Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
WotLK Quests: Evolution and Limitation

My priest reached level 75 this weekend, mostly by questing. In Wrath of the Lich King there are achievements you get when you finish nearly all of the quests in a zone, and I got that achievement for both Howling Fjord and Grizzly Hills. Next step will be Zul'Darak. Thus with over 200 WotLK quests done, I can confidently say that Wrath of the Lich King improved and evolved quests beyond what the original WoW and The Burning Crusade offered. In this post I'd like to discuss the evolution of quests, and one major remaining limitation.

I'm enjoying questing in Wrath of the Lich King even more than in previous versions of World of Warcraft. While there are still plenty of "kill 10 foozles" quests, Blizzard made a huge effort to offer lots of other quest types too. It now pays to actually read the quest texts, because not only has the storytelling improved, but also quite often you need to follow more detailed instructions than just going somewhere and killing something. Another improvement to storytelling is that quest series now often can actually be done one quest after another, without a too steep increase in difficulty forcing you to stop and level up before you can do the end. The quests in one quest hub are also better related to each other, both from a point of weaving a coherent atmosphere, and from the practical point of several quests sending you in the same direction. There are still a lot of quests where you need to go back to the quest giver, only to be sent to the same quest location again for the next step, but the quest givers are usually relatively close in those cases.

Quests in WotLK have also evolved into being better integrated into reputation and crafting. Dungeons aren't related to a specific faction any more, so you don't grind reputation by doing a dungeon repeatedly any more. At level 80 you can gain reputation by dungeon runs, but the faction you are working for will be determined by the tabard you wear, not by which dungeon you visit. For factions that don't have a tabard, quests are the *only* way to increase faction. For tradeskills, specifically for cooking and jewelcrafting (not sure about the others), there are now daily quests which award tokens which you can spend on learning new recipes. Great idea! Much better than having to hope for a 1% drop chance from some boss mob in some dungeon.

So quests in WotLK are better than ever before, in variety, usefulness, and storytelling. But there are still serious limitations to the whole quest system, one of which becomes obvious if you follow the discussion about a "torture quest", which has been discussed on several MMORPG blogs. In that quest you are asked to torture someone, to extract vital information. And some people were shocked by the evilness of that. Now I can agree that this wasn't a clever move on Blizzard's part, as this could easily lead to negative publicity. But to me the quest is more an example of the limitations of the quest system than a moral problem: There are no meaningful moral decisions in World of Warcraft.

The thing is that there is only one possible solution for any given quest. I did a series of morally dubious quests killing trolls for their mojo to summon some troll spirit, who at the end was revealed to be a servant of the Lich King, having duped me into helping the enemy. But the only other option for me would have been not doing the quest series, which would have robbed me not only of the quest rewards, but also of the "do all quests in this zone" achievement. In most cases in WoW you don't have to make any ethical decision at all. And if you have to decide (Aldor vs. Scryer, or D.E.H.T.A. vs. Nesingwary), you probably make that decision on the basis of which side offers the better rewards for your class. Or worse, first work for one side until you have all the rewards, and then work for the other side. In the destiny quest series for starting Death Knights you are even *forced* to switch sides, first doing evil deeds before becoming a good guy.

And evil quests aren't anything new. The first day of playing an undead character you probably killed a bunch of pumpkin farmers. And even supposedly "good" Alliance characters spend a lot of time killing various forms of wildlife, or persecute other humanoids for no other reason than them being a different race. If you made a completely pacifist character, who only accepted quests that didn't involve killing, that plus all the exploration xp possible wouldn't net you more than a handful of levels, and leave you totally stuck long before you could reach the level cap. World of Warcraft is a game about killing, and mass murder isn't an inherently good activity.

