[WoW] Delenda est Theramore

wow_theramore

Well I thought the scenario was quite fun!

One of the features added to WoW in the next expansion will be scenarios: short 3-man escapades which are designed to be manageable without a balanced group, by characters without raid gear.  We know this because WoW developers addressed this question in a Q&A last night. 

The fact is that Scenarios in Mists will be more tailored for players in quest gear and dungeon blues.

The Fall of Theramore was released early and tweaked for level 85 characters (in rather better than quest gear) to give people a preview of scenarios with one that is related to stuff that happens in the lore between the end of Cataclysm and the beginning of MoP. You can queue randomly for a PUG, although I guess waiting times are longish because people were also calling for groups in general chat.

In this particular scenario, your current goal pops up on the right of the screen and you’re guided from encounter to encounter, with patrols and suchlike to avoid/kill on the way. The storytelling works fine on a micro level, you always know what  your next objective is even if you don’t really know why. Clearly (as Horde) you are doing destructive things in Theramore, and eventually rescue a snotty Blood Elf spy – I don’t know why we didn’t just leave him there either. On a macro level, the storytelling isn’t a failure so much as completely nonexistent. Even a paragraph of text on the LFG screen would have helped.

Unsurprisingly, this is a widespread complaint. Blizzard also addressed it in the Q&A (different site from above because this is the full transcript).

Guest-37: The story of Tides of War is really interesting. I don’t think players can get engaged if they have no idea what’s happening, the bomb dropping is really anticlimactic. I felt a bit disappointed so little got included in the scenario. Was this because of lack of time, of developers or because you rather keep all that info in the novels.
DaveKosak: To Guest-37 I’ve been watching the Theramore feedback closely, and this comment seems pretty universal. We tried to keep everything all in the scenario, to make it really self-contained, but not burden it with lots of story that you have to slog through every time you played the scenario. It’s pretty clear from the feedback that people wanted more story. We should’ve surrounded the scenarios with more quests or explanations to help round out the story for the people who wanted to know what exactly was happening. Lesson learned!

It looks as though the developers heard all the complaints about the long preambles in lore heavy instances like Old Stratholme and decided to just skip it and let players get on with the random devastation. But I bet most people really quite liked the preamble the first time they saw it. They might have liked it even more if they had first seen the preamble in a solo instance with plenty of time to listen, explore, or just spacebar through it if they really have no patience.

LOTRO, I think, had the best solution to this with respect to their skirmishes (similar to scenarios but better, at least based on what I have seen atm). A LOTRO skirmish is a shortish (20-30 mins) scenario which scales up from solo to 6 player groups, some involve defending a location (such as Weathertop or The Prancing Pony Inn in Bree) from waves of attackers, others involve heading into an enemy held location and freeing it by capturing one goal at a time.  Where skirmishes were introduced into the game, some were immediately available and others had to be unlocked by completing the (mostly soloable) epic questline in which they played a part. Only after you had finished the quests did you realise that you had just completed the one man version of the skirmish as part of the storyline. So players knew all the background to the skirmish and had familiarised themselves with the layout and goals BEFORE being able to queue for random groups. I thought that was fairly genius, and it’s a shame WoW skipped that part.

As far as the actual storyline goes, Horde dropped The Bomb on Theramore (at the end of the scenario, when players are no longer at ground zero). It’s like we have our very own Hiroshima – naturally there was no exploration of any ethical implications. Which is fair I guess since players had so little to do with it all. Plus they’re only Alliance. You even get a miniature bomb memento in the mail afterwards. My goblin priest probably thinks it is the best thing ever.

So in that context, the only surprising thing is that it will take the Alliance an entire expansion to get round to invading Orgrimmar.

I am however, intrigued to see the other scenarios. I think we’ll really enjoy them at that sweet spot between reaching the level cap and zooming into heroics (a sweet spot which currently lasts about 2s but may be more drawn out in MoP.)

My scenario adventures

I ran through the scenario a couple of times on my shadow priest (who only just makes the gear requirements). Fun was had, we found the instructions clear and easy to follow, the boss fights aren’t very interesting but it was cool to be able to run around Theramore. I liked that the scenario didn’t feel like a long corridor with mobs in it, but more like an actual location. The challenge level felt fine with a random group of 3 dps. I can easily imagine that with a guild group involving some tanking and healing on the side, it would be trivial. And you get a loot bag at the end which may contain iLvL 384 shinies, or may not.

The first time one of the random people went AFK at the start and we weren’t able to boot him, and the other player was a resto shaman who kept telling me he was just there to heal. Needless to say, it didn’t go brilliantly well although we got about 2/3 of the way through before a mass unexpected pull just sapped my will to be there.

I can see why Blizzard might have thought it of lesser importance to implement a boot mechanic (to boot people from groups) in content that is only 8-`12 mins long, but they underestimated how dickish some players can be. Hopefully some ability to book afk people will be in sometime.

