In which we complain about solo quests in an MMO world

I realised last week that the most frustrating moments for me in MMOs are not losing in PvP, nor being yelled at in a PUG, or having a wipe night in a raid, or being beaten to a mob (in old school games in which that still is a thing). Nope. It is being forced to do a solo quest that I can’t do.

In all of those other situations you can take a break and come back and things will have changed – maybe you’ll get a better random group, or raid makeup, or find a quieter time. Maybe you could grab some friends/ willing strangers to help. But the solo quest is potentially going to block your progress forever. Plus just as it’s frustrating to be asked to find a group if you had been happily soloing, it is annoying to be forced to solo if you’d been duoing or playing with friends.

Mirkwood in LOTRO has issues with this design. It’s still one of my favourite zones, but the epic quest there does love its solo elements. Which can be fun and all when you can do them, and crazy frustrating when you are struggling. Especially if you had been duoing (or playing in a group) and now feel that everyone is waiting for you but no one can help. Arb and I have been enjoying playing our alts through Mirkwood lately, but some of those solo quests are pretty non obvious (yes I’m talking about the one where you have to help a dwarf escape from a prison via using barrels of poison to send some of the other inmates to sleep) – not hard once you know the trick, but non obvious in a frustrating way.  I’m not sure either of us were prepared for how failing a solo quest just makes you want to log off and never play the game again. (At least for awhile).

This is partly the specific quest design – a well designed piece of game will at least give you some clues as to why you failed one attempt and how you can improve next time. But it’s also because an MMO is not the same as an offline game. Most MMOs don’t optimise solo quests for specific classes (SWTOR is the exception) so the difficulty is probably not only fixed but also likely to feel unfair if it doesn’t favour your class strengths. Which is especially frustrating if you had been duoing with someone for whom that isn’t the case. It can make a huge difference if your character has strong AE, or heals, or a pet.

The legendary WoW quest

Speaking of frustrating, I’ve tried to complete the solo stage of the legendary WoW questline (Celestial Blessings) several times on my shadow priest, for both the healing and ranged dps versions. I can’t do it at all. I’ve read tactics. I’m not really interested in trying any more.

So what does this mean really? Aside from killing my enthusiasm (admittedly waning anyway) for this expansion, I guess I’m just not good enough.

I can live with this. I don’t like PvP and I’m not big on trying impressive soloing adventures. I’m a decent healer and dps on my priest but I’m not a great or talented soloer so maybe I don’t deserve cool epic things. What I find more frustrating is  feeling trailed along by this stupid questline all expansion to the point where I will have to give up. When they put in a PvP section to the legendary, people complained but it was actually very non-PvPer tolerant  (just had to win a couple of battlegrounds, which you can pretty much do by queueing repeatedly until random chance gives you a good set of team mates). So how come the solo section can’t be non-soloer tolerant too? Why is this the point where the game decides to get elitist?

I don’t know the answer to that because there is no reason. It makes me feel stupid (for assuming that the quest was aimed at the same level of player it had been from the start), as well as wanting to quit.

How do you feel about solo (I mean forced solo) quests in MMOs? Does anyone else get as frustrated as I do?

[SWTOR] Let me tell you about my character (Sith Warrior – minor spoilers), and notes on difficulty

Fortunately (?) for my loyal readers, Bioware decided to put a maintenance window in from 10am-4pm local time today. Which means that now that I’ve figured out screenshots, I can talk more about my sith warrior and why I love it.

EA did note in a recent press release that over 850k sith warriors have been created over the holidays, so I don’t feel particularly special in that respect. Still, this one is MINE. EA are also claiming “fastest growing subscription MMO ever” which I’m sure is true, and it will be interesting to see if/when they break 2 million subscriptions. (More of an if really, because that would definitely put the game in a different ballpark than anything other than WoW.)

I make no predictions as to what the community/size will look like in 3 or 6 months. But then, I’m wavering on whether ANY new MMO could retain the majority of customers for over 6 months these days, sandbox or themepark. Bioware have already announced that they’re working on a new operation (raid) and flashpoint (instance) for the next update and it would make sense to focus the first new content on the hardcore since they’re the ones who rush through to endgame most quickly.