In my personal point of view, being evil only matters if you actually had a choice. Many single-player games like KOTOR or Fable or Black & White offer you moral choices, and the chance to develop your character to a saint or ultimate corruption. And even there you can't jump to conclusions and say somebody who made his Fable character evil must be an evil person. Games and virtual worlds give us the chance to experiment with morals, something that isn't advisable in the real world. In real life I wouldn't even kill a rabbit or deer, but I have no problem whatsoever with WoW quests asking me to kill lots of virtual animals or even humans. I'd like to see a MMORPG that involves meaningful moral choices (SWTOR?), but the evil deeds of my WoW characters don't cause me sleepless nights. Real evil usually lies in the suffering of the victims, and virtual rabbits don't suffer.
If you made a completely pacifist character, who only accepted quests that didn't involve killing, that plus all the exploration xp possible wouldn't net you more than a handful of levels, and leave you totally stuck long before you could reach the level cap. World of Warcraft is a game about killing, and mass murder isn't an inherently good activity.
"Next step will be Zul'Darak."
You might regret not visiting Dragonblight as it is (imo) the best zone in all of Wrath. Quest completion is extremely fast and there are a wide variety of 'fresh' quests, often featuring the new vehicle-system. You get to drive steamtanks, fight while flying on dragons, rescue people from the back of a gryphon..
You're also missing an epic cutszene featuring a fight of some alliance heroes against Arthas.
The problem with many games that let you choose between good and evil is that they're bad at it. More often than not, Good = Dumb and Evil = Jerk. I've been trying to play a character in Fable 2 who takes Galadriel's "All shall love me and despair" as a personal philosophy, but I'm having little success. Even if you're being nice only to get people to follow you to the sacrificial chambers you still lean towards good in the morality-o-meter.

Well, he kind of cheats by doing battleground daily quests in which he earns xp and honor kills for other people killing each other.

You might regret not visiting Dragonblight

I fully plan to visit Borean Tundra and Dragonblight on my next character I level from 70 to 80. Big strength of WotLK that there appear to be two completely parallel and non-overlapping ways to do so.
Can I assume the torture quest is the one for Death Knights in the DK starter area? I see no reason for anyone to complain about this. For three levels you are evil, in humanoid form. Controlled by the utterly evil Lich King. You even kill your brother!

But on to achievements - my priest is also 75 and you know, I have the achievements for Tundra and Fjord - yep, havent set one foot outside of these (except for instances) - 75, juts by doing every quest in both areas. Purely for the achievement :)

I loves me some achievements, I do. Right, today, Dragonblight.
There's two other torture quests in Northrend. The one in Borean Tundra involves capturing and torturing a member of the Blue Dragonflight to gain intel on Malygos' plans. It's not required to access Coldarra, though. There's also an another quest in the Dragonblight when you torture a Scarlet torturer to gain information on their plans. At least he can fight back.
Ah yes Ok I see.... I remember the one in Amber Ledge now. Its the 24 factor isnt it - it's bad when bad guys torture, but it's ok when Jack Bauer does it :)
I would like to see character development options based on some kind of alignment rating, it wouldn't necessarily need to be anything more complicated than degrees of good and evil. It could affect what quests you were offered, how NPCs react to you and rewards and options available to you.

Without this type of differentiator it makes the morality of quests irrelevant, pick flowers? kill gnomes? whatever... it's all the same xp to me.

The final quest in the Death Knight starter zone was a bitter disappointment, not just for me, but by the reaction of the other 20-odd DKs doing the quest with me, for everyone. One minute you are working for Arthas, performing evil, nasty, deeds for the Lich King himself, it rocks!!! Then some wussy Paladin comes along and says hey guys that Arthas is a bad, bad man and in reponse a big party of DKs all go, oh, Mr wussy Paladin, you are so right, can we join the Alliance, please?

WTF? I want to keep killing gnomes, I want to keep hob knobbing with Arthas! BAH!
first thing, don't skip dragonblight and go straight to zul'drak! i totally agree that WotLK quests are vastly improved but, for me, the best examples of this are seen in dragonblight. i really urge you to do ALL the quests in dragonblight, you will be rewarded with cut scenes and VERY cool phased quests (i won't spoil them).

back to the point though, regarding being duped into helping the lich king, that's part of the story you're being told and it's important that we should, at some point, have a personal reason for being annoyed with the lich king. the fact that we're even discussing something like this in an mmo is pretty groundbreaking, it's a step up in story telling and i think/hope, too early to be talking limitations.
You should look forward to going to Storm Peaks, one of the quest lines there includes what's probably the most epic quest ever in WoW. (No I won't tell you what it's about, I don't want to spoil your fun.) I agree that quests in WotLK are much more varied, I didn't suffer the "quest burnout" I did at level 67 when TBC hit. There is one place where I had to go a lot back and forth though in Grizzly Hills, two quest chains in the same area with a LOT of going back and forth. That can be attributed to bad planning though as the two chains were probably meant to be done in parallell. It was still a lot of going back and forth though.

