The Nature of Dynamic Events – ArenaNet’s Hat Trick

As stated in my previous post, Dynamic Events are the primary form of content in Guild Wars 2.  I say this with almost total certainty, in fact.  Primary content in an MMO should become more plentiful as you become higher level, because you are more capable and expect more.  As we learned recently, there are no renown areas in Orr (the majority of the high level zones in GW2 are in Orr), yet there are twice as many Dynamic Events in these high level areas.  In addition, there are far more Dynamic Events than other types of content (over 1500 events as of a year ago and still growing).

What are Dynamic Events though, and why move to this?  This type of content fascinates me, not only with the flexibility of the content, but also how events seem to take benefits of previous forms and remove the problems with those forms of content.  Everyone has probably played a game where there were some aspects they really liked, but it also had problems that really soured the experience.

There’s a pretty awesome video of a panel ArenaNet did in 2010 at GDC Europe where they describe the whole Dynamic Event system, how they came to this setup, and things they learned early on.  Give it a look, it’s really enlightening into the whole process even if one or two aspects may not have made it to current iterations.  Of particular value (to me, at least) is their descriptions of the first two eras of MMO content (starting at 1:05, or the Hunting and Questing sections), and their benefits and problems.

First era

The first era was “camps” or hunting (as their slide is labeled), which was mainly a translation of previous MUD content of just killing things into 3D graphical form.  Players would congregate in groups nearby natural mob spawn points and pull these mobs to them to kill, repeating this over and over again to gain experience.  As you gained experience and got higher level, players moved on to new zones with tougher mobs to join camps.

The essence of camps in EQ1…slaughtering single mobs 6 to 1.  Well, 4 to 1 here.

While Colin goes over the negatives and barriers of this system (competing for mobs as a limited resource and a lack of context of why you were doing this), he doesn’t quite cover some things that I think are quite impressive of this type of content from my own experience, and are major strengths for massively multiplayer content:

  1. They were locations that drew players to them.  These were the main source of experience in this era, so players actually wanted to find groups and set up camps.  This is invaluable for an MMO, as you want players working together to build a community.
  2. They encouraged players to explore and learn the zone in order to find out-of-the-way areas where they could sit and get experience without interfering with other groups.
  3. They had extremely low barriers to entry.  As long as you were powerful enough and there was space in the group, anyone could just walk in and join.
  4. They were REALLY good at getting players to talk to each other, despite their downsides.  Since you were sitting in a group for hours, people really got to know each other as well and form a community.  You could have a night where you not only played the game all night, but had multiple real conversations and real connections even as an introvert (a big plus for me).

It’s actually quite amazing that this came about, honestly.  As far as I know, this wasn’t really the initial intent for the game.  Players essentially stepped up and created a content style for themselves, based on what they found was the most efficient method of leveling.  Social systems sprung up to support it, such as the “Camp Check!” zone announcement where players would openly communicate to the players in the zone looking for open camps or spots in camps.

A reasonable facsimile of a camp check…including the banter.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of problems and I don’t ever want to return to that style, but I just can’t ignore the good parts that also came out of it when saying we need to improve how we play games.

Second era

The second era was/is “questing”.  This was a fundamental paradigm shift in MMOs, since it moved players from the non-stop murder and slaughtering everything present, the previous paradigm in MMOs, over to more task-oriented objectives.

Here’s your shopping list. Get to work.

In the same video I linked above, Eric speaks to the benefits and problems (barriers to entry due to players not being on the same steps, for instance, and the general competition between players), but as with camps I’ll just quickly go over the benefits this system introduced:

  1. They had more context.  Players learned “why” they were doing what they do, even if it was a cheesy reason.  This included something of a plot line, so you could feel as if your work had a purpose and led to it being more immersive.
  2. They had a goal.  Quests always gave you a goal, whether that be deliver an item or kill 8 of certain types of an enemy.  This was invaluable for opening content up to new players as if gave them something to focus on, and especially filled a need for players who need more concrete direction.
  3. They moved players around.  While camps brought players to specific places for long periods of time, quests kept players mobile.  They’d move to a hub, then to the questing areas, finish their task, return for their reward, and move on to the next hub.

As I stated/alluded to in the previous post, this task oriented method has also led to some interesting behaviors players are now conditioned to do.  Since experience efficiency is a matter of how many quests can you complete in the shortest amount of time, rather than the more long-term, constant rate from camps, players stopped hanging around to talk to others, or grouping up to quest.  They constantly moved from one area to the next, finishing quests, grouping only to complete a particularly difficult step, and immediately leaving after they finish if they didn’t see another one waiting.

Overall, as Eric says, it’s a very solo-oriented content design, a fact noticeable to many people I know who played EQ1 and greatly enjoyed the camaraderie from sitting in a camp chatting while playing.  Nowadays you can only get this if you manage to find a good guild, not always an easy task.

Do I want to go back to camps, though?  No thank you, as I said there were a lot of issues with that.  The quest system introduced a lot of significant advancements that I don’t want to lose.  However, I don’t think we need to go back to camps at all.

Enter the Dynamic Events.

Dynamic Events seem to be the best opportunity we’ve had to marrying the context and task-driven style quests bring to the table with the low barrier of entry and focus on bringing players together in which camps excelled.  Take a look at the list I made (above in the first era section) regarding the strengths of camps.  All of those factors also exist in Dynamic Events…except instead of being stationary, always-up camps they’re, well, dynamic.  (Okay, we’re working on the talking part too, but I noticed a lot of chatter in these events during BWE3 so we’re getting there)

Essentially this is what the EQ1 camps were, viewed through GW2’s system…always-up events to take out mobs nearby, waiting for a named mob to spawn for special loot.

