My first interaction with limited time events was a moment of utter confusion as to the abject cruelty of it all. As I stumbled through the forests of Monster Hunter: World filling my satchel with honey I was informed by my co-op partner that I’d been blessed with the spawning of a rare rainbow-coloured beetle. Alongside this information it was also revealed to me that there were outfits in the game I could simply not acquire anymore due to them being part of an event that had come and gone. I was utterly befuddled by both pieces of information to such an extent, that I still remember the confusion to this day.
“Why would you include things in a game only for them to go away?” I asked myself “What if I started playing later and I want to get the outfit?” I added, like a kid feeling the sinking realisation that the ticket trading economy at arcades might not be in his favour. I was, of course, completely missing that evoking these fears is a big part of the draw that developers see in including limited-time events in the first place.
Much like being respected by my peers and responsible financial decisions however, my view on limited time events was seismically changed by my impromptu romance with Hoyoverse’s Genshin Impact. Before I knew it, I’d developed traditions and expectations around the many seasonal flavours that the game had gotten me accustomed to. I was genuinely disappointed when, during the game’s third winter, Albedo didn’t show up to be cryptic as shit and hand me a sword like a shady but better looking Santa Claus. And despite going through one of the worst summers of my life at the time, the second visit to the game’s summer islands was a genuinely nostalgic reprieve to me. It even managed to inject into me some summery vibes that I am usually completely incompatible with as one that detests both the heat and the sun.
Initially, I thought about writing another gushing piece about how one of my favourite games had managed to get my hyper-individualistic, strange, and reclusive ass to go along with such normal things as seasonal celebrations. But, an eternal social outcast coming around to the holiday spirit when it’s presented in a friendly context and allowed to engage in their own time, while listening to obscure Japanese math rock, is hardly surprising or interesting.
Part of the big hook of Genshin Impact is that the wonderful world of Teyvat is little more than an Earth coated in its own mythology. Whatever isn’t actually based in the real world is usually borrowed from the myths of the areas it’s drawn inspiration from. That’s what makes it so appealing to history nerds like myself, and it’s what allows it to use its flavour text to make poignant statements about the real world, while allowing the more explicit storytelling to retain a veneer of lightheartedness and complete fictitiousness.
Given this, it’s also somewhat of a foregone conclusion that if you enjoy Genshin Impact’s core, you will likely enjoy the events. What makes the limited-time events enjoyable in Teyvat is what makes events enjoyable in the real world. It’s a change of pace, an opportunity to visit locales you don’t get to as often as you would like, and to participate in fun and silly activities with people you like for its own sake. And though they do occasionally fumble on the implementation, they are generally a complement to the aesthetic and theming of each area. With the Chinese area being almost entirely defined by its world-famous new year’s celebration, and the Japanese area having celebrations based on traditional kabuki plays and cultural icons like the Rokkasen.
But not every game is Genshin Impact and other titles wouldn’t benefit as much for such a simple approach to the idea. Games such as WoW that follow a similar approach of simply replicating real world holidays with a few new ones sprinkled in, Azaroth not being Earth in any kind of explicit or strongly allegorical way does take away some of that charm, and makes the whole idea feel a little bit more like an invasion of the real world into a virtual space, rather than an enrichment of the same. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does exist in a different aesthetic wavelength. Sort of like having the characters of star wars celebrate Halloween –and no I did not mention that other holiday because I didn’t want to load in negative connotations thank you very much.
The other dominant flavour of time-limited events is the promotional tie-in. This is how I first ran into the idea in a tangible way (video games aren’t actually tangible but you know what I mean) with the Devil May Cry outfits in Monster Hunter: World. The idea is quite simple really, two things you really like in the best of cases, or a thing you like and a thing you hate in the worst of them, briefly come together in the forms of outfits, playable characters, special consumables or other goodies. Examples of this are as plentiful as they are variable in quality: Ranging From the Yo-kai Watch and Final Fantasy XIV collaboration, to Cup Noodles and Final Fantasy XV, Hatsune Miku in Fall Guys, and Asuka Langley Shikinami in Honkai Impact 3rd.
If you look at games from a more product-like approach as opposed to my pansy artistic lens it could be argued this is the true and original form of the limited time event, taking inspiration from the likes of limited-edition Coke cans and movie-inspired popcorn flavours. And they even share a lineage within video games themselves, as crossovers have been the basis of venerable series such as Super Smash Bros. and Super Robot Wars, as well as a tradition within series like Street Fighter and Soul Calibur.
In the best of cases these, just like the holiday themed events, are a short bit of light-hearted fun that can unite fanbases and introduce new people to both of the participant series. The fact that they often introduce continuity issues and can violate some rules of the setting, timeline, and characterisation of the participating stories often makes rotating them out a sensible option to retain a sense of cohesion within the game at hand. Taking after TV crossovers and non-canonical anime movies, they are best enjoyed as a bit of fun for dyed-in-the-wool fans, but unessential for the casual, and often prejudicial to the work at large should you take them too seriously.
