Tobold's Blog
Monday, February 23, 2009
Failure to challenge

There has been a lot of discussion since Wrath of the Lich King came out whether World of Warcraft has become too easy, or whether making it easier and thus more accessible is a good thing. But these discussions have been mainly concentrated on the endgame, in particular the raiding endgame. The reason for that is that challenge and difficulty are better defined at the level cap. As by definition your character doesn't get any stronger any more through the gain of levels once he is at the level cap, the only variation of power is through gear. With some reasonable assumptions of what the character might have done just before reaching level 80, and what gear he might have acquired, we end up with a pretty good idea of what stats a freshly minted level 80 character has. And then the discussion of how challenging it is to do the very first raid dungeon with that sort of stats, or inversely, how much more gear somebody should be required to gather before entering the first raid dungeon can begin.

But patch 3.0 and Wrath of the Lich King not only changed the difficulty of the endgame. They made characters stronger over the whole level range. And, specifically for lower level characters, they introduced a whole new way of twinking (using your high level character to procure gear for your low level characters) in the form of heirloom items. Also the amount of experience points needed to level up has undergone several changes since WoW 1.0, so leveling up is now faster than it ever was.

Now normally the question of how difficult or challenging the lower level game is shouldn't pose itself, because the player has better options to choose what level of difficulty he wants to tackle. If the content at his level is too easy, he can simply fight monsters of higher levels, until he finds something challenging enough. Or can he?

It turns out, as so often, that players are not interested in a challenge per se, they are interested in bigger challenges that give bigger rewards. That is not only true of people who dismiss endgame heroic raid achievements are gimmicks, and aren't willing to fight with one hand tied behind their back for higher challenge, because there is no real reward for it. The same principle applies to lower levels. And it turns out that in World of Warcraft, fighting higher level monsters isn't really well rewarded.

The most extreme example of that is very visible to me with my level 70 mage. I have been visiting Dragonblight with that character, because the location to make Ebonweave has been moved there. I know by experience that I am able to kill the monsters in that zone with the spells and gear I have. But doing so would net me *less* experience points per hour than staying in Howling Fjord or Borean Tundra. Not only does killing a higher level mob give only a fraction more experience points per kill than killing a lower level mob. But more importantly at level 70 you don't get any quests in Dragonblight, they all have a minimum level requirement of level 71, despite being level 72 quests. As quest xp easily make half of the total xp you gain by playing, doing lower level quests in Howling Fjord / Borean Tundra gives more xp than just farming higher level monsters in Dragonblight. Thus I'm actively discouraged of seeking out the highest possible challenge I could handle, because I'm much better rewarded if I just stick to the easy stuff.

Besides my level 70 mage, I'm also leveling up a druid from scratch, now level 18. There is a certain fun to be had from the process of twinking. I just got my second heirloom item for the druid, going for the Dignified Headmaster's Charge staff after previously having bought the shoulders. As my raiding priest doesn't have anything he could spent emblems of heroism for (for himself), I'll probably buy the heirloom trinket next, once I got the emblems together. In addition to the excellent bind to account stuff, the druid is equipped with the best armor money can buy at that level. And my various crafters provide him with all the consumables (potions, food buffs, even scrolls) he could need. All that makes the druid significantly stronger than the last druid I played on the US servers in 2004, when WoW wasn't out in Europe yet (I switched to European servers when it came out there in 2005).

While being twinked and overpowered can be fun, I do have trouble finding content that is challenging enough. There is less of a problem with minimum levels of quests being too high. But the whole "flow" of quests guiding you through the various zones has been designed for characters who are weaker and level less fast. Previously by the time you were finished with a zone, you got a quest leading you elsewhere. Now you need to skip a lot of quests, otherwise you get stuck in far too easy green quests.