Anyway, on to my sith warrior… with pictures!

spinksSW1

The top picture here is Spinks riding on a speeder in Tattooine, this isn’t my personal transport (sadly that looks more like a floating lawnmower), it’s the local public transport but I thought it was a nice design. Bottom left is Spinks looking out on Nar Shaddaa which is a moon/planet taken up entirely by a Bladerunner-esque city. And the bottom right screenshot was taken inside an instance, in which I’m standing next to the viewing platform in a spaceship looking down at a planet’s surface.

As you can see, my whistle stop tour of the known galaxy to spread mayhem and destruction is going pretty well. The planets are beautiful, with plenty of open space to explore and maybe find lore objects or holocrons (unless you are totally cheating and look the locations up online in which case you can’t really call yourself an explorer). Each one has a theme, backed up with its own music, colour scheme, and architecture. So you never really get the jarring zone transition of going from a desert to a jungle that’s such a feature in many open world MMOs.

One thing that Bioware have executed brilliantly is lots of large cities that look like actual futuristic cities and not just a small collection of houses with a corner shop and pub. The urban architecture on SWTOR is absolutely stunning. It’s not true open world  where you could go into every house and interact with whoever lives there, start your own business, build your own house, but in truth very few games are. SWTOR has gorgeous themepark style cities to explore, and I love them.

The gameworld itself feels spacious. Aside from the large open vistas when you are outside a city, Bioware are comfortable with making huge cathedral-like buildings when they feel like it, even for a one man instanced class phase. There are small buildings too, but I think the larger ones add to the general epic feel.

The main hub though is the fleet which is where you’ll tend to go to meet up for flashpoints, use the auction house or bank, train crew skill recipes et al. If you don’t fancy the fleet there are other cities you could use as your own personal hub but they’ll tend to involve a slightly longer journey (Kaas City and Nar Shaddaa for Empire both have auction houses, trainers and banks, for example.) Actually travelling from one planet to another is done via your space ship, which you acquire via class questline on the second planet you visit. So you have to get to your ship via the local space port, take off, select your destination via the star map, warp through, and then exit. This doesn’t actually require any piloting ability, it’s similar to the Mass Effect style of teleporting to your destination. It does take a few minutes though, especially if you are lagging.

spinksSW2

Top screenshot here is inside a palace in Aldaraan, with my handy companion and a rebellious noble who I captured and am delivering to justice (or my personal variant that once met justice for an awkward blind date before deciding that they really had nothing much in common.) My class storyline is exciting mostly because I’m starting to care more about it and the various characters involved. I want to see what happens next, I recognise foreshadowing as it is happening. It isn’t a coincidence that a couple of the quest NPCs associated with long planetary questlines recently have both warned me about my sith master, hinting that my long term interests may not be his.

The second screenshot is from Tattooine, and an encounter that I had with my darkside shadow (that’s why she’s looking especially murky) who also told me off about being overly light side. She was extremely convincing. I am reconsidering my character’s morality strongly right now, and this is the kind of story based experience which is making the game so compelling.

Tattooine, although I didn’t realise it at the time, has also hosted a couple of the most memorable quests I’ve run so far. One was part of the class quest, where your warrior is instructed to go search out a sand demon and bathe in its blood. “Simple,” you think, “Mr Sand demon, meet Mr Lightsabre.” But the Jedi you are tracking down apparently accomplished this without killing. So the question is, are you feeling competitive enough to say “Well if she could do it then so can I!!!” or do you just kill the thing and get the blood and have done with it? I went with the first option, and felt pathetically proud when I was able to pick out responses that allowed me to do it. Clearly at some point you’ll be able to look this stuff up online – but by doing that you’ll miss out on how it /feels/ to think it through yourself. This is what MMOs have lost by getting rid of puzzles that require you to think things through.

