Friday, September 9, 2011

The Lonely Quester

So I'm bouncing around a bit in a couple of different MMO's.  I've been progressing pretty steadily through the Nightfall campaign in Guild Wars, but the last couple of nights have found me back in Azeroth.  I continue to enjoy my return to WoW, because I'm playing the game on my terms - not the terms of the community.  Not being in a guild, and not having any fixed scheduled playing time are the things that allow me to have this freedom, but it does come with its caveats.

I'm playing WoW the exact same way that, in the past, I have always played WoW.  That is, I'm exploring the continents, while completing quests, to level a character.  Occasionally I foray back into the major towns to acquire skills, practice my professions, place a few items on the auction house, and empty my bags.  Then I return to whatever zone I was working in, and continue to work through the content.  It is the primary method of play I pursue in every MMO that I have ever played, and it is in that play that I have most of my most fond memories of WoW from over the years.  And to Blizzard's credit, as we know, the Cataclysm brought about plenty of changes throughout the land, so even now months, months after its launch, there's still plenty of content for me to see.  And for the most part, I'm having a good time, because it's what I like to do.  There's only one problem.  I'm the only one doing it.

As I travel through the lands, the vast majority of the time I'm the only human in sight.  Towns filled with well meaning, earnest NPC's in trouble.  Creatures patrolling their routes, filling the forests and caves, untroubled by heroes for hours, and even days at a time.  As I play, it's not really hard to see how anyone that tries to return to WoW would quickly become turned off, and leave again, especially if they are coming back on their own.  WoW has lost the very thing that distinguished it from other MMO's at the time of its launch.  And that is the ability to play alone - but with other people.

Think back to when you played WoW a lot, and was having the most fun doing it.  Think about those times that didn't involve you being in a battleground or a dungeon instance.  You most likely remember being in zones filled with people, running about, pursuing quests, and generally participating in the same activities you are, but at their own pace, while you proceed at yours.  Maybe you grouped up, maybe you didn't.  Maybe you felt frustration because of actually having to wait for some particular mob to respawn, or to wait for an NPC to turn himself back into a satyr after the previous quest turn-in turned him into a frog.  When WoW came out and came into its heyday, the designers at Ensemble spent hours and days studying the formula, trying to figure out exactly why it was so completely steamrolling the MMO market.  And at first we all came to the conclusion that is was the quest design, and solo-ability.  But in questioning person after person that had never played an MMO but was playing and staying in WoW, we learned it wasn't just that they had a direction to go in, a purpose to accomplish, but it was that they could do it in a social setting.  That they could be around people, and feel like they were participating in something grand with other people, but not rely on them, and more importantly for many, not feel like those people were relying on them.  Well for the vast majority of the world of Azeroth, while it's as soloable as ever - the second half of that equation - the people, are not there.

So the question is - is it important? Does Blizzard even need to worry about it?  Is it worth their time and money to fix?  Well the actual truth of that matter probably depends on other factors outside of WoW.  Things like how close they are to launching Titan, how successful Diablo III turns out to be, and whether or not they can continue to lose players and yet still operate at a profit with the existing player base.  I don't have the answers to any of those things, so let's assume for the sake of conversation that Blizzard did want to fix them - that it was financially motivated to attempt to extend and perhaps even grow WoW's popularity.  What can they do to combat the leveling-zone ghost town effect?

New Players
A number of other MMO's have fought this starter-zone ghost town problem before, and the ones that were most successful did it by making the barrier to entry non-existent.  That is, they made their previously subscription game free-to-play.  Every system in an MMO works better when their are people to participate in it, and there's no better way to get people to play than to tell them it's free, right?  So Blizzard introduced the New Player Starter Pack, where you can now play the first 20 levels for free.  Done!  Right?  Actually no.  While the starter pack is a nice start, by itself, not only is it not bringing in new players, but without fixing the other broken things about the leveling experience, it's actually counter-productive.

Right now, if a player returns to WoW, (for free) this is their experience:  They create a character, and step into a zone, bereft of other people.  They begin a series of largely uninspired quests, featuring mind-numbingly easy-to-defeat mobs.  If they are a returning player that's been away, they are overcome with a crushing wave of "OMG been here done this" feeling, and they quit.  If they are a new player, they wonder around awhile by themselves, and soon wonder why they are participating in a largely single player experience with five year old game mechanics and graphic design, when there are so many better single player games out there - and they quit.  And this experience does not change for the first twenty levels.

Bring the Challenge Back
In Blizzard's attempt to make the progression from new character to cap faster, with each iteration they have tweaked the zone difficulty curve down, and I think it's probably gone too far.  My biggest complaint about the zone content right now is that it's just, flat out - too easy.  With a rogue - mobs melt in a hit or two.  With a hunter - often the mob is dead before my lazy pet can get there.  Paladins and priests and anything that can heal yourself - fuggediboutit!  Bandages, and potions and food - a whole sub-economy of consumables that once provided purpose and alternative activities has been rendered completely obsolete by pure virtue of the fact that they're unnecessary.  I'm not talking about going to EQ days of requiring 5 man groups make progress.  But push the difficulty curve back just a bit, so that fights last more than three hits, that you are asked to think about pulling mobs, or at least paying attention to them. I just think that if you made the minute-to-minute gameplay a bit more interesting, you stand a better chance of retaining some of those new players for a bit longer, perhaps even long enough for them to see another new player enter the zone.

