Questing is like cooking, more stressy the more people involved

I have been playing a bit of City of Heroes with my beloved this weekend (I’m only about level 5, but the revamped tutorial is pretty cool and I like that you can buy Fly as a power quite early on now.) You’d think this would be a joyful experience since we don’t get to play together very often, and even in WoW it was mostly during raid nights when we both got tapped for the raid. And mostly, it is! He loves the game, I’m curious to remind myself of it, we’re good to go.

And yet somehow, I get tired much more quickly when I’m questing alongside someone else than when I’m playing the levelling game on my own. This is true even when I’m questing with Arb in LOTRO, and she’s probably the most compatible person with me in the sense of playing style that I know.

So why is this? Is it just the constant need to make sure everyone’s on the same quest, everyone remembered to click the quest text, everyone had time to read the quest text, people staying together and not wandering off and getting lost, chatting (I don’t really think that’s stressful?), making sure everyone gets to go train up their stats when they level, etc?

I suspect that there’s something about questing per se that just seems to work better for single players. You can control the pace, can make your decisions intuitively without having to discuss them, can decide for yourself when you want to take a break.

If I look at games where I’ve really enjoyed levelling in duos or small groups, they were either in the past when I was just a more patient player and more interested in chat or RP, or else involved events like instances, PvP scenarios, skirmishes, rifts, or sandbox play (ie. taking our ships in Pirates of the Burning Sea and heading off for adventure). Even when experimenting with fixed groups, I think we found it easier when we had instance nights rather than actually all trying to quest together.

Anyone else find it more relaxing to level via quest when solo? I think in many ways, this is the genius of Diablo in that you can play through the whole thing either solo or in groups, depending on your goals.

How long is a piece of string? How long is an MMO?

Bioware recently noted in an interview that SWTOR would launch with approximately 200 hours of content (core gameplay) per class of gameplay.

Keen, perhaps surprisingly, responded immediately with, “That’s not enough” on the basis that he reckoned he’d spent 144 hours levelling his new WoW shaman and kitting it out, and he’d rushed it (ie. could have spent a lot more time on levelling.)

It wouldn’t take a genius to reckon that via that comparison, it’s pretty much impossible for any new MMO to satisfy players like Keen. (Unless they have really compelling non-core gameplay content, whatever that means. I presume he’d be happy with a good instanced PvP type game for example.)

Whereas I read 200 hours and immediately compared that with Dragon Age: Origins, the lengthiest game that I’ve actually played to completion within the last few years. It took me 45 hours to finish my first run through of DAO and I could have taken longer. I didn’t finish all the side quests and I played on easy mode because I wanted to follow the story. And at the end of that 45 hour stint, I took take a break from gaming for a couple of weeks because it had been quite intense (ie. I’d probably have been more comfortable stretching the playing time over more days). So SWTOR is potentially offering me four times DAO’s content for each class … and I’m duly awed.

What is the right comparison for a new MMO?

An existing one? An existing single player game from the same developers? I don’t know. I just know that 200 hours of Bioware-type RPG could easily be 4-5 months of my time (and I’m not THAT casual of a player) especially when padded out with crafting, PvP, instancing, and chatting. Not to mention alts. Or time spent in other games too.

The WoW comparison

Here’s another WoW comparison. The new Hyjal/ firelands dailies comprise a complex questing grind, including opening up new phases and storylines at various points in the endeavour. Someone on the official boards calculated, assuming you do every available daily quest on every day, that this would take about a month.

ie. 32 days of doing every available Hyjal/ Firelands daily quest.

So how long would that actually take in hours? Hard to say: if you assume on average an hour a day for the first half and two hours a day for the second (rough approximation assuming that it takes longer to get through the later daily quests since there will be more of them), that’s around 48 hours. Then you can add a couple of hours extra for slightly lengthier quest chains as you unlock each new vendor for a round 50 hours or so.

Would you rather spend 50 hours in an MMO doing a complex daily rep grind, or playing the equivalent of DAO?

That isn’t as loaded a question as it sounds, the firelands dailies seem very well done to me. But they are still daily quests. And it takes Blizzard around 6 months or so to come out with each new patch, containing that much gameplay. And however fun DAO was to me, it’s still a single player game.

