Nov 2 2008 1:43pm

Not Exactly About WoW’s Zombie Outbreak, Or Not Just

Do Not WantTorie Atkinson’s swell post about World of Warcraft’s recently concluded undead invasion is the starting point for this post, but I’m going to range widely. My question for myself is: what exactly is it that I want out of a big sprawling complex game world like the one in WoW? My current thought is that I want chosen, discoverable challenge. And what I don’t want, above all, is a sense of helplessness in a situation I didn’t choose to put myself into. One part of this will get personal; I’ll mark it.

Time to break down terms.

Chosen Challenge: Trouble is waiting for me, but not always seeking me out. There are safe spots in which I can pursue peaceful activities like crafting or just chatting. The nature of the boundary is very negotiable, but it’s critical to me that it be there. Real danger requires me to move, to go to where it is. When I leave the guards and walls behind, I accept that there will be risks along the roads and more if I strike out into wild lands, and when I cross the threshold of Bob’s Citadel o’ Evil, I accept that the threat rating is about to go up a lot. This is fine, as long as sanctuary exists. As long as it does, and as long as it allows me to do something productive, then I can play even when I’m not up to anything major. If there is no space in a big world where I can safely pursue interesting activities, then it’s not the game for me. I love excitement, but sometimes I also like to play without it.

Discoverable Challenge: I need to be able to count on some persistence. When I go explore an area, I want it to retain much of its nature the next time I go there, and the next. There’s plenty of room for interesting change, and I love some randomness and variety in details. But if, for instance, I decide to go to New York to say hi to the folks at Tor, I don’t expect to find it a city full of modern humans one time, a swamp with occasional dinosaurs the next, and then a small assortment of imported chocolate bars. Okay, that’s extreme. But then I also don’t want the New York of Bruce’s Travel World to sometimes be a major metropolis, sometimes a post-industrial slum, and sometimes a war-torn fragmented zone, either.

I make no bones about this at all: I game for escape. I have one of the less pleasant lives available to someone raised as white and middle class in the US, and I have a lot of need to get outside my circumstances from time to time. I look for the exciting and fun parts of a world with many interesting and dangerous things going on, not what I live with all the time.

The Personal Part Begins

I won’t go into my chronic health problems right now, nor the struggle with depression. What really got to me is something much more immediate. Monday night a friend pinged me in IM to let me know that her husband, one of my closest friends in the world, was in the hospital again with a staph infection in one foot, and that the doctors thought they’d have to amputate at least part of it. (Turns out they don’t, but I didn’t learn that until Thursday.) So I went from that to reading explanations of how those of us unhappy with the zombie event really just needed some more spine and face up to the fact that life isn’t in our control.

I was furious. I had a brief moment of thinking about resigning and stomping off, on the grounds that losing a forum might be better than having the fact of my helplessness flung in my face that way. I wrote and deleted, repeatedly, some extremely bitter and ultimately unhelpful diatribes. I cried for a while after stepping away from the computer and lying down in an effort to sleep. It’s been a while since I felt so truly impotent, as what is a really major outlet for me was so thoroughly taken away. Sure, it was only for a while, but I live in one moment at a time, and in the moments of the invasion, I had reasons for wanting some relief, and in the aftermath, I had this new one on top of them.

The Personal Part Ends

The problem for me with moments like that is of course simple enough: the world doesn’t revolve around me and it’s inappropriate for me to even consider holding everyone and everything else hostage to my feelings. And of course I do recognize—and am in fact glad—that the depths of my chronic hindrances are rare.

But the basic situation of real life with a large dose of suckitude mixed in with the goodness, and in particular a player preferring not so much helplessness and more chance to act and react constructively, that’s not rare at all. And it does genuinely bug me to see so much weight given to recreating all the bad parts of reality in a game, as though it’s somehow better entertainment if there’s lots of tedium, grime, and despair. These things can be the fodder of excellent entertainment—there’s a guy named George R.R. Martin doing pretty well with a series that’s rich in all three, for instance. But I don’t think it makes sense to set that as a default, nor to praise its presence as innately more worthwhile than its absence. A Song of Ice and Fire is excellent partly because of the gritty awful edges, but the Discworld series wouldn’t be improved by multiple books in which no protagonist ever gets succeed at anything, the world suffers for his defeat, and then they all die. Excellence comes in many flavors (and many colors besides brown and rust).

