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WoW – Unfulfilled Potential Part 3: A Living Breathing World

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This series of articles is my personal critique of World of Warcraft based on my experiences and observations of ingame issues. I firmly believe that the game could’ve improved in numerous fields with just a bit more thought put into the game design, and that it had numerous opportunities to do so throughout the years. The first page will commonly address and analyze the issues in the game (some which are well known to the playerbase, some which are usually overlooked), while the second page will hold an attempt to present a viable solution for those issues.

Before anything else, I would like to say that World of Warcraft has been one of the best games I have ever played, as no other game had me want to play for over 6 years. There was so much to do, to see, or to experience. Playing with thousands of others ensured I would meet different kinds of people and see something new every day. But good stuff never lasts, there’s really no denying that the game has become something less over the years. Blizzard has continuously worked, updated and adapted the game throughout its life cycle, making some decisions for the better and some for the worse. The game has become more complex, more rich in terms of quantity of the content and game mechanics, yet still on the far end of their design decisions there are those that simply sucked the charm right out of the game.

Part 1: Quest Design
Part 2: Character Progression
Part 3: A Living Breathing World
Part 4: Gameplay Difficulty
Part 5: Profession System
Part 6: Player Activities
Part 7: Dungeon Burnout

In this article I will cover the world itself, how it’s designed and why players time and again claim that they are bored or that the world ”is dead”, even though the zones have more content in them than ever before.

This place might be awesome, but it will be awesome only once. Once you’re done here, you won’t bother returning.

Intro – Blizzard stated on many occasions that they have a general goal to let all players experience 100% of the game’s content, so that the players always have the option to return to an area to see its story. Ironically, this has led the players to conclude that the content isn’t going anywhere so it doesn’t matter if they participate in the questing or not. They might as well skip it as once they get to higher levels, they can easily return and complete all of the zone quests in a few hours (or even minutes) to see the story and get back to their usual routine.  Since the content is completely static, the player sees what’s going on in the zone once and he then considers that zone ‘’done’’.

Removal of Content – While many good and creative features were added, Blizzard has removed several things that made the world not only persistent, but alive. The removal of most elite creatures and elite areas (micro dungeons) from open zones is usually what comes to mind first. In the name of accessibility and streamlining the questing experience, Blizzard has also removed most group quests, giving players no reason to play with one another and/or to meet new people and friends. When you add to this the abominable ”quest hub design”, the simplicity of quest structure (only one objective per quest), the shallow quest content (only one way to complete it), the linear story progression through a zone and the removal of most ”adventurous quests”, you will see why the game has become largely a single player experience.

Some zones have nasty wandering monsters, but these are few and far between. You won’t be running into this guy again though, he is now phased and only appears once you complete a certain quest.

Sense of Threat – With the removal of elite monsters and group quests, all sense of threat was gone from a certain zone. You were no longer playing in a rich and large world, full of dangers and secrets, and instead you got the whole game on a silver platter, which results in an experience that’s more alike to reading a book than playing a game.

In this same category falls the issue that all of the content is within the fixed level range of the zone. You won’t find a small chunk of level 60 area within a level 30 zone. Outlands had a few of those zones (Skettis in Terrokar Forest, Throne of Kil’jaedan in Hellfire Peninsula), but Icecrown had none and that trend continued into Cataclysm Azeroth.

Non-Quest Content – Aside from the fact that every single creature, area and zone are a part of some quest, the removal of goodie crates (chests, food crates, stashes) completely killed any motivation to explore on your own, regardless of how insignificant the items in those crates were.

What the game is lacking now are powerful individual creatures that pose a threat of some sorts which are not strictly tied to a quest, and independent secret stashes scattered throughout the game. If that could even potentially offer some notable reward for taking them down / finding them, that would certainly bring back the charm of the game. Luckily, Blizzard has announced that they are returning with the world bosses in Mists of Pandaria, but we have yet to see what the final version turns out like when the expansion is released.

During world events, the whole server came together.

World Events – One of the most remembered server wide event was the Opening of Ahn’Qiraj. Regardless of how refreshing it was at the time, it can’t be denied that it had its problems. Servers crashing and boats appearing in the middle of mountains were side effects of the large number of players that simply wanted to participate in the event, and it was mostly a hardware issue, but the event itself had a few bad design decision in its core.

