The topic of this week’s installment of On the Drawing Board tackles a less controversial issue than usual, but it’s one that’s seasonally appropriate. What do you think about games including holiday bonus content? I’m not talking about funny Christmas cards or wallpapers or website updates, but actual game content. Blizzard has made a habit of adding extra quests and items into World of Warcraft around Halloween, and many other companies have done the same, with varying results.

    There’s been no word yet from the D3 Team, but the inclusion of some such events seems pretty likely, since every MMORPG and similar online game has them these days. Assuming, or even hoping they will do it with Diablo III… is it a good idea? Does bonus content fit into the game’s fiction and world? Are special, limited-edition holiday items fun, or unbalancing? Is the time the design team spends creating these features worth it, or a distraction from more important work?

    Click through to read more about the pros and cons of this issue and to share your opinion…

    In theory, holiday content is a fun addition. In practice it can be a distraction, or even a debacle. Getting the balance right is the tricky part: if the design team just changes some of the names on a quest and puts in some useless holiday-themed trinket, then fans will wonder why their time was wasted for that.  If the special quests are boring FedEx crap, or the tone and mood of them doesn’t mesh with the overall game, fans are going to be annoyed. Further complicating things, making the rewards too good can be even worse. If the holiday bonus items are overpowered then fans will feel compelled to obtain them—which means that the fans who don’t get them (because they’re on vacation) will feel ripped off, and the regular game will be devalued in comparison.

    Before we make suggestions for Diablo III, let’s consider how other games are handling holiday events. There are plenty to look at now, since offering something seasonal has more or less become the industry standard. Guild Wars has Wintersday, Lineage 2 needs you to Save Santa, City of Heroes has the imaginatively-named Winter Event, Warhammer Online has Keg End, and there are many others.

    Whether they’re any good is another question. Besides not being too valuable or too pointless, holiday events should fit into the world lore, have some kind of larger purpose, be fun, and be memorable. Increasing the zombie spawn in graveyards by 50% and calling it a Halloween event isn’t going to cut it, these days.

    The game of which we dare not speak, Hellgate: London, launched on Halloween 2007, and they tried to run a Halloween event on top of the premiere. It didn’t go well. The Halloween events were limited to special candies that were simply renamed potions, a few FedEx style “collect X of object Y” quests, and a unique helm that gave a nice visual, but wasn’t really worth using. (Most games have special helms and other items that look nice, but are just worn over the regular equipment; an approach that seems to work better.) The bigger problem was that the game was launching at the same time as the Halloween event, and had a lot of technical problems, preventing players from playing at all, much less enjoying the Halloween bonuses. In retrospect, it doesn’t make much sense to have a special holiday event when lots of players don’t even know what the regular game looks like, yet. Most likely the perpetual HGL delays were to blame for that, and they’d planned to launch in the summer, which would have made a Halloween event a fun change.

    A more recent (seemingly) bad example can be found in Age of Conan. That game has an ongoing 31 Days of Christmas event, in which all players who send an email to a special address have a chance to find a free item in their inventory when next they log on. Some of the items are quite good, but when everyone gets it just for logging on, that’s instant DiabloWikimudflation. Also, how does that fit with the game world or lore? WoW can get away with Santa hats and epic mounts turning into reindeer since it’s kind of a comical, tongue-in-cheek game. A more serious game with a darker theme (like HGL, Conan, Guild Wars, Warhammer, etc) is risking a break in tonal consistency by throwing in wacky holiday bonuses.

    I know nothing about Lineage 2, but I have trouble envisioning any fantasy MMORPG world in which a “Save Santa” event that culminates in a “turkey dance” to the death doesn’t violate most of the game fiction.

    This is certainly a risk for Diablo III, since the game’s plot (from what we know at this point) and the world fiction is dark and ominous. Think of Diablo II; Can you imagine Cain suddenly sporting a Santa Hat while Tyrael gaily tosses out piles of presents? The sort of thing that works in a game like WoW would seem stupid and out of place in a Diablo game.  On the other hand, a creepy and gruesome Halloween event would fit very well with the Diablo lore, and the team can surely think up other appropriate holidays; inventing game ones to overlap or coincide with events in the real world can’t be that hard.

    World of Warcraft Holiday Events

    Since we know Blizzard’s other RPG is a big influence on the D3 Team, let’s consider how world events are handled in World of Warcraft.

    The WoW team seems to have struck a good balance between “irrelevant crap” and “worth doing without being overpowered.” They have numerous “events” during the year, most of them focused on various real world holidays. The two biggest take place over Halloween and Christmas, but there are plenty of others as well. These events features include new quests and items, as well as lots of new game world decorations, new NPCs, special bonus prizes from normal monster drops, and much more. The visuals are well done, since there are enough additions to the look of the world that all players notice something, but not so many that the gameplay experience is fundamentally altered.