[Cataclysm] 7 ways in which questing has changed

Now that I’ve gotten my main to 85 and seen a large number of the quests in the game, I keep noticing that Blizzard have made some changes across the board to how the whole questing game works. Some are minor, some already existed in other games (LOTRO players will definitely recognise some of these), and others smooth and clarify the existing system.

Bearing in mind that Blizzard pioneered the current MMO trend of levelling completely via quests and were seen as fairly innovative even for minor tweaks like marking quest givers with a giant !, it’s interesting to see where they’re trying to take the ‘genre’ further.

I haven’t mentioned the increased use of phasing, since that existed before. Although it has been used to great effect.

1. No more annoying escort quests

I think players always found escort quests a bit annoying. You find a poor hapless NPC and have to escort it to some other place, during which time you get attacked by several waves of mobs and have to keep the NPC alive. These quests were always plagued with NPCs who ran ahead and got themselves killed, or kept going regardless of the fact that the player was fighting so you got behind, or just generally being annoying.

In WoW these days, this barely happens. Instead, NPC sidekicks are useful (sometimes to the point of massacring mobs before you get to lay a blade on them), amusing/ worrying, and ‘escort’ quests form some of the high points of the questing experience.

Who could forget that dopey druid in the Plaguelands who keeps transforming into the wrong forms? Or the undead ex-Gilneans in Silverpine who coolly murder prisoners after you have freed them ‘for being cowards and getting captured’.

2. More interaction with the world

I have noticed that Blizzard are trying to foster a bit more interaction with the gameworld. Yes, it’s never going to be Minecraft but for example:

  • The Hillsbrad quest that made me go ‘ick’ where you had to pick spider eggs from the backs of dead bears. In previous expansions, you probably would have looted ‘[spider egg] from the corpse. In this one, you have to actually click on the pictures of the spider eggs to pick them up. It’s a subtle distinction but a useful one.
  • The dragonmaw/ alliance daily quests where you have to loot foodstuffs from the burned out villages. Previously the food would have looked like giant sacks. This time, you can loot loaves of bread, fishes, and grain hanging from the ceilings. It feels more like rummaging through the houses to see what food they have left around.
  • Quests where you have to pick things up and deliver them are more likely to show your actual character carrying the item. (I know I’ve seen this but struggling to remember the actual quest.) LOTRO or WAR players will find this to be old hat, but it’s new in WoW.

3. Zone introductions

This is most marked in the new Cataclysm high level zones, but you don’t just run into a new zone any more. Instead there will be cut scenes, travelogues, and ‘something will happen’ to drop you right into the middle of the action. My character probably should never take public transport again, judging by all the shot down zeppelins, drowned ships, and captured caravans.

And yet, it makes the whole process of going to a new zone and discovering it for the first time more of an event.

In particular, the prelude to the Twilight Highlands in Azshara for Horde is brilliant. You have to fetch some of the soldiers out of the goblin fleapits where they’ve been spending their R&R, help get the fleet ready for action, and sit through one of the funniest sequences in the game, where a couple of goblin flight attendants convince you never to set foot on one of those flying deathtraps immediately before you have to leave.

And then there’s the actual flight, together with the fleet of zeppelins, and what happens when they get attacked in the air.

Yes, it’s on rails. But yes, it’s also really exciting. If you’re going to run a game on rails, this is the way to do it.

I think in general Blizzard have been considering how to make progression feel more meaningful. The quest in Vash’jir where you have to tame your own seahorse, Avatar-style, is a good example. Instead of just giving you the seahorse reward,  you get to play through some of the process of getting the sea horse.

Again, LOTRO players will find this to be old hat. They’ve had special racing and riding quests associated with getting your character’s first mount for years.

4. New ways to receive quests

Gone are the days when all quests were received by clicking on an NPC with an exclamation mark over their head. Some will pop up when you enter a location, others when you kill a mob for the first time, others when a new festival starts.

I particularly like the location based quests. They aren’t typically thrilling quests, more along the lines of “there are tons of boars here, you think it’d be a great idea to thin the herd”, but the notion that you could be exploring and find a quest for yourself rather than going back to find an NPC who wanted those mobs massacred is definitely a step forwards.

