A Tale of Six Crystals (or, "It was the best of events, it was the worst of events. . .")
December will mark the culmination of a twelve-month story arc, which has ranged from the icy caverns of Frore, to the tops of the Shadow Spires, to the enigmatic Nexus facility, to the smoldering crater where Arwic once stood. A war has waged over the entire last year, and countless casualties -- humans, shadows, and even the poor Arwic cow -- have been inflicted. Now, this war's final battle is at hand. Bael'Zharon has been freed from his crystal prison of two thousand years.
I'd like to talk a bit about the November event and the Shard of the Herald. A lot of what we did in November came from reaction to player feedback. In prior months, especially regarding the Nexus, players complained that there was no way to intervene in the plotline. People wanted the chance to defend the crystal, to keep BZ imprisoned. We thought that this would make for fantastic role-playing, and tried to come up with a system that would allow people to take a more active part in the event. Thus the PK-only dungeon for the final Shard was created. We wanted to give the players a choice -- to defend the Shard, or to destroy it.
What followed became, half by design, half by fortune, what was probably the most dramatic event in any ORPG to date. While most worlds broke the crystal in rather short order, Thistledown mounted a defense. And what a defense it was! The Shard was monitored around the clock in well-organized shifts. Needless to say, this exceeded our expectations by a long shot!
The premise behind the event was good, but was immediately complicated by a rather irritating bug. There was a means by which people could summon portals to unintended places -- as a result, the defense could be bolstered more than we ever expected, and perhaps more importantly, non-PKs could get into the dungeon to shatter the crystal. Secondly, we discovered that Harry (a.k.a. Harold, a.k.a. The Shard of the Herald) was leveling at an unexpectedly high rate, making the crystal nigh invulnerable as long as someone stayed with it at all times. Ah, the plot thickens!
Perhaps the most telling aspect of the whole event was that, despite the ability to do so, non-PK players never broke the Shard. According to every law of game design and human nature, we figured the Shard would fall that way. But it never did. And we are impressed.
As the event progressed, it became clear that the defenders had the means to achieve victory, and that meant we needed to turn to Plan B.
Plan B was also created in direct response to player feedback. One of the things made loud and clear after the destruction of the Cragstone Spire, and the rubble-ifying of Arwic, was that people didn't like it when big events happened “off camera.” This is essentially what we would have had to do for December. You see, we can't really have our servers diverge -- for the storyline to progress, we needed BZ free on all worlds in December. So, we had two choices: Wave our hands mysteriously and say, “Well, some . . . um . . . mysterious force broke the crystal, and BZ's free now.” Or, we could get directly involved, and have the event take place “on camera.” Thus did Plan B come to pass.
On Tuesday, we sent out a world broadcast to let everyone know that the show was far from over -- Bael'Zharon called out to his faithful for aid. Interestingly enough, Thistledown happened to have the two players who passed BZ's test back in March. Vidorian and Blackthorn had both received a Shadow Stone in exchange for a favor to be named later. Time to call in that favor!
Leh Rhan and Ferah had been biding their time, waiting to see if BZ's followers were indeed faithful to their dark master, or if they had turned to the banner of the traitor Dule. The crystal prison still stood, and the time had drawn too short. The Isparian killers had made their choice, much to the anger of the loyalist generals. They gathered up the true servants of Bael'Zharon, and moved in his name.
The reality of the matter was that we tried something that we had never really done before -- get directly involved in the action, and tell a bit of the story ourselves, so that the plot could continue. Another reason that fueled the timing of the event was the fact that we wanted TD players to have a few days to see BZ in his lair, as well as to take a shot at the Black Breath and the Treasury of the Order. To make this all happen and, most importantly, to make it happen in-game and “on camera,” we brought in two admin characters to take care of business.
To set the scene on our end, imagine Jesse at his desk, two computers running. Crowd about four people around him. In the conference room, pile in twenty people, watching a live video feed of the action on a television. (We're cleaning up the .avi that we recorded from the event, for release to the fansites; expect this in the next couple weeks.) The conference room and Jesse are connected via speakerphone. Shouting, chatting, cheering. Add in Dave Namerow, better equipped than most fighter pilots, with a couple messengers and observers on hand. The word is given, and the camera rolls.
Oh, you should have heard the laughter and jeers when Jesse died. (Which paled in comparison to our reaction of people jumping up and down on his corpse!) Let's just say that this did not exactly run according to the script. Truth is, the event was scripted to be a lot shorter and cleaner -- summon the Black Breath, which, aided by Jesse, would clear the room pretty quickly. We'd debuff Harry, to make the crystal mortal again, bring Vidorian in to get the kill, and then get out. Nice and simple.
What actually happened was a little bit eerie. Harold resisted our attempts to alter him. And then, he refused to die. We were worried that perhaps the Shard had achieved sentience. I guess we'll never know, because we finally figured out how to make Harry vulnerable again, and after an extended struggle, he fell.
The end result was messier than we would have liked. Vidorian died a few times, defenders died left and right, and my blood pressure went much higher than I would have preferred. Truth is, we didn't expect Plan B to ever come to pass, and as a result we were already deep into testing December's update when we needed to prepare this special event for November. All in all, we considered the event a success, but with definite room for improvement. The action had taken place “on camera” as planned, and the story was ready to move forward again, all lore intact.
All in all, we learned an awful lot from the event. We were breaking new ground and weren't aware of all the pitfalls. Well, now we've got a better grasp on things, and we give thanks to our players for bearing with us through this learning process. The entire dynamic created this month was very exciting indeed!
In closing there's one thing that I want to make abundantly clear: We did not do this to “make the defenders lose.” We did this because the defenders had won. In January, Thistledown residents are going to be rewarded with a unique monument, in honor of the Defense of the Shard. It's not ph4t l3wt, but we didn't feel we could individually reward each and every person who participated in the defense. Instead, the memorial will be a reminder of this unique event, and a reminder that there are rewards to be reaped and lessons to be learned by challenging the notions of what “can't be done” in an online world!
Congratulations to all involved!
Nik “Azeraphel” Davidson
Turbine Entertainment Software