The other Tattooine questline I enjoyed was about an ancient alien artifact with a corrupting influence. This for me was a great example of how good questing can be. There was lots of travelling, fighting, talking to NPCs, and the final fight in an ancient tomb was very well balanced for me. I won, but used all my cooldowns and ended up on a sliver of health.

SWTOR isn’t a hard game, but I do find it entertaining that the harder bosses in the single player storyline are noticeably tougher. It’s a place where the mechanics really underpin the storytelling. Although there was one fight on a hidden orbital station that I found really tough, only to realise afterwards that there were two tanks full of healing gas that I could have broken mid-fight to heal myself up. “Oh!” I thought, “that’s how I should have done it.” But there was no time before the fight to explore the scenery and figure that out.

In which I remember I was going to talk about flashpoints

I have not been religiously running every flashpoint or heroic/ group quest as they come up for me, but the flashpoints I have seen so far have ranged from “really fun” (Black Talon) to “kind of cool” (Athiss, Mandalorian Raiders — both of which are more similar to WoW instances  in terms of the layout).

My sith warrior is Vengeance specced. That means her advanced class is Juggernaut, but I’m focussing on a dps tree. I still do get some baseline abilities that help with tanking and I have been tanking the instances. It would be truer to say that we’ve tended to dual tank them, which works quite well given that I’m not currently full tank spec. The sith warrior (unsurprisingly) reminds me a lot of Vanilla-esque WoW warriors in that their AE threat isn’t very impressive, and they have a sunder armour type debuff and an AE thunderclap-esque ability. They also have a variety of response skills (ie. things you can use after you have parried, or when your opponent is stunned et al) that do good damage if you use them appropriately, although elite mobs are fairly resistant to stuns and knockbacks. So being adept at target switching when you are trying to tank more than one mob will come in handy. I’ve heard complaints about the Sith Warrior’s tanking, but I’m finding it fine.

Generally, the trash mobs are fairly simple but the bosses may have more involved mechanics. None of them so far have been especially complicated, but using interrupts appropriately makes many of the encounters MUCH easier.

Mandalorian Raiders was the first instance where mobs really started to use knockbacks against us, handily knocking me off a platform mid fight. (This is where having multiple tanks gets really useful.) Lesson learned, in future I’m tanking with my back to the wall. The final boss was also good fun, teleporting around the room while turrets fired on the players from all corners. It felt like a very interactive fight, with me (as the tank) keeping the boss occupied as best I could while dps took out the turrets and Arb’s healer somehow kept us all up with some phenomenal multitasking.  I’m looking forwards to trying out the others as we level up a bit — I keep hearing that The Foundry has awesome lore, so that may be a particular high point.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a quest

There was a time a few years back in which it felt as though everything in MMOs was a quest. Quests were the new hotness, back in an era where one of WoW’s major selling points on release was that you could level purely by questing.

The standard way to show players what they were expected to do in game was to have some NPC offer a quest. Quests were used for telling stories, as tutorials, filler quests, quests to make you explore the zone, hidden quests that rewarded you for exploring further afield, quests for sending you off to the next zone, quests for PvP, quests for raid bosses (occasionally). Then add in daily quests for xp/cash, daily instances, weekly battleground bonuses, quests to get you to use vehicles – quests were used to direct players towards all of these things. And of course, every time a quest is set up, there needs to be a reward attached.

Of course, not every game is WoW. LOTRO (for example) always had a clear set of grinding goals/ titles alongside the regular quests. There were titles and perks for exploring areas, using a class skill a set number of times, killing large amounts of various different mobs in different zones, and so on. EQ2 had its alternate advancement system. But even with all these extra possible goals, players still tend to rely on quests to show them where to go next and if they happen to miss the correct breadcrumb quest (maybe through just doing things in an unexpected order or being in the wrong zone) then they’re stuffed.

But these different sets of goals also made the games more complex and confusing for new players. Unless of course there were quests to introduce them (if nothing else, quests force players to go through set actions in a certain order which can make for a good UI tutorial.)  And – this is key – most games do not regularly adjust any such introduction quests to be accessible for newbies. There’s no quest in WoW to introduce newbies to the idea of glyphs, for example. There’s no quest to let newbies know which parts of TBC they can skip (isle of Quel’Danas, for example).

