From Subscription to Event Driven

I long for the day World of Warcraft openly embraces being an Event Driven game.

The early promise of World of Warcraft for me was an online persistent fantasy world to adventure in.

Raiding didn’t enter into it. Raiding as a thing wasn’t part of my lexicon, it wasn’t what everyone talked about.

Everyone talked about the races you could play as. The character classes you could be. The way you could get quests from characters in the game that weren’t controlled by a GM or other players, and whenever you played, what you had done in the past carried on in the world to be shared with others. Persistent.

I remember in the early days talking with my friends Manny and James about World of Warcraft and the potential of games like it. Back when the idea was new and fresh and who knew what the future of such games might hold?

We’d talk about what new things online games might bring, like player-created quests and storylines with XP and rewards, or monster NPCs controlled by other players when taking a break from their player characters.  Or smaller-scale MMO games with special events where live GMs might be in control of key main NPCs or commanders, and you could join their army as a player character and fight in one of these vast wars as the GM-controlled commanders led you forward into battle.

Early days full of promise, where the main draw of World of Warcraft and other MMOs was in how similar they were to tabletop pen and paper role playing games, and not in how they were different.

In every game where there are levels and experience points, there comes a time when you have to address… what do you do when you hit the level cap?

In tabletop games, at least in my experience, you either retire the characters and make new ones (usually in a new game system that just came out), try a few runs in a world where your old characters are now the new high power NPCs that rule the area your new players play in, or nuke the game from orbit and reduce everyone in power from some calamity, it’s the only way to be sure.

In a programmed always-online persistent world, the level cap happened, and it made us stop, look around, and go… so, what now? Where has the story gone? What do we do when the quests have all been done and there is no GM across the table to improvise?

The response was to have raids. Big raids. Raids with lots of players against static content, one big battle that you fight over and over and over. Every week, over and over.

Why? Loot. Upgrades. Shinies. More power.

If we’re capped, then what difference does that make?

Ah! What comes next. The big question. Are we done, or is there more to come?

And so a game that lured me (and my friends) in with a lush fantasy world, leveling, questing, rich story and familiar classes and races where the point was to adventure in new lands and meet new peoples became a game where I waited for the next scheduled event to begin. We began playing the waiting game, spending time on alts and pvp waiting for the next new event that would move the story forward one chapter at a time, adding new raid battles.

Events that had a beginning, a middle, and a definite ending.

We played World of Warcraft one way at the beginning, and a different way at the level cap. We had to, once at the level cap our actions to grow our characters were complete.

Do you remember when the majority of players only had one main character, and those with alts were few, and mostly those that couldn’t stick with one thing long enough to max out?

An Event Driven game does not keep you in with long and exciting questing adventures, it keeps you in by having a timed event that you must take part in while it is active to gain the rewards.

While an event is going on, you have filler content, preparations, small quests or gathering to do, but the focus is the big battles, and each event includes it’s own end because if you fight a big battle, once you’ve won, you know how that story ends. The only question remaining is how many times you’ll have to repeat that same battle until the timed event is over, and everyone has been given a reasonable chance to finish it before the next event comes out to push the story forward one more chapter.

That is what World of Warcraft really IS now. It’s not the subscription based role playing game that I at least still think of.

It’s an event driven game, and how engaging the game is can be traced directly to how long it’s been since a new event was released to take part in and stir the senses anew.

Each event brings new rewards for taking part, new parts to the ever-growing story, new bits and pieces of shiny things like mounts or armor or titles. Or achievements.

The death of an Event Driven game is lack of events. You’ve got to have a new event ready to go as soon as the last one gets stale.

There is a point to this, and it’s one that has been bothering me with every ‘expansion’.

Blizzard does not act as though they realize what kind of game we’re playing. They act as though we continue to play World of Warcraft as a questing and leveling experience, even as more shortcuts to max level are baked into the core experience.

You have to ride the wave of new events to keep the players pumping quarters into the change slot. If you distract us with new shinies, we keep collecting them.

I want to collect them. I need to collect them. if you give me more shinies to chase, nobody will get hurt.

There is an interesting series of articles at Venture Beat that Albert Reed, the CEO and co-founder of Demiurge Studios has been writing about their extremely successful game, Marvel Puzzle Quest.

