The toughest challenge facing MMO developers is how to create content faster than players can consume and become bored by it.
Traditionally, core MMO content is a story you play through, presented in the form of a chain of quests. Each quest is a link in the chain giving you a small part of the story, then sending you on to the next link. If the story events change location, the next quest will direct you where to go, or might intend for you to search for clues or items to guide you in exploring the area on your own, and in the process revealing more quest chain beginnings. All of it intended to help you continue the story.
It’s an interactive novel that unfolds at your own pace. A great idea that I know I’ve loved playing.
The problem is I can blow through a great book faster than most folks can write one.
MMO developers are a canny bunch, they knew that going in. The earliest content included built-in molasses to slow us down so we couldn’t consume content faster than it came out.
Those lovely grind quests and slow foot travel while leveling, followed by reputation grinding, drop requirements to craft resist gear to equip your team before taking on tougher raid challenges, attunements and keys, and on and on.
It worked, but it couldn’t work forever, especially with a subscription model and more competition with newer and shinier toys.
We will never stop wanting more new content, as soon as it comes out we devour it and immediately hunger for more.
But that’s with the traditional story-based content model.
Our MMO play experience in the past has been to travel through zones and continents as the quests direct us, and in the process we reveal more of the story step-by-step.
The drawback to this system is, once you complete the last quest in the last chain, you’re done. The quests are either done or not, there is no partial completion or partial reward.
I think the solution is going to require changing what we consider as MMO ‘content’.
Now before we get too far into what tose changes might be, let me say I’ve always felt there was one big ‘gotcha’ to the quest chain story progression system; outleveling quests.
I don’t know about you, but one of the things about story questlines that has caused me problems in the past is when I leave a quest chain before that ‘chapter’ of the story gets resolved.
Usually it happens because my character had leveled past the point where the quests were providing experience or rewards. “I want to play with my friends in end game”, I think, “I’ll come back and finish that later to see what part of the story I missed.”
Whatever the reason for it, when you abandon a quest chain in the middle, you never resolve that part of the story. You don’t know what happened, and that can leave you confused later in the game when you begin quest chains designed for players of a higher level.
You start taking part in a quest chain several chapters deeper into the story and you’ve just been dropped down in the middle of stuff. You don’t know who the players are or what the big reveal is that went down before. You don’t have a frame of reference for how important any of the smaller nuances of the story may be to the big picture.
For those who played World of Warcraft during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, imagine having abandoned the quest chain in the middle, right before you would have reached the Wrathgate. Imagine having missed all of that story and cutscene, and then try to figure out what is happening later on strolling into Icecrown.
Can you do it? Sure. Would it cause the story to feel disjointed, even broken? I can only imagine.
I think, personally, that this is one of the reasons some of the big story elements are revealed in out-of-game books sometimes, especially the lead ups to expansions. And sure, it encourages players to buy the books. But this way a player might not know what quests are or are not critical to following the story, but they know that the book holds a big chunk of ‘what you need to know before Warlords of Draenor explodes on the scene.”
The traditional quest chains to deliver story aren’t entirely going away any time soon, but we’re mostly past gating content through agonizing grinds. Players are sick of it, and it doesn’t score anyone any brownie points.
To gate content, developers need to either build in obstacles like grinds to hinder our advance, OR provide us with so many options we always have something somewhere that feels worthwhile to do.
Queue the music as we see the effects of the current Timeless Isle rollout, and ponder the words of Blizzard that the Timeless Isles ‘spontaneous event’ system will be integrated throughout ALL of Draenor in the new expansion, and oh yeah, hello Garrisons.
We are told Garrisons are going to play a large role in Warlords of Draenor. If you look at the system they have proposed, you can see that it has leveling buildings, chasing drops, hunting for rares, running content for building patterns and managing teams of mionions all built into it’s structure.
Think about it. This is content that has no specific quest chain story associated with it; it is instead your own story of your continued expansion and entrenchment in the hostile terrain of Draenor.
Garrisons takes away the rails of guided quest chains and replaces them with an RTS resource management and base building mechanic. Your advancement and progression in that mechanic is gated by how many things you can do that will all result in an improved Garrison, or leveled up or more powerful minions.
And let’s talk about minions for a moment.
They will have levels, and you can assign them gear drops. Have you played Diablo III? You can give your buddies gear in that game as well to make them more powerful.
Have you played mobile games such as Marvel Puzzle Quest or Heroes of Dragon Age? Those games also feature a team you have to select, train, level and manage. That is the entire heart of the gameplay, seeking out new, more powerful members of your team, training them, leveling them and assigning them to tasks. They do the work while you plan your strategy and wait for the result.
World of Warcraft is dropping the gameplay of team management games like Heroes of Dragon Age directly into Warlords of Draenor as just one aspect to the expansion. Thank the devs that there will be no microtransactions to make me want to kill them.
The result? The more engaging that aspect of the game is, the less we will miss story-driven quest chains.
Now consider the ramifications of Timeless Isles style spontaneous events spread across an entire continent.
Right now, Mists of Pandaria has many rare creatures to seek out and kill for achievements and a chance at various cool drops. My personal favorite is the Ai-Li Skymirror.
How much more challenging will it be when it’s not just a rare creature we have a chance to stumble across for a quick kill and a chance at loot, but an entire event such as the pirate ship spawning, or the adds that come to life that you can begin to kill to have a boss spawn.
And how much more will it draw us into grinding, without grinding, when all of those events have their own loot tables and chances for rare pets, rare minions, rare Garrison building patterns or even epic loot.
Grinding, without grinding. That is when you’re doing something that should be tedious or time consuming, but you don’t mind because you’re engaged in the thrill of the hunt.
The Timeless Isles has succeeded to a point. It brought us all sorts of things to do, along with repeatable daily quest chains, loot from reputation grinds and token drops at vendors, rares with loot tables, TONS of goodies and events and things to do.
It’s occupied folks for months now, and let’s be honest. It’s a small island. It’s a flea speck in the vast sea.
Now take that experience and spread it out over an entire continent.
I intentionally avoided using the word ‘sandbox’ to describe what we’re going to get. So long as there is a guided quest experience and leveling, the game will not be a true sandbox to do whatever you want in.
But they are dropping entire new types of gameplay in, massive expansions on their Farm and Timeless Isles and Pet Battles systems.
I think if we look at the whole, we can see where Blizzard is going with the MMO. If we take speedbumps like grinds and reputation gates away, we have to add something else to slow the rate we devour content.
It seems to me that instead of throwing rocks in our path, they’re adding more games within the game to distract us, to lead us away from story advancement and give us other things to chase to occupy our time.
I am fascinated to see how much of the game continues to have strong story-driven questlines in it.
I am imagining an expansion where the same quality and quantity of story-line quests from the original Mists of Pandaria expansion are released with the addition of all of this other non-quest content to do right from the get-go.
I’m imagining it, and a huge smile is spread over my face.
You give me a team of minions to manage, I might not even notice we don’t get new quests in a content patch. Sorry, too busy picking my team to raid Onyxia, I’ll go quest later.