In A Tale in the Desert, you pretty much have to have a window open on the wiki while you play. In that game, nudging players to collaborate on huge problem solving tasks is a key part of the design and you are directed towards the wiki from inside the game. However, it’s very much a sandbox game (literally!) and although there are general goals for the player base, the more experienced players tend to leap on them quickly and instruct everyone else in what to do next for region progression. (So you might get your goals from other players as much as from the actual game.)

Another example is EVE. New players often complain of difficulty in setting goals because the game is so open ended and has so many possibilities. It’s easy to feel lost just because you don’t have a good idea about what your options and possibilities are when you begin.  Another way of putting this is that a new player would be at a significant disadvantage to an experienced one who was starting a new alt, because the experienced player would know the ins and outs of the game so well. They wouldn’t just know what they wanted to do, they’d also know what they needed to do to get there. One of the ways in which a player learns what they COULD do is by looking at what others are doing, which is actually quite tricky in EVE unless you read forums and blogs … or have joined a corps and have some experience with the game.

Encouraging players to ask each other for help is the traditional old school MMO way of managing this complexity. This often involved a lot of offline work with reading forums, bboards, and player written tutorials (large amounts of up to date information are not easy to transfer over a MMO in game interface.) But a lot of players don’t want to interact that much with others, and/ or they don’t want to make a commitment to a guild so they might not mix with the more experienced players who could answer those questions.

So quests do serve a really useful function. They’re great for directing players around in a way which doesn’t require them to talk to other players. They are potentially great tutorial devices, if players actually read the text. They also provide for a very specific and CRPG-friendly form of storytelling (if you break down your story into a series of steps).

We are seeing some innovations in questing at the moment (public quests, quests presented when you enter an area or pick up an item rather than always talking to the guy with the Q, better use of cut scenes and phasing and non-wall-of-text based storytelling) and also I don’t think that questing is still the “one size fits all” game mechanic of old.

  • Achievements and Titles in WoW have taken some of the pressure off raid and instance questlines. Players know that there will be an achievement for completing every instance – they also can look at the achievement list to find out a set of possible goals rather than needing a separate quest for each individual achievement.
  • Guild advancement is another type of non-quest based goal.
  • Increased use of social networking mechanics and shared scoreboards is another way to provide goals to players in MMOs.

None of these things are new, but to me the innovation is finding ways to introduce these things to new players in a way that isn’t complex, obscured and confusing. The innovation is in the UI.

When you complete an achievement in WoW, it zaps up on your screen with a zing and is also shared with both your guild and with anyone close by (as well as the Armoury). You know that someone has done /something/ and if you click the achievement on screen you will find out precisely what. Think of it as just another form of gold exclamation mark …

Dragon Quest IX and some musings on wandering monsters

Dragon Quest IX arrived on my DS this weekend, so if the posts this week are a little slow, you can blame the slimes. I have barely had a chance to scratch the surface of this game but I already love it dearly.

Twitter (140 word) review so far: DQ9 will make RPG fans very very happy. It’s a single player MMO in a box. Slimes adorable. Kill them all.

Since I really can’t write a proper review yet, here is one from The Telegraph. (Insert whine about the difficulty of getting screenshots from a DS unless you are a media outlet who get a special cable.)

The game starts with you doing some customising of your character – you can pick hairstyle and colour, eyes, a face, a gender and a name. Then you are dropped into one of the prettiest little prologues I’ve seen in any game ever. You are a Celestrian (this involves wings and a halo) and the guardian angel of a sweet little village. Your job is to make the villagers happy and keep them safe, even in the afterlife. This is one of the best in game motivations I have ever seen for nudging you to accept lots of random quests from people.

And DQ continues to do a great job with modernising the whole notion of quests. Later on you will be guilt tripped into helping some people, and pointed towards which quests are optional and can be happily ignored. There will be classes to choose from, companions to pick up (and customise), gear to collect and equip, skill points to spend, turn based combat, dungeons and open world areas to explore and (many many) monsters to slay.