This is a series that you should take some notice of, because this is welcome candor from a man that is focused on how to separate a player from his money, and what methods he has used to become ever more successful at it.

The third chapter (there are eight so far, and each one is extremely good reading) discusses how Marvel Puzzle Quest has really taken off by embracing being an Event Driven game. If you read it and other articles in the series and really think about what is being discussed, there are a lot of similar elements going on in World of Warcraft, but they’re not shown the same level of awareness.

They’re not even close to being the same kind of game, but we are all video game players, and most of us seem to respond to the things that an Event Driven game offers, and that World of Warcraft gives us in spurts and false starts.

World of Warcraft expansions and content patches give us a new chapter to the story, and the main instrument in that chapter to advance the story are multiplayer raids with ever-higher power loot items as rewards.

The catch is, of course, when there are no events… we are all left flailing around looking for something to do to fill that time, and I at least usually feel as though somehow I am to blame for not being able to find something fun to do in the game.

That moment, that point in the game at the end of a content patch or game chapter where I have completely exhausted the raiding by doing the same ones thirty or more times, repeatedly, is exactly the moment when a new event should begin.

The lesson that Marvel Puzzle Quest and other games is teaching us, is that those events do not all have to be major battles or world-shaking story arcs. They can be smaller stories, told on a more personal scale, with smaller rewards of a more cosmetic or even temporary nature, but because they are new to us, they keep us engaged.

World of Warcraft had that same awareness, once upon a time. There was a time, a long, long, LONG time ago, when the seasonal events in game were something new to look forward to.

The problem is, once released they have been abandoned, and rarely get refreshed for a new year.

For several years now, the only question we have is, “Did they bump up the power of the drops from last years event? No? Pfft. Well, maybe my 8th alt can use a mole machine to get to BRD.”

I get the feeling from Blizzard that they’re not looking at the upcoming calendar year and discussing what content will be released at what time to space things out right, and have plans in place to provide filler events at key droughts.

Or, worse yet, they are planning it by the week, but they are including out-of-game Blizzard events like the release of a Diablo 3 expansion as WoW content.

Content from a company that is not actually in the game is not content, it’s competition.

Break my immersion in your game with a different game and you have no assurance I’ll ever return.

I’d like to think that the developers lift their heads from the gorgeous art they are creating and the quests and NPCs and zone terrain, and have a team meeting where someone breaks down the upcoming year one week at a time.
“Okay, now we’ve got 52 weeks in the year, we’re on week 22. What do we have going on that week. How many weeks since the last new thing to do? What, 8 weeks since a big content patch with raids and Tier armor? Two months, that’s a long time to be hitting the raids for progression, people will be needing a palate cleanser. What do we have new coming to break it up? yeah, Tim, what do you have?”

“Maybe we could have a one week event where we use that great design work that went into the Argent Tournament and jousting. How about we make that week a new max-level jousting tournament? Phase the argent tournament area for max level characters only with a bread crumb from the faction leaders, add a new questline, update the vendors with some new rewards with a new currency token that expires just like other seasonal currencies. Players can joust against familiar NPC opponents that will be exciting if we tweak them right, or PvP against other players. They can use the tokens to maybe buy pieces for a transmog set of jousting armor without stats, something that will look neat for roleplayers, and a new armored mount as the most expensive reward to keep people tilting all week. By the time the event is over, people will see raiding as a fresh break from the tournament, and an opportunity to show off their new pets or mount of armor look.”

“Okay, what about week 23? The week after a jousting tournament, do we want to give folks time to recover after spending a week playing more than average to try and earn those tokens?”

It just makes sense to me that you as a game designer, maintaining a game where time played is your number one asset, would be looking at the content in your game on a week-by-week basis to make sure you have planned for each week to have something that will keep players engaged and looking forward to logging in, but not feel like it is their job to have to log in and clock in those hours each day.

So you have planned events with just enough time for the majority of players to complete everything, and then you move on to something else, and some events be intense battles and major upheavals and others be story builders and setups for the events to come.

An event doesn’t have to be the release of a full raid tier. An event cane be a fresh week of seasonal content that is actually fresh. It can be a small quest chain that is newly added that leads you to search places around the world seeking treasure, such as the treasure maps of old.

What an event has to do is give you something fresh to do, have the chance to offer you a reward no matter how small it is, and be something that breaks you free from a daily grind if only for a little while.

