Removing the World from Virtual Worlds

Been reading the discussion of the WoW 3.3. patch and after being struck with alternating waves of “cool!” and “its about time!”, I was overcome with the feeling that a good portion of the “World” part of “World of Warcraft” just swirled down the drainhole.  To be fair, its been doing that by degrees for quite some time.

I’m truly torn watching these trends.  On the one hand, I greatly enjoy gaming sessions with a regular group of friends.  The socializer and achiever in me loves the efficiency that all of these travel and ancillary changes have wrought over time.  The explorer side of me, however, dies a little with each subsequent patch.
As our instance group has proven, even the most casual of players, playing only a scant few hours per week can progress through the game’s instanced content almost exclusively without setting foot on virtual terra firma outside of capital cities.  That of course was never our explicit intent, it was simply a reality due to the lowest common denominator time budget for our group members.
We wanted to run all the instances at level and the xp and gear from doing those instances was vastly superior to doing group “open world” content.  As its well known, open world group activity is penalized and seeing as we didn’t intend to play solo (nor was speed leveling the object of our efforts), solo questing wasn’t on the table.

The World Before Us
Most of our group had been playing together since December 2004 and had already experienced WoW 1.0 as it then lay before us– a large number of quests and zones to explore punctuated by reasonably challenging instanced content along the progression path to the level cap.  Quest chains led you to and fro across the continents chasing threads of storylines that conveniently intersected with various instances– instances that felt distant, dangerous and exotic. 

In some cases, getting to the instances felt like a bit of an adventure itself.  Scarlet Monestary beckoned well before you were able to purchase your first mount at level 40.  After running all the way from Southshore through Horde Territory, you were rewarded with a dangerous place in a hostile land, far from the nearest Alliance town.  Likewise, before Light’s Hope Chapel was made into a full Alliance quest hub, Stratholme was a dangerous place, far far from the safety and support of an Alliance town.  But to the intrepid went the rewards.  Dire Maul was on the far side of the world for Alliance.

Of course all this open world travel and adventuring took time.  Quite frankly, more time than many people enjoy or can afford.  If all a person can afford is about a two hour block of time to play and the dungeon may take close to that to run, then 45 minutes of inventory management, repairs, preparation and travel (x5 people) acts as an insurmountable gate to that content.
Mass Transit
Warlocks’ summoning spell was always a great help to get stragglers to the group.  Great if you had a warlock in your group and three members had already arrived to perform the ritual.  While convenient, it hardly shrank the world to a significant degree.  Likewise, Mage portals at best got you to the closest capital city.  Aftewards, you were on your own.

Multiflightpoint taxi travel also took the edge off of travel to far flung destinations, even though you still had to manage any boat travel connections manually.  At least you could bio and microwave your hotpocket while you AFK flew from Darnassus to Feathermoon Stronghold on your way to Dire Maul.

The ever maligned meeting stones were finally repurposed as group summoning stones. Now only two group members needed to be present to summon (though they were level restricted).

Portals in Shatrath and Dalaran (and in each capital city to the Dark Portal) eliminated the vast majority of the travel tax for most players.  Add some additional mage portal destinations and long distance taxi travel is all but eliminated.
Hearthstone cooldowns were reduced making them much more of a travel strategy rather than a one time “done for the night” utility.  Especially in conjuction with the city portals.

Once upon a time, you had to visit a battlemaster in a city or actually travel to Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin or Alterac Valley to join a battleground instance (Do the other BGs other than Wintergrasp even have a world presence?).  Through successive patches, all that is now required is a wee click on the pvp button to queue for a battleground and be magically whisked into the disambiguated battleground instance, promptly to be returned whence you came upon the battle’s conclusion.

Patch 3.3 is effectively accomplishing the same thing with the sweeping changes to the LFG tool and the implementation of cross server instance groups.  As Nils reported a response in the comment’s to Tobold’s recent post: “YES!  I will never have to leave Dalaran again!”  Indeed.

The Incredible Shrinking MMO
I’m reminded of the recent success/failure of Warhammer’s disparate approach to the same problem.  Early on, the insta queue anywhere battlegrounds were the most efficient means of gaining xp and the most reliable way to find pvp which was lacking in a pvp oriented game.  There was something of a world out there, but for many it simply didn’t exist in any meaningful way.  Log in, queue, BG pops, go done, repeat until cap.

I’m also reminded of DDO which I’ve been revisiting a bit of late.  In many ways its the ultimate session play environment.  In DDO (like Guildwars), there is essentially no massive multiplayer world outside of the instances which are spawned as needed for a solo or group players.  In DDO, all progress comes from completing these instanced challenges too, so walking the earth like Caine and grinding on what you find there is pretty much nonexistent. 

