Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 19, 2010
Story speed vs. speed of advancement

On holiday without a PC, I'm playing Disgaea on the PSP instead. Disgaea has a story that you access by doing a linear series of battles. But there is a twist: Your characters advance in power slower than the difficulty level of the set story battles goes up. In consequence you are forced to side-track, and either repeat old battle maps or play on the random battle maps of the "item world", which has the added advantage to "level up" your gear. That can be fun if you are mostly interested in character advancement, but might feel a bit grindy if you are mostly interested in following the story. In any case the game got me to think how other role-playing games manage the story speed versus the speed of advancement.

In early World of Warcraft there were some quest series which had the same issue as Disgaea: If you picked up the level-appropriate starting quest, the later quests of the series would be too hard for you once you got there, forcing you to do other stuff to level up before. By the time you could finish the quest series you had half forgotten what the story was about, not ideal. But nowadays in general World of Warcraft rather has the inverse problem: You level up so fast that you can't do all the content of a given level before it turns grey. Fortunately that is just a minor problem, few people are as completionist as to be bothered by that, and you can always play through the left out quests with an alt. Overall there aren't that many clashes in WoW between story speed and speed of advancement, because the story in WoW is such a weak element of the game. Actually the biggest problem you might run into is that if you don't have people to raid with, you advance to such a high level of power with epic gear in the endgame that there is only trivialy easy solo and small group content left.

Next year's Star Wars: The Old Republic promises to be more story-heavy, so I'm wondering how the speed of the story will work out there compared to the speed of your characters advancement. Will there actually be longer story lines in the game? And if yes, how does the game lead people through those story lines and makes sure the content is always level-appropriate?

I think that the defining feature of role-playing games, having character advancement, makes story-telling in these games more difficult. At the final showdown with the big boss battle you want the boss to be neither a push-over, nor unbeatable. Doing side-quests to become stronger is nearly always a possibility, but it breaks up the flow of the main story. Other games, lets say point-and-click adventures, don't have that problem, because they don't have character advancement, and can concentrate fully on the main story. On the other hand there is some indication that players don't all care about the main story anyway. Maybe role-playing games should change the way they tell stories and make the player character more central to how the story is told and chronicled. Players are likely to be more interested in their own advancement story than in saving yet another princess.
In my experience WoW always had more quests than you could finish before they turned grey. I played in late beta on the Horde side and even then I frequently had quests go grey before I finished each zone. I didn't get past 40 before closed beta ended but that theme should have continued at least until level 50 or so, if memory serves me correctly the plague lands weren't available at release. And from what I always heard Horde had less quest content than the Alliance side in Vanilla WoW.
Maybe role-playing games should change the way they tell stories and make the player character more central to how the story is told and chronicled.

Isn't that exactly what most of the previous Bioware games were doing? BG is mostly about the bhaal spawn etc...
Dragon's Age solved this problem by having enemies' levels scale with your own.

Choosing whether to sidetrack on not is left up to the player, as fights are generally always 'difficult' (or not, if you're running CC heavy characters like mages).

This did mean that as a time-restricted player, I never bothered to sidetrack to collect the sword of uber, as the benefits seemed negligeable.
An interesting topic. Haven't thought about it that much before.

Originally WoW would eventually have high lvl quests at the end of each quest chain. The idea was that the player would see the there is difficult content, and would come back a few level later to faceroll it. Thus he realized the progression of his character.

Nowadays Blizzard wants players to glide through the content. Everythings has to be concentrated coolness and fun.

The way to make you feel powerful is to make enemies very big, but incredibly weak. Thus, all humanoid NPCs in WotLK are twice or triple your size. Even a tauren is dwarfed by most. Still, he will two-hit most of the enemies - even with decent leveling equip.

I guess that some of this will be retuned with Cataclysm; but much won't.

By the way: One The reason I like MMOs, even for soloing, is that the mobs cannot scale with my level.
I think that the defining feature of role-playing games, having character advancement, makes story-telling in these games more difficult.

I think an argument could be made that in an RPG, the story is the defining characteristic.

The story of you.

The question is.. are you writing the story or are your reading it?

The more the developer allows you to write in part of the story, the less control they have over advancement. Do they presume that you will want to quest/explore all of an area before moving on? Or are you only interested in one storyline? The could and sometimes do put you on a specific track that progresses at exactly the pace they want and have it take you through an area. The Death Knight starter quests are a good example of this approach.

Even here, however, players can be faced with the problem of getting “stuck” if they can’t figure out the next stage of the advancement.

I think Vanilla WoW was developed with the idea that people would mostly quest/explore out an entire area before moving on to the next step in the chain. World Exploration over Story. That was a conscious design. After all, Blizzard spent a lot of time building out that world and I think they wanted players to “see” a lot of it before advancing to the next stage. Getting stuck didn’t really matter because very few quests were so important to character progression that they couldn’t be skipped.
I will be very curious how Cataclysm approaches leveling 1-60. Since BC came out, and especially with Wrath, Blizzard has clearly indicated that they simply want you to breeze through lower levels as quickly as possible.

