Game design, Opinion, WoW

A stranger in my own land – Part 2

There's something vaguely surrealistic about melancholic chickens.

This post is by Razzmatazz.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my questing experiences post-Shattering, particularly about how WoW’s excellent sense of place and world-building really enhances the experience for me. In this followup-post I’d like to explore the concept of sense of place within games a bit further, and take a look at why exactly it’s so meaningful for me. Consequently this post’ll deviate from our/my usual WoW-focus and go a bit broader. If that’s not your thing, I URGE you to stop reading right now, as you might hurt yourself somehow.

Despite my earlier musings about the narrative potential that emerges when player choice is introduced as a component in a game storyline, I don’t really believe games are particularly good at telling a traditional story. Coincidentally that’s one of the hot debates in game design right now: everyone seems to have a different opinion, and designers have experimented with a veritable truckload of wildly different solutions. I won’t go into that right now as it’s not the topic of this post and it might actually make a good one for a future blog-spression. I’ll limit myself to my own opinion which I already touched on: I think narrative in its traditional form (in other words: what we instantly think about when we hear the word “story”) is something that’s far better expressed through media such as films or books than games. I’d like to go into the reasons but once again my self-imposed restrictions forbid me to. Life is hard when one wants to avoid rambling and tangents.

That’s not to say games are inherently BAD at conveying any kind of story, but. NO. BUT NOTHING. MUST MOVE ON.

Life is also hard for the poor citizens of Steamwheedle Port. That's about as relevant as I can make this image, sorry.

Yes. What games are, I think, far better at, is establishing a vaguely related concept. I’ve already discussed it briefly in the context of WoW: the sense of place. It’s curious how a lot of my favourite games seem to be very effective at establishing a sense of place. Planescape: Torment and Sigil. Legacy of Kain and Nosgoth. And indeed, World of Warcraft and Azeroth. Telling a linear story is one way to engage a player, but the most memorable gaming experiences I have almost all seem to have this one thing in common: they’re extremely effective at building a world.

This is in line with some of what I said in earlier posts about games having to exploit and embrace their unique strengths. Designers shouldn’t just be looking to other media for inspiration and turning games into a hodgepodge of those, they should instead be looking at what GAMES do well, and what their specific qualities are. Once you figure those out you’ve got the basic building blocks for a game that not only breaks new ground and boldly goes where no other medium has gone before (helping games as a medium forward as a result), you’re also making sure your own game has an identity, and isn’t just a collection of scraps. “It’s good, but… movies/books/whatever do it better.” That’s exactly the kind of language a designer should be trying to avoid when making a game.

Once again we look towards the core characteristic of games: their interactivity. You might say there are others (and there are), but that’s the vital quality you can’t really dismiss as everything else sort of depends on it. For reasons I already discussed in previous posts, a linear storyline kind of goes against that. A gameplay style that very much taps into it is exploration. You’re presented with a world, a location, and you’re free to go wherever you like and see what’s going on in this place. There’s no other medium which even approaches the possibilities games have to explore a space. Sure, books can DESCRIBE worlds and build them through stories, characters, and the like. And you might even feel like a visitor when reading about such a world. The same goes for movies: they award the viewer with a glimpse into their specific worlds. But games. Do. It. Better.

You can disagree (by all means), but you’re totally wrong and you know it. Seriously though, obviously there’s a case to be made for all those other media, but I don’t think there’s anyone out there who’d argue games are bad at world-building, at creating a sense of place. Quite the contrary, probably. Unlike with a linear storyline, interactivity is used to its fullest here: you, the player, are presented with a world, and it’s up to you to figure out how it works, which characters inhabit it, discover its history and important landmarks, visit all those places on the map directly and experience all of them through your own eyes. Taking in the views as much and as long as you like, from every direction. That’s a remarkable thing.

Even though this looks low res and blurry I still think it's aesthetically pleasing. Is that just me?

It also allows designers to tell stories in new ways. There’s been a lot of experimentation with that lately (think Bioshock, for those of you who’ve played it), but you don’t need to look further than WoW itself to be presented with examples. A big part of the story can be told visually if the level designers just have enough attention to detail and good ideas. A landmark becomes an important indicator for major events in the history of this world you as a player are walking around in. WoW does this really effectively, its history is expressed in no small part through its world. Think Blackrock Mountain. The Thandol Span. Stromgarde. The Plaguelands. All of them communicate certain stories and a part of WoW’s history to the players, simply thanks to their visual style and their presence. Encountering them when exploring evokes some feeling in the players by itself, without even starting a quest related to them.

