The WoW community has been in a roiling boil for almost a week now over the pre-patch events transpiring in the lead-up to Battle for Azeroth. Specifically, there is a sense of incredulity surrounding the actions of Sylvanas. I recommend watching the Warbringer video below, but I will also include a little transcript:
Sylvanas: Secure the beach. Prepare to invade the tree.
Delaryn: (cough) Why? (cough) Why? You’ve already won. Only innocents remain in the tree.
Sylvanas: This is war.
Delaryn: No. This… is hatred… rage. Windrunner, you were… defender of your people. Do you not remember?
Sylvanas: I remember… a fool.
–Flashback of fighting, dying to Arthas, then being reborn–
Sylvanas: Life is pain. Hope fails. Now you understand.
–Tears fall from Delaryn, Sylvanas smiles–
Sylvanas: Ah, don’t grieve… you’ll soon join your loved ones.
Delaryn: I grieve for you. You’ve made life your enemy. And that is a war you’ll never win. You can kill us… but you cannot kill hope.
–Sylvanas glances at the tree, then back at Delaryn–
Sylvanas: Can’t I?
–Sylvanas turns Delaryn’s head towards the tree, and then looks at her commanders–
Sylvanas: Burn it. Burn it!
First, let me just say it: this cinematic animated short is amazing in isolation. Delaryn’s wounded coughing sounded a bit amateurish, but the dialog was tight, the imagery engaging, and it summarized Sylvanas’ entire character arc in less than four minutes.
Second, this is Sylvanas. “She would have had a more strategic plan!” Would she? I’m open for a longer debate on the subject, but to me, Sylvanas’ naked nihilism has been on display from the very beginning. Hell, I remember rolling a Forsaken character back in TBC and wondering how many expansions we would go before the Forsaken broke off and became a third faction. The casual sociopathy in plague deployment, and the understanding that the race only expanded by desecrating the dead always made it feel like the Horde accepted the Forsaken only grudgingly, out of existential considerations. The Forsaken were a part of the Horde, but stood apart.
That said, I sympathize with most of the outrage.
If you are a Horde player entertaining the fantasy of being part of an honorable band of misfits just trying to survive, Blizzard has been throwing you under the bus lately. I was not actively playing through the entire Garrosh arc, but the summaries are reading pretty similar already.
That’s not even getting into the problems that the Taurens and other Horde races/classes should be having with A) burning Teldrassil to the ground, B) being tasked with killing Malfurion (a druid leader to both factions), or C) working with a Warchief whose motto is “Life is pain, hope fails.” Sylvanas might get a pass during Legion, but if there is not widespread in-game, in-character outrage from at least the druid and shaman corners, then the Blizzard criticism is 100% warranted.
On the Alliance side, when turning in the post-fall quest to Anduin, he says:
You have shown courage and heart, champion. On this, one of the Alliance’s darkest days. My whole life, I have prayed for peace in this world. But that dream can never be realized so long as Sylvanas Windrunner leads the Horde. She expects this atrocity to crush our spirits. Shatter our unity. But this I vow… the Alliance will endure… and the Bashee Queen’s insidious reign will be ended.
So, regardless of whether Sylvanas retreads exactly the same path as Garrosh or veers into a more interesting direction, I think there is enough foreshadowing here to suggest, at a minimum, she will not remain the Warchief by the end of the expansion. Which is a rather high turnover rate for even the most diehard Horde fan to endure.
We’ll see how it plays out in the coming months and patches.
Let me just say though, oof, that Alliance quest inside the burning Darnassus was rough. And brilliant. It took my 10+ years of completing quests in WoW and used it to twist the knife in a way that not Arthas or Sargeras ever could. We can kill Old Gods… but how many civilians can we save from the flames?
Twenty-five. I saved twenty-five. Out of nine hundred and eighty-two.
I was playing GTA 5 this weekend, and one of the missions really reminded me of why I prefer game devs to just spell out what they expect you to do as a player.
The mission was technically a “side-quest” of a heist the main characters were setting up. This particular branch was to acquire a getaway vehicle, take it to a discreet location, then call Michael and let him know where it is. Not just any vehicle will do, but there are a million carjack opportunities in the game, so it didn’t take long to find one the game was satisfied with.
What did take an annoyingly long amount of time was figuring out A) where a “discreet” area was, and B) phoning the location in. Back alley? Not discreet. Docks? Not discreet. Area marked in green? Whoops, that’s an entirely different mission area. I tried calling Michael half a dozen times, but never got the option to “Mark the Location.” And I never knew whether that was because I wasn’t in a discreet location, or if I was but I had to be outside the vehicle to make the call, or if the quest was just fucking bugged.
