Why MMO Christmases never stack up to Halloween


Now that December is here, we’re gearing up for the second of two major MMO holidays that pretty much every game celebrates: Christmas. Or, due to these being incredibly detailed fictional universes with thousands of pages of intricate backstory, Merry Yule Wintertide Wintersday Winter-home Winter Viel Solstice Lifeday Snowbelle Krampus Frostivus Snowdown Starlight Festival.

#waronMMOchristmas — let’s make that happen!

Anyway, most all MMOs celebrate Halloween in some form and most do Christmas as well, and we can debate the merit and marketing value of mimicking real world holidays in-game another time. What I want to do today is share my observations that Christmas in MMOs is almost always a sub-par holiday when compared to Halloween.

This has nothing to do with me favoring one actual holiday over the other. I love both, but for different reasons. But I’ve noticed that no matter how hard MMO studios try, they can never seem to pull out the same stops and creativity for Christmas that they do Halloween. It’s kind of a bummer to end the year on the weaker of the seasonal game holidays, although that’s just when one compares. On their own, Christmas festivals can be a welcome (at least for me) change of pace.

So what’s the deal here? Why does Christmas suffer so?

The way I see it, there are three categories that hurt it:


Halloween lends itself to practically anything spooky and scary, and there is so much of a wide variety here that one MMO’s Halloween can look very, very different from another (although there are some thematic elements shared).

But Christmas? It’s a much more narrow list of decor: snow, red-and-green, trees, candy canes, presents, grinches, etc. Making an MMO’s Christmas look distinctive from others is quite difficult if (and here’s an important point) they’re trying to cash in on the real holidays.


Christmas and other surrounding holidays are steeped in traditions and significance and a million Hallmark Channel specials. What Christmas is is quite specific to some people, and having to dance around that when making a festival for a universal crowd is more constricting because of it.

MMO Christmases suffer from an overabundance of generic tone, contrasted to MMO Halloweens, which are far more free to do what they want and come up with their own lore because no one sings Halloween songs apart from those people who just won’t let Nightmare Before Christmas go.

Combat and Costumes

Halloween has the home field advantage in MMOs because so many of that holiday’s elements fit in perfectly with online games. We’re already dressing up characters, so the costume thing is a great match. MMOs always have scary zones and it isn’t out of place to add one more haunted castle into the mix. And fighting evil, why, it’s part of a grand tradition stretching back to Van Helsing.

But Christmas? That takes a lot more adapting. It’s not completely jarring; snow zones and gift giving work in MMOs, but how do you gamify togetherness, family meals, and peace and joy to the world? Usually the devs throw up their hands and create another snowball fight, because not having combat somewhere in a holiday is apparently very scary.

I’ll even throw in one more disadvantage from MMO Christmases, which is that rewards gained from it are so painfully seasonal that you have no desire to wear/use/equip them come January. Halloween stuff? I’m rocking that year-long.

I have ideas how to spice up Christmas events, mostly starting with a more sincere effort to create an in-game holiday that matches the virtual world its in and isn’t trying to just ape Christmas without slapping the label on it. But that’s a post for another day.

Three things I’m thankful for today

turkeyHappy Thanksgiving to all of my readers, fellow bloggers, and friends! It’s a pretty mellow day here, as we’re dealing with a two-week-old and I’m recovering from the norovirus. We already went out to a restaurant for our big meal and are preparing to put up Christmas decorations and switch over into the holiday countdown mode.

So what am I thankful for today? I could list a lot of personal stuff — the baby, of course, and my health and all of the daily blessings I receive. But this here is a gaming blog, so let’s focus on that right now, shall we?

1. That Massively (OP) is still running and I’m still writing for it

It’s hard for me to process that it was less than a year ago that we got the email from AOL telling us that the company was simultaneously shuttering most all of its weblogs. The plan to start up our own site was born amid a frantic week full of high emotions, despair, and crazy hope.

And yet, here we are with MOP running strong after the community rallied around us and provided the funds we needed to get off the ground. It’s been a massive amount of work for all parties to get the site up and keep it running, but we’ve done it and I’m quite proud of what we’ve accomplished. And reporting on the daily MMO news while getting to podcast and do other columns still hasn’t gotten old for me, even six years after I started all of this.