Sometimes, like in the first half of Mists of Pandaria, it seems Blizzard does everything right. And then we come to where we are today, and look around, and wonder… “Are they playing the same game we are? Or are they playing the alpha and have forgotten we’re stuck in the Timeless Isle, and all we want is to grab the skipper and Maryann and get the hell off?”

However World of Warcraft started, whatever the original goal, it’s event driven now.

As much as the game has grown and matured over the years, the philosophy behind content scheduling seems to be lagging a bit behind. I hope that the planning improves soon, because I’ve seen some of the new competition coming up, and while there is no such thing as a ‘WoW Killer’, there are certainly some developers who seem to be chomping at the bit to entice players away by promising them frequent content updates.

Remember, it doesn’t matter how big the content update, because when you’ve had nothing new to do for a half a year, anything starts looking pretty damn good.

If you be standing still while the lean and hungry go racing around you, maybe you be moving too slow, mon. And maybe you be the meal they waiting to eat.

7 thoughts on “From Subscription to Event Driven

  1. I agree 100%, though I would say that it is the natural result of a development cycle no longer than a couple years: they just don’t have the luxury anymore of eight years to create a persistent, enormous world for us to romp through, and it is beyond doubt true that we who are heavily invested in the game will consume all the content in greater than half the time it takes them to create it.

    I think that event driven development is fine for a subscription game, but the Events Must Flow. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m actually a little insulted that they seem to push their other games on us as filler content during this enormous, and in my heart I have to believe unintentional gap between content patches. From a financial standpoint, it cannot make sense.

    One thing I realize though is that there is still the capacity in this game for creating our own events, if we are willing to constrain ourselves. [Queues up popular tune from Disney’s Frozen] “Do you wanna do a Herald run?” My guildies and I are putting together a Herald of the Titans group, and it has reinvigorated our motivation and passion for the game. And from there, who knows? We’re already talking about using these level locked 80s to progress fair and square through ToGC and ICC – it’s been what, four years since? To be sure, if Blizzard wanted to reinvigorate their player base, all they would have to do is create similar level and gear restricted achieves or FoS, and I’m certain players would gladly flock to them, economies for older endgame gear would revive some, and the game would feel fuller. For a little more effort, they could implement tech for us to set our current characters’ levels lower to meet requirements, and retrofit TBC and Vanilla raids to 10 man mode. Money is on the table to be had, IMO.

    And goodness, has it been fun to set a hearthstone in Dalaran again.

    Anyway, I have a lot of friends who are going to try out Wildstar this month, and I am going to join them for a while too. WoW is #1 in my heart, when there are things to do, and justification for my sub. Once my Herald momentum runs out, I likely will unsub. It is the only true means of protest I have to use that maybe will make them care.


  2. Perhaps it’s worth noting that MPQ is free to play, and GW2 is a single purchase. Neither uses subscriptions. In my experience, this makes “event binges” the retention and monetization vector rather than the sub method of just having Stuff To Do and banking on inertia. Event-centric design *has* to keep on its toes and keep people coming back to earn more money.

    Each approach comes with its own foibles and benefits, of course. I have to wonder, though, if WoW were to be more event-driven, would they narrow the design focus to the events and let the world languish, or would events be a way to get players out into the world and out of raids? Would they drop the sub? Would it force them to stay agile and stay ahead of the market, instead of counting on their history and mass to secure their position?


    • It’s definitely true, the more event-focused games exist in a realm without subs for the most part. In the case of the F2P games, it strikes me as primarily money generation by offering limited-time advantages in the events – “Here’s a way you can spend money to get a special card/unit/bonus that will give you an edge in this event!” I don’t see that working so well or being so appealing in an MMO.

      GW2 might be a better pattern. I can’t say with any absolute certainty because I don’t have any behind-the-scenes business insight. It seems to me, however, that it uses the events more as a way to generate player interest with the intent that players who are more interested in the game for a longer time (thus more emotionally invested) are more likely to spring for items from the cash shop. There’s no monthly subscription. There’s no direct tie between cash purchases and performance in the events (at most, you get appearance items that are thematically related to the events). If the numbers behind that really work for a B2P game, that might be a good avenue for WoW. And even if WoW keeps subscriptions, I think an argument could be made that frequent, temporary events might sustain interest (and thus subscribers) better than larger content patches with much longer stretches between them.