All of these “improvements” increase social interaction but at the expense of the sense of a virtual world.  Maybe that’s what most people want.  Heck, I was lobbying for our group to pick up Guildwars or DDO as a follow on to our WoW instance efforts because of these features that would allow all of us to quickly and easily get into the group content we enjoy without all these hassles.

Can the mass market support a virtual world or are we relegated to a shiny 3d chat room with a right click adventure menu?  Yes, of course, with WoW, one can always choose to run, ride, fly or even walk to experience the virtual world.  That’s not the point here.  The question is, what will future massive games hold for us?

Will Blizzard’s next gen MMO adopt most of the grouping/travel paradigms that are evolving in WoW?  I recall reading somewhere about wormhole travel for the upcoming STO and I’m cautiously pessimistic.  Likewise for SW:TOR.  Game functionality tends to evolve convergently.  Functional solutions and popular features from earlier games tend to end up represented in subsequent games of the same genre.  Part of this is meeting consumer expectations and part of it is simply addressing a gameplay need for the player base. 
As much fun as group content can be, I can’t help feeling we are losing the world from our virtual worlds.  The increasing focus on the “endgame” only exacerbates the problem as the virtual world is reduced to a series of repeatable instance pinatas, all of which must be run and rerun to fuel the gear progression game.


13 thoughts on “Removing the World from Virtual Worlds”

  1. In addition to removing the world aspect, WoW has also lost any ‘server community’ aspect as well. Cross-realm BGs started it, paid server transfers took a few shots, and I think 3.3 finishes the job with cross-realm PvE. That Blizzards next MMO might be far closer to a Facebook game than something like EVE will be a good indicator of where the mass-market is heading for ‘MMO’ gaming.

    On the other hand, if you ARE looking for a real virtual world, there are games that offer that as well, in both PvE (FE) and PvP (DF) flavors. And of course EVE is always around, always growing, always improving.

  2. Hrmm… I’m not as gloomy on the whole prospect, at least when it comes to WoW. This most certainly cannot be categorized with as broad of a brush as “cross realm PvE.”

    People like Nils and raiders and the like are pretty much done with the world already. They want to run the instanced content. That is their schtick. They raced through the world content to get to that point. The world was in their way.

    And so Nils will never have to leave Dalaran, which really means that he won’t be making the trip from Dalaran to the instance entrance, something probably accomplished via the summoning stone more times than not.

    But a lot of people do little or no instanced content. The world is the point. I have characters from levels 45-80 that have hit one or two instances at most.

    In WoW you have to see some of the world. You’re forced to. You cannot live by instancing alone until you get close to level cap.

    Of course, people will find something to complain about no matter what Blizzard does. I’ve heard the criticism that WoW is a bunch of solo PvE “heroes.” And now that there will be cross realm grouping (which, might allow me to actually play once in a while with friends on other realms, the whole server division thing being yet another issue Blizzard gets roasted about) which encourages grouping, that is suddenly destroying server community.

    But the real point, with which I fully agree, is that others may see the take-away point as “The World Does Not Matter.” DDO is interesting, and the scenery in GW is very pretty, but that doesn’t give you the same feel was walking across the Commonlands or up to Stonetalon Peak and feeling that the world is a place with dimension.

    It comes down to the old saw about the journey versus the destination. Some people like being there, others like getting there.

    1. Well, perhaps the imminent death of non-instanced Azeroth-as-we-know-it is a bit over stated, but despite the worldliness of places like LotRO’s middle earth (heartily agree Ethic), I have to wonder how much world asset ROI will figure into the cold calculus of future MMOG building.

      Lets put WoW in a separate category as transitional from small market virtual worlds to large market massive games. Blizz started out as the former and ended up in the latter, so they already spent the resources on building Blizzard’s version of an EQ world. They can’t really take it back, but they can bridge over it. Until Cataclysm.

      With my bean counter visor on, I’m going to say that the biggest bang for your buck is developing content that is highly replayable and scalable. Replayability means either some aspect of pinata progression and/or randomly generated content. By default, thats meant making heroics and raids the closed loop retention trap for level capped players.

      If Blizz sticks with their penchant for maintaining a narrative, then random Diablo style instances are likely out. Scalability means the content can be accessed and experienced simultaneously by the entire player base– instancing. That’s the ultimate in ensuring a consistent high quality directed user experience. Phasing has failed to deliver that consistent experience all across group members, so I think we wont see it in a recognizable form going forward.

      Once and done content is a luxury few developers can likely afford in the future. Of course, pinata loot progression plays havoc with narrative (tell me why I’m killing Boss X for the 12th time?). I wonder what gets thrown under the bus in the next gen project.