There is also the possibility of having other players in your party via wifi, and your character can even learn some emotes to allow rudimentary conversation if you do this.

This is a game which, like Torchlight, just makes me happy when I am playing it. Maybe it’s the mixture of the old school RPG (wander around, kill things and take their stuff, level up), the JRPG storyline (you are a little angel that fell out of heaven and now you have to wander the world and help people), the gorgeous DS graphics, gameplay, and beating up slimes – but I’m having a great time with this one. Recommended to any RPG fans who own a DS.

Also, we need more games which let you play a martial artist who fights with a fan.

Dragon Quest and the numbers game

Apparently (according to wikipedia) DQ9 had 2 million pre-orders when it went live in Japan. 2 million pre-orders. And that’s just in Japan.

It’s pretty much guaranteed to break more records when the western numbers are in too.

The cult of the wandering monster

One of the other interesting notes from wikipedia was that this is the first Dragon Quest game in which you can actually see monsters in the open world before you attack them. It was very much a trope of JRPG (and some regular RPG also) that you would wander around the game world and every so often the game would decide, “Ah, time for a fight” and would launch you into a random fight.

This came straight from D&D, which had wandering monster tables on which the DM could roll if players looked bored. The original idea of the wandering monsters was that a DM could set up two types of fight. There would be static fights with mobs that had been designed into the scenario in advance, and there would also be the possibility for random encounters.

The wandering monster was the most simple of all random encounters. “Roll D10 to see what attacks you.” The aim was to make travelling through the world more interesting, because whilst fantasy epics do involve a lot of travel, it’s not very interesting to RP through it step by step. So instead, travel was modelled as some descriptions of the landscape, punctuated by brief encounters with wandering monsters.

(AD&D also, infamously, had a wandering streetwalker table for when players were exploring cities, “Roll d10 to see if you encounter a wanton wench, a strumpet, a call girl, a pimp, etc.” Even at the time we thought this was very silly.)

Later, scenarios evolved more interesting types of random encounter. It didn’t have to just be a random rust monster that wandered into camp, it might be some brief but amusing encounter (a band of travelling players need help to put on a show, etc.), or even the seed of a mini-adventure that players could choose to follow up or not. Yet in computer RPGs, the wandering monster had the great bonus of being very easy to code so it remained popular.

One of the great bonuses of MMOs, with their persistent immersive worlds, is that players could always expect to see monsters wandering the world before they attacked. There would be no ‘wandering monsters’ coming out of nowhere – although WoW experimented with very large wanderers such as the Fel Reaver, even they could be seen from a distance.

One of the exciting things about games like Warhammer Online and  Guild Wars 2 is that their public quests look to be reviving the notion of the random encounter, quests that just happen in the world as you wander through it and with which you can get involved.

Giant Skeletons as Art

bonesentinel

You might think to look at this screenshot that you were looking at a simple, everyday, giant skeleton of the sort you might find anywhere in a MMO.

Here it stands in its natural habitat, on eternal watch, waiting for an adventurer to come past and pull it to its inevitable death animation.

But there is something different about this particular type of mob in WoW. It’s a new breed.

Placed in Icecrown, one of the end zones in Wrath where it is assumed that the player will have a flying mount, this mob is designed to be flown over rather than killed.

It’s true. There is no quest in the game that requires anyone to kill one of these giant skeletons, yet they are common mobs in Icecrown. They patrol battlements. They stand on guard at strategic locations. They look tough and they are (relatively) tough, being elites. Not only is there no quest for them, but the drop tables don’t attract people, they aren’t part of anyone’s optimal xp gathering schemes, they don’t give rep. There isn’t even any xp for them (that’s quite damning in a MMO!)

The very first comment in the Bone Sentinel entry in wowhead says, forlornly:

I killed one and it didn’t drop anything and it also did not provide any experience.

Ladies and Gentlement, I present to you … the decorative mob. Be nice to it, it may be the herald of a new (aka old) immersive era of zone design, in which mobs are placed because they look right or they should logically be there, and not just to drive quests.

