Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cure for the Common Quest

Questing has long been a venerable tradition in MMORPGs and was inherited from it's Dungeons and Dragons ancestor. Originally, quests were rare and used to award players for completing tasks or dungeon crawls. However, this changed after a couple of years and quests started to be used more as a leveling mechanic to direct players to new areas. This was a much better use of quests and it made earning levels more fun. However, developers for a number of different MMORPGs started to approach quest creation in a machine gun like fashion. All of sudden a large number of games in the genre had quests that were very similar to one another and usually involved killing/gathering x number of y mobs/items.

This created a situation where players started burning out on questing and "lack of originality" became a common complaint about the MMO genre as a whole. Afterall, the entire point of using quests as a leveling mechanic was to break up the boring process of just killing mobs for experience. Thankfully, within the last couple of years we've seen serious attempts to spice up questing and some new ideas have started to show up. These ideas generally fall into three basic categories which seek to improve different aspects of questing.

1) Area Wide Quests - making quests more social
One of the problems with quests is that to make them truly epic and interesting the difficulty level has to be increased to give players a challenge. Without challenge there is no sense of accomplishment and questing remains bland. Unfortunately, since most MMORPGs use a class system it can often be more of a challenge to build a working quest group then actually doing the quest. Area Wide quests attempt to address this problem by automatically building raid groups when the quest starts. It's more like an automated mini event then a quest, but they are very entertaining when done right. I've seen them implemented in both Warhammer and Champions Online, but they do tend to run into problems when zones have a lack of a players.

2) Storytelling - making quests more interesting
A lot of players really enjoy the role playing elements found in MMORPGs and like quests to be more then simple objectives hidden inside a wall of text. Developers have learned to incorporate things like voice dialogue, cut-scenes, and environment changes into quests to make them more exciting. The best examples of this that I've seen so far was the starting island of Tortage in Age of Conan and the Wrathgate event in World of Warcraft. Bioware seems to believe heavily in this method and is building a large and detailed story into their Star Wars:The Old Republic game. While I enjoy the story elements found inside MMOs they tend to loose their entertainment value when leveling multiple characters through the same content. Then again I hear Bioware will be doing unique quest paths for each class in the game. Age of Conan did this throughout Tortage, but didn't have enough money/time to continue after the starting zone.

3) Unique Gameplay - making quests more fun
The best method for improving questing in my opinion is to move as far away from the kill ten rats template as possible. World of Warcraft gets a lot of blame for turning questing into a repetitive grindfest, but they improved their act greatly in the last expansion. Wrath of the Lich King is filled with unique quests that often use specialized vehicles and items. Some of my favorites include riding a storm giant around to kill an army of undead and having to navigate a minefield to rescue a goblin. It may take extra development hours to put the effort into the quest, but it gains a repeatable entertainment value. Of course not every game has the budget to do this.

The best method for eliminating boring quests would be for every MMO studio to try to implement improvements in every category. Unfortunately, this would probably increase the development hours and be insanely expensive. What we'll probably see over the next few years is games specializing in one area and only those studios bloated on success or venture capital trying to improve across the board. It's almost a catch-22 situation, but it doesn't mean small studios are out of the running. Even a game like World of Warcraft has it's weak spots and a new game can always focus on improving in an area where Blizzard is a bit weak. I have a feeling that The Old Republic will explode onto the scene next year and show that good storytelling doesn't just involve pop culture references and jokes.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Will WoW crafting ever be improved?

Massive multiplayer online games have only been around for a relatively short time period and yet it's become apparent to most developers that to succeed in the genre you need to continually update your game's content. Players get attached to the characters they create and don't really want the game to end. This allows developers to use classic RPG elements like hitpoints and experience levels to extend character advancement to almost infinity. The only tricky part comes from making sure that new content is available to a majority of your players and not locked behind a single end-game activity like raiding.

While constant content updates are a important part of retaining subscribers, it's almost equally important to improve how the players interact with that content. The LFG tool and the introduction of random daily quests in World of Warcraft are designed to increase the social aspect of the game. This has long been a weak point in the game, since the rate of experience gain has been so poor in groups. Now almost everyone uses the LFG tool when leveling up characters and more people are willing to try healing/tanking because of the improved queue times. Combined with some of the recent PvP changes and it shows that Blizzard is willing to completely revamp various aspects of their game until they get it right.

