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All the World a Dungeon

In his collated recap of the recent flying controversy, Wilhelm casually asks a question that completely redefines the debate for me and explains Blizzard’s behavior up to now:

For me, the great unanswered question in all of this remains how much control over their game should a developer be allowed, whether or not the dev’s view of how their game should be played should trump the player’s view, whether MMO studios be dictating a “right way” to play and should players accept that or not?

Mind. Blown. If you aren’t already having the same epiphany as me, buckle up.

See, I realize now that this entire flying debate hasn’t been able flying per se, it has been about the tension between the content creators and the content consumers. The Blizzard team doesn’t just want a curated experience anymore, they want a directed experience. Your questing on Draenor isn’t just grounded, it’s on rails. When was the last time you actually found a shortcut up to that cave in the mountains? For me this expansion, it was never – I was stymied by invisible walls and frictionless slopes at every turn. Clearly, the desire is a linear path between A & B, no deviation or skipping game mechanics allowed.

In fact, Ion Hazzicostas said exactly this when talking about introducing more Flight Paths as a flight consolation prize:

The goal is to maximize convenience in getting from point a to point [b] but retaining as much of the gameplay and depth as possible once you do get to that point.

Something kept bothering me about this reasoning though. Flying apparently breaks immersion, but Ion doesn’t seem to give two shits about adding more and more Flight Paths to the world to maximize convenience, despite them being the most immersion-breaking thing imaginable. Seriously, who doesn’t Alt-Tab out of the game on a Flight Path? Getting on one might as well be a 1-2 minute loading screen for a dungeon.

Wait a second. Dungeon. Dungeon. Ion Hazzikostas. It all makes sense!

Cue the flashback montage.

Cue the flashback montage.

Ion Hazzikostas is designing the world (of Warcraft) as a series of instanced dungeons. Not literally, of course. But as a lead designer who specifically worked on all the dungeons and raids introduced since Wrath, his reasoning up to this point makes total and complete sense in this context.

Dungeons are extremely directed experiences. You have to kill these mobs in this way in this order to face the boss. Dungeon mobs are dangerous and patrols can wipe the group, unlike any outdoor mob since, say, the Fel Reaver. You cannot mount in most dungeons, and even in the ones you can, there isn’t any flying (Oculus notwithstanding). Hell, even ground mounts can’t save you because dungeon mobs don’t leash.

Dungeons are everything that Ion wants outdoor questing in Draenor to be, because that is all that Ion knows how to design.

So there it is. We don’t have Scenarios in Draenor because quests are our Scenarios. Apexis dailies are our dungeons. And the actual dungeons? Unrewarding afterthoughts thrown in out of habit. Or perhaps more simply, the result of a drained lead designer who had just finished crafting a dungeon the size of the world.

It is hard to even be mad at Ion. Creating instanced, on-rails experiences is his whole job, and one that he is good at. When you hammer stuff all day, it makes perfect sense that every problem starts looking nail-like. The struggle comes from the unanswered questions Wilhelm presented earlier. Should outdoor questing content be treated like instanced, directed content?

I believe the answer is clearly “No.” Instanced content has its place, as do the limitations that make it more challenging. Outdoor content, by it’s very nature, resists and rejects those limitations. Enemy encampments aren’t “more dangerous” when grounded, by any stretch of the imagination. I could run through any one of them a dozen times while mounted and be fine. Preventing an aerial assault just makes the task of killing trivial mobs take a minute or two longer.

It is for these reasons that I believe Ion and whomever else is taking his side on the development team are going about this the wrong way. I enjoy story quests as much as the next guy, but the direction should come from the tasks, not the manner in which I complete them. If you want players sticking around an enemy encampment instead of clicking on a cage and flying away, how about making the quest more involved than clicking on a cage? Or, hell, maybe they could implement a system in which it would matter how I completed it. There is already bonus quest objective tech in place, so add something in there like “completed without flying.” More carrot and less stick.

Especially given how I can already mount and ride past the stick at any time.

