Post #5: Letter to Mr. C. – What’s Up With Cataclysm, continued

August 27, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Posted in Letters to Mr. C., Predictions, Predictions Made, Preparing for Cataclysm | Leave a comment

Dear Mr. C.:

I’ve had a nap and some cold medication, so let’s see if I can pick up where I left off…

Graphics. Yes. Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, the two original continents of WoW, were designed with a great many graphical tricks to present a rich-looking world that would nonetheless not overwhelm their capacity to design or players’ computers’ capacity to display. Thus there are steeply rising mountain ridges that simply become impassible to tell you “You’ve gone far enough, there’s no more zone past here” and flight paths for griffons, wyverns, zeppelins, and the like that operate along constrained paths. (They have room for variation to keep it interesting, but only so far.)

Later, the developers worked out ways of handling freer movement, and the results are on display in Outland and Northrend: there are no inaccessible spots except the edges of the world, or its equivalentslike the uncrossably large oceans between continents. But doing that to the Old World would mean, it turns out, literally rewriting the map from the baseline data on up. It’s not that every single pixel has to change, but that every pixel might, and that all the old shortcuts would have to be reexamined. Stormwind with flight enabled would have to be laid out freshly, its proportions altered, and the cathedral and many other buildings redesigned, for instance.

So that’s one consideration. What else?

Another is the arrangement of quests. Every quest has three elements: the instigator, the conditions to be met, and the completion. The instigator is usually a non-player character saying “Hey, do this”, though it can be a treasure map or some other kind of object, or even a stray animal wanting help getting to its master. The conditions are, well, conditions: kill that baddie, or maybe 8 of this type of henchman and 8 of that type of underling, or steal 15 pieces of lumber from the enemy’s construction site, or get the two halves of this amulet and reassemble them. Completion is almost always a matter of returning to the instigator and saying “Hi, I’m done” and collecting your reward, though sometimes it’s more self-contained—your treasure map quest is done when you’ve got the treasure, for instance.

Many quests stand alone, but many are part of a chain, where doing one makes you eligible for another, and sometimes another after that…there are a few epic chains with dozens of distinct steps, and quite a few more with anywhere from three up to a dozen or so.

And here we get into three of the ways quest design has changed since release day.

First, quests used to get handed out with a lot more variety in threshold condition. All quests are rated by color in terms of how difficult Blizzard expects them to be for your character: red for “yeah, sure, we’ll tell you about this, but don’t expect to do it and survive anytime soon”, orange for “this is still a real stretch for you”, yellow for “this is a good challenge, maybe too tough right now, but not beyond your means, or right in your sweet spot of using your character’s powers well”, green for “this is honestly pretty easy and it’s not really a fair fight anymore”, gray for “c’mon, this is a walk-over, don’t expect any experience points for it”. Each quest has a level just like characters and monsters, and the goal is that quests at that level be a fair challenge, with the option of tackling them earlier if you feel elite, or just ambitious, or have teamwork to draw on.

It used to be that you’d get some quests way, way before you had any serious chance of being able to do them, and others not until they were quite the pushover. There’s now much more standardized progression: you can count on seeing an Outland or Northrend quest a couple-three levels above your character’s level, and it’ll go green a level or two or maybe three after your character passes it by. There are some exceptions, particularly on group quests, but it’s a sound generalization.

Furthermore, quests used to be distributed very differently. You might enter a town and get a handful, and then your character would find one or two from someone in a hut or cave up the way, and another one over by the bridge yonder, and the next two at the town halfway across the zone. There were some places where quests clustered much more tightly, particularly at the upper levels, but it wasn’t ever anything to count on. The expansion packs came with an explicit design emphasis on what the design community calls quest hubs, which are just what they sound like. Come to a gathering of NPCs in Outland or Northrend, and if they have any quests, they’re probably going to have several, all of which take you out into the field, mostly to nearby goals, and then back again, until you finish up a set of tasks and get a quest or two suggesting that the next stop up this road or at the far end of that flight path will be worth your while too.

Third, quests are very much less likely to involve extensive roaming. To demonstrate why this matters, I’ll get you some maps….

Kalimdor

Kalimdor

Eastern Kingdoms

Eastern Kingdoms

…there we go, the two original continents, together again. On the right, the circle in the northeast marks the Hinterlands, a wild area thick in trolls not keen on either Horde or Alliance and also a home for the gryphons that the Wildhammer clan of dwarves train as mounts for the Alliance. There’s an Alliance quest chain to rescue Sharpbeak, the recently hatched offspring of the most senior of the gryphons loyal to the Wildhammers. You start off with an assignment to check out cages in nearby troll villages, since they might have kidnapped him. From there you go search other places, fruitlessly (but with some good fights along the way.) Finally the gryphon trainer at Aerie Peak sends you to Nethergarde Keep in the Blasted Lands.

Now, that’s the white square down at the south end of the Eastern Kingdoms. It’s quite a few zones away, requiring a significant bit of travel time each way, even if you have the flight paths for continuous travel. Many characters doing the quest series won’t, which means flying to wherever they can and then riding from there, which is slower.

So you get your character there and speak to the diviner who might be able to help, only to find that he’s not strongly motivated. He wants you to go get him a goodie he’s interested in from Zul’Farrak. That’s another troll fortress, in the white square on the left map, over in Kalmindor, another extended journey and a destination that requires a group to take on. It’s an instanced dungeon set up to be a fair challenge for a group of five characters, and the goodie is carried by one of the bosses, who really isn’t going to fall to an ambitious or stealthy soloer.

After all that…you get the goodie, take it back to the diviner, he gets the info you need, you take it back to the Wildhammers, and finally you head to the beautiful outdoors (non-instanced) troll stronghold of Jintha’Alor, and ultimately spring Sharpbeak from his cage. His parents swoop down to guide him back to safety, in one of my very favorite moments.

But it’s not a moment nearly as many people have seen as should have, because of the nuisances involved in the lengthy detour to the Blasted Lands and Zul’Farrak.

There are other frustrations like that scattered all through the early quests, with excellent solo, duo, and trio experiences broken up by required steps with larger groups, and distractingly long journeys hither and yon that often don’t make a lot of narrative sense or generate much reward, just soak up time and effort. They aren’t entirely gone from later quest sets, but they’re much rarer, and tend to come with stronger reward in both story and loot when they’re there, making them feel much less futile. And the overwhelming majority of quests simply work more locally and clearly.

So that’s the next piece of Cataclysm, as I see it: since they must overhaul the maps to take advantage of new graphics, new underlying technologies, and new opportunities for player actions, they can’t just copy over the old quests with minimal tweaking, and if they’re making more serious adjustments, hey, why not do some reworking and updating? Which takes me to the last of the major things going into the expansion as we’ve seen it advertised so far, but yow, I’m wordy today, aren’t I? More next time.

Your friend, Ms. B.

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