Fix the XP Curve
This ties into bringing the challenge back.  Right now, as a number of people have noted, the leveling curve is just broken.  With absolutely no heirlooms, no friend experience bonus - just flat out new character leveling, when completing quests around a particular hub, you often gain experience at a rate that the quests themselves turn green or even grey to you before you complete the story line.  Nothing kills a player's desire to participate in your content faster than for them to be beat about the head and shoulders with the notion that they don't need to do it anymore, and that's what's happening here.  If you want players to discover other players in the zone, they have to be given reasons to stay in the zone.  Or at the least, don't give them a reason to abandon their quest line half way through, and go sailing off to the next zone. The one-two punch of mind-numbingly easy monsters and broken xp curve is driving any players that might want to participate in your content away.

Redistribute the Players
One of the things that WoW did in the early days, that was genius, was that they mixed new players and veteran players in the same area.  You'd pick up a flight in Stormwind at a young level, and then fly over these high level zones (Searing Gorge, Burning Steppes) on your way to Ironforge, and you'd see these high-level players below you, fighting high-level mobs.  It was exciting, it provided motivation for you yourself to want to get to that, and it was genius.  Well those days are gone.  If you're a new player returning to WoW,  you very well might assume the entire game is devoid of players, when in fact, it's just that all the players are concentrated into cities and instances.  If you want your world to feel alive, give reasons for your player base to be in it.  Provide compelling (read "Gear Oriented") reasons for veteran players to returns to those newbie zones, and those leveling zones.  More than just dailies, but quests that maybe reward veteran xp for assisting low level players; faction rewards for high level gear from contests held smack in the middle of low level zones.  Single, deadly, high level mobs wondering around a low level zone that offer compelling rewards for high level players to get together and defeat.   Blizzard needs to work to reverse the trend of WoW feeling like a lobby game with instances, and give their existing, high level players more reasons to get back out in the world, so the new and leveling players can see that there are players in the game.

This is all sort of coffee-cup hypothesizing this morning, and I'm fully aware of it.  But every where I look these days I'm greeted with this huge sense of "been there done that" by existing MMO players, talking about the general malaise they feel with the genre and their favorite games.  I see opportunity to bring some what we found exciting about MMO's back to the game, without resorting to the Machiavellian design principles of the early games that drove players away.  If there's any company that has the means to lead the way forward by fixing some of the fundamental things wrong with the genre today, it's Blizzard.

Because I for one, actually still really love traditional MMO play.  But it's lonely out here..


  1. EQ was famous for mixing in high level mobs in low level zones; there were always high level folks or even raiders on their way places when your little level 14 dwarf was trying to kill things in Dagnor's Cauldron.

    Instant travel and instancing in general killed this in EQ, but for years it was amazing. You actually got to see raid guilds in action and they built up a certain reputation. Now the only way you can see what high level guilds do is to visit the forums, since what they do has absolutely no impact on the world or any other player.

    That is WoW's failure.

  2. I read all this and don't disagree at all. I just think that the experience we remember from the early days of vanilla is what is happening in RIFT now. I can't even believe how many people are in my zones with my level 27 alt. It's awesome. And there are high-levels there too to help with invasions and whatever else they are working on (puzzles/artifacts/random achievements). It feels alive.

    Your points are all terrific, but I kind of think Blizzard has given up on WoW beyond the point of keeping a steady income from the consistent players. Cataclysm sent really mixed messages - on one hand, you have a completely redone world that is mostly foreign to us veterans, but on the surface looks like something new players would like - better quest design, more story, etc. A world that changes as you interact with it! On the other hand, we, the 85's, are stuck in instances all the time, have no reason to travel the world (everything is portaled) or engage with it really at all and feel generally marginalized from most of Azeroth. It's not the mechanics or the text or the shinies or any of that. It's the philosophy - what is this game trying to do, what experience is it trying to create. That general underlying foundation to the design got very sidetracked (it seems to me).

  3. The "Starter Edition" of WoW pretty much *is* a single player game for all that it impacts the world. No mail, no guild, no initiating groups, no Auction House. You can use the Dungeon Finder, but only to access 6 dungeons. It's just a taste of the gameplay, little more... and WoW's gameplay gets repetitive early and never gets much better. can still be fun, sure (I still have fun with it, anyway, mostly by exploring where my capped level 20 character doesn't belong), but it's not the bulk of what makes the game sticky.

