Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Revamping Low Level Azeroth Would Take Time Blizz Doesn't Have

Lume the Mad has posted an excellent critique of the current state of sub-58 content in World of Warcraft. The post comes complete with maps that show exactly how much unnecessary travel (a favorite topic of mine) gets bundled into low level quests. Quest hubs and objectives are all over the place compared to TBC/Wrath, and, with new technologies introduced in Wrath, Lume argues that the time has come for Blizzard to revitalize this content with an ongoing revamp as a side project to the addition of new content. I agree that the need is significant, and that the changes Lume wants would address the problem. So what's my problem?

Blizzard's quest team tackles one project at a time
Lume correctly points out that the addition of new raids and PVP content does not necessarily conflict with revitalizing the old world of Azeroth. By and large, the guys who are trying to make sure that Kel'Thuzad is just challenging enough for an entry level 10 man group, or the guys who are trying to decide exactly which classes can counter exactly which forms of crowd control, are not the guys who are placing quest hubs. The conflict exists between having the quest team add new content and having them fix old content.

A few examples:
- In patch 2.3, Blizzard added a large number of low level quests to Dustwallow Marsh, re-itemized all the old world dungeons and significant numbers of old world quests, and rebalanced the exp curve. This patch did not contain significant amounts of level 70 quest content (perhaps the Cooking daily quests, if memory serves). Both patches 2.1 and 2.4 introduced significant daily quest hubs for level 70 characters. Neither introduced low-level content.

- TBC introduced 4 newbie zones and 2 newbie cities, along with 7 zones and one city in Outland for players who were already level 58+. Wrath introduces one semi-newbie zone (the DK starter area), along with 8-10 zones and one city in Northrend for players who were already level 68+.

We can't fully compare back to the pre-TBC era, since content patches of the day were a very different beast from today's mega-patch, but the clear trend is that time spent on low level content is time directly taken away from time spent on solo quest content for players' mains.

Making limited quest content go further
In response to my previous post, Doomdiver pointed out that more and more of the quests in the game these days are assigned by neutral questgivers, who point the Alliance and the Horde against the same common foe. Indeed, a significant majority of the content in the stretch from levels 75-80 is delivered via neutral questgivers. This, like Blizzard's decision to focus on content for characters who are already at the level cap when the expansion launches, is no accident.

Solo PVE is the factor that made the difference between WoW's 11 million players and the 110,000 players who would have made a hit MMORPG pre-2004. Lume argues that the issue is NOT that Blizzard isn't adding content (in probably the most heroic effort I've ever seen on the blogosphere for a comment response, Lume produced a list of over 100 things that have been added to the game through patches and expansions of the last four years), but rather that players aren't using all the content in the game. This isn't necessarily a matter of player choice - many players cannot make the commitment needed to offer a meaningful contribution to a raiding guild's progression - and it certainly isn't for lack of trying on Blizzard's part.

As I noted in my review of the Wrath beta, Wrath quests do everything in their power to lure players into more involved content. Major chains come to an abrupt end at zone lines of instances, until the player can find a group. Other quests flag PVE players for PVP in the hopes of fostering world PVP (good luck with that, Blizzard), and I'm sure there will be quests in Wrath, like TBC before it, that attempt to lead players from dungeons into raids. However, it's clear that Blizzard has acknowledged - in a way that they arguably hadn't back in 2005 - that some players simply aren't going to be willing or able to make that content jump.

So, Blizzard hits increasing pressure to make the quest content they are able to produce last. That means focusing on repeatable daily quests with rewards good enough to attract players to complete them, instead of non-repeatable level 40 quests that many players will literally never see. That means using more neutral factions so that players don't miss half the quest content in the expansion because they don't have an opposite faction alt. And yes, unfortunately, that means no time to fix the woes of low level Azeroth.

How can Blizzard make time to deal with Azeroth?
Instead of dealing with the content gap before level 58, Blizzard has been focusing on helping players burn past it quicker than ever. It now requires less exp to level. Players have more DPS as a result of revised talents and profession perks, and, once the expansion goes live, Heirloom items (which are, inexplicably, currently obtained solely through group PVE content). The expansion will also add a level 55 "Hero" class (it's no coincidence that they picked 55 - it's low enough that players will have to invest time leveling, but not so low that players have to deal with much pre-Outland content) to go with the recently added recruit a friend, get free exp promotion. But is there another way?

Perhaps part of the issue is that so many of the game's incentives, especially the solo-friendly ones such as reputation and achievements, reward focus on a single main. That's fine if you're already farming Sunwell; your main has all the progress it's going to get before the expansion, so you might as well go work on some alts. For everyone who hasn't maxxed out all the content the game provides, though, these systems provide a disincentive to playing additional characters. In that case, account-wide achievements might be able to help out.