Joking aside, that’s quite an old school approach. Older MMOs often placed mobs without any intention that players would kill them. But it’s uncommon in WoW.

Preparing for a patch

I wrote earlier this week about one of the Icecrown quests in WoW. I decided to complete more of those quests on an alt to remind myself of the storylines that had gripped me when I first ran them on my main, many months ago.

After all, patch 3.3 may well pick up those loose ends; loose ends that haven’t really been touched since Wrath went live, which is not one of Blizzard’s best storytelling decisions. As Rohan noted, usual screenwriting rules would require that the bad guy be in the ascendent when the last act of a three-act play begins. Instead we’ve beaten the Lich King on every encounter and taken time out to destroy an Old God and do some jousting en route.

Despite that, I’m excited to see what lies in store in patch 3.3. I’m looking forwards to venturing into the new 5 man instances with my friends and fighting a variety of scourge baddies alongside my NPC faction leader. I’m looking forwards to the new raid and to finding out how the Lich King storylines draw to a close, or at least to a new start.

So my current goal is to redo all of the Icecrown quests on an alt before the patch hits so as to refresh my memory.

Is there anything you particularly like to do to prepare for a patch, either in WoW or in another MMO? (It is after all that that patching time of year.)

Can we really have puzzles in MMOs?

One of the strange things we have learned via the internet is that if you get a massive amount of people together and challenge them to solve a problem, the answer will circulate very very quickly. It’s because those dratted players will talk to each other and cooperate, or post up answers on websites, or write addons to tell you the answer. Who’d have thought that a massively multiplayer online game might end up with massive amounts of people communicating? Not early MMO developers, that’s for sure.

Of course, in the beginning it didn’t really matter because the main puzzle that people faced was how to grind seven zillion rats (in a group, naturally) without dying of boredom. But when games like WoW leaned more and more heavily on quests, then suddenly websites and databases sprung up to list all the answers to every quest and loot related question ever made.  In some ways, we should thank MMOs for leading the way with social networking, crowdsourced answers, and encouraging massive amounts of people to use the internet cooperatively to solve common problems. I find that quite a sobering thought.

Today, players are just as likely to look up the answer to an in-game puzzle as to actually try it themselves. Andrew @Of Teeth and Claws laments the rise of people looking up answers in games. And if you’re uncomfortable with that, the greatest torment of all is that it has become for many people the default way of handling online quests. Get lost or confused for more than a second? Just look it up. And if you can’t look it up then complain that the quest is unfair or too difficult! The only real puzzle left is where best to find the information.

A puzzle in this context can include strategies for beating new raids or instances. It can include optimal ways to level or to spec. It can include map addons. It can include answers to just about any problem that devs probably thought people might want to figure out on their own. In a milieu where guides to new 5 man instances are posted the day after they have been put up on a test server in another continent, where people data-mine new patches to inform the playerbase well in advance what’s on the horizon, it feels as though actually getting to solve a puzzle yourself is the ultimate luxury. Unless you are strong willed enough to avoid all the spoilers.

But even though we now understand that players will in fact talk to each other, I still see scope for puzzles in our MMOs. We can still have content that makes us think. It just requires a more lateral approach – MMOs need to ditch the debris of the old fashioned zork-alikes which depended so heavily on mazes and puzzle solving and embrace what they’re actually good at. We need devs to design massively, and players to think massively. Here’s some thoughts I had on puzzles that will entertain players just as well in MMOs as in single player games, if not better.

Puzzles that require collaboration

The easiest way to make a puzzle that needs a lot of people to work together to solve it is to give each of them a piece of the solution. Players enjoy working with others to create something or solve something, as long as they don’t have to be totally dependent on the other players. You can imagine mass collection quests where players can pool the information that they have collected or race against another team to complete mass scavenger hunts.

For example Mythic have run some fun PR events for Warhammer where they sent different clues to several different bloggers (who all blogged about it, naturally), letting all their readers in on trying to work out what was going on.