WAR players will find this similar to the way public quests used to be introduced. You entered the right area and the quest requirements popped up on your screen.

Similarly, some NPCs will let you hand quests in remotely (something which will be familiar to CoH players), saving you having to keep running back to them.

And instance quests now tend to be given out inside the entrance to that instance. There are still extra instance quests that you can get by finishing the zone outside, but the majority are inside the instances. Of course, the downside is that after you have finished the instance, you have to run back to the start to hand them in.

5. More dynamic questing

If you’ve been trying the Dragonmaw/ Wildhammer dailies, you will know that some of them are based around little villages which constantly change hands between horde and alliance. As a player, you can get involved with these skirmishes, and are encouraged to do so in order to get your quests done. In fact, if you find a village occupied by the opposite faction NPC and pull one of them, your own faction NPCs will run in to help.

So basically there’s often fighting between NPCs going on in these locations. New waves will turn up every 10 minutes or so after a village has been captured. And a player can take part either solo or in a group. I imagine it’s a focus for PvP on PvP servers too.

I am rather enjoying it now that I have a better understanding of how it works. I wasn’t so sure before.

6. Use of cut scenes

I know some people hate cut scenes but I love how Blizzard have been using them in Cataclysm, and I now understand what they meant when they were talking about a new approach. You will see your character, wearing the gear it is actually wearing. You will be talking to people, sitting on wagons, interacting with the NPCs in the cut scenes. And if the cut scene involves part of the gameworld where other players are around, you will see them too.

I think they’ve been beautifully done, and if you hate them then there is always the ESC button. Sure, they could be improved. There could be a way to replay or pause them if something comes up iRL while one is playing and you missed it. There are some bugs in Uldum where you may have to terminate a cut scene early.

But I found them very cool on the whole. I like seeing my character in the cut scenes! It makes me feel more part of the action. In particular, the dream sequence in the Twilight Highlands was very very effective.

7. Great set piece solo encounters

Blizzard have really been trying to work on the solo gameplay, in some areas. There are fights like Baron Geddon in Hyjal where NPCs encourage you to move out of the flame ring, and get away from your friends when he turns you into a living bomb (I tried to bomb an alliance guy but he ran away – boooo.)

There’s a particularly cool example at the end of the Twilight Cultist chain in the Highlands where you are fighting alongside Garona (one of the big name characters from the lore) in a fight which feels more like a raid encounter – even solo – than some of the earlier raids themselves did.

In Uldum, Blizzard have tried some innovative quests where you control armies of mobs, where you roll around as a flaming ball of fire killing evil gnomes, and where you paint targets for a tank gunner. They don’t all work brilliantly as gameplay, but it’s obvious that they’re trying to do something different.

Cataclysm Screenshot of the Day

cata_daypic2 Riding my seahorse through a kelp forest.

Feeling bored? Cool stuff to check out

  1. Sita Sings the Blues. This is a brilliant animated telling of the Ramayana, interwoven with the narrator’s own story. It’s funny, clever, heartbreaking, and utterly utterly charming.
  2. Bored and want something to play? Rock Paper Shotgun points you to some Dwarf Fortress ultra tutorials. (If you have never played it, Dwarf Fortress is a scary game that takes the Angband style to whole new fortress-building levels. Kiss goodbye to your weekend.).
  3. Nerf the Cat has found a really cool web comic, based on the goings on in her own server and using screenshots to tell the tale. I think this is great and wish people would do it on my server.
  4. On the WoW tanking front, Allison Robert wrote a very good article on WoW Insider which sums up the current state of play and how we got here in the first place.
  5. Tipa@WestKarana lists the things she loves from what she has heard so far about Star Trek Online. You get to recruit, train, and level your own bridge crew? I’m intrigued.
  6. I’m fascinated by the history of fandom. And Larisa@The Pink Pigtail Inn reminisces here about her experiences as a fanzine editor in the ’80s.
  7. The Escapist goes Hands-On with the new CoH mission architect. This is the functionality that will let people design their own missions and instances for other players.
  8. Gamepolitics.com reports on a clever feline way to avoid those annoying EULAs.
  9. via MTV MultiplayerA Rabbi (Micah Kelber)who is also a gamer reviews Call of Duty: World at War – it’s an interesting, thoughtful read. But mostly I’m wishing that I’d ever had a gaming Rabbi.
  10. Muckbeast writes an insightful post about where he thinks questing has both succeeded and failed in MMOs.