2. For my WildStar/SWTOR guild

Taking the extra effort to apply and be interviewed for Remnants of Hope proved worth the hassle, because this has been a truly welcoming and active guild in both of the scifi MMOs that I play. I enjoy chatting and running content with them and am always pleasantly surprised how supportive they all are.

3. For so many gaming choices

While I’ll always wish that I had as much time to game every day as I wanted, I’m not complaining for a lack of terrific MMOs and other games to enjoy. It seems like there are so many titles that are worthy of my attention — and I am very rarely bored.

Happy Thanksgiving all! Enjoy your time with family, friends, and frantic video gaming!

My theory on jumping puzzles in MMOs


My current operating theory on why jumping puzzles have proliferated modern MMOs is thus:

In every studio there’s one developer who is both the sole bully and the sole proponent of jumping puzzles. Call him the Biff. And everyone is terrified of standing up to the Biff, even though everyone else thinks that jumping puzzles have no place in these types of games and are often annoying and alienating to non-twitchy players.

So the Biff gets away with shoehorning them into the game while the studio is forced to pretend as if jumping puzzles are good ideas, because not even the execs want to stand up to the Biff. The Biff gave the CFO a wedgie in the bathroom that one time and called the lead producer a “butthead.”

Therefore, taking a stand against jumping puzzles is really standing against the tyranny of a bully who thinks it’s funny to make you fall down and go splat in a video game. Arise my fellow gamers and tell the Biffs of the world “no more!”

Vote on my next retro gaming journey!

My time in Master of Magic is winding down — there will be one more installment this weekend — and I’m looking ahead to my next excursion in retro games. So once again I leave it up to you to vote on one of four picks from my GOG library. I’m picking a hodge-podge this time around: one horror, one stealth, one RPG, and one adventure game.

Here are the choices:

  • Alone in the Dark: Classic survival horror/adventure title that was one of the first of its kind. Scared the crud out of me when I was a kid.
  • Thief: Old-school stealth title using a Doom-like FPS engine.
  • Ultima I: Going back to where it all started!
  • King’s Quest III: Picking back up from my trip through all of the King’s Quests.

So what will it be? Vote and make your voice heard!

So Fallout 4 managed to scare the crap out of me finally

I wouldn’t say that Fallout 4 is a scary game, as a whole, although I have no doubt that the devs tried to go for horror pieces here and there. But the biggest true scare of the game for me so far had nothing to do with vampires or carefully placed skeletons.

I’ve been meticulously revealing the map and the other night went to a small park on a hill. There were a couple of cabins and a faded sign that warned me about feeding the bears. I got a little chuckle out of this…

…and turned to see a mammoth bear charging right at me at 30 miles per hour. It plowed into me as I yelped and shot back from my desk, after which I scooted up and tried to recover while this thing was batting me around like a play toy.

It was, for a second, truly terrifying. It blurred the lines between games and reality and had my instincts thinking that there was an actual angry bear running right for me.

Taking the bear and his pesky partner down was quite tricky — these things can withstand a lot of punishment and most of my guns aren’t too strong. I ended up using my laser musket and a healthy dose of VATS in the head to do the deed.

Bears. Because they actually are this scary in real life and should be treated as such in all video games.

Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests?

tabooA while ago I was in the middle of turning in a batch of quests in RIFT when one NPC’s quest completion text caught my eye and stopped my mindless task-turnins to really think about what was happening:

He had previously wanted me to kill this creature for some reason or another, although I am hard-pressed to remember why.  It’s one of many disposable, forgettable quests that flow around far more substantial ones.  But since MMOs these days are combat-centric and pretty much all quests require killing, we just have assumed that whatever justification the NPC gives for this mission is morally right.

Yet this quest giver wasn’t out for justice, but petty vengeance.  He wanted to play with the head afterward.  He’s obviously off his rocker and yet my character can’t really call him out on it.  I’ve caught a few other quests where NPCs have extremely flimsy pretexts for sending me on a killing spree, usually more for convenience sake than survival or retribution.