Of course when WoW came out, and everyone was low level, the real challenge was doing dungeons. Well, the dungeons are still there, but it is nearly impossible to gather a group for which the dungeon is a challenge. There simply aren't all that many low level characters around on the old servers. And those low-levels that are around often prefer to be "boosted" by some high-level character, be it a friend or by dual-boxing. And even those boosts are somewhat a waste of time: With the heirloom and bought items you already have, and given the speed at which you already level, spending time in a dungeon for better gear really isn't necessary.

So leveling my alts isn't as much fun as it could be, because it isn't as easy to find a challenge, except randomly charging into higher level monsters without having even a quest for them. As a twink it is hard to find a meaningful challenge giving a meaningful reward. While in a single-player game you might want to play at a lower difficulty setting the first time you play it, and then crank it up for the repeats, World of Warcraft doesn't have a simple switch to make the game more difficult. Due to changes in the game the alts now have it already much easier than the original characters we played when the game came out. And unless you have an iron will and force yourself not to twink your alts at all, the whole alt experience risks becoming so trivially easy that it isn't much fun any more. Especially if you are going through zones and quests you already know. No wonder so many people prefer to skip the first 54 levels and start with a hero class death knight right away.

I'm starting to wonder whether instead of making the low-level content so trivial, Blizzard shouldn't provide a different way to make alts. Either by simply giving other classes the same option as death knights, to start directly at level 55. Or by some way that requires some action from the higher level character, for example the ability to "buy" levels for alts up to a max of 70 using emblems of heroism or another currency. Hey, what about all those achievement points we collect on our high level characters, how about you let us buy levels for alts with those?
If they did that, you'd be stuck with two completely empty continents no ? Don't get me wrong they already are empty for the most part (although I've levelled my druid alt 6 months ago and I seemed to encounter still quite a bit of people).
Tricky one this. On one hand, the levelling of a new character is very different to the old days. You will frequently find yourself the only player in a zone and dungeons are a waste of time in terms of XP/hour unless you had a decent amount of quests to do in them. So i could totally see a good reason to allow all classes to start at a much higher level (even 70) to make this more of an attractive option.

But then as Mahonnant states, these low level zones would become completely unused, especially if they made this option open to even new players.

If it became too easy to reroll, then I could also see everyone flocking to flavour of the month classes too. We would have a plague of Hunters, Paladins to join all those Death Knights!
I think part of the problem with WoW gamers is that they feel the game needs to provide them with methods to challenge themselves. They don't need to be creative in their gaming. I don't know if this is because they are younger players or merely because they only want the rewards. You can always invent your own challenges and try to meet them, you don't need an in-game counter to do it.
The funny thing is, that levelling up, the boring part for veterans, is actually the best part of WoW. The endgame is still not rewarding. It is flawed by design. EverQuest/EverRaid - getting to the "end" is the most horrible thing that can actually happen to such a game.

Let's hope for future MMO designs. Blizzard is working on it. With old Tigole, now I wonder if this game will feature raid content as the ultimate form of "endgame content"...

I see it coming that you can select at which level you will start, or start at least at 55, once you levelled a char to 80 in future. Probably sold as some kind of micro transaction and easy cash for Blizzard.
Here is the biggest problem I have with all alts starting at 55:

What happens to the new player and his experience? Who will he meet in STV to work on the last of the Nessingwary quests? Or do SM with? How will they not end up playing a single player game and quitting long before hitting the promised land of 55-58?

As to the twinks, I consistently find the Kurzen/jungle fighter (the Heart of Darkness quests) area a very tough set of quests--at least the first couple--because the mobs are social, runners, closely packed and about 1/2 healers. My ret pally twink, Bloodied Arcanite Reaper, Reinforced Stockade Shoulderpads and more or less a full set of Green Iron Mail, at 32 was take 3-4 at once and chain fighting up to 6. Talk about ridiculously powerful.
It just doesn't take that long to get up in levels anymore, that old world content is trivialized. I see plenty of new players, in the 70-80s range. Not knowing anything about the game. There's more than can be explained away with little brothers/sisters playing on an account.