Also, if you like puzzle games, World of Goo is available on Steam for $5 at the moment. It has the Spinks seal of approval, I love it. Highly recommended.

Are MMOs getting easier or players getting lazier?

via Bio Break, I was reading a column in GameSpy about the lack of challenge in WoW. Don’t get me wrong, now that I’ve seen most of the raid content for myself, I can understand where that’s coming from (and it’s a subject for another day!)

But. It isn’t the raid content that he’s talking about. It isn’t endgame at all, in fact. He’s talking about the levelling curve and how Blizzard have mostly trivialised it. And if you want to go even faster, you can grab bind on account items that adjust themselves to match the level of your alts. And because they are BoA, once you have finished you can send them on to another alt. Although by definition, heirloom items are only available to players with max level characters, to help speed up the levelling of their alts.

Not only that but people also have easy access to websites like wowhead and addons like questhelper which neatly remove any residual quest related frustrations anyone may have had with not finding things or puzzle solving.

All of these things conspire to make questing and levelling a trivial (but still time consuming) part of the game. Aside from the fact that no one forces you to go look things up every single time you get stumped for more than half a millisecond, what we are seeing is a fundamentally different way in how players respond to in game quests.

They are no longer viewed as fun puzzles. Instead, they’ve become sleepers (or even speedbumps) on the railway of levelling, and the objective of most passengers is to get past them as quickly as possible on their way to their final destination. Levelling quest rewards are largely ignorable. Even if they are useful upgrades, you’ll grow out of them soon enough. Some questlines will have particularly engaging storylines or fun tweaks. Those are the equivalent of the Settle-Carlisle scenic route*. Pretty, a fun day out, and good for photo/screenshot opportunities. But you’d skip them if you were in a hurry.

This is not a WoW-specific paradigm shift.

Looking at newer games, they’ve all been tweaking to make the questing process more streamlined and single player friendly. WAR has its red blobs (which actually fulfil much the same function as questhelper, but more nicely implemented and integrated) which I think have been roundly welcomed. Anyone want to complain that levelling in WAR is too easy? They’ve eased their levelling curve too. You don’t even have to worry about accidentally pulling groups because most mobs can be solo pulled.

I don’t think people complain, because they’re not unhappy with it. And WAR in particular does offer other ways to level, the solo questing isn’t supposed to be challenging so much as to just give you something to do inbetween scenarios.

Why does the levelling curve need to ease off?

This one is obvious. In any level based game with multiple expansions, if you want to make your game appealing to new players, they need to be able to catch up to the pack. Is there any way to do this other than to speed up the low level game?

  • Spread out the pack, either by being very very alt friendly or by spreading the appealing content through all levels and letting players stop at a place they like.
  • Let new players start at higher levels. Still would need some kind of tutorial.
  • mentoring schemes (sidekicking, or letting you help a friend to level faster)
  • Nuke the old content at the start of every expansion. Let everyone start from level 1 again together.
  • Nuke the whole server regularly.
  • DITCH LEVELS! (wait, am I shouting? :) )

I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift on quests and level based games. WoW is, for logical reasons, trivialising its levelling game. This will be less fun for people who enjoyed the challenge (I’d direct them to LOTRO where the quests are much more old-school style), but it’s a strange reason for not trying WoW because the high level quests in TBC and Wrath are brilliant.

The level-by-quest design served MMOs, and WoW in particular well but we’re seeing how it fails in a mature game now. Once you have seen the stories once, you don’t need to see them again. New players need to be able to catch up.

We need a new scheme for levelling. WAR with its multiple options, multiple zones, and public quests is surely on to something. So why is the prospect of levelling an alt in WAR so unappealing?

* You have to love that the Settle-Carlisle railway doesn’t have any pictures of scenery on the front page, although the scenery is the main reason that it’s famous. There is a picture of a station cat on the station page though.