First and foremost, it was somehow about ‘’that one guy’’ who became a legend, and although the title was the ultimate honor and the grand prize was obtaining the only Black Qiraji Battletank mount in the whole server, designing a world event in which only one player gets something out of it is kind of lackluster. Sure, the server was granted the entrance to the raids, but all servers were automatically opened a fairly short time after the first few completed server events.

Second, while it was pretty cool that absolutely everyone could participate in turning in all those materials and food, having to deposit thousands of every possible material was a bit much. When the players showed up to turn in their 60 iron bars they had just crafted, it was a ‘’drop in the ocean’’ kind of participation, or in other words – close to meaningless. But the event is still to this day the most memorable moment for all those early players, while new players never saw anything like it.

The Naxxramas Invasion event didn’t fare very well, but the Pre-Wrath of the Lich King ‘’Zombie event’’ was just awesome and fun, regardless of the fact that the players didn’t get any cool mounts or the like. Excluding the Classic WoW, to the disappointment of many players, Blizzard never again implemented any other worldwide event other than those just before the release of a new expansion.

It took 6 years, but the Redridge Bridge has finally been completed.

Time Factor - Putting aside the ‘’time played total’’ of a character, the time advances as a character gains levels, or so it should in theory. The events of lower level content play out before the events of higher level content, but regardless if the player finished the zone quests, all of that content will remain exactly the same forever. The Blood Elves in Ghostlands will still be fighting the same enemies, Sentinel Hill in Westfall will never complete its walls, the Cenarion Hold in Silithus is still fighting the Qiraji, and after you have defeated Deathwing the Alliance is still just encountering the Vrykul in Howling Fjord for the first time. The player has no reason to go back to any single zone once he has completed the quests, and this one-time playthrough design is one of the primary reasons why the world feels as if it is stuck in time.

With the instant teleportation features, most of the players spend time in the Auction Houses anyway, leaving the open world empty of player activity. No reason is given for asking friends to join the player for something, or even to leave the main cities himself once he has finished the zone storylines. When players were asking for ”more things to do” ingame, they didn’t ask for more zones that you play through once and never again. They wanted reasons to go out and play, not a daily quest hub which awards faction reputation for more gear, as once they get the gear, again, there is no reason to return there ever again.

Despite being a great example of phasing, The Siege of Undercity has been removed by the time Cataclysm was released.

Phasing – One of the most brilliant mechanics Blizzard has invented is certainly the phasing system, but it has either been overused (Icecrown Glacier), underused (Stranglethorn Vale, the reopening of Zul’Gurub has a one time phasing event when Grom’Gol is under siege, and then it reverts to its initial phase like nothing ever happened) or not used at all. One of the issues that creeped up was the segregation of players, which was most visible in Icecrown Glacier. In their attempt to prevent this forceful division of players, Blizzard has reduced the use of phasing to minimum, sticking mostly to only one phased area in a zone (Temple of the Earth in Deepholme).

I believe that phasing is one of those mechanics that could greatly improve the quality of content if it was applied over the whole zone in one clean sweep. Right now, the phasing system works by counting the variables of which quests the player has completed, or in other words, the phase shift happens once the player completes that one specific quest along the quest line. If the system counts a variable like that then the same could possibly work with an achievement. For example, once the player reaches level 50 (completes the ‘’Level 50’’ achievement), Westfall changes to a level 50 phase version of the zone, and when the player reaches level 70, Duskwood and Ashenvale shift to level 70. The problem with the current implementation of phasing was that the phases were too close to each other, and that has lead to the segregation of players, but in the above examples you have 30 levels of free space to interact with lower level players and content.

Blizzard has implemented another tiny, but still cool feature that has a lot of potential – the acquiring of quests without the quest giver. You might have noticed these in Cataclysm, when you picked up an item or just killed an Eel in Vashj’ir or a Gnoll in Hillsbrad. This feature can immediately replace the ”quest hub” design.  With the new phasing system, these two features could really bring back the dynamic of a living world.

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Greg is in fact a cute little fluffy kitten that likes cake, games... and undead. Thinks that Zombies are so 2008, and would like to see some skeletons and wraiths take the spotlight for a change, they need love too!