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A Flight Far Enough

Well then. Turns out we’ll be returning to the skies in 6.2.x after all:

In an upcoming Public Test Realm build, we will be introducing a new meta-achievement called Draenor Pathfinder. You’ll earn this achievement in Patch 6.2 by mastering the outdoor environment of Draenor—exploring Draenor’s zones, collecting 100 treasures in Draenor, completing the Draenor Loremaster and Securing Draenor achievements, and raising the three new Tanaan Jungle reputations to Revered. Initially, this achievement will award a rylak mount: the Soaring Skyterror, one of the native beasts that roam Draenor’s skies. Players will remain ground-bound on Draenor until a small follow-up patch (6.2.x), when all players who have earned Draenor Pathfinder on at least one character will unlock the ability to fly in Draenor on all their level 90+ characters.

The general mood surrounding this announcement, at least where I have looked, has been one of almost manic joyousness. And I largely share it. This is Blizzard returning to sanity, smartly pivoting around a smoldering crisis with some clever design. Even though my first thought was “hey, attunements 2.0,” I can’t even be mad. My long-standing opposition to attunements doesn’t apply to this particular implementation of them, even if I do feel like Blizzard just kinda threw every achievement they could think of into the unlock.

But just as you would with someone who has just returned from a psychotic break, I remain leery. Some very serious men¹ made some very serious decisions and those decisions almost stuck. In fact, Lore confirmed via Twitter that the “final decision” on this flying matter was the cause of the BINGO Live Q&A delay:

In fact, the conversation continues with the following revelations:

In other words, all these changes were decided on in just the last week.

Is it comforting knowing that Blizzard can make decisions with this degree of nimbleness? Or is it vexing that it took them until now to solve this “problem?” I don’t think anyone could argue that the proposed implementation to unlock flying is especially onerous². Arbitrary, yes, but so is paying a few thousand gold when you hit the level cap. But why was this design not the one at the start of the expansion? If this is a compromise, what were we compromising out of, and why was that believed to be better than this?

To an extent, I recognize this is me seeing a silver lining and looking for the cloud. The crisis is averted, and Blizzard conjured content out of thin air without even having to change anything else. Hell, it’s even going to drag damn near everyone outside of their Garrisons for the first time since they hit level cap. It is a clever designer Hat Trick in every respect.

Still… goddamn. I would have felt a lot better about the overall design direction for WoW had they came up with this plan before it became necessary.

¹ I was going to say “people,” but as far as I can tell, all the lead designers are dudes.

² One of the 6.2 reputations is a straight-up mob grind, and a second one is basically the same thing except killing rares. This deal is getting worse all the time.

A Flight Too Far

I wasn’t going to write two posts about the lack of flying in Draenor, but the flurry of interviews and blue posts regarding it has taken me by surprise. After some thought though, I have decided to enumerate my feelings on the matter as dispassionately as possible, to hopefully serve as a more useful vehicle for feedback. I am mainly doing this for Russ Peterson:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” or similar is often attributed to Henry Ford.
And the point of that statement is that there are often solutions to a problem that are not always a direct continuation of what you expect
So when you think about flying/not flying today, try to think about what you like or miss in specifics rather than the blanket feature
Like: I miss flying because I enjoy looking at the world from a high vantage point, or I don’t miss flying because the world feels dangerous
It helps us when you can give feedback about the feelings and emotion you have or don’t have, and how that affects your behavior.
Yelling at us and telling us we’re dumb for making a decision doesn’t help.
For example, it could be argued that the command table is a stronger tether to keeping you in the garrison than lack of flight.
Try to dig past the initial feeling and reaction and tell us why you feel the way you do. That’s the feedback that makes the game better.
I’m heading out early for the holiday weekend. Keep sending feedback. I will always read it.

WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU TRYING …ahem. Let’s begin.

1) Flying gives players agency.

When I am on a flying mount, I am in control of my character. I am interacting with the world on my own time, in my own manner, and at my own discretion. While I might not always be paying attention while flying around, the fact is something could attract my eye at any moment and change my plans. Maybe I see a rare spawn, maybe I see some resource nodes, maybe I see some players in need of assistance. Flying gives me power, and yes, convenience.

2) Flying exposes poor quest design, not create it.

In the interview with Ion Hazzikostas, he states the following:

Hazzikostas gives an example: Before flying was introduced to World of Warcraft, if you got a quest to rescue a prisoner from an enemy encampment, it would play out a certain way. Players would need to fight their way through the camp. After flying, players could just fly into the center of camp, land on top of the hut where the prisoner is, free him and fly out.

“It made the world feel in many ways much smaller,” he says.

