I’m feeling a bit uninspired this week so I’m pulling some essays out of the `rainy day’ pile. These essays focus on in-game geography: how we have changed relative to it, and how it has changed relative to us. By way of warning, they’re written in the same vein as my recent piece on narratives in Cataclysm.
I remember reading a long time ago that Blizzard originally limited travel (think running on foot, ground mounts, ships, hearthstones on a long cooldown and somewhat slow and sparse flight paths) because they wanted to impress upon players the great scope and richness of the game world. It was certainly a long sometimes dangerous journey travelling at low levels by foot across the Barrens from Mulgore or the Wetlands from Loch Modan. It was inconvenient having flight paths only in the corners of zones and having to hoof it to dungeons. However, this groundedness and pacing struck the point home to the player that they were in a world of Warcraft. These days, we see fewer reminders of how expansive the world is, and I think the following list points to the reason for that.
- Have Group, Will Travel means that only one player out of 10 or 25 need actually travel to a raid instance.
- Flight paths are today much more numerous, especially compared to early vanilla.
- Graveyards, likewise, are much more numerous and convenient, and corpse runs typically are shortened by a guild perk.
- Epic flying being usable in almost all outdoor zones means (1) that players travel fast just about anywhere outdoors and (2) that players rarely if ever observe let alone interact with the game world on the rare occassions when they do not teleport.
- New players a provided with new constellations of flight paths as they level up, and breadcrumb quests are often accompanied by free flights to new locations.
- Repairs and other services are now much more common in the field (via bots, mounts, companions, extra npcs, etc.) requiring fewer trips to and from cities.
- Quests are now highly compartmentalized even within subregions of zones, requiring little travel from questgiver to objective and back. This is also now true of dungeons, which typically have all but their breadcrumb quests given inside the instance.
- The effects of quest concentration are compounded by (1) the increase in the number of quest hubs within zones and (2) the advent of quests that update in the field and reduce trips to and from quest givers.
- The random dungeon and BG finders instantly teleport players to dungeons. A leveling player need not even know of the existence of a particular dungeon before getting placed there.
- Hearthstones are now on a mere 15 minute cooldown with the guild perk.
- Teleportation devices other than hearthstones have been added, such as the Kirin Tor rings, the Baradin’s Wardens tabard and the guild wraps.
- Leveling players now get ground mounts at level 20 and flying mounts at 60 (rather than 40 and 70, respectively).
- Stormwind and Ogrimmar have largely become Wal-marts – you don’t need to travel anywhere else for shopping, training and other needs. This centralization of resources combined with incentives specific to the hub cities leave all other cities in the game as ghost towns.
- Among the incentives to Ogrimmar and Stormwind are portals that allow rapid transit to the major centers of Cataclysm content.
I enjoy a lot of these changes and, individually, they increase convenience and the proportion of the game spent doing more interesting things like nuking bad guys. But together these changes represent a revolution in the way space is encountered in the game. They have made distance effectively trivial, especially for endgame players. What does it matter how far away a daily hub or an instance is if you can teleport there instantly? What kind of an obstacle is a mountain or a lake if you can just fly over it? Why should it matter if you don’t know where you are so long as you already have the necessary flight path or quest dot on your map? Of course, space becoming more inconsequential over time is not necessarily a problem in itself. It is merely different. What effects this trivialization of distance has had require further exploration.
A basic result of this transformation of travel is that players are much less likely to observe let alone interact with the game world. Endgame players are usually either teleporting instantly to a location or flying high above the ground on the way there. Regardless, they are immune to harm, unhindered by terrain and oblivious to detail en route. This certainly makes the game more convenient but, to my mind, it also makes it less interesting. With effortless travel the game world is left with no power over us. It is unable to challenge, inspire, color or enrich our gaming because we simply don’t encounter it anymore. The environment our endgame characters inhabit these days is, effectively a city, instances and maybe a daily hub or two. This is not small in itself, but it is small when compared to the size of the world as a whole, and it is less meaningful absent that larger context.
I think that Blizzard realizes the problems generated by the revolution to travel on some level. They now insist that players stay on ground mounts in their daily hubs, forcing players to encounter the terrain and actually deal with obstacles, non-quest enemies and lore rather than fly over everything. They added fishing and cooking dailies to the other capital cities to try and draw more players to those ghost towns. They half-heartedly required players to visit Cataclysm dungeons once before they could queue for them. They still require players under level sixty to stay grounded. Yet, these are exceptions and, aside from barring flying at low levels, fairly trivial exceptions at that. WoW has taken the plunge on flying mounts and teleports, and the world is effectively smaller for it.