As for the torture quests I found it a great way to reason about why I did this. I play a hunter as my main, and excusing torture is easy as that class, as we aren't really that attached to other people's emotions, for both good and bad. At least that's how I've understood the class. And yeah, as with anything else in games, people who complain about the morality of certain actions in games probably have a bigger problem differentiating between the game world and the real world than most gamers.
My character is a sociopath: She'll torture for free and considers any reward to be a bonus. However, figuring out excuses is somewhat missing the point, because the game accepts only one answer. WoW is not by any means the first MMO or RPG to suffer from the But Thou Must trope. It's just the biggest target out there.
Tobold, if you take no other advice of any of your readers ever, go do dragonblight !!! Some of the quests are awesome, and one in, it just blew me away !!!!

Do it now before you end up seeing the spoilers (you may have avoided them so far, but someone like you who reads a lot of blogs etc, sooner or later you'll end up seeing spoilers)
My dislike of the torture quest on Amber Ledge is because
(a) You are given no alternative solution by the quest giver - the Mage must be tortured by inflicting 'incredible pain' over and over until he spills the beans.
(b) You are requested to take part in this torture by someone (ok an NPC, but) you have never seen before, who takes the moral high ground by saying its against his ethical code blah blah, but it's ok if you do it. Right, that shifts the blame from him firmly to you.

Wouldn't it have been easier if the prisoner had been threatened with being eaten by the big Dragon, and he just coughed up the information to save his life?

No need for any torture scene.
You make a good point on the limitations of quests, specifically that our only choices are to accept or decline the quest. I should admit that I have declined quests in the past that I disliked for one reason or another. I have yet to do that in Northrend, even for the torture quest.

Perhaps Blizzard could implement a system of quest execution similar at least to Fable, where you are often given a quest and a counter-quest, each of which offers a clear alignment choice. At most, they could implement a system akin to Mass Effect, wherein there is one quest, but several possible outcomes that would "complete" the quest. This affords not only replayability, but also the possibility to tack on a sort goodness scale that seems to be very popular in roleplaying games these days.

Then again, I understand the complexity of both systems would be a colossal undertaking and would be entirely impossible for existing content.
Hey, I get queasy stealing wolvar pups from their families. What's up with that? And we even get to do it every day??
The torture scene to me seemed like 24-style pro-torture propaganda - "yeah, see, torture doesn't cause any long-term effects, and gets you useful information. It's a bit distasteful, but..." I dislike a game like WoW peddling such blatant lies, even under the guise of "fantasy".

Question, Tobold - how would you feel about a quest which required you to sexually assault, perhaps rape, an NPC? It seems like that would be on the same lines as the Borean Tundra quest.

"Now I can agree that this wasn't a clever move on Blizzard's part, as this could easily lead to negative publicity."

Absolutely right - the headlines kinda write themselves. "In 'World of Warcraft', torture is all part of the game". "Computer game 'World of Warcraft' encourages children to torture". Etc.
I also aggre with the above posters...GO TO DRAGONBLIGHT! The most epic quest chain ever is out there, and I almost missed it. I won't spoil it, but it is very similar to the DK starting quest chain. Other then that quest chain dragonblight has some other cool quests and to be honest I went from 74-76 in dragonblight with out actually feeling like I was in the same zone. It went by very quick.
I have to wonder what all the fuss is about concerning the torture quest(s) in the expansion. Blizzard took great liberties with some of the objectives for a lot of the new quests. People must love to pick through wolf poop to find microfilm, because I dont hear anyone complaining about that kind of quest. Political correctness needs to die a sudden and horrid death, else our -games- are going to become very dull and boring as a result.

People seem to be indicating that video games can have some kind of a lasting impression and influence people's real life behaviors or something. People who make such claims need to have a sober moment of contemplation and realize the slippery slope they are treading upon when they make such observations, because if one behavior in a game is seen as inappropriate, then where do you draw on down the road?