In a world without flying, the quest Ion is using as an example is still bad. If all I have to do is click on the cage, that means there is no reason to interact with the rest of the enemy encampment. Which means I will go out of my way to not interact with it. Stealth past the mobs, run through on a ground mount and use one of the handful of combat-stopping items (Treessassin’s Guise, etc), and otherwise try not to have my time sunk fighting useless mobs that only drop vendor trash.

We can instead imagine an alternate quest in which you can only release the prisoner after killing X mobs. Perhaps one of the many guards is holding the key to the cage. Maybe the prisoner won’t be able to escape the encampment until you thin the enemy ranks. Or whatever. Adding just a single extra step completely obviates the concern about flying directly to the prisoner and flying away.

3) A world’s size is dictated by volume of content, not speed in which it’s traversed.

One of the points often raised in regards to flying is that it makes the world feel smaller. I could not possibly disagree more. There has not been a single location on Azeroth or beyond that I could fly across that felt small because I could traverse it quickly. In fact, the very argument implies that one can make a world bigger simply by reducing player speed by 50%. If it takes you twice as long to run across Goldshire, does that mean Goldshire is now twice as large? Of course not.

The size of any game world is a function of what you can do in it. Which is bigger: Dragonblight or Jade Forest? Take a moment and just feel your answer.

Now, look at this:

*Jeopardy music*

*Jeopardy music*

It could very well be that Jade Forest has more quests and square footage; I don’t know how big each is off-hand, although I’m tempted to say Dragonblight. But as I leveled my druid alt through Pandaria recently, I could not help but be struck by the feeling of enormity in Jade Forest despite having purchased the BoA flight book. After spending two hours questing and gathering, I realized that I was still in the bottom third of the map. That’s how you get a big world.

Empty space doesn’t make anything bigger. If you smash Silithus, Un’Goro Crater, and Tanaris together into one zone, you’ll have a big map, but still fall short of Jade Forest’s real size by 10 quests. Three entire zones.

4) Flight Paths, no matter how quick, break immersion.

I’m going to quote Ion again here:

“The world feels larger, feels more dangerous,” he says. “There’s more room for exploration, for secrets, for discovery and overall immersion in the world.

Two paragraphs later:

He also promises that Blizzard will continue working to improve its network of taxi flight paths in the game to prevent any major frustration from this change: “The goal is to maximize convenience in getting from point a to point [b] but retaining as much of the gameplay and depth as possible once you do get to that point.”

Faster, more numerous, and more direct Flight Paths seems to be the “compensation” for removing player flight, but it is a poor one. Do you know what I do the moment I click on a Flight Path? I Alt-Tab out of the game and go browse websites. Blizzard has to know how common a phenomenon this is, as they introduced a loading screen into WoW for players who Alt-Tab back into the game after their character finishes a taxi ride.

Immersion is about a consistent experience. For me, there isn’t anything that breaks me out of “the zone” more than a long, non-interactive loading screen from which I cannot escape. I mean, thank you for the Exit Taxi button, I guess, but there’s such a huge delay between seeing something interesting while on the FP and actually getting back there, that there’s no reason to bother. I will Alt-Tab out of even a 60-second flight because that is 60 seconds of me not actually getting to play the game.

I have no doubt there are players who get on their flying mounts and just auto-fly forward while AFK in the same way I do on Flight Paths. But again, immersion is about a consistent gaming experience. There is 100% immersion from me questing one moment, to flying back home the next. There is zero immersion while I browse CNN.com while the game arbitrarily dictates how quickly I get to my destination.

5) Exploration is discouraged with lack of mobility.

Ion and others mention how flying diminishes exploration, but it is the exact opposite in my experience.

“While there was certainly convenience in being able to completely explore the world in three dimensions, that also came at the expense of gameplay like targeted exploration, like trying to figure out what’s in that cave on top of a hill and how do I get up there.”

There is a threshold to how inconvenient an activity can be and still feel rewarding to pursue. An example of this is Archaeology: I have all but abandoned trying to obtain Zin’rokh (troll sword) and the Ultramarine Qiraji Battle Tank (Tol’vir mount). When I look at my Archaeology map and I see dig sites scattered across continents and focused on races I am not even pursuing, I feel like giving up on the entire profession. If it were even slightly less insane an undertaking however, I would continue happily farming away.