What is additionally problematic about this is that Blizzard has been unable to take these changes and explore them to their fullest. It has tried and failed to develop enjoyable aerial combat, at least judging by the responses to the OCC and EoE drakes. Part of the explanation for this is that reworking a ground-based game for aerial combat is difficult. Part of it is players not adapting well to thinking in three dimensions. Yet, regardless of cause, it leaves Blizzard in an awkward position of having air travel but being unable to make it interesting much beyond the joy of flight itself. We are left, then, with a status quo where almost all level 60+ travel is easy and uninteresting unless players go out of their way to make it interesting. I have to wonder if this partly explains why players so often complain of Cataclysm being bland. Moving through the world is danger-free and so it feels impotent and unengaging. We don’t have to put any effort into getting to a place and so being there is nothing special.
Instances are themselves something of note in MMOs. WoW has had them from the start and so we have to look further back to see what kind of impact they have had. Everquest was WoW’s immediate predecessor and, arguably, much of the style of vanilla WoW was taken from Everquest. Yet, WoW is an advancement from Everquest in many ways, including and perhaps especially when it comes instances. Everquest had no instances, at least when WoW first came out, and its dungeons and dragons were generated as part of the game world. That meant that guilds had to sign up on a server-wide calendar to coordinate who was going to kill a given dragon on its various respawns throughout the month. It also meant that anyone and everyone could be in a given dungeon together at the same time, all unhappily seeking the same item or spawn. Instances, it must be said, are a wonderful innovation and remove much of the grief that trolls, selfish jerks and even good guys can inflict. They also, however, move away from the RPG ethic that what you do in important locations has consequences for the outside world. Certainly, piking Ony and Mag’s heads, opening the AQ gates and expansion launch events reflect this ethic, but not to the extent having everyone sharing the same space did.
Don’t get me wrong, I never want to go back to the Everquest model, I’m just noting a change that has had an effect on how we relate to the game world. Instances have removed a lot of competition, a lot of grief and a lot of consequences from MMO gaming. Instances allow the game world to be societal but largely remove the consequences of being in a society from the act of fighting bad guys. Indeed, in random groups you will likely never see the people you are with ever again upon completing the dungeon. Instances thereby create not just environmental compartmentalization but also a consequent social compartmentalization. Various effects have been ascribed to this social division, including the decline of server communities and the rise of trolling in dungeons since players are effectively anonymous strangers to each other there. Blizzard now has the dungeon finder place people from the same server together whenever it can to help counter these effects.
WoW, of course, didn’t stop its development of instances with simply introducing them. Blizzard has subsequently implemented a dungeon finder and attached additional currencies to instances. These changes have combined for an interesting effect. The fact that the currencies allow players to purchase gear that is always equal to or better than the gear found in the dungeons combined with the fact that extra amounts of these currencies are provided for completing random dungeons has led to a situation where players actually prefer a condition where they don’t know where they’re going. Put in a shorter fashion, the incentives of the RDF lead players to often prefer it and the ignorance of destination it requires. A similar situation exists for the random battleground finder. To me it strips identity and purpose away from individual dungeons and battlegrounds. It makes them very generic and signals that lore and locale are of a lower priority than loot. And, honestly, this is fine for the most part; after all, lore and locale only offer inspiration for so many runs of a place.
These changes to the accessibility and rewards of dungeons have had larger effects. 5-mans have been streamlined and laden with incentives so well that they have come to be considered baseline for leveling and endgame players alike. Dungeons, essentially, are not special at all. This means that for all players seeking a step two to endgame pve gameplay there is only raiding. Raiding now has to serve a truly diverse set of interests ranging from the hardest of the hardcore to the casual players who merely want a next step after heroics. I believe this is why we see Blizzard constantly experimenting with raid tiers, nerfs and now the new raid finder. In making dungeons and even heroics utterly mundane it has had to make raiding into something that could take up the slack and cater to a wide variety of players. I worry that this has spread raiding too thin in its purpose.
Increasingly, raids are adapting to players rather than the other way around. In Everquest and vanilla, the bosses were unsympathetic monoliths of evil. They did not care if you could not beat them; they did not care what you knew about them. Heck, in Everquest there were bosses that were unbeatable by design. Raids, then, were dangerous, epic places that did not cater to players or get easier over time for the sole purpose of making them beatable by less-adept and/or less-experienced players. Nowadays, to my mind, raids feel like sellouts. They used to be more pure and dichotomous. You either had what it took or you didn’t. Now raids are continually being parceled out into finer and finer gradations via difficulty levels and progressive nerfing. This, combined with all of the other advancements in balancing and raid design, is arguably a change for the better. But it also means that raids are manifestly different places these days. They’re not just the NFL anymore, they’re also division three college football. They’re not just double black diamond downhill ski runs, they’re also blue square runs. They are not categorically elite anymore. And I wonder what effect this has had. If they are not categorically prestigous or exceptional, if they are instead mundane and something all sorts of people do, does that leave raiding in general as being less compelling?