What puzzles me is that Blizzard has never done a serious revamp of crafting in World of Warcraft. I can't help but get the feeling that they see professions more as a money sink than as a legitimate part of the game. This was very obvious towards the end of Vanilla WoW where most players recognized crafting was useless and only maxed enchanting or alchemy for stat increases. There was a small market for crafting epic bind-on-equip items, but those required high level raid encounters to get the materials. It wasn't until the Burning Crusade expansion when Blizzard started giving each profession their own enchants/item enhancements that they were able to breath life back into crafting.

However, I'm not sure if you can really call this crafting since professions are still mostly leveled up based on what kind of stat bonuses they give rather than what items they can make. There is almost no demand for gear made from crafting since: a) it's insanely expensive with low level mats being overpriced and b) sucks compared to dropped gear. Also the lack of customization when crafting an item is a major drawback. I've tried out a majority of the different MMOs on the market and World of Warcraft crafting continues by far to have the least customization and usefulness. Even classic Everquest allowed players to at least dye their armor different colors. I'm not sure why Blizzard doesn't even have this option available. It's not like they are afraid of poor color coordination as the Burning Crusade showed us.

While World of Warcraft continues to keep my attention because of their high quality PvE content I keep my eyes open for games which look like they might beat Blizzard at their weak spots. This is why I tried out Warhammer and Age of Conan since at the time I was very disappointed with the PvP options in World of Warcraft. While I don't put as much importance into crafting as combat, I don't believe it should be ignored to the level it has been in World of Warcraft. I know allowing players to create customized items and houses is a scary prospect to some developers. The time to penis is practically a universal law on the Internet nowadays.

Still, this shouldn't hold them back on improving a part of the game which is severely lacking. Look at a game like Lego Universe which will be built almost entirely around the concept of crafting. There's an opportunity there to build a very strong community around player created content. I know Blizzard realizes how important player created content has become in online games. The map editor for Warcraft III not only tied the community together, but also created an entire sub-genre of strategy games called tower defense. It's just a shame that almost no tools for creating items has been put into their most popular game. Afterall, I'm sure everyone is starting to get tired of looking like everyone else.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Wintergrasp Woes - the raid drop exploit

Lake Wintergrasp seems to embody every video game feature that looked good on paper, but never quite lived up to it's potential on implementation. It's not that it's Blizzard fault since they have been trying to address the problems with the zone since day one. If they had just ignored the problems then I could justify nerdrage and blaming them for a horrible gaming experience. Instead, I have to give them kudos for the large number of mostly beneficial changes they've made to the zone over the last year. This includes reworking the daily quests, introducing Tenacity, adding a queue system, and making it slightly easier to defend the fortress.

Of course none of these have any effect in most games since the number of people inside a normal Wintergrasp quickly stressed out the servers and cause horrible amounts of lag. Thus most prime-time Wintergrasp games involve the attackers simply steamrolling through fortress walls as the defenders get to attack every 10 seconds. It doesn't matter if you have five stacks of Tenacity if you can never hit anyone because of the massive amounts of lag. Previous attempts at world PvP areas were never popular because the rewards were uninspired and there really wasn't any reason to do it. However, with the Vault of Archavon providing a chance at the newest tier pieces the Wintergrasp battles are always popular.

This popularity does make Lake Wintergrasp a target for exploits since there are multiple benefits to winning a game. Fortunately, it didn't seem like the open world zone concept was as vulnerable to this issue as battlegrounds and arenas. In fact, this weekend I ran across the first major exploit I've ever seen in Lake Wintergrasp. Players on one faction were joining the Wintergrasp queue with their alts in small raid groups. This allowed them to maintain raid leadership when the game started and they could kick people from the raid groups as soon as they zoned into an active Wintergrasp. As a result my faction had to manually form raid groups using general chat and the time it took to access siege engines was greatly increased for us.

The people doing this were using multiple alts and I know a majority of them were reported. Still it doesn't look like any action has been taken against them yet. I'm not sure how hard the code change would be required to fix the issue. Lately, Blizzard has been focusing on the next expansion and I've noticed they've stopped tinkering with Lake Wintergrasp. Which is unfortunate, since the queue system for Wintergrasp really needs to be changed to prevent joining as a raid or else have the raid kick feature disabled. Either way I don't think this exploit will become too popular since it's highly visible to players and sure to be reported quickly. I just hope the Cataclysm PvP zones are better set up to deal with players have characters of both factions on the same server.