I have people in my guild who openly objected to the PETA references in the Borean Tundra quests and complained that Blizzard was making them "bunny huggers" in the process. I couldnt help but laugh out loud and throw the bullshit flag and remind these idiots that they're just playing a -game-.
Good vs evil is something for another game. Maybe no game. It's a tough concept to work in to almost anything. I kind of see it as all these poker sites that use play money. There are no real repercussions so it changes the game. Hell no I wouldnt be going all-in on a pair of treys if I really stood to lose 10,000. But that sort of thing happens all the time in online play poker. Same with a game that has morality decisions. No real repercussions. It's a game. Don't make WoW something its not.
I'd rather them not adress the good vs evil/morality at all than do it poorly, which is what's bound to happen.
If you want to deal with morality and make choices that really matter there is this something that really matters like life.
Yeah i remember those pumpkin farmers Tobold:) Also, as an undead you get to do a few apothecary missions at the start of the game where you need to poison some dwarfs with your brew (iirc this is in the first village after the starting zone). Fact is, in a lot of games you will need to wholesale slaugther all things living in order to advance, nothing new here. And there will always be people who will blame videogames or movies basically for all that is wrong in our world and connect the violent on-screen happenings with real life crime. These are the people who believed that criminals were driven by movies (the video nasties, movies which by current standards are considered tame and fit for TV) or music (now if you play this record backwards at double speed on a full moon night you will hear a satanic message!).
Tobold is really right--- the entire game is based on murder and robbery. You break into some dudes house, kill him, and take his stuff. That is every dungeon and raid in the game. That is how you make money and get loot. Everyone in WoW is a blackguard and by any standard of morality is horribly evil.

Being anti-torture is one thing, but if the quest said: Kill the Mage and search the body for evidence, nobody would even think twice. Worrying about in game torture without worrying about the vast number of murders that any given player has committed is ridiculous. Why does one have moral content and the other doesn't?

Which is why I don' worry about in game morality at all; I'll torture people, kill them, run them over, send them to invade another planet, and slaughter whole towns without a second thought. There is no real moral quality to it; you're really just changing a spreadsheet when it gets down to it.
I have done the DK and Borean Tundra torture quest I am forever damned an will now decitate my life to serving my new lord and master(satan), by sacraficing foozles every full moon.
Yeah I love how that torture quest in Borean Tundra gets lots of people's pants in a twist, but then they appear to be oblivious of almost every other quest in the game because a majority of the actions in the game are morally questionable. There are quests far worse than that one, even in the next zone Dragonblight.

Some quests that jump to mind right away are:

-Killing mothers in front of their children and then stealing the children

-Using a torture/mind control device to have people denounce their leader/faith/faction as you kill them

-Essentially causing someone to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff out of fear of you

People just need to do a reality check and realize that it is just fantasy that you get to experience interactively. The quests are just small parts of stories that you unlock progessively to get the full story and are rewarded for doing so. I mean do the people who object to these quests completely avoid all media where something morally questionable takes place? I mean there is a full fledged war going on in Northrend and people expect everything to be butterflies, bunny rabbits, and rainbows? I commend Blizzard for adding quests like those to the game because it helps increase your immersion if you care about that, and if not at least it seems more "real" and intersting/believeable story wise. They are held to such a rediculous double standard where if they have just lots of standard quests people will complain that they half assed the lore/story (TBC) but if they get really creative and try to add lots of emotionally charged "gritty" lore content people will scold them for somehow sending bad moral messages.
Chris Metzen one year ago : “We want to add some layers of psychology that put you in strange moral situations of how you fight the good fight that mimic some of Arthas’ own experiences…. By the time you reach level 80 [the expansion's new level cap], by the time you stand toe-to-toe with this bastard, do you still have your pretty principles and highfalutin morality, or is it a mirror reflection? Arthas is after that as much as global domination. It’s a hook that makes it personal that Burning Crusade didn’t have.”

So it's pretty clear to me that it's intended for the quests to be morally ambiguous, to have the players question themselves whether their actions are right or wrong. And I would add, WoW does it better than the other RPGs that attempt to paintbrush moral consequences - in those games you are either "goody two shoes" or "evil bastard", with no subtleties or middle ground. WoW does it much better, imo - you do evil actions and you get away with it, you even get rewarded ...for now. I'm willing to bet that when you get to fight Arthas, he will remind you about all these quests you've done, and challenge whatever moral superiority claims you might have.
Save the baby mammoths!!
There are so many quests in WoW. I'd personally rather see fewer quests, and have large more interactive quests that reward more exp. Take for example the veterans of the wrathgate quest line(dragonblight). This was amazing. I'm not going to ruin it though...I will say tt took me about 2 hours to finish(I'm slow) and I enjoyed every part of it. The last part of the quest gives you two blue items and 40k exp...not counting any of the exp you got from the other parts of the quest. It was great. I'd much rather run something like this 10 times then collect poop quests 100 times.

