Tobold's Blog
Saturday, March 05, 2005
Crowd Control

Almost everybody loves the quest system of World of Warcraft. But if you have a closer look, it is actually very hard to describe what exactly makes the WoW quest system better than those of other games such as Final Fantasy XI or Everquest 2. In this article I argue that the WoW quest system is all about crowd control, dispersing the players over the game world, and preventing camping. This results in a more dynamic game experience, where you often move before getting bored with a spot, thus being more fun.

In the numerous reviews of World of Warcraft, nearly every reviewer has something nice to say about the game's quest system. Unfortunately these nice things are usually terms like "immersive" or "fun", rather slippery descriptions. From the point of view of a developer who wants to create a new game with quest system as good as or better WoW’s, it is difficult to pin down exactly where the "fun" is coming from.

One can for example easily argue that the quests of Final Fantasy XI are more immersive than the quests of World of Warcraft. FFXI has several quests in which the story is told with a cutscene. And these are not just prefab movies, but are created on the spot, showing *your* character talking to the quest giver. The best WoW can do is addressing you by name or class in a scrolling quest text, which isn't half as good. EQ2 improves on scrolling text with voiceovers.

An alternative explanation is that it is the sheer number of quests that makes WoW so special. This argument also fails. Everquest 2 has at least as many quests as World of Warcraft, if not more. In fact, EQ2 allows you to hold 50 quests in your journal vs. 20 in WoW. And managing your quest journal in WoW can even become more of a source of annoyance than of fun; for example if your journal fills up with elite quests, you might both be unable to do them now due to lack of a group, nor be willing to delete them, as when you eventually find a group you won't have the time to go visit all the quest givers again.

Are the World of Warcraft quests fundamentally different from the quests of other games? Not really. Most of them are about killing monsters, with either the kills being counted, or your having to loot quest items from them. A few quests involve clicking on objects, but usually involve killing the monsters around that object as well. Everquest 2’s quests fit exactly the same mould. If you are lucky, you get an escort quest in World of Warcraft; these are slightly different, but still mainly involve killing all the monsters on the path taken by the NPC you have to guard. Really innovative quests like Counterattack, where you have to participate in a big battle between the Horde and the centaurs, are few and far between.

So what differentiates the World of Warcraft quests from those of other games? The first thing you notice if you start a point-by-point closer comparison is that WoW quests are much better rewarded than quests in other games. If a quest sends you to kill ten wolves, you will probably get as many experience points from the quest reward as from killing the wolves, plus probably as much money as their loot was worth. And while the wolves might potentially drop a useful item, it would be a stroke of luck if the dropped loot were actually something you were looking for. In contrast, the quest reward item is predictable, so you can quest for what you need.

The bigger quest rewards have a huge impact on the way people play the game. In games where quests only provide a small portion of the experience points needed for each level, two phenomena appear: camping, and player concentration. Camping is the act of staying in the same area for a long period of time, killing the same monsters over and over, every time they respawn. If killing monsters is your main source of experience points, this camping might well be the optimal strategy. Killing the same monster repeatedly is easier than looking for new monsters. You not only save the time of actually hunting down the next mob, your fights also get easier because you learn very well how to beat this specific monster. Unfortunately, while being optimal in some games from the point of view of experience points per hour, camping also can become boring very quickly.

It gets even worse when player concentration appears. It is impossible for a game developer to perfectly balance all monsters. Some of them will be slightly easier to kill, or yield slightly more experience points than others. And then word gets around, that at level 10 the best xp can be gained by camping the orcs in West Commons. Now not only are people bored in static camps, they also risk strife with other players who want to camp the same "best spot". Groups that force players into groups add to this effect, because finding a group is obviously easiest at the most popular spot. If you want to be original and hunt somewhere else, you won't be able to find a group there, and thus might not be able to kill anything. Final Fantasy XI suffers extremely from this.

As Geldonyetich likes to mention, experience points given for each kill are something that went wrong in the transition from pen and paper roleplaying games to MMORPGs. World of Warcraft's large quest rewards return to the original idea of D&D in which experience points were mainly awarded for finishing an adventure, not for repeatedly killing monsters.

While in games with small quest rewards you basically have the choice of camping for maximum xp or doing a quest for some money or item, in World of Warcraft these two choices align into one. Doing the quest not only gains you the money or item, but it is also the optimal strategy for gaining the most experience points. And with one magical snap of the developers fingers, camping and player concentration are gone. You killed your ten wolves, so why would you want to stay there and slay more wolves? Instead, it’s better to move on and kill ten bears, which get you another quest reward.

Now all Blizzard had to do, and they did that quite well, is to cover every corner of the world, and every monster, with a quest of an appropriate level and reward. Players are so busy moving from one quest to the next that they don't even notice that they aren't camping. The game play of World of Warcraft is naturally dynamic. And while you still might collide with people hunting for the same wolves as you are, these people will be gone off to the next quest quickly enough. There are no "best spots" any more; players are far better distributed over the different corners of the world, and the game's content is far better utilized.

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