One perspective is that they want you to get to the new, good content that they are currently developing as quickly as possible. This assumes that the new zones are not just new, but better (which certainly wasn't the case with BC). If this is the case, they have every reason to slow players back down for their new low level content.

The other perspective is that leveling players quickly is important from the business perspective of selling expansions. Nobody is buying BC if their highest level character is level 40. If this is the case, they still want you to speed to the part where you pull your credit card back out.

Of course, this doesn't apply to brand new MMORPGs. That leveling content IS the latest, best content they're offering. They want you to appreciate it, and more importantly not race to the typical barren end-game of newer MMOs.
For Star Wars: The Old Republic, my current understanding is the personal class based storyline quests and the faction based world quests (group based) are supposed to get you to max level.

If you are ignoring the faction based quests (or attempting to solo them later), you’ll probably have to do more side quests. If you do all of the side quests and factional quests, my guess is you might be a level up from where you are supposed to be ideally. If you go out and extensively grind mobs in the open world, you could end up significantly out of sync with the intended level of the storyline quest content.

So far there is no mention of adjusting the level of the encounters. Some of the developer quotes I have seen make me think the game will not be adjusting the level of the faction based world quests.
In Final Fantasy XI the story-based elements, Missions, had their own instanced areas for big boss fights that were level-capped. This proved to be annoying for most of the game's life because you had to keep track of multiple sets of equipment to drop back down to the level-capped fights to help a friend or finish that early-level Mission you never got around to. Now, however, equipment scales up and down automatically when you enter a level-capped area, which helps. It's an interesting device for keeping things challenging even if you surpass the story in the course of character development.
As an addendum to my previous comment, another distinction about FFXI was that there was a clear separation between Story and Quests. There were Quests, such as bring back X of an item or run an errand, and then there were Missions, specifically given by your capital city guard. Missions were very much tied to your role in the development of the story, as they almost always involved cutscenes showing your character interacting with an important figure of your home city's government.

I think that this division of simple leveling quests and story-driven missions could be a means of balancing out character advancement with story advancement.
I don't come to MMORPGs to hear stories. I come to tell them. The stories of my characters, that is.

When WoW bound levelling and storyline inextricably together through quest chains it seemed like liberation from the grind. Half a decade later it just feels like another form of hard labor.

For future MMOs I'd prefer to have my levelling and my questing kept as far apart as possible. Actually, I could probably do without the quests altogether. Just leave us to make up our own stories - that way we can never be off the pace.
how does the game lead people through those story lines and makes sure the content is always level-appropriate?

A simple solution is to offer options to the players on how they want to do the quest.

If for example you are level 50, and the quest is for level 25, then the player should be given options whether they want to do it uncapped (whatever level they really are) or to do it capped at the quest appropriate level (in this case, level 25). If the second option is chosen, then the player will temporarily be leveled down back to 25 just for the quest or until the player turns off the status. Incentive can be done by giving better rewards if done at the appropriate level or lower.

Offering options would cater to both types of players. Those who just want to mow through can do so uncapped, while those who seek challenge can do so by doing the fight capped.
For future MMOs I'd prefer to have my levelling and my questing kept as far apart as possible. Actually, I could probably do without the quests altogether. Just leave us to make up our own stories - that way we can never be off the pace.

Why wait for future MMOs? There are a lot of grind-fest MMOs even now (and also in the past).
I liked the Death Knight starting area, where we were given talent points based on the main story line quest completion aspect. If you just went out and grinded, there would be no way to get those talent points.
Frankly, the RPG genre is just glorified choose your own adventure books at this point. I'm unimpressed, if I want a book, I'll read a book. Keep developer written stories out of my RPGs, or keep them to a minimum and optional.

Example for single player RPG that does this well: Oblivion, Fallout 3. There are stories you can follow, or you can just decide to make your own way in the game world. Live out of Megaton and be a mutant hunter while avoiding the story line quests. Find a small encampment out in the wilderness and claim it as your own, becoming a survivor of the wastes. These games are almost endlessly replayable because of they don't force you to play their story, and functionally act as an engine for creating your own story.

Good example as an MMORPG: EVE Online, the real stories of EVE are player generated. Spies, economic espionage, betrayal, conquest. Many of these things are only in the most vague sense supported by game mechanics, and are simply emergent from player behavior. These stories aren't written in advance, in fact they often aren't written at all, they simply happen.

In a game like WoW, who really cares about story? Maybe 1% of the population that plays it. In reality its a combination of social networking and fun meta games like collecting loot or pets or mounts. The title RPG for something like that exists only as a hold over from what is really a totally different genre.
I'm sorry but your princess is in another castle!
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