Life returns to normal in Lord of the Rings Online, after a brief and somewhat surreal few weeks of picking flowers and chasing chickens through a large, sudden and inexplicable hedge maze, all of which was presumably meant to celebrate Easter, after a fashion. Only of course, it being Middle-earth, you can't really get away with actually calling it "Easter", so instead it is the "Spring Festival", a curious mirrored event which parallels, but never quite touches, a popular celebration and holiday in our own lives.
It is a strange thing, and by no means the only example; Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Valentine's Day, St Patrick's Day, Chinese New Year, and many more, all of which find themselves disguised with varying levels of subtlety and applied to any number of MMO worlds, regardless of existing genre or back story. In most cases the inclusion of these holidays runs at odds with any kind of established setting or lore, so why are such great lengths gone to in the express purpose of breaking the fourth wall in the name of contemporary festivities?
The MMO Seasonal Event is a long established tradition, and these days is an almost expected regular occurrence. At the very least, an average MMO subscriber can expect a robust special showing at Christmas and Halloween, and likely several smaller affairs sprinkled throughout the year on the more minor holidays. These events will typically build upon themselves, year on year, with each subsequent holiday featuring the fun and games of the previous years, with new bits and pieces showing up each year until several years pass and the whole experience becomes something of a Festival in its own right, rather than the inaugural couple of themed quests and holiday-based consumable items offered initially.
The decision to celebrate a real world holiday in an otherwise insular and self-contained fantasy world is an odd one, and perhaps a choice at odds with itself. For many, the whole point of the Fantasy Genre (and to a lesser extent, Sci-Fi), is one of escapism; finding a place where real world concerns can be put aside for a time, while mighty acts of pretend heroism are accomplished. To suddenly and repeatedly be reminded that there are only eight shopping days left until Christmas, or that this or that real world Historical Thing happened so many years ago today, can be a bit detrimental to immersion, to say the least.
Not that there is anything wrong with breaking the year up with something a bit different every now and then. Our own personal level, equipment and raiding journeys are always ongoing, but it can be nice to have something that all players can come together and enjoy in common, and just as our real life years are often defined and given shape by the holidays and anniversaries that happen within them, why not our MMO years too?
For many, a subscription to a particular favourite MMO will be a thing of years, so the frequent use of seasonal events can be an excellent way to give texture and definition to that long period of life experience; making it easier to put a finger on a month in the past and remember specifics.
The idea of limited availability content is a thing unique to the Seasonal Event as well, and again, runs counter to the basic fundamentals of the MMO as we know it. It is an unusual thing in an MMO for a certain set of quests or tasks to only be available for fortnight, and once gone, not be available again for twelve months, if at all. Usually there will be themed and novel rewards to be had for taking part, which then gain instant rarity and perceived value, simply because the player happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Thoughts of lost opportunities can do strange things to the player base, with people logging in more than they otherwise would, or at different times than normal. Guild Wars major events tend to culminate on a specific 'last day', during which the number of hived off instances of the main towns rises from a typical two or three, to seventy or more, as everyone scrambles to secure their holiday hat; it may never be available again!
With longer and more staged collection tasks, the Seasonal Event can cause an elevated bout of grinding; where multiple prizes or presents are on offer, many people naturally want one of each, rather than just the one that appeals the most, leading to many, many goes at what was probably designed as a quick bit of light-hearted fun.
In both cases it is hardly the fault of the events themselves, more the obsession of the players and the reluctance to let a limited offer slip through the fingers; a kind of 'Now or Never!' outlook takes hold.
Seasonal Events based solely on this kind of gameplay can be less festive than desired. Perhaps the best kind of Seasonal Event is the one that simply adds a large and different fun activity, and then lets the players loose with it, until the end of the holiday. A good example of this kind of thing is the City of Heroes Pocket D Ski Chalet. Only accessible during the weeks around Christmas, the slopes are a great deal of fun simply as is. There are badges to be had for fast times through a marked course, but the basic activity of sliding about like a loon is so different from the day to day experience of the rest of the game that the whole thing stands out as a very special event indeed, beyond the more low-key 'Kill Ten Snow-Rats' or 'Deliver This Yule Package' of more minimal events.
Not all Seasonal Events are designed to mimic our own holidays, and World of Warcraft's Darkmoon Faire is an interesting example of an event entirely unique to its own world setting. Once a month, for a week, a kind of travelling circus visits one of the major cities of the game, setting up and then offering a number of different sideshow games. Tickets from these can be traded for the usual limited availability goodies, but as the future appearance of the faire is a known and predictable thing, there is less pressure to grind and get all the goodies immediately, and a more measure pace can be adopted.
While not such a rare thing as a Valentine's Day or Thanksgiving, the faire still retains something of the mystique of the Seasonal Event, despite being largely an automated process. It is not always there, so those times when it is, are appreciated more.
More interestingly, the appearance of the faire does not mark any particular real world events, and yet its movements and arrival still gives World of Warcraft a kind of calendar of its own to study and follow, marking out the years and lending structure to the player's time there. Few other MMOs have much in the way of purely internal events and dates and calendars, beyond our own.
The Seasonal Event can be an excellent harmless diversion, providing something a little bit different to break up the year, but when used to celebrate our own holidays, is often a throwaway thing. But as these worlds in which we play become more detailed and more complex, perhaps it is time for them to begin filling their own calendars with their own celebrations, rather than ours?