There are a lot of challenges I enjoy in gaming. The one challenge type conspicuously absent from the list is being a goddamn mind reader. Or, more specifically, trying to figure out what the designers wanted players to do. Sometimes the issue is that I missed what would otherwise have been an obvious clue. Hey, it happens. Doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to wander around cluelessly for 15 minutes not playing the game. Give me a puzzle, and I’ll try to solve it. But I’m not going to fucking hunt for the puzzle, because I have zero faith in my ability to divine whether all the proper programming flags were set.
So, I looked the quest up. Turns out they wanted the car in a neighborhood area. Drove there, parked, and the option to Mark the Location came right up. Fantastic. If they could have just dropped some markers down on the map like they do with everything else in the game, I would have been done with this vanilla quest more than 20 minutes ago instead of it completely breaking the flow of my gaming session.
And looking at my experience with MMOs? Same sort of thing applies. I played WoW when it didn’t have quest givers on the minimap, when quest items didn’t sparkle, before addons highlighted quest areas, and when Thottbot was breaking new ground over Allakhazam (I think). You know what? I’ll say it: it sucked. Killing mobs and not knowing whether you were just unlucky with quest drops or if you were killing the wrong specie of bear sucks. Get lost in a cave sucks. The item you need to click on being the basement as you scour the other three floors fruitlessly sucks.
I’m not saying there can’t or shouldn’t be mysteries in a game. But it should never be a mystery that you are in a mystery. The difference between hunting for clues and being clueless is immense. It is the difference between playing a game and not.
Again, I have empathy for the players for whom their primary enjoyment is figuring shit out on their own. I hope there are addons or options for you to turn off all the quest tracking overlays. But if the designers want me to collect ten bear asses to complete a quest, that is my quest, not exploring the taxonomy of virtual Ursidae and/or their habitat. If you want me to stash a car somewhere “discreet,” you either tell me where that is, or allow me to stash it somewhere I think is discreet enough. Which was apparently 100 feet away from where GTA 5 said I couldn’t make the call.
There are a lot of tropes in RPGs that go largely unexamined, but I experienced one in Dragon Age 2 recently that seemed especially egregious: the impossibly unlikely encounter.
Now, you know how it is, you are walking around town and just so happen to stumble across a conversation between a woman looking for her son and guards clearly not interested in searching for him. What were the odds you would be walking by that one-minute exchange in the middle of a sprawling city? It’s a trope, but I can forgive that out of necessity; how else could you really set up such a quest organically, right? I’m not talking about those sort of encounters.
No, I’m talking about the part in Dragon Age 2 when I run across a band of Elvish assassins confronting a human along a desolate path on the Wounded Coast. The human is apparently a former werewolf who inadvertently killed the mother of the main Elf assassin, but the Warden from the first game has cured his lycanthropy. You get the choice here between letting the assassin finish the job, defending the man, or trying to shame the Elves into leaving. I did the latter, got paid 50 silver by the grateful man, and both parties left.
This wasn’t even a quest. It was just a goddamn throwaway encounter miles from any sort of civilization and/or rational explanation for how the two people could have met one another just in time for me to waltz by. It wasn’t like this dude was trying to assuage his guilt by watching the beach. As far as I can possibly determine, there was no reason for him to be there at all; he was not a trader, nor hermit, nor on the run. I would have been infinitely more sympathetic with my suspension of disbelief if this occurred in the city. Or in a cave he was hiding in. Or as part of a plot-line or rumor which suggested someone was looking for a former werewolf. Instead, this scenario gets more and more ludicrous the longer I think about it.
I mean, sure, most of the quests that I have seen in Dragon Age 2 so far seem rather unlikely. Who exactly is going to trust a complete stranger who was conveniently eavesdropping on your conversation in the first place? Actually, it might be fun for there to be an RPG in which all of these sort of tropes are subverted; some sort of deranged, manic dude cavorting into the middle of groups of people and “completing their quests” based on random snippets of dialog. But, man, that Wounded Coast encounter is on an impossibly absurd level of its own.
[Preface: I wrote the below before yesterday’s post went up, so I hadn’t yet incorporated any of the feedback given. My current mood is less bleak than the below suggests.]
I am seriously considering the fact that The Secret World may not be for me.
