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For his latest RPG Scrollbars column on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Richard Cobbett has penned a piece on world-changing events in MMORPGs, which he considers one of the most interesting parts of an otherwise stagnant and theme park-focused genre. Here's an excerpt that focuses on World of Warcraft's handling of this kind of disruptive content:
The trouble is that we don’t tend to see big world events very often, except as marketing for expansions and the like. In Warcraft’s case, the traditional pre-launch event has historically been some sort of invasion. A chance for the baddies to show off their power. A prelude to the fight to come. World of Warcraft: Legion has the half-titular Burning Legion due to launch assaults on various zones (as available on the PTR for a while now). Cataclysm had the mighty dragon Deathwing flaming zones and killing anyone caught in the fire. And then of course, there was the Wrath of the Lich King event. That was a memorable one, not least because it was based on one of the most infamous cock-ups in the game’s history – Corrupted Blood. This happened about a year into the game, when the Zul’Gurub dungeon was added. Its boss, Hakkar, could cast Corrupted Blood on players, which would bounce around and infect the party. It was only meant to work within the confines of the dungeon, but players soon figured out that if they zapped out of the raid and back into the world proper, they could spread it around the wider player community. The result saw players fleeing the cities, and real-world scholars studying it as an example of infection and even terrorism in action. If only a reboot could sort out that kind of problem in reality as easily as in games.
This being a time when Blizzard was a little cockier about its license to print money though, it subsequently replicated the basic idea for Wrath of the Lich King. At least, something similar. Infected grain began at one of the ports, and subsequently moved to the cities. Infection was easily cured by other players or NPCs, but failing to do so meant turning into a feral zombie. As the days went on, the infection became hardier, the incubation period became shorter, and the whole civilised game was thrown into chaos. I still think this was brilliant. It did more to show the threat of the Lich King than any mwah-ha-ha dialogue or badass attack in a raid, and the inconvenience – while unquestionable – was short lived. For a week or so, it was like being under siege, offered the fun of being a zombie on the flip-side, in a moment that unlike just about every other in the game – including seasonal events – was never likely to be repeated. It gave such flavour to things, and remains one of my favourite events.