Posted by: Sean | October 30, 2008

Why the zombie invasion is the best thing to happen for role-players in a long time.

It’s probably been the most divisive event ever run in World of Warcraft history; but the zombie invasion event is indeed over. Jess and I were on absolute opposite sides of the debate over it; she hated it with a passion, noting that she failed quests and was otherwise disrupted from her usual play because the event basically gave itself to gankers and griefers of all sorts, and she’s not wrong. I concede that you’d have to argue that this event itself lacked a lot of controls and checks that would have kept those types of players under wraps.

But to me? I think the event was a staggering repudiation of an oft-stated claim about MMORPGs: That they aren’t condusive to true role-playing because they depend upon scripted events and limited AI. To do a true role-playing world event, this line of logic argued, you’d need to have scores of GMs at the ready to act out the leading parts.

Or, as WoW Insider put it: “I’ll go so far as to say it expanded the boundary of what an MMO can do — Blizzard let zombies loose on the populace not by hiring GMs to run around on every server, but by giving power to the players.”

Exactly.

That’s what’s so amazing about this event. Role-players have been taking that power for years, of course, that’s the entire concept behind player-run events, which aren’t unique to role-players but are certainly most beloved by them. Whether it’s running classes in Tirisfal Glades, or big story-fuelling PVP battles in the Desolace, whether it’s a race-around-Azeroth or a storytelling circle in Azshara; role-playing is about refusing to play the game the way Blizzard intended it, and instead creating our own rules. Nothing in the rules says, “Whichever side can kill the flightmaster of the opposition first wins,” in a PVP battle, but when we role-players decide a war between factions break out, that’s the goal-post we set up.

Frankly, we’ve been taking power of the game for years. But this is, he’s right, the first time they’ve really given power to us, and let us run with it.

Could it happen again? Of course it could.

Players could complete a quest within a short window of opportunity to win the right to be Fire Celebrants at the Midsummer Fire Festival. Completing the quest in the Festival’s lead up sees them gain an appropriate title for the duration of the event and the ability to create an item that starts a quest for other players during the Festival itself.

If the rumoured Emerald Dream expansion does come out, a similar ‘plague’ style arrangement might break out, but instead of creating zombie hordes, it might yank players right out of the world and into the Emerald Dream briefly. While there, you may find special crystals that once the expansion hits transforms you into a spirit cat when other players near you enter the Dream for the first time. You’re instantly hit with a quest that rewards guiding and helping the new player in this strange realm. (This mechanic has a nice touch too: Want to opt out of the event? Delete the item.)

Or how about, as the Wrath expansion dies down, an event of the ‘trial of Arthas’? The Lich King captured, the Alliance and Horde leaders debate what to do with him. They look for popular opinion. Players could obtain ‘Death’ or ‘Imprisonment’ ballots from NPCs and vote on it by using the appropriate ballot near a ballot box. Soap-boxes in the major cities link to a quest that asks you to stand on each one for a certain amount of time, and while you’re up there, make your case. Sure, we can’t stop someone standing on them saying, “LOL LOL LOL LOL LOL” for five minutes, but I’m betting more people than less would at least make an effort to say, “arthas should die he killed everyone vote death”. And good players might very well give some sterling bits of oratory. And, of course, whichever option wins creates a different world event at the end. (The end result when it’s all said and done would be the same, so Blizzard could keep working on the game regardless, but the path could change.)

There are endless possibilities for this kind of event. It proves that you don’t need a hierarchical top-down enforcement of story to make a world event work in non-random, non-programmed ways. You merely need rely on the creativity and power of the players.

And that’s good for role-play.

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