After some rather meticulous research, my plan for weapons is going to be Blades/Assault Rifle with Pistols thrown in – I have been assured that this covers all the relevant bases. After that was nailed down, I started towards Kingsmouth and chopping down zombies, Kill Bill-style.
My brow furrowed almost immediately. One of the first side-quests you get in this area is how to construct and deconstruct weapons. In a Minecraft-esque grid. Er… what? Why is this a thing? Is there a particular reason to go with this crafting system beyond intentional obfuscation? A little while later, I was shown how to construct glyphs in a similar fashion, which are sort of like gems you slot into weapons, except you can’t actually just slot them in. In fact, I had to watch a Youtube video of this quest because following the given instructions wasn’t helping. “Oh. You gave me TWO glyph toolboxes, and I’m not supposed to use the one called glyph toolbox, but the sort of quest item version.”
After a shake of the head, I accept the quest from the fortune-teller nearby and am asked to find some ravens. I find one outside, watch it fly away, and am then told to follow it. I do so… only to see it clip out of existence in mid-air. Er… okay. Oh, by the way, you have 60 seconds to figure this out. After aggroing some zombies, I restart this portion and try again. Nope, that raven definitely disappears in mid-air. I walk the entire length of the road in the direction the raven was traveling in, not even sure what the hell the quest designer was expecting me to do.
Spoiler alert: they wanted me to ignore the flying raven and look for another bird on the ground. Brilliant. I do this a few times, fight some spawned enemies, grab two side-quests I run past on the way, redo a section of the raven quest because, you know, it’s timed but they thought it was cute to leave side-quests along the path just to fuck with people, complete the quest finally and then loot my text message of an item I can’t even equip because I’ve already spent my Skill Points.
Are we having fun yet?
Spoiler alert: No.
My mood was not improved by the next quest, which involved checking out the Illuminati runes inscribed on the church that causes zombies who tread inside to be instantly killed. “Find the first set of runes.” Okay, sure, I saw them near the door. “Find the second set of runes.” Okay then. I’ll give you two guesses as to what I ended up doing for the next five minutes.
If you guessed “searching the inside of the church, then spam clicking everywhere like I was trying to find that secret wooden pixel in Planescape: Torment, before furiously Googling the answer to a goddamn ‘click item’ quest,” then you are correct.
Now, I am more than willing to take some, if not most, blame for this quest-fail. The first set of runes were outside the front doors, the zombies were being prevented from coming inside, so it doesn’t actually make all that much sense for the other sets of runes to be inside. Logically – at least #GameLogic and #AnimeLogic-wise – protective runes go on the outside of the thing they’re protecting. But more than anything, my experiences on Day 2 of playing The Secret World is confirming my post earlier this month about the tenuous balancing act of difficulty vs hand-holding. This MMO does not hold your hand, gives you the cold shoulder, and by all rights actively dislikes you.
And… that’s good, I guess. It’s definitely an under-served niche. Personally, I don’t think the flavors of hotkey, active-dodging, respawning mobs really meshes with the more glacial, adventure-game schtick, but what do I know? Well, other than the small spark of my interest is being smothered by alt-tabbing to the equivalent of Thottbot for every other quest. I could tough it out, perhaps rationing my attention span a bit more judiciously. The setting is certainly interesting, at least, and I’ve heard good things about the horror elements later on.
Or I could, hypothetically, start playing a fully NDA’d, unreleased MMO in a manner more deserving of the beta key I received.
This amusing comparison was posted on Reddit the other day under “Morrowind vs Skyrim vs Dark Souls”:
The implication here is (presumably) that games these days are being dumbed down, or at least are not being made as challenging as their predecessors (Dark Souls aside). This sort of “hand holding” is pretty much the de facto standard in MMOs as well, in the form of highlighting of the questing areas and the like. ¹
To which I say: “Good.”
If there is one particular scenario I despise more than anything else in videogames, it is when I sit down to play one and then can’t. I do not mean that I try and fail and am unable to progress – that part is good! It’s gameplay, it’s doing things, it’s actively engaging my faculties. Rather, I mean when the game is not even allowing me to try anything because I am missing something and don’t even know it. Or maybe I am not missing anything and the game is at fault. Indeed, whenever I get stuck in a game, these are the usual possibilities:
- I cannot solve the puzzle.
- I missed an invisible quest trigger.
- I cannot locate the quest objective.
- I do not know where to go next.