Working together doesn’t always require puzzle solving. For example, the Quel’Danas quests in TBC where all the daily quests done by every player helped to build the next stage of the city were very popular. People felt as though they were collaborating to unlock new content, without ever having to actually … collaborate. But it wouldn’t have been difficult to incorporate some kind of puzzle into the event.

The other form of collaboration of course is to incorporate the wowhead style databases into the game itself. Make filling out the answers and helping other players with information an actual part of the game.

Puzzles that no one will bother to spoil

If PvE is all about puzzles, then why hasn’t absolutely everything been broken down and posted? Because no one can be bothered to describe every single trash pull in an instance, or the minutae of how to get around an obstacle. Some puzzles are ignored, not because they are always trivial but because they aren’t directly attached to a quest or raid boss.

As a tank, every single pull in an instance is a sort of puzzle. The group needs to decide kill order, the puller needs to decide how to most safely bring the mobs to the players, and every other person in the group has to do some puzzle solving along the way. In some ways, pulling is the perfect MMO puzzle. It needs some situational awareness, can use line of sight or obstacles, needs the player to know a bit about the mob’s capabilities and their own capabilities, and can all go horribly wrong if it isn’t done properly.

This is the core of group play and it remains mostly unspoiled, at least for the first few times through. But it is true that current class design leaves a lot of this type of puzzle to the tank/ leader.

Puzzles that don’t really have one right answer

One of the problems I have with quests to model RL problems is the implication that all problems can be easily and neatly solved. But what about moral or ethical issues which have no single answer and where players will have to deal with the fallout of their own choices. We’re becoming more used to this type of problem in single player games as they become more sophisticated, but what about MMOs?

Sometimes the real puzzle is not how to solve the actual quest but to work out how to deal with the aftermath. Imagine you are sent to rescue some lost envoy and find that they are dead but their young son survived and needs to be brought home to safety. Up till now, games have thugged this type of quest out with unpopular escort missions but that’s because they haven’t really spent much time modelling what you’d have to do to look after a lost and frightened person and bring them safely home other than by fighting various spawns or patrols. And then … what do you do with them when you do get back to a place of safety?

I’m reminded of the various smart storytelling techniques we developed to solve the problem in tabletop games of: How can you run a mystery type scenario when there are player characters with telepathy? (It’s the same problem actually – if you assume PCs will instantly know the answer to any puzzle, how can you still make the game interesting and intriguing for them?)

Randomising Puzzles

What if players were each given different puzzles to solve? Or if one puzzle could have many different answers?

This is the category where randomised instances, randomised quests, and bosses that have several sets of random abilities come in. It isn’t possible for there to be one true answer because the question itself changes from day to day. Even if the only puzzle left is ‘which set of random abilities will we get today?’ that still requires some thought, adaptation, and preparation.

The drawback is that there can be balance issues – what if the randomised instance assumes abilities that the group doesn’t have? What if some classes or players adapt better to randomised content than others? And also the randomised content isn’t as polished as hand crafted instances and puzzles.  This may be a small price to pay for access to fresh puzzles, instances, and bosses.

Massive Amounts of Puzzles

There are so many puzzles that it just isn’t possible to keep up with them all, or at least it’s always possible to find something new. This would be where player created content enters the fray. Give players the ability to design scenarios, instances, levels or puzzles and they’ll come up with a vast array of content. Much of it will be rubbish but even sorting through the possibilities to find the gems will keep a lot of people happily occupied.

Constantly Evolving Puzzles

The puzzle is complex and chaotic in nature and it’s very sensitive to conditions which change either with player activity or with tweaks in every patch. Even though a player may have solved it once, there will probably be a different solution next week or next month.

For an example of this, look at the amount of work that goes into figuring out optimal dps rotations in WoW. This is a sensitive and chaotic problem. It can change when new gear is introduced. It can change when new abilities are introduced or existing abilities are tweaked. It can change when new encounters are introduced. It can change depending on which other players are in the group and what they are doing.

I hope and believe that at least some of these types of problem will make up a lot of future MMO gameplay. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether people actually like puzzles in their games or not? Or would they prefer a more predictable setting where no thinking is required beyond ‘what should I wear today?’