The second time I ran the scenario (same character), I had a  better feel for how it was intended to run. This time it was my shadow priest, a hunter, and a mage. It wasn’t hard but it was fun and we had to be on our toes. I threw some heals, there was crowd control, if the hunter had actually brought a tanking pet they could have tanked. I can see my spriest having a ton of fun in scenarios during MoP, there’s a real role for a dps who can throw clutch heals. I also got a shiny iLvL 384 healing staff in the reward box afterwards, and getting shinies always improves my mood (shallow, I know).

Blue Booking, PvE Grind, and what do we do in games inbetween scheduled groups?

I have been thinking recently about the patterns in which I tend to play MMOs. I’ve been spending more time in LOTRO recently, and my guild there is mostly made up of older players. They’re grumpy and proud, and they are very very good at organising their gaming to fit lifestyles which involve kids, non-gaming commitments, and a mix of casual and hardcore players. They are also awesome (if any of you are reading this!)

This means a lot of scheduled runs, even for small 3 man groups. Of course you can just log in, see who is around, and put a group together, but players with time limitations prefer to be able to arrange their free time in advance. I’ve noticed that players are also quite conscientious about notifying the other people involved if something comes up in advance and they can’t make it. I’m sure there are also a lot of informal but pre-arranged levelling groups and skirmish groups which don’t use the bboards and calendar to organise.

And this reminds me a lot of my old pen and paper groups. We’d have regular gaming nights and if anyone couldn’t make it then they’d let the rest of us know.

It’s a good rhythm for any organised group hobby. You have ‘group’ nights. And then if you want to work quietly on your hobby you can either skip a group night or do it when no one else is around, or at home.

But I’m interested in what it means to work quietly on your hobby if your hobby is an MMO. Because these games tend to be based on progression, then either time spent solo will progress your character (in which case all min/maxers will feel they must do it) or else there is some other purpose.

Blue Booking in RPGs

Blue Booking is a pen and paper technique that has dipped in and out of popularity. And it is all about immersively answering the question, “What does my character do in between scenarios?” You can imagine a pen and paper scenario as a short story. A  bunch of people turning up to a group and improvising their way through a brief storyline which consists of a plot hook, a few scenes, some conversation, roleplaying, fights, and a conclusion.

So if your character’s life is a bunch of short stories (think of it as an anthology) then what happens inbetween?

The idea was that players could try to answer that question and the GM would award xp for good efforts. They might write a short story explaining what their character had done, or was trying to do, after the last scenario. Maybe it would represent a day in that character’s life, or introduce some of their family or friends who the GM could use in scenarios later.  Players might draw pictures or use any other type of creative activity to do this. They might have a private chat via email with other players to discuss what their characters were getting up to, and then let the GM know later.

And if a RPG scenario is like an instance (which it isn’t really, apart from the fighting) then MMOs answer the same question by actually letting players play through some of what their characters do between group adventures. But of course, RPGs are all about roleplaying so we expect players to seek immersive answers. MMOs – for a lot of people – have almost nothing to do with roleplaying at all. Most players won’t care what their character is doing between fighting dragons.

And yet, MMO design is so rooted in old immersive goals that these things tend to be built in anyway. The origin of our grinds is not just to keep people playing but to answer the question, so what does your character do when they aren’t killing dragons?

  • Maybe they are a crafter or tradesman, and have to keep up with the day to day demands of running a business. (In MMOs, that means gathering, crafting, playing the auction house or otherwise toying with the economy.)
  • Maybe they have an active social life with friends, parties, drama, love affairs. (Roleplaying.)
  • Maybe they are involved in defending their homelands. (PvP … sort of.)
  • Maybe they just like wandering the world (not really much to do in most MMOs here.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and are trying to impress superiors in some organisation? (reputation grind.)
  • Maybe they are ambitious and trying to impress other players in an organisation, for example in their guild. (Organise guild activities, offer to help with guild website, other out of game activities.)

And you can see that PvE grinds and activities try to replace the notion of the blue book, with some occasional success. Many possible activities are not modelled at all (which is a shame because it would give non-raiders more to do in the endgame). Others are not well supported because devs just don’t like or understand the gameplay (like roleplaying.)

But truth is, the majority of players will prefer to log off and do something else in between adventures. They won’t want to play out every single thing their character does, or even the majority of it.

And here is where the blue booking side comes in. Even players who don’t want to spend hours gathering to simulate the crafting activities that their character does might still be interested in having the activity recorded. There are games where you can set your character to do something useful while you are logged off. You don’t need to actually pick all the grass. Maybe you could just leave your character to do it and then when you log back in the next day, your packs are full.

And this I think is where the opportunities are for integrating casual or even mobile gaming with an MMO. What does my character do between adventures could be answered with ‘runs a farm’, for example. I don’t honestly know if this is the way that MMOs will go; for every EVE which is trying to integrate a MMO with a shooter (Dust), there will be others who decide it’s easier just to leave separate games to be separate. WoW is looking to battle.net and the RealID to push the solution that says, “I play SC2 while my WoW character is not involved in anything,” for example.

But I am intrigued by the possibility of finding more and more varied answers to the question, “What does my character do in between group runs,” in MMOs.