Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Over the year since its launch, Warhammer seems to have perfected no-hassle, instant access group content. On the map above, the glowing treasure chests are group public quests with at least two players present, and the crossed swords indicate where RVR battles are in progress. All you have to do is sign in, head for one of those spots, and pitch in.
Having a guild or a group are purely optional, as anyone can see where the action is and everyone who helps gets the appropriate share of the public quest rewards. You show up when you want, stay for however long you want, and get rewarded proportionally for your efforts. It's easy enough that I've spent about 75% of my time during the free retrial on group content, even though I'm gaming with limited time and have been known to spend the vast majority of my time solo (e.g. soloing from 1-73 in EQ2 without ever joining a group for any reason).
By contrast, World of Warcraft focuses on instanced PVE content with fixed parties (tank, healer, 3xDPS), so this sort of map wouldn't be effective. Instead, they're simply automating the process of group formation, so that players can click the "find group" button and instantly be transported to a dungeon with a (hopefully viable) full party to clear it out. It's less immersive but it may or may not be more effective in the long run, especially since the system works across multiple servers.
Is there a catch to instant access?
The issue with the Warhammer open RVR and public quests is that the options, though fun, are limited. At any given level/zone, you have maybe 3 public quests (one of which probably requires 9+ players and therefore can't be done with the available numbers) to choose from. Those three red shields on the Warhammer map represent the only three open RVR battlefield objectives in the zone, so players can expect to be battling over those for a dozen levels. You'll also have the same instanced scenario choices for that dozen level bracket.
(There are technically three zones per level bracket, each with its own PQ's and battlefield objectives, but there really isn't the population to support that number. Mythic made the decision to start all new characters in the human vs chaos zone as of the most recent patch, in the hopes of getting enough player in the same place to actually fight.)
All of this is a necessary feature of easy access to groups. The more choices a game offers, the more the population will spread out. (As I've discussed before, WoW will have sixteen 5-man instances in 3.3, but you can bet that half of them will be much more popular due to superior quality loot or ease of completion. The catch is that it starts to feel very grindy, very quickly. You finish a public quest and your choices for what to do next are one of the same 2-3 quests (if anyone else is doing them) or battling over the same small corner of the zone in RVR.
Losing the illusion of variety
In terms of actual gameplay experience, the solo PVE quest grind is no less repetitive; go somewhere, kill and loot the local mobs, repeat. The difference is that the frequent change in location creates the illusion that you are going to new places and doing new things. That illusion is gone when your only option is to turn around and do the same quest that you just did, or perhaps the quest before, depending on what you can find a group for.
When the dust settles on WoW's new automated system, I wonder if its five-man content will feel largely the same way. To a certain extent, the time it takes to actually assemble a group creates an impression of scarcity - the reaction when a group finally forms is "now I finally get to snag some emblems" and not "sigh, time to run one of the same old dungeons again". When finding a group is as easy as clicking a button, that anticipation may go along with it. (In much the same way, the 3-hour timer on Wintergrasp may be a blessing in that it physically prevents players from fighting again until the next match.)
Blizzard doesn't really have a choice in this matter - the 30+ minutes it takes to look for a group and travel to the instance the old fashioned way are 30 minutes that I don't really have these days. Even so, I can't help but wonder whether having increased access will increase the recognition that the dungeon grind is, in fact, grindy.