I find myself leveling a paladin alt, because A) I love paladin gameplay, that's also been boosted by recent changes, and B) Heirloom items.

If I were starting this game fresh, I'd be lost if I didn't have a friend guiding me, but in this sense, I wish I could bring more RL friends into the game, and instead of leveling a 5th alt, to just be able to use my main but at a reduced level. To make that work, though, I'd almost think that they'd have to give us Heirloom Spells. Spells that scale with level, then allow us to scale down as well.
I think it's so difficult for lower level players because the majority of the population is exactly the opposite as them. Even individuals starting out for the first time in WoW have very few ways to find groups or level in a party, unless they specificially start out with friends. When you spend a few months getting to level 80 (whether solo or in groups) you find it difficult to start anew and level another character in exactly the same way. As a result, there is constant stream of powerleveling and multiboxing going on in order to get alternate characters to the same area as the rest of the server's population, in this case level 70-80. As the level cap gets higher and higher, less and less people will want to make alts, and new players all together may be easily frustrated by the lack of interaction and their lower levels and simply give up.
Blizzard has a couple of options open to them if they'd just for one moment stop obsessing about the end-game. For one, they could enable the mentoring system like several other MMOs have. Two characters can group together no matter what their levels and their stats will be adjusted up or down depending on what they wish. The low level won't get any MORE XP than they'd get at their normal level, and they don't have access to all the skills they'd normally have at that level. A higher level doesn't gain XP but instead gets gold.

This allows folks to actually spend more time just playing the game together for fun instead of mindlessly blasting through the levels so they can have fun with their high level buddies. (Need to get max level, then I'll have fun. Need to get heroic epics, then I'll have fun. Ok, need to get tier gear, then I'll have fun. Need to get a tundra trader's mammoth, then the game will become fun... etc)

Think how awesome this game would be if everyone stopped obsessing about the end-game and just played the whole game for the fun of it where they were?

I recently got two friends (a couple I know IRL) into the game. We started a warrior, priest and mage from scratch and kept them together. We play through dungeons with 3 players (it's that easy now). It provides more of a challenge and we don't have to scrounge around for 2 more players every time we want to run an instance. We use propper group tactics, crowd control where necessary and main assist. (I hear it's quite viable to 3man stuff L70 and up as well if you practice and work well together).

Personally I think the current set of designers have screwed this game so badly for balance and design that it's barely salvageable. They've turned their player base into a bunch of whiny, free-loading incompetents who just want hand-outs from the game and obsess about 'MOAR DPS' and 'MOAR LEWT!'. Majority have completely forgotten to actually have fun along the way and the current design focus is just making that even worse.
I'd be fine with them allowing you to start chars at max level. Guild Wars does this and it works. If people feel they have been there and done that and seen it all let them play at the end right away with any class they want. They will still have to play it awhile to get used to its skills but then they can figure out which class they truly enjoy in the end game instead of having the rug pulled out under their feet by the Devs whenever they change things. They could have a stable of all char type and be what they want, when they want. In such a PVE oriented game as WoW I see no problem with this.
... for example the ability to "buy" levels for alts up to a max of 70 using emblems of heroism or another currency.

That other currency should just be dollars (or euros, or sterling, or whatever), and it shouldn't just be for alts.

Why? Because I know people with multiple 60s/70s who gave away (yes, and sold) their accounts when they quit. When the expansions came out, they were interested in playing around with the new content, but really couldn't be bothered to level up again. So they didn't. Sure, you can level 1-60/70/80 fast, but it's just not fun. So rather than waste a week of evenings doing non-fun stuff, they forgot all about it and went down the pub instead.

