Why MxO Live Content Worked
There are a number of obstacles to creating successful live events in massively multiplayer games. This does not mean that live events are impossible. I was a member of the Live Events team that ran large scale live events in The Matrix Online. We ran one-off side events as well as grand efforts that moved the overall story of the game forward. I will admit that the setting and format of The Matrix Online made it particularly well suited to a regular schedule of live events, as it was designed to have an ongoing storyline. However, I think that our team's methods would work in any game. Had The Matrix Online enjoyed the commercial success Monolith and Warner Brothers had hoped for I might very well still be there, entertaining people.
To pull off a large scale event that entertains more than a handful of people, you need to do some serious planning. The MxO Live Events Team (commonly referred to as the LET) had a regular development cycle: a planning stage where we roughed out the idea for the next event and assigned tasks, completion of those tasks, executing the event, followed by a debriefing to review what worked and what didn't so we could avoid any obvious mistakes in the next cycle. It did not take "ungodly amounts of time to design, plan, and execute" live events. It usually took somewhere in the realm of three to six weeks, depending on the scale of the event in question.
There are times when no matter how well you plan, events will take a tangent. Live interaction with players is the whole point, so flexibility is key. We adopted a method of scripting known as "talking points". Essentially, there was a list of information that absolutely had to be communicated during certain appearances, but no set dialog. This allowed each of us, in our role as "digital actors", to deliver the content organically while responding to the players present for the event.
So during the event design cycle our tasks included everything from writing talking points and messages for the community to creating necessary characters, scheduling to provide content on all servers within a reasonable amount of time, acquiring code assets and art from the game team, and reaching out to fansites or media outlets to enhance the live event experience.
In order to involve as many players as possible we used every tool at our disposal to provide information and special content. For example, during the week-long "Nightfall" event I wrote a series of short fiction pieces that were posted to the official MxO website. They provided insight into the actions of the main characters during the event, gave hints as to where the Primary Characters (movie characters: Morpheus, Niobe, The Merovingian, etc) and Secondary Characters (created by the LET to support the main story and provide a secondary ongoing storyline) might be making their next appearance, or what kind of challenge they might present to the players. We used an in-game organization-based communication system to provide different information to each of the three game organizations in order to drive competition and conflict between them. Fansites and fan-based internet radio stations worked with us to disseminate information.
Of course there were still obstacles. It took a great deal of convincing to gain the resources for even a small Live Events program, though after the first few events proved to be popular with the players we were able to double the size of our team . . . to eight. That was just enough staff to make events manageable on a game with only nine servers. During our first major story-related event we made the mistake of concentrating too many players in one area, creating incredible lag. The LET was seated at one end of the "GM Grotto", and our Technical Operations department was on the second floor with a balcony that looked down into our room. I distinctly recall hearing shouted curses floating down from above during that event as they tried to keep the servers from crashing. We quickly devised ways to break up the crowd and promised never to do that again.
Scheduling multiple characters on multiple servers during hours that worked for the majority of our players, especially as two servers were designated for European players, was challenging. In some cases we worked twelve or fourteen hour days, and the overtime really adds up after a while. During the major story event in which we killed Morpheus (oops, is that still considered a spoiler?) the entire team worked fourteen hours a day for ten days straight. It was simply what we had to do in order to present the live content.
Were we "fair" to our players? Well, I can say we always did our best to provide content to as many players as possible and find alternate ways for people to participate if they couldn't make a scheduled event. We ran unscheduled once-off events whenever time allowed. The Primary Characters were made available for player events given adequate notice and a decent reason to attend. Persephone once attended a player-run fashion show, while Niobe attended a meeting between three Zion factions to help facilitate an alliance.
Were there still complaints about bias? Of course. If the Zion organization won an event, the Machine and Merovingian organizations were up in arms about someone cheating. When The Merovingian held a party at Club Hell, we were accused of favoring that organization. This is just human nature, and we accepted it as such. That may seem like a bleak view of the gaming public, but you have to admit that complaints of bias on the part of the devs are common in games that don't even have live events. In those cases the complaints are about the balancing of classes and gear, new spells, new areas, or anything else that could possibly be considered unfair to someone. You simply can't afford thin skin in this industry.
For a live events program to really work, we need a paradigm shift in massively multiplayer games. Over the years developers have realized that these games are not "fire and forget" projects. They must be supported, bugs must be fixed, and there must be regular infusions of new content if you want subscribers to continue playing. If only we could push this realization one step further, to viewing live events as an integral part of the massively multiplayer experience. Not as an extra, or as a replacement for static content, but as a complement to it. Giving the players a richer and more rewarding experience can only encourage people to play more and stay longer, and that can only do good things for a game's bottom line regardless of the resources needed to support a Live Events Team.