    Hallow’s End is the Halloween festival, and it was actually written into the world lore as a special day for the Undead race. Initially the festivities were only for the Undead, but it’s expanded over the years and now all races in the game can join in.

    WoW celebrates Christmas with events called The Feast of Winter Vale. Decorated evergreens appear in town, NPCs wear in Santa suits, players get Santa suits and hats on quests, there’s snow on the ground and snowballs to be thrown, special holly can turn your mount into a reindeer, and more.

    WoW incorporates these bonuses into the entire game world, so all players will see some evidence of them. Also, there are special events going on all the time in WoW, so the Christmas and Halloween activities aren’t great anomalies, as they would be if nine or ten months passed between such disruptions. There are bonus quests and special bosses to kill, but they offer rewards that are equivalent to regular quests. The special holiday items can have effects unmatched elsewhere, but they are cosmetic rather than supremely valuable, and most of the bonuses and items vanish after being used for a week. Plus the events are generally well-meshed with the game lore, and WoW’s overall sense of humor

    Diablo III Special Events

    There’s one major question to address in this discussion. Should Diablo III have special events for the seasons, special world events, and other types of fresh, limited-time content other than patches and expansions? It’s not purely a yes or no question; what if there was such content, but you had to pay a monthly subscription fee to partake of it? Or what if such content meant that the actual expansions and patches took a bit longer? Would you still want it?

    Those are hypotheticals we won’t have answers for until Blizzard reveals more of their Diablo III online plans, so let’s leave them aside and go for the core question. If there is such content, what form would you like it to take?

    As usual, when it comes to multiplayer and online aspects, the model for the D3 Team is World of Warcraft. In that light, how could online content be integrated into Diablo III? WoW does it globally, with special decorations and other visual treats in almost every town in the game, and by making the goodies accessible and enticing enough that a lot of players will take advantage of them. Just one NPC in one town somewhere with a mistletoe FedEx quest is pointless; the seasonal bonuses have to be visible enough that everyone is aware of them.

    WoW also mixes up the type of treats available. There are cool, decorative things readily available; masks, ways to create a halo or falling snow over your character’s head, Santa suits, etc.  In addition to those novelties, there are add quests and events that aren’t just jokes; they are comparable in difficulty to other game quests, and the bonus monsters drop normal game items. To put it in D2 terms, it’s as if once a year another Pindleskin appeared somewhere in Act Four, or another Forgotten Tower was found in the deserts of Act Two.

    Those sorts of added features wouldn’t matter so much in D2, since the game is fully instanced and there’s no real reason to do areas than the most rewarding ones—unless you’re bored and want the novelty of the experience. We don’t know quite how quests and areas and instancing will work in D3 though, so we can’t say how closely it will hue to D2’s design model.

    The other big issue is design philosophy. I’m arguing that WoW’s variety of holiday specials work well since the game is lighter in tone, what with Murlocs and other comedic elements, and that it’s therefore easier to implement humorous bonus content.  Diablo III, as far as we know, will be much darker in tone. More akin to the horror vibe of D1 than D2’s sunnier, less gothic mood. D3 certainly was dark and grim in the small area of Tristram available for exploration at Blizzcon. As we all know, there are no rainbows in Diablo III.

    That tone, though much appreciated by most Diablo fans, might not lend itself very well to seasonal content. Halloween should be awesome, but Christmas, or various other holidays? Not so much. If there are no rainbows in Diablo III, then there certainly aren’t any light-bedecked tannebaums, or mistletoe kissing NPCs. (However, while we know the mood of Tristram and Act One, the theme may change in later acts.) There could certainly be extra quests and items and events, but it seems like it would be harder to work them into D3 than WoW, while keeping the tone and mood consistent.

    The final issue is another controversial one. Should there be special event items? Halloween-only uniques, or sets, for instance? Everyone would say “Yes!” if such items were not uber; they’d just be a novelty then, and fun to hunt, but of no ultimate consequence. What if they’re godly items, though? What if there were alternate versions of elite uniques that were only findable during that one week? Special higher quality prefixes and suffixes? Runewords that could only be made during that time? Is that desirable? Fair? Would it create exploits and mudflation, as every hardcore (that’s an adjective, not a noun) player stocked up on Dr. Pepper and Red Vines for a crazy-long play session as soon as the Halloween bonus monsters went live?

    Let us know what you think, and try to shape the debate; the D3 Team is surely contemplating these sorts of issues now, or they will be in 2009 as development progresses.

    On the Drawing Board is written by Flux. These articles examine crucial game design issues and decisions in Diablo 3 by explaining the issue and presenting arguments for and against. On the Drawing Board aims to spur debate and further the conversation, rather than converting readers to one side or the other. Conversation and disagreement is encouraged. Have your say in the comments, or contact the author directly. Suggestions for future column topics are welcomed.

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