In all those scenarios aside from #1, we can entertain the possibility that it is the game designer’s fault. And that’s the problem! Sure, occasionally it is my own damn fault for not reading the quest text correctly or I didn’t pan the camera 110° to the right or whatever. But after 20+ years of playing videogames, I can assure you that my default assumption is not that these designers do everything on purpose. Games are art, but if you set out to evoke a particular emotion with a piece and it generates the exact opposite, we can say that that piece of art failed in its goal. Sometimes mistakes can make a game better (like… Gandhi in Civilization), but an equal or greater amount of time they are simply mistakes.
Things can go too far the other way, of course. In the opening scenes of The Witcher 2, as you approach the ominously empty bridge, you get a prompt telling you which buttons to press to avoid dragon fire. “What dragon? Oh.” Quests in Skyrim which ask you to find the artifact that has been hidden for centuries… and there’s a very visible quest marker that appears directly over it. I can concede that something like this other Reddit picture is too much:
At the end of the day, though? I am playing videogames to do things. I do not consider walking around a room pressing the Interact button every few steps as doing something. There is a place for games in which the “doing” is figuring out where to go or what to do next. And that place is “Pile of Games I’m (Literally) Not Playing.”
¹ I still remember the river of tears that resulted from WoW adding quest givers to the minimap back in Patch 2.3. Yes, seriously, tears.
Tobold made a post the other day that got me thinking about the more philosophical angle of the differences between themepark and sandbox games. In the post, Tobold relates the common DM nightmare of players striking off on their own, plundering the crypt/castle/ruins before technically getting the quest to do so. While one solution is the Warhammer-esque “Bears bears bears” method (retroactive credit), Tobold went with “All roads lead to Rome” where he simply moved the quest-giver to where the players were going. As I mentioned in the comments to his post, the latter is not particularly innovative; WoW has had the occasional mid-quest updates since Cataclysm, and GW2’s Hearts are all location-based and automatic rather than relying on quest-givers.
The thought that struck me though, was this: at what point does a sandbox become a themepark?
Take, for instance, Darkfall. I don’t think anyone would claim that Darkfall is anything other than a sandbox. But it also has what amounts to “quests” in any other game: Feats. I suppose these are more similar to achievements than quests per se, but they are basically “Do X, Receive Y” activities that drive player behavior. Would having Feats tied to NPCs in a town or camp change Darkfall into a themepark? I don’t see why they would.
It seems clear to me that the difference between sandboxes and themeparks are the difference between player-motivated actions and developer-motivated actions. Do what you want in Darkfall, do Siege of Orgrimmar/Timeless Isle/LDR/etc in WoW. But I am starting to think that that line is a bit fuzzier than it is typically portrayed. “Do what you want in Darkfall, but farming X over in Y is more rewarding than Z.” How different is that really than themeparks? And isn’t it possible for someone to treat a traditional themepark MMO as a sandbox?
So, now I’m thinking that the line between these two paradigms really comes down to developer attitude regarding content. If the developers feel that they have to create the content themselves, it’s a themepark; if the developers let players amuse themselves, it’s a sandbox. Am I missing something critical? I mean, player housing and non-instanced dungeons are prototypical sandbox qualities, but a Darkfall without either is still a sandbox, right? And clearly the line is not drawn at the mere existence of quests or directed player activity either.
Are these themepark/sandbox distinctions more arbitrary than we have been led to believe?
Skyrim, of course, is not intended to be an MMO.
That said, as I sailed past 100 hours played and started finally running out of the “named quests,” I started thinking back to when a lot of bloggers were musing on a hypothetical Skyrim Online and how great that would be. As it turns out, there is not much imagination necessary: Skyrim really already emulates a lot of the standard sort of MMO tropes. And, perhaps ironically, some of Skyrim’s other qualities sort of demonstrate why such mechanics generally do not really work in MMOs.
Quests range from “Talk to this guy,” to “Collect 20 Nirnroot,” to “Kill the Bandit Leader in a nation with an inexplicable 10,000:1 bandit to honest citizen ratio.” While there are no exclamation points over peoples’ heads, each city is so densely packed with quest-givers that your minimap – if such thing existed – would be lit up like a Christmas tree. And just like with every quest in an MMO, you never get a sense that you are actually solving anything. Give the Blacksmith 10 Fire Salts to reheat his forge? He may greet you a little differently, but his “secret technique” results in no higher quality merchandise, no larger gold cap, no discounts.
Sidequests are sidequests, though, right? Well, to an extent. The problem is when there are more sidequests than main quests, or when the main quest is boring. At some point, you give the player enough freedom to hang themselves… and they do.
