Some bloggers are spending a lot of time these days complaining about how WoW has become a "theme park" with an on-rails, low challenge experience. Going back to the Horde side of The Barrens, content I have not done since the open beta back in 2004, I can certainly see a difference. To illustrate that difference, I present a PVD photo comparison between one of the game's older quests and one of its newer ones. Analysis will follow at the bottom.
My apologies for any of you viewing this over a slow connection.
Welcome to the Crossroads, home of many Alliance PUG raids and Horde newbies searching for Mankirk's wife. It is still a bustling area, even four years later - I've had competition for quest mobs for some of the quests I've been mopping up on Greenraven.
On top of this tower is an orc who wants you to kill a Harpy named Serena Bloodfeather. Note that, back in 2004, questgivers did not appear on the minimap (I think they copied this from LOTRO, though the exact timing is a bit fuzzy). Unless you were in the habit of running up random guard towers, most of which were deserted, or you happened to look up at the right angle to see the ! (and they say the hardest thing to get players to do is look up), you might not even have known about this quest.
And so, we're off to the Dry Hills. Note that this quest is actually the third quest in a chain. Part one called for players to go to the Dry Hills and farm Harpies for feathers. After going all the way back to the Crossroads, part two sent players all the way back out to the Dry Hills to kill more Harpies for signet rings. Perhaps the player blundered into the right corner of the zone the first time and forgot where the Harpies lived, but it's probably safe to assume that they weren't going to get lost a third time, even before the days of Wowhead and Questhelper.
Greenraven arrives at the outskirts of the Dry Hills on his epic ground mount. Elapsed travel time was about 90 seconds (and I even passed up some herbs en route so I could get an accurate time for you, my readers). Note that a level-appropriate character attempting to complete this quest back in 2004 would not have had an epic ground mount, or even a regular ground mount. As a result, you'd have been looking at 6 minutes of watching your character run for each of the three legs of the quest line.
Where in this area might a player find their victim, assuming no advance knowledge? Well, it's relatively standard design in this genre that, when you're hitting a camp repeatedly, the later targets will be deeper in. Indeed, the previous two stages did just that, so the player can probably guess that they're headed for the very back of the camp. On the downside, that player can also expect to aggro all the mobs, and therefore have to spend large amounts of time clearing their way into various dead-end corners until finding the right one. I'd guesstimate that it would have taken me another 30 seconds of epic mount travel time if you knew precisely where you were going, though, again, this would not have been uneventful travel at the appropriate level.
Oh hai, Serena. This particular mob is just out in the open, provided no one has killed it recently. If someone has killed it, and the corpse has despawned before you arrived, you might have no idea that you wandered past her spawn point. Still, that's arguably better than other quests in the Barrens - sometimes the named only appears if you go to the vicinity of his camp and start killing henchmen, and other times the mob rides a circular patrol around a wide swath of the zone, populated with hostile mobs. Combined with a long respawn timer, the latter type was a real pain, as the place where you find the body may not be the spawn point.
Killing the mob is generally the easy part, though it gets a bit easier when you have 42 levels on it.
The questgiver wants proof that you have done the deed. In narrative fairness, there are many quests in this game where the questgiver has absolutely no way of having verified your kills. On the downside, apparently you can't loot heads in the Chinese edition of WoW anymore, so they had to replace all the icons with sacks that supposedly contain the heads.
Satisfied that I'm one of the thousands of people to present him with the head of Serena Bloodfeather, the questgiver coughs up a reward worth 17 silver, some exp, some rep, and one more tick towards Loremaster of Kalimdor. Quest complete.
The New Dustwallow
For comparison, I dusted off Cheerydeth and went to the recently revised Dustwallow Marsh. This zone is actually immediately adjacent to the Barrens, but it got a massive overhaul in patch 2.3, making it the most recent leveling content outside of Northrend.
I've been investigating a burned out Inn, which, it turns out, was torched by the Grimtotem clan of Tauren. Tabetha, who lives out in the middle of the swamp in a location that certainly didn't have a convenient road leading up to it until patch 2.3, is not happy to discover that these guys are living in her backyard.
Here's ye not-so-olde world mappe. I remember getting lost whenever I had to go looking for Tabetha's hut back in the day, so I'm pretty sure it wasn't depicted on the map, much less on a small road. Anyway, the Grimtotem live in the little tent just north of my current position.