In all of these situations, I still think it’s quite —to use an academic term— sucky, if event-themed rewards and goodies are impossible to attain going forward. It’s especially atrocious if event plotlines or gameplay mechanics are removed entirely to never be seen again. Though this is a problem with all aspects of ongoing games, in a virtual world with no scarcity or shelf space to worry about, there is little excuse to not make these events return during the appropriate season, or at specific times of the year dedicated for event reruns. And titles like Honkai: Star Rail show how easy it is to allow you to simply access events from a menu when you so choose.
Though the permanent loss of any of these events would be a great fault, at least with tie-in events there is an argument to be made that many games would be made less effective and overall worse in their storytelling were the events freely accessible all the time alongside the normal story. Plus brand management being what it is, and contracts of collaboration being so complicated often cause keeping these around to be unfeasible from a legal standpoint.
The final variant of limited time events are those that by their very construction would be detrimental as a permanent fixture. These can be anything from XP bonuses which would mess up progression; to the addition of game modes that the developers have no intention of keeping for a brief time, like the spontaneous inclusion of Grifball in older Halo titles; and anything else you can come up with. These often tend to be pretty insubstantial and for the most part function as a way for hardcore players to get some extra goodies and catch-up mechanics for more casual players, or a way to have casual fun within the game’s mechanics without committing to long-term maintenance and balance. Though it can sound cynical, they can actually make a gaming experience a lot more fun. Not all player-retention strategies are macabre.
When I first started playing Dead by Daylight somewhat actively, it was undergoing its fifth anniversary celebrations and as a result, I got stocked on a bunch of diverse perks for all the killers I wanted to try right away. Consumables that would have taken me weeks or months to get at my low level were in plentiful supply, which allowed me to play the game with a lot more freedom than I otherwise would have.
Due to how light on substance these events can be, there are often no requests to keep them around, and no pain is felt once they disappear. Though it does avoid the bad feelings associated with more engaging limited time events, they also rarely tend to be that curated or memorable to begin with.
Like all art, the best way to make a limited-time event is by asking yourself how the format of your work enhances the experience. In this case, what sort of experiences can your games deliver that would be improved by being tied to a temporal component?
Shaking up the status quo of your title for a while only to bring it back once the timer expires is a simple solution. Small, mould-breaking changes and additions that won’t upset anyone due to being temporary are an easy and intuitive response. If you don’t want to see Yo-kai in your Eorzea, fret not because soon enough they’ll largely disappear from the world again.
The seasons, meant to pass by definition, bringing specific celebrations and activities with them just makes sense. There is a reason why every culture on earth has seasonal celebrations and why it was one of the first things we thought to include into our video games once we could actually spend meaningful amounts of time in virtual worlds.
Working in time as a limitation seems like the other immediate answer. Giving players a limited amount of time to reach an objective as a collective or allocating specific time slots during which the missions of an event can be undertaken to give appropriate pacing. However, this approach would double down on all the downsides of a time-limited event as a gamble on the potential for a more powerful experience, and I just don’t think most developers would want to risk it going wrong.
Pokemon Sun and Moon actually tried making time a mechanic for its events, albeit with very low stakes, by implementing “global missions”. However, the first two ended in failure and saw plenty of headlines calling attention to that. A little bit more research taught me that they were eventually tuned and from the third global mission onwards they were all a success, but I still find it a difficult gamble for a developer to take. If nothing else it shows that pulling it off requires a lot of finesse and careful consideration of players’ behaviour.
The impermanence of events also makes them colour the experience in a way that other kinds of activities simply don’t. While there are those wild souls that will ignore anything but the options that catch their interest, most of us will see ourselves drawn to the little icons with a clock ticking down and at least allow it to inform our use of time in-game even if it’s not an active pursuit. And there is something kind of sad and annoying about allowing these hectic time-constraints to become ever more present in a medium that used to run almost completely on the consumer’s clock and not the provider’s.
I also do worry, like always, about events becoming an accepted patch to failures of a game at launch. While Genshin Impact’s story can be understood perfectly without all the events that are lost, the reality is that more than a few members of the cast remain ancillary additions without the characterisation provided by events. Which just makes it feel inelegant and more rough around the edges than it really should when that creative work has already been done and released. What is more, getting accustomed to a lack of permanency in our games does open the gate to more developers simply locking away entire pieces of their game once they decide the time has come like Bungie has with Destiny. Which has left us in a ridiculous reality where content that people have actually paid for before is just not around anymore on the whims of the developers.
But I would like to temper my criticisms somewhat. Games-preservation is important. I believe that wholeheartedly. And though I felt tempted to write sentences like “it is inexcusable when events can’t be replayed” the reality of the matter is that, though important, they are still just games. While my beloved Genshin Impact has a bad habit of making incredibly important elements of the setting only available in time-limited events, it remains a coherent experience without them. And though preserving our cherished memories and making gaming history available to all remains a meaningful endeavour, there is not that much that is actually lost when you aren’t able to partake in time-limited events long gone.
While we have a voice and a way to make developers hear us, we should keep asking for ways to preserve these experiences if they are valuable to us. But just like spending an entire season in the hospital, or skipping out on Halloween during a year when you didn’t feel up to it, life continues on unimpeded without them. Games, like holidays, and like the colours of leaves in autumn, can make our lives a lot more enjoyable even if they aren’t permanent. Let’s not forget that even our very earth won’t be around forever. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun while it lasts.