The Shattering is immensely satisfying in exactly that respect. Old landmarks have been radically redrawn, new ones have been created. And all this after we inhabited this world for several years. It’s not just about being able to explore it all over again and find new things around every corner. That’s a great feeling in itself, but the main draw for me comes from seeing this established place completely changed. The fact that a lot of these areas are in fact SHATTERED only strengthens this. It has to do with what I mentioned in the previous post: the places we inhabit become part of ourselves. This goes for the real world as well: if you took the same road to work or school every day and suddenly found all the houses on the side destroyed I’m sure you wouldn’t just ignore that. The same thing goes for the Shattering, this all too familiar place suddenly becomes alien again, but because it’s a virtual place it’s not emotionally devastating, it’s exciting and awesome and wonderful and yeah, might break your heart a little. The world in WoW is a character just like the ones we as players create and become, and its fate is very much a concern of ours.

And that's why flying in here for the umpteenth time and seeing it all flooded HURTS, man.

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Discussion

12 thoughts on “A stranger in my own land – Part 2

  1. I’m left wondering, what do you think about the vastly more linear approach to questing in Cataclysm, and the introduction of cutscenes and more scripted events? Is WoW getting better at telling stories or is it getting worse at creating a place? Or, uh, neither of course :)

    Posted by Charles | January 3, 2011, 10:17 pm
    • That’s a difficult question to answer entirely in a comment, so forgive me if I start rambling :P. I think there are three sides to your question, and I’ve only addressed one in my post. The first, and the one I’ve treated in my post, is how games utilise their interactivity to create a sense of place. As I explained, I think WoW does this really well and the Shattering taps into this perfectly. The second and third I haven’t really gone into above, but obviously they’re very much related issues: a linear or non-linear gameplay style and a linear or non-linear narrative. I’ll try to be brief here :D.

      In terms of gameplay style I think the move towards more linearity is a missed opportunity. I like exploration and non-linearity, and driving a player down an incredibly set path in a world as potentially open as this one is a shame.

      However, I have to stress that I don’t HATE linearity. I can appreciate a linear game from time to time, I just think MMOs in particular and RPGs in general have a unique possibility to truly develop that non-linear gameplay style.

      It’s also hard to deny that it’s simply EASIER to tell a story this way (which brings me to the third issue). Having played through Vashj’ir and Deepholm now I can’t really contest that there’s just a far clearer story told in those zones than ever before, and I’m not exactly sad about that. I think telling a story through the environment is something that really exploits gaming’s unique strengths, but at the end of the day it’s a really hard thing to do well. So if I have to choose between very little overarching story at all (as was the case with the large majority of zones pre-Cataclysm) and a good story but a linear one, I’d choose the second option. I’d PREFER that secret third option of a non-linear storyline which uses the world as an instrument, but it’s really hard to pull off.

      This might sound confusing given my earlier examples of how WoW uses its world to tell stories, but I think it doesn’t have to be at odds with that. WoW is very effective at communicating background lore through landmarks (as in the examples I gave), but I don’t think it’s ever been very effective at telling a very specific story you as a player are a part of (if that makes sense). The quest-driven story that the player’s being told has never really been all that well developed, it’s been ENTERTAINING, but usually you had a bunch of vaguely related questing hubs without one single overarching narrative. That’s something Cataclysm, thanks to its move towards more linearity, does better: see for example the World Pillar fragments in Deepholm.

      So in terms of narrative you’ve got two different things going on at the same time: the world communicating background lore to the player and a player-centric storyline told through the quests. In an ideal world for me, both of those would be merged and designers would take things several steps further, and the player-driven storyline would be non-linear and fully intertwined with the world as a place. But this is an ideal, and one that seems incredibly difficult to realise. It also seems like something the WoW designers have no interest in pursuing, as they’re moving the player-centric storyline in an entirely different (linear) direction. That’s fine by me. I’m just hoping that other (MMO?) designers will be slightly more bold and exploit that sense of place an MMO potentially creates to its fullest, and push for non-linearity all the way.

      Posted by Razz | January 5, 2011, 8:04 pm
  2. I think trying to tell a story within a game in a non-linear, branching fashion would be very difficult to do in a comprehensible way. The game as it used to be tried to do that, but I was always confused by it to the point where I pretty much stopped trying to sort it out. By forcing players to follow a linear quest line in Cata really clarifies things, makes it less of a anachronistic mishmash in my opinion.

    Razz, one thing I didn’t see you mention was the heavy-duty phasing introduced in Cata. I realize you were trying to stick to the topic of the WORLD of Warcraft and not get sidetracked onto the revamped quest flow, and props to you for pulling that off! But I would really like to hear your thoughts on phasing, which I find to be clever and a huge problem-solver on several different levels … and also related to your original topic.

    Posted by crystal3d | January 7, 2011, 12:33 am
    • (I know I’m not Razz, but I found your comment interesting enough to want to reply with some random thoughts!)