Now take a look at the list for quests (above in second era section).  Again, they’re factors of Dynamic Events as well.  DEs are essentially temporary camps that draw players to the area and work together, with the context and goal of quests…yet they’re more than that.  In my opinion, ArenaNet has performed a major hat trick here (intentional or no) by devising a system that takes the benefits of both previous systems while also including changes to remove the negatives of each system and bring events into their own.

  1. Instead of being limited to solo or group, anyone in the area can join in and contribute and be rewarded without competing with each other, and the events scale in various ways based on how many are involved.
  2. Instead of having to worry about quest logs being synced, players can join in whenever they want, even if their friend has been playing all day in the zone.
  3. Instead of being always up and waiting for players to start them, events can run on their own, resulting in different states and effects on the world regardless of player interaction.  This results in a series/web of events where you’re experiencing a tug of war with the enemy.  Enemies won’t just stay put for the rest of the game after you beat them back, they’ll be coming again to push back against your success later.

It’s a fairly well-rounded system that really makes the world feel alive and makes it easy to get into doing content.

Problems with Dynamic Events

Now, are Dynamic Events a perfect form of content?  No, absolutely not. While they do seem to include many beneficial effects from previous and existing forms of content, they do have their own very real problems.

The most glaring problem is the part mentioned above about the temporary and nature of the events not being always up nor scripted to occur on specific, guided schedules announced to everyone.  In addition, events only appear on your map if you’re nearby.  This is intended for various reasons, but the problem here is that it’s relatively easy to run into situations where players simply don’t encounter any events for prolonged periods of time.  I liken this problem to situations in the “camp” era where I would log in and, regardless of which zone I went to searching, just could not find a group, halting my progress.  It’s a similar situation, and a similar feeling.

As I said in my previous Dynamic Event article, ArenaNet really can’t solve this problem without sabotaging their content.  However, they can definitely mitigate it in various ways.  For example, crier NPCs were created to point players towards active DEs (and they work very well if you talk to them or even just listen to them, as they can literally add a faraway event on your map).  The game gives experience to pretty much anything, including gathering from nodes, reviving allies, and killing mobs that have been left untouched and alive longer, and even shows most of those on your map to encourage players to go off the beaten path.  ArenaNet is working to break the “go here, then here, then here” mentality that plagues current quest MMOs, and encourages players to explore and go beyond the common playing areas which improves the chances of coming across an event.

Personally I had this problem in the sylvari area until I did one important thing: I started talking to the NPCs I found.  I really started this when I came across a heart where one of the tasks was dueling with the guards.  It got me into talking to the NPCs more, and once I started doing that I was able to find events really easily.  After I began gathering everything, going to revive NPCs and players, and talking to NPCs, the content pretty much just came to me as I was moving around.

I do think there are more problems that are likely to appear (I also went over one in my previous article about players completing all of the always-up content yet not being high enough to move on), but more time is likely needed to determine the full extent of these problems, and more may appear that we didn’t anticipate.  Only time will tell here.

Looking to the Future

There’s one more benefit to the way Dynamic Events work that has been mentioned, but not overly discussed.  Since Dynamic Events only appear at times and are not always up, the developers don’t have a situation where they want to change the content in an area but run the risk of damaging the existing content.  Many MMOs have trouble updating an area, as the quest layout is a more tightly crafted system leading players through an area.  Players expect those quests to always be available, and changes can be missed or cause players to receive far more experience/rewards than intended.

Since Dynamic Events aren’t always up, and are temporary even when they are, I don’t think players will expect to always see them like they do quests, and there’s no finely crafted event path calculated to give enough experience to be max level at the end.  This gives ArenaNet a rather unprecedented amount of flexibility in adding content, as they can just slow down the repeat of events in order to insert new ones that just start without messing up a prescribed rate of experience.

Final Thoughts

While most players tend to lump Guild Wars 2 into the theme park style and say that the game is just really good at hiding it, I do tend to feel there’s an element or two of the sandbox style of MMO that players will recognize with enough time, given the fact that events aren’t always up and players are encouraged to explore and find their own way in the world.  Does that mean GW2 is both?  No, but I think the game does have a few aspects of sandbox, or at least replicates some feelings from it that may improve its appeal.

I also feel that players themselves will end up becoming an extremely valuable resource in locating and experiencing events, announcing to the zone when meta events begin or a powerful boss has spawned and help is needed.  We’ve already seen this in the BWEs, most recently from Metrica Province for the Thaumanova Reactor Fallout meta event.  A massive fire elemental spawned that quickly slaughtered everyone and for many was considered too powerful (including the developer).

There will be blood…and that elemental is a good distance from me at this point.

However, participants would reach out to other players via the Map channel (/m) asking for help, and players would respond by coming to the area to help quickly via the waypoints.  That’s the sort of outreach I’m talking about, map-wide communication that can vastly improve the game and make events more accessible.  I’m hoping my “Event Check!” idea may catch on to help communicate active events players can join in on, but even if this communication is limited to meta events (which I repeatedly saw in the beta) it’ll be a strong step forward for the game.

EverQuest 1 map courtesy of Muse from EQAtlas.com (archive found here).
GUComic courtesy of gucomics.com (Pretty good webcomic, IMO)
Camp group shot courtesy of FoH Message Board (if you have a problem, just say the word and it’s down, guys).

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