It’s true that Blizzard never promised me, “Bruce, we’ll never do anything in WoW that has a significant risk of rendering every major city essentially unusable for several days.” But they have spent four years delivering a lot of choosable, discoverable challenges that didn’t operate that way. That’s why a major shift toward a different style of world, even briefly, felt like such an unwelcome violation to me. There are MMOs I was never tempted to play precisely because of that—I don’t need more chances to learn that I still don’t at all enjoy the kind of environment that the happy players of, say, EVE Online thrive on. I don’t actually at all mind WoW offering some accommodation to its own players who’d like that, but not at my expense.

Which makes for a tough set of design decisions sometimes, admittedly. But there are times when I don’t wish to think about things as a designer and friend of designers, I just want to think about them as a player trying to have fun in the midst of hard times and wanting a break.

[Lolphoto by Flickr user srhbth and CC-licensed for commercial use.]

1. shortlink
I am truly sorry for your personal troubles; perhaps if you had not been so consumed by them you may have had a different viewpoint with the Zombie infection.

I found the Zombie infection intriguing and fun, and it added a much needed change from the mundane in WOW. I ended up running into the Inn to be quickly turned into a Zombie only to turn others into a Zombie, to see how many we could get. I would have loved having so many that we could have invaded Stormwind, but it never got that big.

I would suggest in the future for WOW to provide a potion to avoid being forced into becoming a Zombie, but I hope they continue with the tradition.

Debbie Moorhouse
2. GUDsqrl
I remember when some people lacking in artistic vision or sensitivity took over my favourite tv show, and ruined it. I remember sitting there crying with helpless grief and rage at what they'd turned it into, the day I stopped watching for good.

Fortunately, I didn't then have the experience of being kicked when I was down. Yes, it was only a tv show, but it was MY tv show, damnit, and it was about policing, not a fucking soap opera.

It's a cliche, yet people really don't get it until they've been there themselves. I'm glad your friend kept his foot.
rick gregory
3. rickg

I'm sorry if my replies to you made your life tougher in an already tough time. I truly am.

However, while I don't want to seem heartless, we (not just you and I, but members of the Tor community in general) need to be able to disagree meaningfully without worrying about an outsized reaction. So, while, I hope I'm not rude here ever, I'm going to continue to be honest in my opinions here and I hope you realize that when I disagree with you it's not personal.

@2 - one thing to remember about this is that it's not like a show. The event we're talking about was 4 days long, then the world went back to the way it was. Imagine someone screwing up a couple of episodes of your show... then having it return to normal.

Also, this was a world event previewing the new expansion that's upcoming. It happened last time WoW did an expansion. So, while I understand Bruce's point that Blizzard has spent 4 years setting certain expectations, we need to keep in mind that 1) they'd also set the expectation of a world event prior to an expansion and 2) the two events together lasted about eight days of those four years. As much as I sympathize with those who happened to really want to just escape for a bit during those days, I just can't see eight days of extraordinary events in four years as a huge imposition.

Rather than rehash the zombie event which wasn't a big deal to me being a rare thing that went on for a few days, I think the more interesting point is the one you raise about what you want in a fictional world. As I believe I said in my comments to Torie, the choices about how to construct a fictional world within the context of an MMO intrigue me. One rap against WoW's world is that it's very static. On a PvE server, everything is very ordered is always the same. Need certain mobs for a quest? They're always in the exact same place, pathing the same paths they always do. Haven't seen them in a year? No problem, they've not changed.

While this makes things easier in terms of questing, it makes the fiction less convincing. For example there are some murlocs in Redridge that you need a drop from for a quest. Instead of encoding certain behaviors into the (Murlocs like to be near water in flat, protected spaces...) they're simply spawned in the same place all of the time. The world thus reveals its deterministic nature pretty harshly.