See, I have completely lost the Skyrim narrative. “What am I doing? Why do I care?” Helping a dude steal a horse is supposed to enrich the game world’s verisimilitude, I guess? If that is the case, it failed. The quests are so disjointed and arbitrary that I end up feeling like a dyslexic, ADD-addled coke-fiend with Tourettes, sputtering along countryside with an ever-increasing laundry list of chores. The situation really makes me appreciate all those otherwise lame zones in WoW, insofar as the quests actually lead somewhere or enriched the background of the zone.
I have heard a lot of people lament the state of player crafting in MMOs, but again, Skyrim is a good case-in-point about where strong player crafting can lead to. Basically, I have not upgraded a single piece of gear in the last 40 hours of gameplay. Considering there is no such thing as quest XP, and I have more gold than I could ever possibly spend, the lack of possible gear upgrades essentially boils questing down to its base narrative components. Some hold up, most do not.
Short of the sandbox-esque nuclear option of destroying gear and/or permanent durability loss, I do not see a worthy payout for the costs of strong player crafting. I just completed a long questline to reconstruct a 1,000+ year old amulet whose power started a war and led to it being split into three parts and sealed away; the names of amulet keepers were to be forgotten under the pain of death. After finally reforging it, I held it in my hands and… oh, +30 to Health/Mana/Stamina? I created an amulet with +67 to Health and +40% extra Bow damage nearly 50 hours ago.
While some of this can be mitigated in MMOs by making recipes rare, requiring special crafting materials from higher-level content (which is different than normal loot… how?), and so on, strong player crafting still seems to boil down to reducing or eliminating much of the incentive to quest. Perhaps that is indeed the entire point, eh? Moving away from designer quests and into “Spam Trade chat for an hour” player quests? That is fine to do, with the assumption that the game itself is either going full quest-less, or the quests that do exist are so ridiculously fun and exciting that they are intrinsically worth doing.
Although this is not a formal review, if I had to sum up all of my problems with Skyrim in a single word, it would be “pacing.” There simply isn’t any. Even if the game revolves around doing what you want, pacing is important. I am level 51 and I can 2-shot dragons with my bow from stealth – the game is essentially over for me. And yet the main questline is not remotely near complete, nevermind the handful of other quests remaining. Yes, “I did this to myself.” If EVE gave every new player a Titan for completing the tutorial, those players would also be “doing it to themselves” for (ab)using it too.
Point being, it is the designers’ jobs to craft a well-paced game. I don’t care how sandbox your design is, I shouldn’t be allowed to break the game for myself. One of the great strengths of the themepark experience is exactly the derided “on rails” component: it will take you X days of Y quests to get Z gear. The bosses you face tomorrow will be stronger than the ones faced today. There will be a quantifiable reason to collect 10 bear asses.
After 100 hours of gameplay, clearly Skyrim is doing some things right. I have never taken more screenshots in my entire life, for example. Despite my character being completely broken, I still treat the world seriously (sneaking around when I could simply kill things straight-up) because it projects seriousness in most every scenario. But instead of making me pine for Skyrim Online, it does the opposite. I miss the strong narratives of Fallout 3 and New Vegas. I hated having to level through Burning Crusade content in WoW, but I hate tracking down 20 Nirnroots more.
Pacing is something to keep in mind when constructing your hypothetical sandbox or Impossible MMO. More options, more things to do, can actually result in less meaningful gameplay. Skyrim deserves its accolades, but it makes for a pretty bad MMO. And the changes necessary for Skyrim to be ported into the MMO world would, in fact, make it resemble nothing like its present state.
I was all prepared to talk about questing and how I think MMO designers are doing it wrong… and then I discovered Jeff Kaplan pretty much said everything back in 2009.
“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.”
That line is a part of a larger commentary on what Kaplan calls Medium Envy – the tendency for game designers to turn their game into a book or movie at the expense of the one quality that sets games apart: their interactivity. The industry has wild oscillations on this subject, with brilliant examples of the Right Way (Half Life series with zero cutscenes) and the Wrong Way (Metal Gear Solid series). Of course, I say “Right Way” but obviously feel that cutscenes and cinematics have a place in expanding the narrative in ways that perhaps interactivity could not (at least without gimmicks).
I definitely recommend checking out the presentation through the summary at the above link, the Wow Insider writeup, or even listen to the whole hour-long presentation via Vimeo (audio only, but it does have photos of the slides). Assuming, of course, you did not already read this two years ago.