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.
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.