Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Levels 60-70 in EQ2, and the Tyranny of The WoW Quest Hub Model

Two months ago, things were going pretty well for Lyriana in EQ2. She had hit level 60, happily chugging away at whatever content caught her eye, and was considering skipping the Desert of Flames (level 50-60) in its entirety in order to experience the T7 (that's levels 60-70) content at an appropriate level.

Other things have intervened during that time - I carved out some time to attend WoW's Midsummer Fire Festival and made a final push to level 80 jeweler so that Lyriana no longer has to worry about leveling her tradeskill until next expansion. The fact is, though, that the Kingdom of Sky expansion hit Lyriana like a brick wall, and it took a while to recover and pull through to the tier that hosts the game's current level cap.

Ironically, I dinged level 70 from a collection that I legitimately completed by harvesting the final item. Often, when you gain a level off of a collection turnin, it's because you were just shy of the level at the end of the night, and decided to bite the bullet and buy a few collection items to finish the job.

Symptoms of the same problem
The Friendly Necromancer has a post up arguing that Wizard 101 erred in deciding to try and create multiple parallel leveling paths in a recent patch, rather than raising the level cap for existing max-level characters. Meanwhile, Keen has a post up lamenting the loss of world atmosphere since EQ1.

Though I can't agree that the world was better off when it took all night to get from one newbie area to another, Keen does have a point. There does seem to be less effort spent on the atmosphere of worlds thes days. Sure, WoW still has its token giant player-stomping mobs here and there, but the vast majority of the Northrend (outside of the city of Dalaran anyway), its mobs and landscape, is all there for a specific purpose. If you see a mob or a cave somewhere, there is almost certainly some quest you haven't gotten yet that will send you to clear it out.

The issue here is not that Blizzard wanted to make a less immersive world than Norrath, or that Wizard 101 specifically wanted to leave its level-capped players bored and out of content. The issue is that there simply is not enough time to develop enough content to satisfy the requirements of the WoW quest hub system - basically a standard feature of the genre since November of 2004.

Running low on content in and above Norrath
One of the things I really enjoyed about my journey to level 60 in EQ2 was NOT having to rely on a quest guide. I would fire up the wiki if I needed to know where to find a legend and lore book, or didn't know what zone to visit next, but I did not need to follow the guide line by line to scrape together enough quests to make my levels. I did the quests that were in front of me until either I finished them or they bored me, and then I moved on. In the process, I skipped the entire continent of Faydwer (like Wizard 101's recent addition, content that was added to offer additional options from one to the level cap - then 70) and the entire Desert of Flame expansion (which originally raised the level cap from 50-60). I was happy to save this content for future alts.

Then I zoned into the first zone of the Kingdom of Sky to be presented with a choice of either repeating a few uninteresting gathering/killing quests right by the zone-in point or trying to tackle Heroic content that I really could not solo. Okay, fine, I said, maybe this expansion just sucked. I went back down to complete the half of the Desert of Flame that had not yet greyed out, in the process taking a detour to learn the Djinn language and gain access to the Poet's Palace, both of which Lyriana will need if I try to go after her epic weapon.

After that, it was back to the second and third zones of the Kingdom of Sky, where I had to play with the Wiki timelines open in a second window in order to try and find every last soloable quest so that I could continue to advance. At some point, the available solo quests were somewhat above my level, so I had to break my personal goal of saving Faydwer for alts and use the solo content in the Loping Plains to fill a gap. This and the rest of KOS left me stranded about 2/3 of the way through level 69, so I decided to bite the bullet and brave Kunark.

Kurnark was the expansion which raised the level cap to its current level (80). The area has a bit of a reputation for a massive increase in the difficulty of the solo content, as the mobs were tuned to challenge players in level 70 endgame gear. Playing with a class not known for its immense solo prowess and using whatever low end crafted gear I was able to pick up almost 10 levels ago, I was not really ready. I toughed it out anyway, one tough mob at a time, to obtain that last chunk of a level, making me more officially "ready" for Kunark. (The content will probably continue to be very challenging until I can equip the set of mastercrafted level 72 armor I have waiting in my bank.)

With a single change in level bracket, the game went from having more content than I knew what to do with to requiring me to scrape together every last solo quest in the wiki to advance.