Sure, you do get benefits from having a stable of alts now (perhaps you can get all the crafting professions your small army needs on your own account), but achievements for multiple level 80 characters, collecting all the professions, etc might help tip the scales in favor of spending more time on alts instead of less.

Ultimately, I still maintain that Blizzard has left themselves no choice but to allow players the option of level 55 non-DK's at some point in the next calendar year. The consequences of starting DK's, and only DK's, at that level will be too great for class balance to handle longterm. But even here, incentives may offer a solution. If your level 55 character starts with zero quests complete and no professions, that's certainly a bit of a handicap if you're going for the "complete 1000 quests on multiple characters" achievement line, no?

In short, I'm hopeful that account-wide achievements MIGHT be able to help whenever they roll out (perhaps as soon as patch 3.1, perhaps later). In the mean time, though, it is very hard to justify taking the time away from new content for existing characters to revamp content many players moved past for good, nearly four years ago now.


Anonymous said...

The 0-to-mid 50's portion of leveling needs to be optional. I mean, I pay to play an MMO with other people, and at those levels there just isn't anyone online that I can group with. It's a complete solo grind and very boring. On the rare occasion that I actually find a group for one of the low level dungeons (SM, Mara, RFK to name a few), they usually fall apart because one or more of the people in the group hit alt-F4...and most of the time they don't even say bye, which makes me waste even more of my time. Once I hit the mid 50's with my latest alt, kapow! I suddenly could do some dungeons and the quests went pretty fast. They need to give us the option to start any of the classes at level 55 like they're going to do with DK's in wrath.

Thallian said...

You have a pretty good rundown, just a couple of small fallacies. First of all, nothing is keeping the WoW people from playing through Lich King and then gettign bored and trying out something else, so if Moria or EQ2's expansions are really that good they may attract people just based on quality alone.

Second you can level your legendary item and get exp at the same time. If you choose. There is a wealth of quests in the new area of Eregion on the West side of Moria.

Lastly I think you are confusing "having time" with "wanting to" Though I appreciate that you are approaching the subject in a playful manner. Blizzard simply doesn't love their own game enough to improve it, the lower older game that is. They could easily hire a ton of people and revitalize it and milk it and add dungeons and stuff. This might be a good marketing and business decision (if they overhauled enough stuff I might even come back for another spin) but in the end they don't do it because they don't care about it. They want to make new stuff in new places.

It is definitely not a money limit or a time limit. They could hire an extra dev department if needed. They are richer than many oil countries now. Anyways I enjoyed your article, keep up the good work.

Green Armadillo said...

Some of your comments are RE: a later post, but I suppose I might as well reply here. :)

You're right that people can and will churn through Wrath, which is precisely why (in my later post) my initial reaction to the launch date was puzzlement - very few (though not zero) people have cleared out the entire game a week after launch, so it would have seemed to make sense to launch the competing expansions maybe 2-3 months down the line - like Turbine did with the original release of LOTRO. Again, this is conjecture on my part, but I'm guessing that the companies decided that customers who come and visit from WoW churn are going to come and go anyway, so it's not worth planning launch dates around them.

I obviously don't own Moria, so your correction should probably go to Sanya Weathers, whose article I cited. One potential issue in either case is that players might use up the outdoor content in Eregion BEFORE getting to the quest with the legendary weapon, and thus have nothing left but grinding.

And finally, my guess is that Blizzard does not think their culture is compatible with ballooning the dev team. As you point out, they have MORE than enough money to do so - they have more people on their CGI team than most whole studios. The fact that they HAVEN'T done so, in my mind, suggests that there's a reason for it - maybe there isn't more money in revamping Westfall, but there would CERTAINLY be more money to be had in having expansions more than every other year.

From what I've heard at various interviews, it sounds like their dev process includes a lot of back and forth. My guess is that they just don't think that culture works if you put 200+ people in the room.

Karl Gallagher said...

Hi, just found your blog and been going through the archives.

I think part of what's ruining the lower-level questing is the complete breakdown of groups. My alt has to switch between zones to level up enough to finish the quests, just like Lum complained. But I think the original design assumed I'd get a half-level or so of XP from doing an instance (Blackfathom Depths, Gnomer, Razorfen whatever) every few levels. There's plenty of xp in the instances--I know I guy who started out with a group of five friends and they're doing *all* their leveling in instances. But you can't get a pug at low levels any more. When that was true the quests fit in fine--you could do your instances without leveling past all the quests in your zone. But breaking the culture broke the quest design.