I don't have figures on this, but WoW just feels stagnant, and new players seem outnumbered by returning players. Blizzard should stop worrying about easing new players into the game slowly (because: 1. are there really truly new players any more? and 2. are the new players even going to stick around when even the Barrens are ... well ... barren?) and start thinking about how to keep people returning players happy and interested in new and upcoming expansions.
The big problem I, and I suspect Blizzard, have with allowing players with high level characters to create a brand new level 55 (say) character is that this would effectively kill the population of characters below that level. Most low-level characters around are alts of people with high level characters. My own rough survey says only about 5-10% are brand new players. If the alts are taken out of that population, and you have to figure that most of them would leave, then the remaining new players won't form a large enough group to be able to complete the old-world instances - thereby missing most of the fun and the XP and the equipment they need.

Rob, above, suggests that Blizzard stop worrying about attracting new players into the game. At this point in time I don't believe that Blizzard is ready to give up that revenue stream. Perhaps when the new MMO comes out.
In theory they could have everyone start at a high level, or move all content back down to lower levels (or using some other way of compressing the level range), although this would take a lot of game changes to do effectively. (there were some posts awhile ago talking about ways to do this.)

It does seem strange that lower level instances haven't been given a boost.
I experienced the same with levelling my Druid (Main, highest level of my chars) in Outland: once I finished Hellfire Peninsula and Zangarmarsh, I was already 70 and could have easily move to Northrend already. Did Nagrand only because its incredibly nice looks and missed Blade's edge and Netherstorm entirely (took only a short visit, just out of curiosity). That's a shame actually, Blizzard wasting its own pretty content.
Of course I am somewhat different from the (perhaps) majority whose only goal is to reach level cap ASAP. I like the levelling much more than end-game. But I am much weirder even, as I play on a RP server :)
Back in vanilla, we were "all" leveling up slowly. Enyoing the content and most people probably played WoW longer than most single player game the played before. The biggest amount of WoW players did not play any MMORPG before.

The huge success of WoW did not come from the 2% which raided MC the first year. It came from the 98% who leveled slowly, who did not have a level 60 character after a year, who enjoed the daily 10 man raids to strat or 15 man raids to UBRS.

WoW could keep its players because of the beautiful and very nice made content in Azeroth.

TBC killed the outside content. In TBC, only boring heroics and raids were left. The instances were fun to play but boring designed compared to LBRS or BRD or Dire Maul. Although many things were an improvement. Anyone ever completed all LBRS quests? The best part of WORLD of Warcraft, the WORLD, is dead since TBC. WoW is now basically Guild Wars. You're either in a city or in an instanced area.

Then, WotLK killed 5 man instances. The loot from emblem of heroism sucks and there is no reason to farm 5 mans, you get better gear from easier raids. But raids do have 1 week lockout. Early in WoW, you could run 4 UBRS raids in a row.

All that is left are raids. Raids didn't do anything to for the success of WoW. WoW was successful even before people started raiding.

Why do new players stay? And do they? The get a terrible bad game for the first days. Abandoned Azeroth with the XP boost is about the worst thing I could imagine for a new player. You are alone and miss all the well done quest chains. You are left with the "bring 10 fozzles" quests.

Then, the get the well done Northrend and after a few weeks they are 80. What does keep them in WoW? They don't have memories of the stupid things we did back then like farming Timbermaw reputation.

Why does WoW still grow? Or, in 6 months, will there be only the player left who play WoW since vanilla and the new ones quit and wait for the next add-on?
Reading back, I explained my thoughts poorly. It's not that I think Blizzard should stop worrying about attracting new players to the game -- there's still a revenue stream there -- but that they (and players) should drop the attitude that "but you *need* the first 60 levels to learn how to play". Partly because this is patently untrue (the game really isn't that hard to learn; the challenge of levelling so non-existent anyway that even the most hopeless player can get max level easily; and it doesn't even touch on the only important skill -- grouping), and partly because the first 60 levels will either put off new players (hello? is there anyone out there?) or only serve to teach them that WoW really is a solo game.

The lower-level content was great (astounding) for its time, but that time has passed, and it is now just an obstacle to the game's continuing development. Remember it how it was, not the shadow its former self that it has become.

TL;DR version:

If they did that, you'd be stuck with two completely empty continents no ?

You say this like it's a bad thing.
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