In the example of “what’s in that cave at the top of the hill,” I have to ask a few questions. How do I even know there is a cave at the top of the hill? Does a quest send me up there? Is there a rare spawn? Does it contain anything of any relevance to a level-capped player (as leveling characters never traditionally have flight anyway)? I ask these questions because the world is riddled with empty set pieces and half-finished content. If I navigate my way to the top of the hill and the bottom of the cave and there is nothing there, I will be hugely disappointed and far less likely to risk my time in the future.

In fact, the majority of the time you are punished for exploring. When we talk about navigating up that hill, or any hill, there is typically only one path that’s intended. I can’t count the number of times I saw what appeared to be a shortcut or “hidden path” in Shadowmoon Valley that ended up being a decorative piece of impassible terrain. So now I get to take falling damage and walk clear around the base of the hill to find where the designers wanted to “target” my “exploration.”

These days, if a quest asks me to go to the top of any hill or down inside any cave, I skip that quest and move on.

6) The world has never been less dangerous, even without flying.

I honestly do not get what people are talking about when they suggest lack of flying “makes the world more dangerous.” The danger of the world is completely independent of your method of travel (unless you are a druid). What is going to kill you? Pulling too many mobs? Having a patrol run into you while fighting something else? Guess what, you are already on the ground. Unless your health was so low that the 1-2 hits you might receive after you escape on your ground mount would kill you, the danger is identical.

I suppose there is an increased risk from falling damage, but many classes have means of negating it with simply class abilities. Or the Goblin Gliders. Nevermind just hearthing out.

There has been some talk about how removing flying mounts encourages more world PvP. If it does, I haven’t seen it. Sure, you are stuck on the ground, surrounded by impassible 5-foot slopes and such. But so is the other faction. If someone wants to go around hunting for trouble, they literally have to hunt – being stuck on the ground limits your sight horizons. So in many scenarios, I feel like there is less world PvP simply because those who want to be engaging in it can’t find targets who might just be over the next ridge or behind that tree.

7) Flight is a tremendous reward for reaching endgame.

Has there ever been a bigger carrot than unlocking flying again at the endgame? I haven’t seen one.

The only thing I got at the end of Draenor was a Level 3 Garrison which, considering how useless many of my professions became, did not actually help me much in terms of increased buildings. I suppose there are raids and heroics dungeons and such, but I get instantly teleported to those so… yeah. Compared to fundamentally changing how I interact with the expansion’s world (i.e. flying), there isn’t a whole lot to look forward to for that last ding.

8) Flying mounts look terrible on the ground.

Some of the most rare, most prestigious mounts in the game look absolutely terrible on the ground. While I do not normally advocate for past achievements dictating future design, I think it’s worth acknowledging that people spent hundreds of hours farming, say, the Pandarian dragons, and are now stuck watching them writhe on the ground like a wounded snake. I have the Ashes of A’lar, and I pretty much will never get to use that mount again, as it looks dumb hovering over the ground.

9) The Water Strider Problem.

Indeed, for all intents and purposes, I only have one mount this expansion: the Azure Water Strider. The ability to traverse rivers, lakes, and oceans makes all other mounts (aside from the Crimson Water Strider) functionally useless. Why would I use the Raven Lord – a mount I finally got after five years of farming – when it would limit my mobility and ability to navigate terrain? Even flying mounts apparently sink like stones.

If we really are going to be glued to the surface from now on, you are going to have to address the Water Strider problem for the nine classes that can’t just ignore it. I unlocked that mount back in Mists on a lark, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made for this, and potentially all future expansions.

10) Suspicious of the future.

This last point is kinda out there, but just stick with me for a second.

I think it is pretty clear that Draenor wasn’t intended to be a permanent no-fly zone. I say this not only because of the various statements from Ion and other Blizzard designers – who made it clear that no flying was an experiment that “could go either way” – but out of the basic design of the world itself. For example, the vast tracks of empty, quest-less terrain throughout Shadowmoon Valley recall the design of similar future-flight zones like Dragonblight. The biggest clue however, comes from the fact that we can fly a little bit here and there with items like Aviana’s Feather and the Goblin Gliders. We would not have had that ability if Blizzard didn’t fully generate 3D terrain throughout Draenor.

So here’s my theory: Blizzard is removing flying to cut future production costs.

