not only to the dev team, but to those who work on the operations side. While developers are taking the customary week or two off, network admins, customer service reps, community managers and the like are still lingering in a lonely office through the rest of the year, or at the very least on-call in case of emergency.

I'll be interested to read your forum comments. Do you enjoy holiday events, or do they only add to holiday fatigue? What do you think of the events going on this year? Do any stand out, or do any disappoint?