      On the other hand, the GW2/WoW comparison there might not work so well because of the difference in endgame gameplay. WoW players pretty much expect an incremental increase in gear power with every new release, and we see the number creep that’s led to. In GW2 there’s very little of that. So Blizzard might have to balance more frequent power creep versus disappointed players if they released content more regularly.


  3. I’ve not played Marvel Puzzle Quest, but I am familiar with some of the “card battle” games referred to in the article which use similar timed event mechanics. It strikes me there’s a fine line to walk with such things. The pressure to accomplish things during the event (earning rewards by accumulation of points or by ranking) can push people to spend money on anything that seems like an advantage, which generates a very pay-to-win feel, and it can seriously burn people out. Of course, if you do it “right” there’s definitely some sustainable money to be made there.

    I think one thing that has held Blizzard back from any full embrace of the event-driven game concept is the desire to get the widest audience for the company’s work. Time and again, interviewed staff have answered questions about class-specific quests and raid content with something that boils down to “We don’t want to sink a whole lot of time and effort into offering up content to a tiny percentage of players.” That mindset is at odds with releasing any sort of limited-time content that will be outright missed by anyone not present while the event is running. Seasonal events we reused, with the rare additions simply rolled into the repeating cycle. Outdated raids might not be frequently used, but they’re still there and accessible to players. The only limited-time events I can recall are relatively small in terms of content: pre-expansion events like the undead plague before Wrath, or something like the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj (which I missed). Blizzard has not shown any willingness to embrace that sort of thing regularly. And there might be something to that. I think it’s fair to say that adding mobs, quests, terrain, and event scripting to an MMO is a lot more involved and costly than a puzzle or card game.

    Guild Wars 2 heavily pushed their Living Story setup, releasing new content “every two weeks” for a solid stretch. That wasn’t as monetized as the app games and hasn’t included as much vertical progression as a WoW content patch, but it has offered limited-time items and achievements for people to strive for. I personally experienced both some obsession and some burn-out with the cycle, but even while most of the releases have been fairly small (with the new plot completed in a few hours at most), they have kept the game more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Though, at present the game is coming up to the end of a 10-week dry spell of story releases (with one mechanics patch in that stretch). It feels almost silly for that to feel like a “drought” given how long WoW content patches (which are usually larger and more polished) regularly take.

    So maybe Blizzard really should readdress the company mentality about content/events. They seem fairly slow to change, though.


  4. Marvel Puzzle Quest doesn’t even introduce a lot of new “content”. They just have shiny rewards and competition. They have been introducing new characters here and there, but since they have almost all been “rare”, the best way to get them is from events where they are known prizes. Slingshot Braves is doing something similar, with events every week or so. Nothing much is really new, just different rewards and slightly shuffled existing content.

    It’s surprising how little it takes to make an “event”, actually.


  5. I’ve never looked at it as an event driven game, but after reading your post, I think you’re right.
    I just wish that Blizzard had slowed down a little when Pandaria “opened”. For a continent where every NPC reminds you to “slow down”, I felt extremely flooded with things that “had” to be done. So many dungeons. Factions (for the gear). What, pets?! HOW many? Oh, raids, yes! And a million other things, or so it seemed. (FARMS!!! Rares to camp for that extra loot). And that initial flood of new stuff makes the current trickle look even worse.
    BTW, Timeless Isle? I despise that place. I think I’ll go back to the “other” island and grind more bones. Or perhaps a faction change from Aldor to Scryer. Or get exalted with Ravenholdt.


    • Yup, MoP was rushed at the start which was a very poor decision because if they didn’t have the capacity to maintain pace they were going to end up where we are right now. I think the lvl 90 boosts went live just to try and keep ppl in the game.

      WoW is definitely event driven, the in game calendar is very good for seeing how they’ve set it all up. In some ways there is something different happening regularly – differ BG honor periods, the DMF every month, Wander’s Festival Sunday evening and then the seasonal things. But the timing is off for things like lunar festival/love is in the Air due to the actual dates those things happen, it all gets jammed in together leaving big gaps later. Add to that the lack of updating/refreshing of the content in the festivals and it becomes dull sooner or later. Things get refreshed infrequently and that just doesn’t work in an environment where there are plenty of other competing games to luring your subs away temporarily or permanently.


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