There can never be enough
My point in this post is not to condemn EQ2 for the state of the 60-70 bracket; the game has a far stronger focus on grouping than WoW does, and more traditional solo powerhouse classes could probably solo some of the quests that I had to give up on. Instead, I feel that my story illustrates the challenge that developers face in trying to implement the WoW style quest system Keen refers to as putting the player "on rails". I basically burned through the usable portions of two entire expansion packs (minus one zone of DOF and plus one zone from Faydwer) in about a month (when you take out the time I spent doing other things), and obtained only 10 of the game's 80 levels in the process.

To be absolutely clear, this is not something that Blizzard has actually done much better at. As the Necromancer notes, WoW launched with a large number of free-standing independent paths through the game. Players have a wide variety of choices up until level 30 or so, which Blizzard was able to produce during the game's lengthy pre-release development cycle. After that, players really have to get onto the rails if they're not grinding dungeons for exp, and much of the flexibility to pick and choose zones from 40-68 comes from a reduced exp curve in that level range (rendering some previously required content optional).

The amount of content needed to sustain WoW's quest system at its best is beyond even Blizzard's reach, with the world's most lucrative MMORPG. Games that have adopted the WoW system on smaller budgets have been even more pressed to come up with the content to support their games (see the first year of LOTRO).

The need for a sustainable path
I lasted for all of a month in the only old school mob grinding game I've tried (FFXI), and I would not want to go back. However, my experience trying to drag myself through T7 in EQ2 has forced me to acknowledge that the WoW quest system does not appear to be sustainable. To place a typical quest, of the kill 10 X/loot 10 Y variety that players now deride as unoriginal, into a zone that the world geography team has just finished creating:

- Someone has to write a paragraph of text, which has to be revised, proofread, checked for lore issues, etc
- Someone has to design and place level appropriate mobs, mob drops, and/or lootable objects somewhere in the world, preferrably in reasonable proximity to the questgiver
- Someone has to itemize level appropriate rewards. Even if you're using recolors of old raid gear for art (a big reason why WoW does NOT offer armor dyes or cosmetic armor slots), there is a degree of attention and sanity checking in making the rewards useful but not accidentally creating a level 74 solo quest reward that is competitive with drops from level 80 5-man content (see the [Wand of Blinding Light]).

All of this work goes into something that is designed to be completed in 20 minutes. The insatiable need for content to support this system sucks all of the time and resources that could be spent on things like creating the kind of atmosphere Keen misses from EQ1 or the multiple progression paths that other games either are or are not adding to their games.

For once, WoW - or at least the efforts by other developers to borrow the game's defining accessible solo quest hub mechanic in the hopes of duplicating its revenue - actually is a part of the problem with the MMORPG industry. I don't know what you offer in its place, but I don't see how this model can be sustained.

One thing I did get out of my time in the KOS was the first reference I can recall seeing in-game to Odus, site of the forthcoming expansion. I don't know that I really want to see more of the bird people, though.


Magson said...

For the past couple of months I've been working my dirge up from where she's languished at level 54 for about 2 years. I've already got 3 80's, 2 more in their 70's and a level 66 necro, so I'm familiar with the leveling paths and such.

KOS did rather suck as a solo-leveling expansion. The real focus there was on the 2 open dungeons -- Sanctum of Scaleborn and Palace of Awakened. There are several heroic instances also, but generally you only went there to get AA for 1st nameds and farm the occasional legendary piece. Your questing and such always took you in to SoS and/or PoA. Then of course there are the raid zones -- Labs, Lyceum, Halls of Seeing, Temple of Scale, Deathtoll, Ascent of Awakened.... just about as many raid zones as heroic instances. Betcha can't tell what this expansion was designed to funnel people into doing. . . . .

EOF expansion coming out and adding Loping Plains and the new level 70 instances was a godsend for solo leveling. My 1st 70 dinged from a discovery point in LP, actually. . . . Anyway, it was a big help.

It is kinda annoying that RoK put it on rails, but then again... the 50-60 stinint used to be DoF only, the 60-70 was KoS only. It took EOF to add a 2nd path. TSO doesn't really add a 2nd path for the 70-80, though. PErhaps Sentinel's Fate will also? Who knows.