      The thing I notice about linear questing is that it hasn’t really changed the types of quests we do or the way we do them, it’s just got us to do them in a certain order (which is admittedly quite nice most of the time) and made them fit a bit more obviously into the story (which is also welcome). Now instead of having three hubs at once, each one wanting us to kill 10 boars of a different type, we do each hub in turn and then get sent to the next, killing 10 boars each time. Phasing obviously compounds this. I still think WoW’s quest model is way better than anything which came before it, but I also still think the basic design of having to do 100s of trivial quests to gain a single level needs to come to its end at last.

      Is there any way to join another person’s phase yet? It was a promised addition and one that would be really welcome. Having the world change around you is fantastic… but in an MMO, it’s sometimes a bit sad to not be able to go back to the bits pre-change, especially if there are important mobs there (eg the phased nerubians which were the only source of chitin in WotLK). Admittedly this has been mostly avoided in Cataclysm phasing though!

      Posted by Charles | January 7, 2011, 1:35 am
      • “I also still think the basic design of having to do 100s of trivial quests to gain a single level needs to come to its end at last …”

        Curious … what do you envision instead?

        Phasing can be a bit frustrating, but at least now we can see when we are out of phase with someone else. Trying to summon in front of ICC, standing on top of one of your raidmates yet not being able to see or assist him was maddening.

        Still, if you want to go back and have a look at a previous phase, or step in to help someone who’s in a phase you’ve completed … well, I think that’s a no.

        Posted by crystal3d | January 7, 2011, 3:17 pm
      • To illustrate what I mean, Cataclysm moved away from mobs that could be two-shotted and towards making every fight more significant. I’d like to see this happen more with quests – fewer and more significant.

        If you think of a dungeon run, there are groups of trash mobs leading up to big bosses, then more trash leading to more bosses etc. WoW quests have typically been like the “trash” in a dungeon run, with lots and lots and lots of minor, easy quests interspersed with a few difficult group/elite quests (which still tend to be very simple if you have the raw power) and some really annoying quests that send you all over the world for very little reward.

        I’d like to believe it’s possible to have far fewer quests which are more time consuming but also more rewarding, each one requiring a more significant investment of effort than simply flying 50 yards away to kill boars, but each one also awarding more than simply another 2% of the XP you need to get to the next level. That is, make each quest feel like a proper “quest”, a true mission, rather than a series of minor errands.

        I’d like to think that this would enable quests to be braver about, for example, making the player travel vast distances or infiltrate difficult areas on a single mission. I’d also like to think that it would enable quests to focus even more on the “journey” part rather than the “reward” part by moving away from the still exceptionally grindy nature of current WoW questing. I’d *like* to think that but I know it wouldn’t be easy.

        And to go back to the dungeon analogy, we need trash in dungeons to make them work (look at ToC, shudder), so I’m not saying minor quests should disappear altogether. I’d just like to see the quest game get some real meat in the form of significant epic quests that take a fair bit of time and effort but have major rewards (even as much as giving you a whole level, or a particularly awesome piece of equipment, etc) which could be augmented by the easier, more frivolous kill 10 boars stuff.

        I think that would make questing both more satisfying and more accessible, because it’s easier for someone in my circumstances to focus on one BIG job with a few smaller jobs to muck about with if I get tired than to be constantly being given swathes of new minor jobs to do that shuffle me off to the next area so fast I’ve barely figured out where I was or what I was doing to begin with.

        Hope that makes sense!

        Posted by Charles | January 7, 2011, 6:22 pm
      • Without going into too much detail about questing, I have to say I agree with Charles in that the current questing model is sort of running on its last legs. Or at least in need of some more radical changes than cutscenes, linearity and more overarching storylines. I still enjoy questing, and I think what’s stopping Blizzard in making some really large changtes as the ones Charles described is that the majority of players seem to feel the same way. However, after just having reached 85 and having quested through several zones post-Shattering, I can’t help but feel like this model is in need of some fundamental shifts in design, as I’m not sure how much longer I’ll enjoy it in its current state.

        I think toning down the sheer number of quests (which honestly has gotten slightly ridiculous lately) in favour of less quantity but more quality would probably help. It’d allow them to attach more weight to every quest and experiment with some completely different gameplay. Sticking with the current model just encourages them to insert 75% kill and collect quests, because no designer, however brilliant, can think of thousands of quests with truly inspiring gameplay and storylines. Just look towards the model singleplayer RPGs are using, or MMOs like Lord of the Rings Online have adopted: fewer, more significant quests with a bigger impact and more involved stories. The Witcher is one example of how to solve this nicely: have a couple of core “story” quests, and a bunch of kill contracts per chapter to take care of the more grindy, pure kill quests.