Anytime you get into a serious discussion of morality and ethics in MMO questing, you’ll immediately hit the wall of mass murder-by-gameplay. But if we chisel through that wall, we might see that there are issues beyond just this that developers have to consider when designing stories and quests for online games.

Modern MMOs require absolute scads of scenarios to fill up their questing logs. Most of these are fairly tame and play out against a black-and-white (or good-and-bad) moral setting. “My daughter was kidnapped by gnolls, please go rescue her.” “I need sixteen bulberries to create an antidote to giant spider poison.” “Go press the thingie to stop nuclear armageddon.” And so on.

However, once in a while a quest designer strays outside of the safe (and arguably boring) bounds of generally accepted reasons to go on these quests to dabble in the taboo. What about a quest in which the player is given instructions to torture an enemy soldier or exact vengeance on a tribe until they leave their homes and go off into the wilderness to die? I’ve seen these. In mature-rated games, such as Fallen Earth and The Secret World, dabbling in the taboo is more common, but it still happens even in the most benign titles.

You ever notice how most MMOs don’t feature children — or if they do, kid NPCs are invincible? There’s a rating reason behind that, because the ESRB and its associates crack down pretty hard on games that put kids in compromising situations (such as, say, an open-world FFA setting where all NPCs can be killed). Kids aren’t necessarily taboo, but MMO studios aren’t jumping to include them in most stories because they can complicate quests in ways not intended.

And there are other topics that are — if not forbidden, then generally avoided because they can be divisive, upsetting, or unable to be presented without pushing a certain viewpoint or agenda. Most players aren’t really eager to draw in real-world pain and arguments into their gaming space. That’s maybe why our fictional mass killings are so accepted — it’s pure fantasy and has no direct analogue to our real-world lives. But work in sexual or domestic violence, and then you have the very real possibility that you’re going to deeply upset or disturb some of your gamers.

So should MMOs keep some topics taboo? And if so, what? There’s probably no easy answer to that that applies across all games and all situations. I never like to come down on the side of censorship — a storyteller should have the freedom to tell whatever story he or she likes without restraints, after all. But there’s a measure of common sense, empathy, and wise thinking that needs to go into these quests too, since they’re involving a myriad of other people.

And going back to my original example, I think that quests with touchier topics should not be presented as an on-the-rails narrative. Give the player some agency in the story — whether it be a choice of action, a selection of dialogue, or a reaction how the quest is completed.

If an MMO story can make me think, can jar me out of complacency, or teach me, I generally applaud that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shocking or controversial to do that, but it needn’t shy away from doing what it must if the situation (and world tone) calls for it.

What do you think? Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests? Have you ever experienced a quest that went too far in some way?

Fallout 4: Finding the humor in the apocalypse


Won’t you take a bio break in the wasteland? No flushing water, but you can’t beat that scenery!

One of the criticisms I’ve seen levied at Bethesda for its Fallout titles is that this studio is a lot less… jocular when it comes to the setting. Interplay definitely had an impish spirit about the first two Fallout titles, utilizing black and surreal humor to great effect. It’s definitely something I’ve been looking for in Fallout 4 — and, to Bethesda’s credit, finding from time to time. I’m not sure how well the jokes (quality/quantity) compare so far, but at least I’ve been amused from time to time.


I’m still not that far in — I’m really taking my time and being thorough — so I’m relatively close to the start. That said, the most bizarre thing I’ve seen thus far is a little hippie commune that was apparently established to free robots from their human masters. Before the bombs dropped, the commune managed to reprogram all of one bot (Professor Goodfeels, or somesuch), who is now the sole non-enemy resident of the camp. He just goes around spouting off groovy nonsense while his former saviors have been turned into feral ghouls. Don’t worry, I rescued them all with my big pipe wrench.

I’ll say that nervous Travis’ patter is the real reason I stay tuned to Diamond City Radio in the game. At this point I know pretty much all 20 or so songs by heart (“crawl OUT through the fallOUT!” “urANIUM fever!”), but hearing that weird guy talk to me through the radio provides a humorous touch to my explorations, especially when he gets all literal-like.


Here’s a tip: When you see a cymbal monkey like this with glowing red eyes, don’t be like me trying to get a good screenshot. Run. Run for your life. Trust me.