Similar issues happen with whole zones - neither of my level 70 toons ever needs to go to any of the lower level zones. There's nothing there to do, no challenges that pop up. Yet this is a world that is supposedly beset by demons, undead and multiple other threats to life. Now, some of this is simply a result of a level based game with zones - you can't have packs of level 55 monsters roaming a level 25 zone all of the time or players will never get anything done. But since it never happens, high level players never have a reason to help out lower level players in lower level zones aside from friendship.

In general I want to be able to log in and do the things I'm planning to do... level an alt, dailies, run an instance, etc. But having the world completely safe and static makes WoW less interesting that it could be I think. The zombie event shook us out of that for a few days and so it didn't really bother me much. I'd have done it differently than Blizzard did... they rigged it so it took everything to the brink (pulling healer NPCs from the game, shortening the infection time, etc) and then pulled a deus ex machina to end the event vs having players do something to defeat the threat themselves. Would I want this sort of thing a lot? No. But I do wish the world was a little more dynamic - the way it's structured now, all of the supposed threats to the world are safely contained in the endgame areas. When the expansion ships the main part of Azeroth will settle down and be completely unaffected by the backstory... and that's too bad as it makes the game less than it could be.
4. tallcedars

Thanks for the thoughtful article. I agree completely with you. I rolled on a PvE realm so that I, too, could have a "chosen, discoverable challenge" escape experience. I don't want to have to deal with people ganking my lower-level characters for fun. It's not fun for me. Introducing a world event that not only makes that possible on PvE realms but encourages it is extremely bad design. Compulsory PvP belongs on PvP realms.

I wrote similar diatribes to accompany an account cancellation. I haven't yet decided what to do with them.
Sam Kelly
5. Eithin
This would've annoyed me intensely, too. If I'd wanted other players to be able to influence my game like that, I'd've gone with PvP. I never do, mostly because I want to play it my way.

Basically, this is Blizzard reinforcing the "this is our game, we'll run it how we want, and you don't get to choose anything more than the smallest things for yourself" idea.

I wonder what the reaction would be to the opposite idea? A four-day rain of fairydust, and anyone caught in it gets their character art changed to a happy sparkly flower fairy and can sprinkle fairydust on others to do the same. Of course, happy sparkly flower fairies can't attack anyone else: PvE all the way.
Tim Keating
6. MrTact
The result of non-consensual pvp will always be that some hardcore players use their superior skill and stats to ruin the game for more casual players.

We knew this at least as long ago as Ultima Online (that's about 11 years now, for those who are counting), and probably longer (going back to the days of MUDs). That truism hasn't changed, and probably won't for as long as humans are human.

Unfortunately, this notion keeps rearing its ugly head among MMO devs with no appreciation for history.
Christine Evelyn Squires
7. ces
I want to be entertained. The zombies weren't entertaining after the first 5 minutes. But Blizzard saw that they had boo-booed and ended it early. Lesson learned. Perhaps. Possibly. Maybe.

P.S. Anyone remember the Star Wars Galaxy fiasco? Another non-entertaining time.
Dave Bell
8. DaveBell
While I don't game in these huge, commercial, places, I know very well about the need for a sense of controllable escape. And I think the lack of a refuge, with other activities possible, was a terrible design choice.

Yeah, sure, each one of us can walk away for the few days. And maybe the players who didn't want that game, who didn't want to be cut off from all that they were doing, should be asking for a refund on those four days. They didn't get what they paid for.
rick gregory
9. rickg
Sigh. really? For 4 days you had a world come to life in an online game and you COMPLAIN? Why on earth would you want nothing that ever surprised you? What's the attraction of always, ALWAYS having the world be exactly what you expect and nothing more?

Re the 'nonconsensual PvP' complaint... this WAS NOT PvP. Not in the sense of WoW's PvP where classes each have particular capabilities. Player zombies had the exact same abilities as NPC zombies, just more health and, obviously, an actual intelligence behind them. And guess what? If you didn't want to deal with them you could usually log into an alt and avoid them by doing something else.

I get that if you had some specific things you wanted to do, the event might have been a pain. Same if you only had one toon and it was in a capital city. But the incessant complaining about this is basically a vote for a flat, boring, 100% predictable, static world. Don't then complain that the roleplaying is missing or that you're bored of the same content a year from now.

