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..