Back to my original thought though -- I leveled my dirge from 54 to 60-ish swapping back and forth from Lesser Faydark to the KoS zones and back as my mood took me. I managed to find a few groups in SoS in the low 60's also, and while it went faster than I'd really like vs my AA's, it still shot me up in level. Mid 60's I did the Bonemire, and I started in RoK at level 69. I finished the KP quest lines at level 73 and am working in the Fens now. Just got level 74 over the weekend.

Believe you me, after leveling a warlock, an SK, a coercer, and a fury through these zones..... a dirge is extremely different. I could handle adds no problem with the other 3, but the dirge usually has to fear 1 off and try to kill the 1st mob before the fear wears off, and even then it's a near thing (and yes, Level 72 MC armor and all AD3's). Dirge definitely doesn't have soloing as one of its strengths.

I'm still having an absolute blast doing it though.

Ferrel said...

I feel in many ways like Keen. Everyone hates the word grind but, in all honesty, quest-hub games are just as grindy. In my eyes there is no difference in killing 10 rats that give 2 experience each and a quest reward of 500 exp than killing 10 rats that give 50 exp each. Players just like to have the feeling of "finishing" something. Quests provide that.

At the same time, however, quests discourage wandering and wonder. You are lead by the nose in your search for exactly what you need. Any other motions outside of the shortest path to and from the mob is a waste. In my eyes, that is a huge shame.

I can understand the frustration with EQ2 though. It is heavily group dependent (which I applaud but understand the down side). With a small group you can easily hit the tier levels in the appropriate content. The solo ride is far more bumpy.

When it comes down to it though I think developers are too conditioned to offer the quest hubs. They just assume that if they make an area that is beautiful players will ignore it if a quest doesn't go there.

I don't think that is true. If the mobs give appropriate experience that is equal to the quest grind players will go. Throw in a random rare drop or two and you'll get some of that EQ1 feel again.

Magson said...

I think EQ2 actually gets around that with the "discovery point" xp and aaxp award. You have incentive to go "everywhere" not only becuz you want ot see it, but becuz there's a tangible reward.

That was something I didn't like in Vanguard -- huge beautiful world, but no incentive to go anywhere except where the quests took you.

Green Armadillo said...

@Magson: I didn't experience the history there, but I would imagine that the raid focus of KOS helped open the door for an expansion with more of a focus on a parallel leveling path instead of an increase in the level cap in EOF. You have more flexibility to add content laterally if your level capped players are still working on the previous expansion's raids. My limited understanding of the ROK+TSO era is that it did the opposite - solo focus in ROK and then supplementing the dungeon side in TSO. The issue, though, is that they're out of time to add more T8 content, since the content in the next expansion will be all that there is for the first few months of T9.

@Ferrel: If the "quest" is as trivial as a crate with a note attached that says "please fill with hides from those mobs over there" then I agree 100% that it's no different than grinding. That is literally what happens in the first zone of KOS.

The distinction is that, unless you're level 1 and doing the very first quest in the game, you don't gain a level for killing 10 rats or completing one kill quest. You might need to choose between killing 100 rats or completing 10 quests. At that point, the difference becomes more noticable, and each side has pros and cons.

The 100 rats will be much more fun in a group - no need to worry about fighting for spawns or making sure everyone is on the same stage of the questline, and you'll have some company to keep you entertained. If you're doing it alone, though, you're going to get very very tired of standing in the same spot chain pulling 100 of the same mob. Also, you can appreciate the visual scenery, but you might not be exposed to any of the lore behind why you're in a given location, slaughtering the inhabitants.

By contrast, the quest hub model forces you to change the scenery on a regular basis, which helps to disguise the fact that you're still killing 80 mobs and making up the travel time with quest reward exp. If you read the quests, you will learn who you're killing and what they're doing there. Returning to a town repeatedly also makes the hub model more accessible than grinding. Even if the player does NOT need to find a group (that will be unhappy if they have to stop and look for a replacement in 30 minutes), returning to town on a regular basis offers convenient stopping points that don't require the player to choose between logging off in an unsafe location or wasting travel time returning to the grinding spot each session.

One thing that might help would be to offer a bind-on-pickup rare drop (1% or so) from all mobs that starts a quest to bring the item to town for a decent chunk of exp. Players who are primarily questing won't get very many of these, but players who focus on grinding can use the exp to make up for the quest rewards they're not getting.