Friday, October 12, 2007
Overcoming player separation
The discussion of the World of Warcraft patch 2.3 faster leveling modifications continues, with some interesting input from GSH over at Blessing of Kings, who asks whether Time to Max Level should depend on the value of the max level. We didn't get anywhere near a consensus, because some people (including me) still believe that leveling up is the game in a MMORPG, while others believe that leveling up is the obstacle before the game, which only begins at the level cap. So while I compared a WoW expansion to another book in the Harry Potter series, prolonging the entertainment, others said this wasn't a valid comparison, because your friends still talk to you when you haven't read all 7 Harry Potter books, but they don't talk to you if you haven't reached the level cap in WoW.
Of course I have to remark that this is a great bunch of friends you must be having if they judge you on your level and gear in WoW. But snide remarks apart, I can see the problem. You see, the "World" of Warcraft isn't a world, it is a linear series of places with certain levels. For example if you are not between level 42 and 50 (or looking for resource nodes of that level), there is no reason why you should hang out in the Hinterlands. If you are lower than that level range, every wandering mob there kills you. If you are higher than that range, you don't get any xp any more and the loot you can get isn't interesting either.
But it isn't only that the level range is fixed, it is also that the content is static. If you did the quests of the Hinterlands with one character, and thus explored the zone a bit, you know where everything is. And if a year later you make an alt, get to level 42 and head to the Hinterlands, everything will still be at exactly the same place. The quests will still be the same. You can free Rin'ji again from his cage in the Quel'Danil Lodge, and five minutes later he will be back in that cage and wait patiently for the next rescuer. It *is* boring to do the same zone twice, so I can see how people would cheer when Blizzard enables them to rush through that content faster.
Adding more level 40-50 zones isn't a miracle cure for that problem either. Server demographics make it that there are less and less people of any level range below the cap around, and the more zones there are, the more diluted this already small population becomes. Besides making leveling faster, patch 2.3 also turns most elite quests and mobs into non-elite, for the simple reason that people below level cap nowadays are highly unlikely to be able to find a group to do an elite quest. The addition of content to Dustwallow Marsh in patch 2.3 fixes a bottleneck in the linear progression from zone to zone. But that is probably going to be it, we can't count on Blizzard adding any more content to the old world in the foreseeable future. They understandably don't want the 10 people of any one level online to hang out lonely in 10 different zones.
One of my readers added a long comment to the previous discussion of patch 2.3, in which he describes the situation in Final Fantasy XI. In some respects the situation there is even worse now, because you actually *need* a group to level up, you just can't gather xp solo. So with the same sort of server demographic "aging", new players or alts simply get stuck with no way to advance in FFXI. They'd probably much prefer being able to solo and at increased speed to catch up to the level where everyone else is. And this is something that seems to happen in all games that have this "zone of level X" sort of gameplay. I remember once partaking in a "rediscover EQ1 for a free trial", and found all of the zones where I used to hang out now totally empty. There were very few players of low and mid levels around, and those that were on were in the zones added in the latest expansion, not the classic zones.
And in the long run this has a negative effect on the longevity of the MMORPGs which work like that. There are always players leaving for one reason or another. The only way to keep up your subscription numbers is to attract new players. But the new player to World of Warcraft today has a much inferior experience of the game than a new player had in 2004 / 2005, because the world at low levels is empty now. Grouping and other interaction with other players is a major selling point of a MMORPG. Telling people they have to solo for x hundreds of hours until they reach the point where they can finally group isn't going to sell as well.
And the crazy thing is that it doesn't have to be that way. There *are* enough players of any level around at any given time to be able to play together. They are just separated by artificial barriers: Americans can't play with Europeans or Asians. Players from different servers can't play together because you can't hop from one server to another easily. Horde players can't play with Alliance players, even if they are both on the same neutral quest. And even players of the same faction and server can't easily find each other, because the looking-for-group system isn't working well enough.
All this makes me wonder how the situation would be if the server architecture would be different. Games like EVE or Guild Wars don't have a server selection screen at the start. City of Heroes / Villains produces copies of every zone depending on how many players are in that zone. Instead of 300 WoW servers having 300 Hinterlands, we could have a game in which the devs determine a good number of player density for every zone, and if for example they think that the Hinterlands should have around 100 players, and there are 3,756 players world-wide online in the Hinterlands, there would be 38 copies of that zone, all with a near-perfect player density. A new player logging into a 3-year old game would find it as easy to get into a group as a the players who were there since release. There wouldn't be a need to rush through content just to arrive to where everybody else is. Add some better tools to find friends and strangers to group with, and the game could be a social one even at lower levels, with nobody being forced to solo. I'm aware it isn't technically trivial to do for very large games, but I'd think that since the time of the original Everquest the technology has advanced. Why are we still separated by artificial borders and prevented from playing with each other?