  4. @Eris - You make some terrific points about the other side of the equation. Not only do the leveling players feel separated from the majority of the player base - but the 85's feel marginalized from the rest of Azeroth through the game's current design. And Cataclysm, while providing some beautiful new content in those zones, really didn't provide any reason to revisit them, beyond just seeing them.

    I also suspect you are a 100% correct wrt to Blizzard's actual chances of doing anything about it. Which is why I mostly posit the entire discussion as a hypothetical discussion, versus a real live honest to gawd call to action. I suspect all the eggs are getting moved over to Titan's basket right now.

    @tishtoshtesh - I haven't actually played the starter kit, but it makes me sad to learn it's even less of a representation of the actual game than I thought it was. It also serves to show how much of a second-thought kind of action it is, versus a genuine effort to bring new players to the game.

  5. I agree with one reservation:

    One thing you hit on was the short fights. Even you though you try to put yourself in the shoes of a new player, you are not. Your knowledge of the game mechanics allows you to strategize and/or antipate the direction of the fight, and what abilities to use when in order to maximize both your survivability and lethality. This knowledge carries over not only to new classes but to new games. It is one reason you can never recapture the wonder of that first MMO experience.

    A new player, on the other hand, doesn't anticipate some of those thing an old player takes for granted. My fiance hated starting a gnome mage, because she had no survability. The contant death frustrated her. I had no problem playing a new warlock parallel to her, because, while it is not a super familiar class for me, I have 5 years of MMO (esp. WoW) experience under my belt.

  6. @Rowan - hehe well you may have noticed I didn't mention mages in my comment about never worrying about dying.. :) I actually think mages do still have survivability problems, especially at the very low levels, and especially if you're coming from another class. I know hardened mmo vets who pick up a mage after playing anything else for awhile and are all "what? I died?".

    So wrt to the very new player experience, I completely agree I'm not indicative of a new player. But the experience I'm actually thinking about is the mid-level. Once you get past level 20 say, and you've perhaps grasped the essential mechanics of the game. Well from there to the long expanse of reaching 80, the basic action of killing a mob just feels too easy.

    Right now, my rogue is level 58. She has like 26 abilities on her bar, spread across two modes - steath and normal. She has this wealth of power at her disposal. But when I approach a mob of my level, I press exactly 3 buttons (stealth as I approach, ambush, and hemorrage) and the mobs is dead. I can't even get a finisher off. I can't practice, or learn, or evne play with anything resembling a rotation order because the mob is dead two abilities in.

    And this is without any heirloom equipment, just straight up quest greens.

    That experience, I think they could fix. I shouldn't have to go seek out elite mobs in dungeons just for the opportunity to use some of the abilities on my bar, ya know? :)

  7. As I look at my shelf full of MMOs that I've played. Fewer than 40% of them I played beyond the initial 30 days. All the ones that lasted beyond the included gametime have one thing in common, I stumbled or was recruited into a guild, fellowship, or group etc.. I always thought I was a solo player till my recent self discovery. Some of my best memories in games involve horrendous wipes more often than not caused by me. The right group can might watching paint dry fun. How does one program in the "right" group though?

  8. @Eris- you said - "Your points are all terrific, but I kind of think Blizzard has given up on WoW beyond the point of keeping a steady income from the consistent players."

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am a game developer (senior Artist at terminal reality) and I have several friends on the wow team. I promise you that nobody on a game team deliberately sets out, nor wants to put out a sub par product for any reason.. as a dev you spend a large part of your life building assets and making them work.. and blizzard doesnt hire a friend of mine said "None of these guys are robots, none of these guys want to screw users. They want people to love their game, like any artist wants someone to enjoy their art."

  9. @Paul and Dusty,

    I'm an artist in the field, too (tech artist at Wahoo/NinjaBee), and it's my experience that at some point, at some level, management makes decisions that we'd not make as artists. Yes, we want to do good work, but we're not always able to. Ditto for designers, from what I've seen. Business realities warp games sometimes, despite best intentions.

    Case in point, I believe the restrictions on the Starter accounts in WoW are largely there to keep gold selling down (and to prompt buying in, to be sure, but that's a lucky coincidence). They are a victim of their own success, in a way. I don't like the restrictions... at all. And yet, I can see the pragmatic reasoning behind them. They aren't good for the health of the game, I think, but they make sense given circumstances.

  10. One thing that has changed the game significantly are the random dungeon finder and all the portals. The RDF means that you never have to organize a group with either guildies or server-mates. The portals mean you don't have to be "inconvenienced" by traveling. For some level 85 players, the game has been reduced to standing around in Stormwind/Org waiting for their RDF queue to pop, or hitting a portal to hash out some dailies. There's no reason to go to any other city. The other capitol cities, as grand as they feel, are dead except for the random lowbies and bank alts.

    I remember a friend taking my newbie hunter to IF for the first time, and the feeling of awe at the sight of the massive city. It's still one of my favorite places, and it's sad that no one above level 58 - 60 has any reason to be there.