Getting there took about 15-20 seconds on the epic ground mount, which is actually level-appropriate in this era. Players would certainly have their 60% speed mount if not their 100% speed one. There is a road where you can stay mostly clear of enemies, though you might not want to - the only two types of critters found in between the two locations are targets for other quests at Tabetha's place.
Kill, kill, kill, loot, raze. Sucks to be the Grimtotem.
This quest would have been a bit tougher if I had been on the lower end of the level range and armed with green gear, but it's not a difficult quest. You pull a bunch of single humanoids, simultaneously getting credit for a kill 12 Grimtotem quest, walk into the huts and burn them down. One of the tents has a Forsaken mob instead of a Grimtotem, and you get an extra quest to turn in a letter that you loot from the body.
All told, that makes 3 complete quests from a single trip to a single camp that's maybe 30-40 seconds away from the quest giver, with two additional quest completes en route if you want to stop and kill the wildlife. By time I had finished all five of them (with rested exp and one heirloom bonus), I'd gained nearly half a level, in about as much time as it took me to clear out that old quest line in the Barrens on a character who was one-shotting all the mobs.
The Pros and the Cons
There certainly are some things to miss among the old content. There is much more of a sense of exploration when you're journeying out further from your most recent home base hub. In general, the quest area was much more densely packed, including stealthy mobs, making it far more dangerous for even-conned players (and thus potentially an environment where it might make sense to team up with another player). Unfortunately, these good attributes come with a bunch of ideas that have been removed from the game for a reason.
Like many old-world questlines, the first stage of the quest is level 15, the second is level 16, and the finale is level 20 (because the named mob is level 20, level 17 or 18 is more realistic). There is no way that the player gained 2-3 levels doing this one quest chain, which means that the player most likely ends up doing some or all of the quests at the wrong level. Maybe the truly epic questlines are worth having a step where the player has to come back in a few levels, but killing random harpies does not meet that bar.
Though the Dustwallow quest may be too close to its hub, there is absolutely no excuse for sending players to make two extraneous six minute un-mounted round trips before returning to the same camp for the same quest line. Inserting twelve minutes of additional "watching your character travel to players where you will get to play the game" time is not challenging, nor is it really immersive for the guy who hates the harpies not to credit the player for killing harpies until he formally assigns a quest for doing so. In a more modern quest, your faction might have a scout watching the enemy on a ridge nearby, so that you only had to return to town at the end of a given quest camp.
(I can only guess the repeat visit approach may have seemed convenient at the time because players would gain additional experience fighting their way past mobs they'd already killed for the two previous steps, increasing the total exp/quest ratio and thereby reducing the total number of quests that Blizzard needed to produce. Also, players had far more limited bagspace back in the day, and might have actually needed frequent return trips to empty their bags.)
Finally, the Barrens despearately needs some of the faster respawn mechanics that are used in TBC and beyond. Even four+ years later, it's not uncommon to arrive at an area with a named quest mob and find someone else standing on top of the corpse awaiting the next respawn. The wait is a waste of time AND an immersion killer at the same time.
It's no harder to find the boss if you have to spot the corpse instead of the living mob, and it's frankly a bit unfair to the player to miss the boss' location because they had the misfortune of arriving after the old corpse despawned but before the enemy respawned. You might have to reclear a few mobs while you wait, but that's not really adding to the challenge either, just the time. It's far better to offer an item that spawns the boss, avoid the use of single boss mobs when they're not actually going to be any harder than regular mobs, or just offer faster respawns if you must (very few Wrath era quest targets have 5-minute respawn timers).
Taking The Good And The Bad
While I've been working on this little project, Tobold has helpfully summed up my point. There are many areas where WoW of 2009 is huge leaps above WoW of 2004. If you really do want to convince players to rail against the least common demonimator of theme park gaming, it would be good to learn from the areas where WoW has actually improved the genre.
This is not to say that all you have to do is fix spawns, travel, and level tuning to get players to embrace five-year-old content. Part of the reason why Barrens chat has is reputation is that so many of the quests are very frustrating in the absence of out-of-game knowledge. Some players won't have the patience for more exploration - you'll note that the photoseries deliberately glosses over the whole combat side of things that is, for some folks, the point of the game. Still, fixing the issues that don't hurt the difficulty might help make this type of content more palatable to more players, which is what needs to happen if developers are going to spend time making it.