28 October, 2015
As we get into fall, we start getting into the “holiday season”. The first major one is coming up: my birthday. Although, the day before is also Halloween, so maybe that takes precedence.
MMOs tend to have special events around these times to celebrate the season. Let’s take a look at the current Halloween events in the two MMOs I play and see how tone is affected by these events.
The most wonderful time of the year
Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year. I enjoy the changing of the season heralded by the color changing on the trees, and the turn from hot muggy days to cool nights is a very welcome change. As a kid, getting a bag of candy was always a great time. As an adult, I like the creativity that Halloween inspires with costumes, even if I shouldn’t indulge in candy quite so much.
My birthday being on November 1st meant that I often get to continue the fun the next day.
Halloween doesn’t have a lot of particularly deep emotional connections for most people today, compared to holidays like Christmas. The origins are pretty obscure; it was originally a Celtic holiday celebrating the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the winter season. It was believed that the boundary between the living and the dead was thinner this time of year, probably because a number of people were expected to die during the harsh winter months. Celtic druids used this time to divine for the future, and the Celts would have big celebrations involving bonfires and dressing up in costume.
Today, we’ve kept the costumes and spooky aura, but added a ton of sugary candy; in the U.S. about a quarter of all candy sold is for the Halloween season. And tons of inappropriate “sexy” costumes.
Halloween makes a good MMO holiday, as you can see this MassivelyOP article. Dressing up in costumes is popular with many people in the game most of the year. People go murder monsters for trinkets and treats, so Halloween is basically just your typical MMO day with a different color theme. The limited time nature of the events and rewards also work on a psychological level to make you value them more.
Spooktacular Final Fantasy XIV
FFXIV has a celebration called “All Saints’ Wake”. Since FFXIV straddles two very different cultures, the U.S. and Japan, all the holiday events have a bit of a slightly foreign feeling to them. If you squint, you can see a lot of the American traditions for Halloween in there, but with some other elements. Even the name is obviously a reference to the day after Halloween, All Saints’ Day, rather than to the Halloween holiday itself.
As with many things in FFXIV, there’s quite a bit of story to the event. The background lore is that this is the time of the year where the people celebrate the twelve gods and invite them to celebration. But the creatures of darkness use this opportunity to wreak havoc without the gods watching. The in-game story mostly revolves around a group called the Continental Circus, which are a bunch of monsters in disguise. They have potent illusion magic, and they keep trying to scare people. This year they focused on trying to turn kids into monsters to spread fright, but the player is there to save the day as usual.
The story is a bit silly, with the “evil” monsters mostly appearing to be mustache-twirling incompetent villains. They give exposition about their plans to the camera, and the player comes in and undoes all the chaos with the help of some NPCs. But, since it does involve kids being threatened, it makes sense that the story would be a bit silly. And, the game has even sillier elements to it such as the Hildibrand quest line which is rather silly in parts, but something I found to be a lot of fun.
Rewards are typical FFXIV fare. You can get an outfit of witchy-looking clothes, which is used in part of the quest. One problem is that the set doesn’t come with pants; this is less of an issue for female characters since the shirt has a skirt, but for guys your character’s underwear is showing. There’s also a flying broom mount that looks really cool. Although, it does provide “upskirt” shot opportunities; FFXIV is a very equitable game in this regard, as even male casters in robes have an opportunity to flash their undies in certain situations.
The event changes every year. A lot of the core elements are the same, but the details change. Last year you still interacted with the Continental Circus, but they were trying to trick you into scaring the populace. The reward was some spooky barding for your personal chocobo. One other interesting thing about FFXIV’s holiday rewards is that they are often available in the “optional good” cash shop in subsequent years.
Changing Dungeons & Dragons Online
DDO had a Halloween event for a few years. It focused on the traditional aspects of the holiday, where the boundary between the living and the dead were weakened. It used lore from the Eberron setting, saying that the plane of Mabar was coterminous to the prime material plane. This fit in with the lore perfectly.
The Mabar Endless Night Festival focused on killing undead in a very popular zone. You’d get certain drops that could be turned in for “motes” which were used to buy and upgrade items. You also needed certain rare drops to upgrade some items. In addition, you could get keys which would allow access to a special raid once enough drops were turned in for motes. The raid focused on protecting four altars in four different rooms while trying to kill a dragon for a scale needed for an upgrade. It was a pretty complex event since it was 100% pick-up group, but it was still a lot of fun.
The one big problem was that the event suffered heavily from server lag. Occasionally whole groups would just freeze in place, only to get the notification that an altar was destroyed and no loot was rewarded. It was a source of frustration for some people. There were all sorts of superstitions about what caused the lag, and people trying to avoid it. But, quite often the event would go fine.
This year the event was changed to “The Night Revels”,. It happens in the same area, but with different mechanics. You can get chocolate drops from monsters, and they occasional drop keys. You use the keys to go into altered forms of quests, where you can get special drops; these quests are spooky alternatives to existing quests in the game. The drops are all candy-themed, focusing more on the modern interpretation of the holiday. This new form is also a lot less focused on the lore of the setting; which makes some sense as a lot of the focus has shifted toward the Forgotten Realms in the game.
But, I’m slightly disappointed in the change. Although the Mabar festival was never my most favorite event, it still had a good flavor to it. The shift of focus to candy seems a bit silly in a game that often has quite a serious tone.
Shifts in tone
The change in DDO’s tone is interesting to me as a game designer. The shift from a lore-steeped raid-like event to a more fluffy event focusing on solo and small party fights says a lot about the attitudes of the current DDO development team, and perhaps how the perceive the audience of people currently playing DDO. It’s a small thing, but potentially important.
A lot of games will often do shift their tone for special events, usually to make them a bit sillier. It’s a good way to have a bit of silliness for a while, allowing for a bit of comedic relief in a game that might be much more serious in tone. You could compare this to a TV show like Farscape, which was mostly a very serious drama with an occasional episode of comedy relief to release some of the building tension. Some people see MMOs as a world that players will live in, and while conflict is the foundation of good stories, it can feel oppressive if all that exists is conflict.
On the other hand, silliness can ruin the mood. Farscape episodes like the animated cartoon one were supposedly took place in the main character’s head; drawing upon Saturday morning cartoons also served a purpose to ground the character in a human frame of mind when all the rest of the cast was supposed to be alien. Suspension of disbelief is a fragile thing, and stomping all over it in the name of a cheap laugh can have lasting damage. Looking at tabletop D&D, you can see that different people have different attitudes at the table: some people love a good joke, while others want to immerse themselves in the world. Designing an MMO world where you can satisfy a wide group of people is tough, but can be a worthy goal.
What do you think? Do you like a bit of silliness with your game? How about in limited events? What is the best MMO Halloween event in your opinion?