Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Changing Quest Design Philosophy

As I've previously documented, I've played around with a few other MMOs in addition to WoW.  Certainly WoW takes up the majority of my time, but I do like to putz around when the mood takes me.  While I've tinkered a little bit with Rift, my experiences are primarily with Lord of the Rings Online and Age of Conan.  Those two and WoW form the bulk of my MMO experience, and what I've noticed is that the quest emphasis on WoW has evolved in a direction that seems, well, more Diablo-like than anything else.

I've read on several occasions that you'll be able to finish Diablo III playing solo.  Yes, you can bring your friends along for the ride, but on the normal setting you should be able to beat the game all by your lonesome.  Now, take a look at how WoW's quest lines changed from pre to post Cata.  Sure, there was a lot --a lot!-- of meandering quest lines that got cleaned up, but think about what also changed:  any requirements for teaming up.

The last vestiges of group quests are found in the Outland and Northrend zones (including the BC racial starting areas).  The new post-Cata quest chains are all on rails, too: you have to do them in sequence, no exceptions.  This means you zip right along, heading straight up to L60.  Things get a wee bit diverted in Outland and Northrend with the lack of updates to those areas, but the L85 Express kicks right back into gear once you hit the Cata zones.

The first few times you level up to L85, that's not a big issue.  You can quest, you can run instances, you can run BGs.  You can even heavily incorporate herb gathering and mining into your leveling experience if you feel like it.  But after a while, you start to get tired of seeing the same zone in the same order again and again and again.  Yes, the phasing is cool, and you do have a visible impact on the world.  And yes, the quests-on-rails is a consequence of that design decision.  However, a side effect of it is the lack of group play when you're out questing in Azeroth.

Let's think about this for a moment.
  • A design that emphasizes --and encourages-- solo play until you get to max level.
  • Due to the speed of leveling, the emphasis isn't simply on playability, but on how quick you can get to max level.
  • The quests-on-rails environment is all about telling the story --the same story-- which is completely locked in to this expansion.  This means that if Blizz were to create another expansion that had an impact in the two main continents of Azeroth, this entire environment would have to be redone, the story rewritten.
Doesn't this all mean that the "new" Old World is set up to simply get players to max level as quickly as possible?  It sure feels like it.

I'll give Blizz the benefit of the doubt in that I'm sure they wanted to tell a good story that couldn't be told without a complete revamp of the Old World, but the law of unintended consequences has re-emphasized that all the action is at max level.  Being out in the field is a solo affair, and unless you play in a PvP realm, there's not a lot of interaction going on in Azeroth.

Now look, I know quite well you can turn off XP and goof around as much as you want.  But I have tried to slow down advancement on a few of my toons while still collecting XP, and unless you spend your time in zones far below your class, it's almost impossible to not level up while questing.  And fairly rapidly, at that.

A side effect of Blizz's current quest design philosophy is that it is so jarring to move from Azeroth to Outland and Northrend, where the quest-on-rails simply doesn't exist.  That's why the upcoming adjustments in leveling in Northrend became so necessary: they were the brake on the L85 Express.

However, never has this design philosophy been so evident as when you leave WoW and enter another MMO.

LOTRO is a lot like 'old style WoW':  there are mostly solo quests out there, and you can do them in any order you want (within reason, naturally).  You're not locked in all the time.  LOTRO also doesn't have a bunch of small quests as part of a large chain, either; it's all one long quest, but it's broken into sections without having to subdivide into mini-quests.  There are some group quests as well:  people hook up for those quests, and they're done ala pre-Cata WoW.  The leveling is at a more sedate pace, which matches the tone of the MMO.  Sure, people will want to play WoW because they loved the story found in the books and Warcraft I-III, but not as many as you might think.  In LOTRO, however, the story is the primary draw, and Turbine knows it.  If you spread out the pace of leveling you can immerse yourself more fully into Middle Earth, and you can be more social with friends.  End level raiding isn't their primary design emphasis.

Now Age of Conan...  That is a horse of a different color.

AoC does have a neat little trick called offline leveling that allows you to level more rapidly once you're past L30, which is perfect for those who choose to accelerate their movement to max level.  But if you choose to level using questing, you're in for a surprise.