        Mixing it up a bit might be a good idea either way, the current model’s just become so predictable. Go to NPC, read single page of instructions, kill or collect this, return to NPC and receive reward. It’s a model that obviously WORKS and taps into some of our most base psychological urges to boot, the question is for how much longer? Why not mix it up by throwing in more conversations, more interactive storylines, more world interaction? The answer’s simple of course: because they don’t have to in order to keep people playing. I also don’t want to sound entirely cynical here as, once again, I do still enjoy questing and appreciate the efforts Blizzard’s already made to improve the old model (and there have been MANY), I just feel like they could be pushing it one step further.

        Posted by Razz | January 7, 2011, 8:03 pm
      • Razz:
        1) Grats on 85 at last!

        2) I should add that I do think some of the things Blizzard have done with quests in Cataclysm is very clever and a lot of fun even without the massive overhaul I’d like. For example the “Welcome to the Machine” quest and follow-ons both pokes fun at and fondly embraces the current model.

        3) We’re both entirely incapable of being brief, aren’t we? :(

        Posted by Charles | January 7, 2011, 8:17 pm
      • Points well taken.

        There are some quests for which I can see the point in grinding out x-many of this or that. I did one where the questgiver was making some sort of healing salve and needed a specific number of plants. OK, that makes sense.

        But there is still some inanity associated with the concept and execution of the standard quest: “Those darn boars! They’re eating my vegetables! Go kill 12 of them! And then I’ll give you some gold and a green item that you will have to vendor or disenchant because it is worthless otherwise.” Worse still are the silly ones that have you run twenty feet to talk to somebody, then run back with the answer. Really? Lazy NPCs!

        I was blowing through quests in Cata so quickly that it represented an exception when I actually read the quest text, and that was generally because I couldn’t figure out what to do otherwise. Kind of a shame, because some of them are quite cleverly written. What did slow me down were the cutscenes, and I didn’t mind that; I let every one of them play out because they were visually entertaining and put the quest I’d just completed into context. But I know people who didn’t even have the patience for that.

        Blizzard does have the human psychology of addictive, repetitive behavior down to a science, no? Reading the quest text and watching the cutscenes interfere with the instant gratification a lot of more impatient or impulsive players crave. And yet, I doggedly worked for over a year to complete the meta-meta achievement “What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been” and get the violet proto-drake. I even did PvP, which for me is epic. When you spoke of fewer quests that are more time-consuming and difficult but with a substantially greater reward, I immediately thought of the grind for that mount. I repeatedly pored over the list of things I had to do and I made sure I finished everything required to get credit for each holiday. The stakes were higher and it seemed to me worth the wait.

        So I’d be delighted to see grander questlines that span distance and time if the rewards were commensurate. At the end of a day, I’d be perfectly happy if my bags weren’t full of cloth caster belts and plate doodads. (I’m enhancement, not a lot out there for me.) I’d much rather wait a few weeks or even months and get something awesome. But maybe that’s another game altogether.

        Posted by crystal3d | January 7, 2011, 10:40 pm
    • I think phasing is brilliant! Naturally there are some issues with it, like the ones you mentioned and some bugs I’ve encountered personally. But at the end of the day I think it’s a fantastic solution for a very difficult problem, which is allowing players to influence a world that’s inherently shared. My biggest problem with it, aside from the technological hiccups they’ll eventually streamline out, is that there’s not enough of it yet. Because the more of those sorts of things you introduce to specific quests (phasing is one, cutscenes is another), the blander the quests which just have you kill or collect x feel.

      Regarding how it affects Azeroth as a place, from what I’ve seen terrain phasing is used pretty sparingly (although I honestly haven’t quested everywhere yet). Most likely because it’s more difficult to integrate, and because it makes sense to not overuse it (there’s only so many times you can cut off part of a landmass due to a flood or whatever). It’d probably feel jarring if they started applying it liberally in every zone. The little I’ve seen hasn’t missed its impact though, and has had a similar effect on me as the rest of the changes the Shattering caused.

      In that sense something I’d also like to see Blizzard do more of isn’t the large-scale terrain phasing Gilneas has for example (because as I said that wouldn’t really fit in the story), but smaller things which make the environment feel more interactive and alive. I’m not sure phasing is required for that. A silly example is the world pillar fragments in Deepholm, which you actually see floating around once you’ve turned them in. That’s not even interactive in a Crysis way or something, where I spent several hours shooting down palm trees and blowing up huts. It’s just some small ways of showing the impact you as a player have on the world. It’s something that helps intertwine the player-oriented storyline with the world (which helps us come closer to the ideal I mentioned in my previous comment).

      Posted by Razz | January 7, 2011, 5:57 pm
  3. I’m overwhelmed with all of the wonderful changes to the scenery. I’ve been too busy with preparing for raiding to check out all of the changes, but I look forward to leveling an alt through most of these zones.

    Posted by disorientguy | January 17, 2011, 12:22 pm

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