@4 -
Basically, this is Blizzard reinforcing the "this is our game, we'll run it how we want, and you don't get to choose anything more than the smallest things for yourself" idea.

This is such laughable complaint that I can't believe you hit Post. They explicitly TELL you the gameplay might change during the game. Did you just realize that they control the game? Did YOU expect to control it? I'm just at a loss as to what you really mean here.

You can control a lot of things about what class you want, what race it is, the talents you pick and how you level. In short, you get to make a lot of choices in the game, but those are constrained by the design of the world and mechanics such as leveling.

As I note above, this event comprised 0.2% of the time the current expansion has been live. And, because the world was different and in some ways inconvenient for that tiny percentage of time you're writing angry diatribes and threatening to cancel? Please do. But don't be one of these people who theatrically tells everyone on all of the forums how they're going to cancel... and then is still around a year later.

@6 and 7... again, you ignore that this was ane event that lasted 4 days. It was a tiny percentage of the time that the game's been out. Don't try to act like it's a permanent change on the game or that the game is irreparably ruined because the event happened.

Everything has been out for months and months and you know what? Most of us are BORED. My server had queues of people logging in to see what was happening. Why? Because it was NEW. They didn't end the event early or if they did it was by a day or so. This event, like the last one for TBC, was never designed to last for 2 weeks. Those of you who thought that weren't connecting the dots.

But don't worry... the game is back to normal and everything is nice and predictable again.
Kate Baker
10. Kate_Baker
Thank you, Bruce, for allowing some insight on your feelings.

As for your comments rickg, it sounds like you've been hanging onto a game that no longer provides the entertainment it once did for you. There are MMO's out there now that can comply with what you seek.

For those of us who still enjoy the game, I completely agree with Bruce. Four days may mean so little when you look at the larger picture of the game's existence, however, those four days mean different things to different players.

For Bruce, it was an escape. For me, it was time to relax. For others, it was a time for questing. For those of us who hold jobs, those four days may have fallen on a vacation.

The biggest issue however, is that most of us who aren't lucky to be funded by our parent's credit cards are paying a monthly fee for expected entertainment. Those four days fell under a monthly billing cycle.

As I said previously, Blizzard definitely could have put better a better plan in action then the one they had and I most certainly disagree with your statement that this was not PvP.

It was not only PvP, but sanctioned PvP griefing at its finest. Player versus Player. I don't care if you're all pixilated unicorns farting rainbows at each other. If you are fighting against another human being sitting at a keyboard, you are PvPing. The definition is key here, not the interpretation.
Sam Kelly
11. Eithin
Me: Basically, this is Blizzard reinforcing the "this is our game, we'll run it how we want, and you don't get to choose anything more than the smallest things for yourself" idea.
rickg: This is such laughable complaint that I can't believe you hit Post. They explicitly TELL you the gameplay might change during the game. Did you just realize that they control the game? Did YOU expect to control it? I'm just at a loss as to what you really mean here.

Actually, "who owns what" is a large and rather complex debate amongst game designers & academics. It's their server, and their IP, but given that you're paying for the experience, you can make a very good case that it's your gaming experience... and your character.

And yes, I do expect to control some things about a game I play. If I wanted an experience where I couldn't interact meaningfully, I'd watch TV. Most especially, I expect my initial choices about PvP content - or otherwise - to be respected.

It's always far easier to enjoy something when you can do it on your own terms.

this WAS NOT PvP. Not in the sense of WoW's PvP where classes each have particular capabilities.

That's not a definition of PvP (it applies as much to WoW's PvE), so I have no idea what you're getting at there. Player A has a goal: not to become a zombie. Player Z has a goal: to eat player A's brains. Does it really take that much effort to find the "versus" in there?
12. exhibit69
Most, if not all EULA's specify that your character and in game items are the property of the game company.

I suppose, in some peoples minds, that entertainment time and productive effort are interchangable, and given the current economic inequities, that may even have a grain of truth in it.

At the end of the game though, i challenge you to show me anything about your character that was not designed by the developers. All your items, made by them. Your skills? selected by you, but from the list they provide. You, as a player, may interact uniqely with this environment, but you have no ability to create new or unique items. And thus, no real claim to "ownership" or even "Investement", unless you subscribe to the above theory where entertainment=productive effort.
Dave Robinson
13. DaveRobinson
I don't play WoW anymore, or Eve Online. I used to.