Once you get past the Tortage starter area, the number of group quests really goes up.  Sure, you have a lot of individual quests to work on, but AoC practically pushes you into group cooperation with the way the zones are designed.  The Cimmerian area Connall's Valley has the Vanir deployed more like an instance than anything else, and their movements are a lot more detailed than I've seen in WoW.  As I've commented before on the AI, enemies are far more sensitive to nearby attacks and use real tactics to give themselves the best possible advantage.  For some quests it becomes absolutely necessary to work in a group, even if the quest itself isn't flagged as a group quest.

With AoC the focus is not only on creating a more demanding quest line, but one that encourages group cooperation.  AoC shares a similarity with LOTRO in that the journey is important enough to encourage immersion, but the approach to get people involved in the journey is different.  The net result, however, is that both MMOs slow down leveling; their devs don't focus the MMOs to getting the player to max level as quickly as possible.

This upcoming week, we'll hear about the new WoW expansion from Blizzcon --and if you don't think we'll hear something, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you-- and I wonder what Blizz will do to counteract the heavily story-laden Star Wars: The Old Republic juggernaut.  Will they orient themselves even more toward end-game raiding, or will they go off the quests-on-rails and change their quest focus again?  I guess we'll find out soon.


  1. I do really like the on-rails quest design in WoW at the moment. That said, I haven't leveled many alts.

    But I find that questing is one of the few activities in the game when I really relish my free time to do it how I want to do it - and not be distracted by others. I like the solo play aspect of leveling. (Not that I hated having to do a dungeon to finish 5 quests and the zone - still love quests + dungeon integration)

    Then again, I don't level many alts. Or when I do, it's rare that I'll do the same zones each time. But if there's so much XP to be had - what's to stop you leveling in different classic zones?

    And I guess if you want to jump off the rails you can level using BGs and dungeons. I think a lot of 70-80 gets completed this way now :)

    I hope in the next expansion they fix PVE/patches and rewards. I'm deeply dissatisfied with nerf = progression these days. And I don't like how often they patch and make gear redundant. I'd prefer to work longer for it and value it for longer too.

  2. @Cassi-- At first, I didn't mind, but when I kept overshooting the level requirements for a zone time after time, it started getting annoying.

    Yes, I do solo work most of the time myself, but I didn't realize that I'd missed the serendipity of joining up for group quests when it started happening in Age of Conan. The lower level zones were, ironically enough, busier than the same zones in WoW. At first I thought it was the time of day, but then when I logged on early in the morning to get on AoC just for the hell of it and I discovered that there were still a lot of people on, I began to wonder....

    I do have to laugh at the people in AoC and LOTRO who think that the barbarians are at the gates with the people who came in with the F2P option. If they think things are obnoxious now, they haven't seen WoW's Trade Chat lately....

  3. The quests-on-rails environment is all about telling the story --the same story-- which is completely locked in to this expansion. This means that if Blizz were to create another expansion that had an impact in the two main continents of Azeroth, this entire environment would have to be redone, the story rewritten.

    This is something that I haven't seen brought up much in connection with the new quest design, and something that does bother me quite a bit. People moan about how going to Outland doesn't make sense anymore story-wise, but how bad is it going to be when the next expansion obsoletes the two base continents again? As much as I loved stories like the ones in the Badlands for example, I think they made a mistake by tying so many zones so closely to the story of the current expansion boss - who will predictably be killed and buried within the year. More "timeless" stories for the win.

  4. @Shintar--

    Agreed on all points.

    It was great at first, but then once I realized how much of a problem reworking the quest lines will be, I kind of shuddered. The Old World was klunky, but that was more due to the quest design, not their content. For every attunement for Naxx in Eastern Plaguelands, there are now ten for Deathwing.

    The pre-Cata Old World was a sprawling, broad place of various plotlines depending on your continent, region, and faction. Now, the questlines have been reduced to a two major ones: Alliance v. Horde and Deathwing v. Everybody. A lot of what used to be the old major plotlines --Dark Irons, Silithids, Twilight's Hammer-- have been neatly reined in and placed into the Deathwing plot. Other things that would have been chalked up to stupidity and/or cautionary tales --the Wolvar in Ashenvale and Felwood-- got tied into the Alliance v. Horde conflict instead.

    I guess what I'm pointing out is that not every quest has to tie back into a major thread. By doing that, Blizzard has made their updating work that much harder.