Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Catastrophe as Content

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 5, 2006

One of the greatest things about online games has always been their unpredictability. Sometimes this happens because of the complex interactions arising from a carefully crafted interconnected system. Sometimes it happens because players are complicated machines designed explicitly to abuse things. And sometimes it happens because a developer makes an embarrassing mistake. Whatever the cause, large-scale subversions of game design become news. Die-hard players and community members get something new to argue about, they tell their friends about it, and sometimes it crosses over and becomes general technical news. Out of all the ways a developer can create interest in a title, nothing beats a monumental screw-up.

Two factors decide the eventual effects of a catastrophe: the nature of the mistake, and the developer response. To generate any interest, a mistake has to be both obvious and unexpected. Anything that happens to one player and is kept quiet doesn’t accomplish anything. Also, mistakes that take away valuable rewards from players don’t go too well. Everyone involved is generally too pissed about the situation to do anything but complain about the personal affront. Related to developer response, there are two basic rules. First, if you screw up something, always give players back more than what they lost. Second, if you get this urge to teleport a player into the sun, don’t do it. Even if they’re being an asshole. Seriously, not worth it.

With those criteria in mind, here’s some of the more successful failures in the history of online games:

  • September 23rd, 1997: During a beta test for Ultima Online, Lord British (being operated by Richard Garriott himself) came to the town square and attempted to convince players to stop stealing from each other. He was then brutally murdered by an anarchist rebel. Garriott forgot to turn himself invincible after a server crash, and entered into gaming history because of it.
  • April 18th, 2005: The Guiding Hand Social Club, an Eve Online player corporation, successfully infiltrated a very large and powerful player corporation, stole all their assets, and systematically destroyed everything. More than $16,000 in real-world money was destroyed or seized in one day. The victims appealed to the developers to have their assets returned, but the developers chose not to. It turns out being an thieving mass murderer isn’t against the game rules. People who’d never heard of Eve before started checking it out.
  • September 16th, 2005: With the release of the new 1.7 patch, World of Warcraft added a new high-level monster. He attacked close players by casting a disease designed to instantly kill players. However, some players managed to make it back to town before dying, and spread the disease to some important NPCs. At this point it became a global epidemic and started devastating the low level players. Server population surged.
  • October 26th, 2005: Jick, the head designer of Kingdom of Loathing accidentally deleted the contents of the character database. On top of that, he had failed to make proper database backups of some vital game data. After White Wednesday, the developers responded by quickly creating a large amount of interesting content, opening up previously closed areas, and restoring individual characters from text logs. Pretty much everyone ended up richer and happier in the end

It’s time to spread the news: Catastrophe is the New Content.


One Response to “Catastrophe as Content”

  1. […] of game systems will take place on forums and blogs across the net. As I mentioned in an earlier post, controversy is a great driver of this type of discussion. If your game can be talked about in a […]

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