      Which is verging on another topic thats been rolling around in my brain which is wondering whether the “progression problem” can be solved, but thats another post.

      I’m very curious to see what they do with D3. I suspect some features/aspects will be indicative of the direction Blizz will take the next Gen project. I don’t really expect any of that with SC2.

      I’m not so sure whether its the “World Does Not Matter” as much as “Only My World Matters.”

      1. Oh, and one more thing in re the solo world experience. I too have those myriad alts stretched across the level spectrum who don’t hit the instanced dungeons. And I level them mostly solo or like you with a couple of friends rather than PUGS.

        So if I’m soloing through the world anyway, does anyone else need to be in it?

        If a bear shits in the woods and no one is around to hear it? wait…

  3. To counteract this effect all the designers really need to do is add “meaningful” world content. If the areas with elites give as good of loot and rewards as a dungeon why wouldn’t people keep running them? Maybe you could teleport people back to the beginning once they collect the end boss loot or turn a wheel for their quest completion or whatever. There are simple ways to make this work and get the world feel back as an option for gameplay and less warping around. Those who wish to avoid the world could still do so. Those who love to explore could continue to… Why make a world if you are then going to make it not matter?

  4. Mrs Bhagpuss and I started playing WoW in the early summer this year and we’ve experienced Azeroth entirely as a virtual world. We’ve travelled on foot and by mount all over two continents, criss-crossing, exploring, generally eandering about.

    We’ve only been in a few dungeons, not done any as a group, and we’ve had a great time. We’ve got no particular interest in the Instance side of the game, far less raiding. There’s a perfectly good, and pretty coherent, virtual world there, well worth the monthly fee, and that’s just for Azeroth.

    We haven’t even bothered progressing much past 60. We both preferred to level up other characters through the excellent original content. The LFG changes won’t have any effect on the availability of the above-ground world for us, but it might possibly lead to us seeing a bit more of the dungeon content than we’d otherwise have bothered with.

  5. When I think back to all my favorite RPG’s of yesteryear, Legacy of the Ancients, Baldur’s Gate, Might and Magic 3, 4, 5 the #1 thing that brings a smile to my face is the world. Remembering the map and the zones I explored.

    This continued in MUDs and my first real MMO, Dark Age of Camelot.
    Exploring over the next hill in DAOC, or riding a horse out to Salisbury Plains and then avoiding monsters to get to the Stonehenge Barrows is something I’ll always fondly remember.

    Even in the beginning of World of Warcraft, remembering how I first crossed the river from Elywnn into Duskwood and being ripped apart by wolves, it made the whole world feel so important, so intriguing.

    Being “connected” to the world is something modern day MMO designers vastly underestimate the importance of.

    Can you have a blockbuster MMO without any real connection to the world? Sure. Several MMO’s like World of Warcraft prove that.

    But if you were to really release a fantasy MMORPG that gave the player a very strong connection to the world, making them really feel apart of it, I think you could have a huge hit.

    I continue to wait for that day :)

  6. Unfortunately, I agree with your observations here. I think the shrinking “world” you speak of relates heavily to the shrinking (or non-existent) RPG aspects of the MMO. I checked back in with WAR this month, having left originally because of the problems you state above.

    While they have gotten some things into shape and recent free trial accounts have caused a fun serge of activity in Tier One, many players left behind on the pretty much dead Open RvR and RP servers often try to encourage new players complaining of a dead world with no players to grind to 40 since that’s where the action is.

    That peculiar compartmentalized feeling is also what kept me away from DDO initially, though I haven’t played it in close to two years(?) at this point.

    That magic was there–or perhaps I was too dumb to know any better–when I first started playing WoW. My gnome rogue’s first trek into Westfall and how forboding I found those harvester scarecrow thingies, witnessing my first massive PvP battle in Southshore, my first time exploring the Eastern Plaguelands, etc. Within a year or so, it all seemed reduced to formulas, strat guides, and required raiding builds. Boring mathematical, grown-up stuff.

    That’s not why we, as adults, imagine. Give me the greasy kids’ stuff–the fear, the splendor, and the joy of discovering a new world. That’s what these darn games need a nice shot of.

  7. You can still explore if you want to. That’s about all I *do* in the game. Now, if they start excising pieces of the world and just tell you to go play in the dungeons (the “real game” according to some), then we have a problem. In the meantime, making travel and grouping easier just makes the game far less time consuming. That’s a Good Thing.

  8. This is why Fallen Earth feels so good – huge world and no real means of fast travel. Very immersive indeed as a result though I am sure there are other things that contribute.

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