If I ever get back into MMO gaming one of my biggest concerns is going to be griefing. It's cowardly bullying behavior that's not really any different than the big kids stealing the new kids' lunch money.

When I play those games I'm paying for the opportunity to have fun. I'm not paying to be kicked when I'm down. PvP is not the same as griefing and shouldn't be treated the same way.
Torie Atkinson
14. Torie
@ rickg

You're missing the point entirely. It doesn't matter if the players after your brains can use Scattershot or Consecrate. What matters is that they're after you and there's nothing you can do about it.

And @ exhibit69, every player has the right to not be abused by others. That means that if Blizzard sets up an event that enables--nay, encourages--players to grief and harass other players, they are doing a disservice to their customers.

I thought the first day was fun and wonderful--the zombies were restricted to the Plaguelands (fancy that!), it had a ten minute countdown to being a zombie (plenty of time to get to an Argent Dawn healer), and you could easily avoid it entirely by sticking to the major cities. By the last day I couldn't take it anymore. A one minute countdown before zombiedom? It was fun for about ten minutes, and then when I couldn't get mats or reagents, when I couldn't even check my in-game mail without being harassed, I just logged and came back when the event was over.

Was it a cool idea? Absolutely. But it was executed with a complete lack of regard for casual, PvE players, and there were so few safeguards that it became grossly unbalanced. I am fine with PvP when it is, like Bruce says, a chosen challenge. When you can enter a battleground because you want to, fight other players who are there voluntarily, and then leave whenever you choose. It was only four days, but those were mighty long days.
Bruce Baugh
15. BruceB
I should say that I'm not actually hostile to the very idea of griefing as a source of fun. It's an escape for several of my good friends. The thing is that WoW has PVP servers, and if I wanted to take that risk, I could go roll a character there, or (now) transfer one over from elsewhere. And there are whole games whose designers make it all a much higher priority.

I, on the other hand, hate the stuff. I chose RP and PVE servers precisely because of that. It was a kind of risk I specifically chose not to participate in.

The other thing is, of course, that it was totally unclear how long it'll last. It looks to me like the thing was intended to run all the way to the release of Lich King, but I don't know. Nobody does, outside Blizzard's offices. Any word on duration would have made it possible to plan better.
Michael Ellis
16. mkellis
I thought the Zombie Invasion was terrific. My only regret was that I was busy for most of the event, and didn't have much time to play with it in the way I'd have liked to. I did spend a little time fending off zombies, and a bit of time as a zombie. Almost got the Argent Healer in the Scryer bank, but not quite enough zombies and too many guards, sadly.

I play on an RP server. I also raid as one of my primary WoW activities. Since there was a notable absence of zombies in the raid zones, I didn't have much trouble getting my raid mats together and going and doing the usual thing. I will admit that if my primary activity was the auction house, or activity in and around Shattrath, the major cities, or the major world quest hubs, it could've been pretty bad.

But, as was mentioned, it was only four days. I'll grant that four days seems like a long time, and when you're paying for something that's frustrating, you can spend a lot of time going 'is this worth it?', but I've had nights wiping 30 times on a single boss, over 100 gold in repair bills, and double that in consumables. The alternative, though, is 'easy mode', and frankly, if there's no challenge, it's boring. (Current WoW raiding? Boring. Fortunately that'll be fixed in a couple of weeks.)

The most impressive thing about the zombie attack, to me, was how Blizzard harnessed players as 'live content'. Blizzard is most comparable to Google in their issues of scaling: they can't do small, personal in-game events because they don't have enough people to do it effectively. I've seen instances where a GM was messing around in Beta or near the end of an expansion (late in the original WoW, just pre-BC), but for the most part they don't do unscripted, GM-run events. The Zombie event played out extremely well because each player made their own, slightly different, reaction, which fed into what other people had to deal with in the world. It was temporary (unlike the usual Ganking in PvP realms), and it set a very nice lead in to the Wrath expansion.
Debbie Moorhouse
17. GUDsqrl
rickg, maybe you need to consider the possibility that not everyone is like you.

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