As far as morals go, this game has none. Even if you are a crazy RP fan you can't really justify your characters action through out leveling up. Whining about not wants to do the "wrong" thing in WoW is just sillay!
I think one reason you can't really have a "moral" choice is due in part to how that choice would play out. You would need multiple branching quest chains much like Fallout or Fable. How would the whole story of your involvement with Arthas finish out? Would the stories in WoW need to have multiple endings? Creating all that content would be pretty daunting and would really limit the overall story telling.

Even in games with supposed "moral" choices it is very obvious what the "right" thing is and what the "wrong" thing is.

I think for a game like this it is overall better to be able to tell an exciting story with multiple arcs and have the ability to have my character play a part in them. The betrayal of the troll in the final part of that quest chain was fairly obvious about a 1/3 of the way in but the way it played out was really fun and allows the character to see just what the Lich King is capable of.

After all you are A hero in the story not THE hero.
#1 - Westfall Stew: You kill a bunch of Murlocs, sentient humanoids, just for their eyes, just to make some stew. What if the quest asked you to collect 10 rabbit livers to make a stew? Same concept. You're killing an animal for food, but you're only taking one tiny portion of it and leaving the rest to rot. In fact the Goretusk Liver Pie asks you to do just that; Kill wild boars for just their liver. And this is okay?

#2 - Young Lovers: You need Crystal Kelp to make an Invisibility potion so two lovers can defy their parents and get together. To get the Kelp you need to slaughter Murlocs. You can try to justify it by telling yourself the Murlocs are too close to Goldshire, but there's no record of Murlocs attacking the town.
Marshall Dughan himself tells you, "...all reports of Murlocs to the east have been sketchy at best..."
So it's okay to kill sentient humanoids just so two kids can be together?

#3 (to infinity) - Nesingwary's quests: You conduct wholesale slaughter of many varieties of local wildlife for no reason other than becoming a Great Hunter! The animals are not threatening anyone, you're not feeding or clothing the local villagers; you're just decimating the local wildlife because someone sneers at you.

But torture one person and suddenly it's a huge moral dilemma?

Compared to what your toon has been doing for the last 70+ levels the torture of one person is nothing.

I'd say you're trying to make a mountain out of a mole hill but your toon's past is already a mountain, and by comparison, this one act is not even a mole hill.
It turned out that going directly from Grizzly Hills to Zul'Darak was exactly the right choice, because it enabled me to continue the betrayal story-line, leading to the Guru of Drakuru achievement. I'm sure Dragonblight has another interesting story-line as well, but the Guru of Drakuru story is already absolutely awesome, and you shouldn't miss it. You even get the Lich King personally to see some potential in you! :)
Considering all the animals my character has killed in his career (including Nesingwary quests),I felt rather hypocritical killing poachers for the D.E.H.T.A....
Tobold, no one will miss that storyline. Everyone gets funneled through the exact same stuff. (Enough that I wonder about the replayability, since questing is by far the most efficient way to level and having to do all the same quests all over again on each alt isn't all that thrilling.) You'll probably have to go back to Dragonblight to sort out reputation later also.
note: and you will want wyrmrest accord rep (you need to do the dragonblight quests to start with that) because they provide the healing head enchant.
You could argue that having the quests with no alternative is completely fine since being good isn't supposed to be something that is easy, you have to make a choice not to do evil even if it is not good for your immediate self. Compare this to real life where stealing from a shop (assuming you don't get caught) definitely leaves you better off than paying for what you want.

Of course, games that more successfully create moral choices don't do it like that because for most gamers the choices aren't real and they'll happily take the rewards instead of feeling good about their game character's self. If you want to have players making choices both routes must be equally rewarding in the long run, but can still lead to different things for the character's future.

But apparently Blizzard never really was doing this because they want players to make moral choices, they know most of them won't do their choosing at a level higher than what nets them the best gear, the most xp. Instead, they chose to first fool them into doing all this and school them afterwards.:P
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