In a world without flying, or restricting flying to specific areas, Blizzard is free to replace large swaths of the map with 2D sprites and skyboxes. This is the exact reason why you still cannot fly in Silvermoon City: the city outside the narrow roads simply doesn’t exist. Stormwind had the same issue prior to Cataclysm, if you’ll recall, but they did spend the manpower to construct a fully 3D space. They had to, because otherwise every character with a flying mount would immediately see the seams of the gameworld.

On one hand, there’s nothing necessarily “bad” about this sort decision in of itself. If you can’t physically get to somewhere, there is no reason why you should be upset that it was a clever skybox instead of fully functional rendered terrain.

On the other hand, if true, it would make Blizzard disingenuous to the extreme. And, you know, this particular explanation (e.g. cut costs) makes more sense than the ones we have been presented thus far. Flying has been spun as this big “problem” that there needs to be a “solution” for, but where is the actual problem? When did it start occurring? Did anyone honestly think Northrend was “too small” because of flying? Was there anything more impressive than Icecrown Citadel in terms of set pieces seen from a flying mount? If Northrend was a no-fly zone, I guarantee that 95% of ICC would have been sprites.

World of Warcraft is the most successful MMO ever made and has maintained that title for over ten years now. Despite that fact, and the sheer volume of cash flow, Blizzard has never been able to release expansions faster. How long was the last raid tier in Pandaria active again? So Blizzard has every incentive to cut as many corners as they can to push content out the door faster. We have seen that time and time again in Draenor, and I suspect we’ll see more of it in future no-flight expansions.

If this is the real reason, I wish Blizzard would just come out and say it. Because if it is the case, we already lost the debate, and nothing we say matters; we are no longer debating design philosophy, we are debating dollars. And that is one argument players are never going to win.

No-Fly Zone

[Update: No flying ever, apparently. Remember when WoW had sane lead designers?]

Has the lack of flying in Warlords made the world feel larger?

Like a surprising number of people, I occasionally forget that there isn’t flying in Draenor. I have only really noticed the lack here recently due to two factors: leveling my druid (now level 89) and trying to do Archaeology on my main. And it was really the latter situation that reminded me of why I always say that to make a world feel larger, you simply put more things in it. This is opposed to the current design, where you simply make everyone move slower.

Does anyone actually feel like Draenor is bigger than, say, Pandaria? Or Northrend? I only recently activated my second WoW Token for this expansion, but I have long since ran out of reasons to care about the world. Questing is still in tightly-packed hubs, so the ground-mount limitation only means the time between quest pick-up and quest turn-in is longer, not any of my actual gameplay. Hitting up resource nodes is a massive pain, but Garrisons really cover that anyway. If for some reason I feel compelled to do the Apexis daily, they might as well have teleported me there, because I immediately Alt-Tab out of the game while on Flight Paths.

If anything, I would argue that the lack of flying has actually resulted in less gameplay, not more. As I mentioned before, I was trying to do some Archaeology on my main the other day and barely managed to get through two digsites before logging out in disgust. Archaeology is already a time-sink of incredible magnitude, but I’m not about to waste even more time traversing asinine landscapes specifically designed to thwart shortcuts/exploration. I can attack 30-foot tall Old Gods, but that intentionally annoying 5-foot slope is impassible.

Don’t even get me started on how being limited to ground mounts has driven me to exclusively use the Water Strider mount. When all other mounts are functionally identical except for two which allow you to bypass all water hazards, it becomes dumb to use anything else. I spent five years farming the Raven Lord mount, actually acquired it two weeks ago, and only ever use it inside my Garrison.

I can empathize with Blizzard’s desires here. They want a guided experience, and to know that a player will experience this particular vista at this time at this place. But it’s bullshit. You still get that by limiting flying to the level cap. If you want us with boots on the ground, how about giving us a reason to have boots on the ground? Like, I dunno, daily quests?

I feel like this entire expansion has been a long string of comical blunders achieving the exact opposite of stated goals. Remove flying to make the world feel bigger? The world isn’t bigger, there’s just more empty space inbetween points of interest. Nevermind how Blizzard “made the world bigger” but somehow ended up putting fewer things to do in it.

As I mentioned before, I just turned in my second WoW Token. Unless I really get sucked into PvP though, I can’t imagine myself turning in a third one. My prior plan was to stick around into 6.2 long enough to cash in on the whole Felblight deal and set myself up nicely gold-wise for the next expansion. Given how rapidly I am depleting my WoW Bucket List however, I’m not sure I’m going to make it.