Monday 8 March 2010

Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

I’ve been pondering World of Warcraft’s quest hub design, in which many NPCs are clumped together in a location such that a player can roll around and gather a huge katamari of quests, undertake the quests in the local area, before handing them all in for that rush of experience, the digital equivalent of juicing your pituitary gland in a blender with milk and ice and then injecting the resultant smoothie directly into the head for a buzz and a brain freeze all in one. It’s the perception of progress that interests me, where a player may be earning no more experience per hour than if they had to perform quests in a singular manner whilst running around all over the landscape, but the fact that the experience bar noticeably jumps in a very short period of time when handing in a bunch of quests often results in a greater feeling of progress and satisfaction than a gradual unobserved progression. That’s not to say that there’s no pleasure to be had from noticing that you’re only a smidgen away from the next level without having realised you were even close, there’s definitely satisfaction to be had from simply playing the game as its own reward and with the experience gained being an added bonus, but I think there’s a heightened rush when it comes to seeing that experience bar fill faster than a mercury thermometer in a boiling kettle.

The cause for my thinking upon this was the fact that Lord of the Rings Online now seems to have two independent systems of experience gain that run in parallel, one that gives this burst of experience, with the other giving the more traditional steady and reserved progress, where playing the game is more the focus of things. LotRO’s skirmishes give really quite generous experience the first time you run them each day due to their having an automatic daily quest associated with them that boosts experience and token gains; running the four skirmishes open to my character at the moment can net the best part of half a level for little more than an hour’s play, something that is much harder to do with standard questing due to the travelling involved in getting from the quest givers to their objectives and back again. The fact that I can get this boost of experience from the skirmishes means that when it comes to the standard questing I don’t feel as though I’m stuck in some sort of Travelling Salesman Problem, where I need to optimise routes such that I don’t waste precious time retreading old ground, I can sit back and relax and enjoy the questing and exploration of the land knowing that I’ve made a significant amount of progress in getting to the next level already.

World of Warcraft provides this sense of progress by creating islands of experience, those small self contained areas of questing, never more obvious than in the Burning Crusade expansion where each experience island slams jarringly into the next with little feeling of worldliness about the place, as though each zone were a floor of a department store; and just as you could have the department store’s elevator doors close on a view of cheese counters and meat selections, only to open on the jarringly contrasting sight of women’s lace underwear and silk nightgowns, the zones of the Outlands similarly contrasted with one another in a curious and unworldly manner. It’s possible that it’s this partitioning of progress into pockets with such obvious delineations that caused the theme park feeling, which in turn caused people to ignore any pretence that there was a story or adventure to be had, and realise that the whole questing game was really just paddling through waves of highs and lows in order to be able to catch the ultimate endorphin rush and ride the raiding wave back to shore.

Lord of the Rings Online has always attempted to focus on story, it being based on an IP that constantly lurks in the background angrily waving a placard with “Keep Including Story, Stupid!”. The various ‘book’ content that progresses the player character’s own tale in LotRO is intertwined with the main LoTR story and offers strong plot-based game-play which is entirely independent and optional to the progress-based levelling content. As such the levelling content was still a harried hurtle of heedlessly running around trying to make progress quickly, a goal often obstructed by zones such as the North Downs and the Lone Lands (prior to its recent revamp) which required the player to run back and forth across the zones for little experience gain, thus causing a noticeable trough in the progress curve of a character and resulting in more than one player quitting the game in despondent frustration. Now LotRO has an alternative option, a player can turn to skirmishes to satiate their desire for progress, which is often left unfulfilled by the lengthy roaming nature of questing within the game. This also means, however, that players can now relax and enjoy the many meandering paths that they must follow while questing, and can thus take the time to revel in the incredible atmosphere of the beautiful world that Turbine has created.

I think that variety, in addition to quality, is a path that developers could definitely take further in MMOs in order to smooth out the frightening pace at which players consume the current design of MMO content. Offering alternative paths to quick but daily-capped experience gain within the context of the game, such as LotRO’s skirmishes, is a good way to keep players invested in the levelling system without feeling the need to blitzkrieg their way through the quest-based game-play that makes up the majority of the content.

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