Questing – why is it so dull in recent MMORPGs

As the years have gone by, we’ve seen a multitude of MMORPG titles come and go, titles that could without the slightest bit of dishonesty be called WoW clones. While these titles tend to have a lot in common, there is one particular thing nearly all of them appear to have: an incredibly boring questing experience.

This week I want to try and answer the question of the title: why exactly is it that what was supposed to reduce boredom by eliminating the traditional way of leveling, monster grinding, now seems to induce boredom at a whole new level?

Birth of the quest-centric leveling system

While World of Warcraft was more of a mix of features borrowed from older titles back in 2005 when it was released, it also introduced at least one innovation of it’s own: the quest-centric leveling system.

While the system faced some level of criticism, in the end there’s no question it was generally extremely well received. After all it heavily influenced the genre for the whole of the next decade, if not for longer. And really, rather than about blaming the system for being duller than mob grinding, the criticism received was mainly about how the system encouraged solo instead of group play.

Now, it is the initial success of the quest-centric leveling system that makes one beg the question: why was leveling so enjoyable in WoW, yet so mindnumbingly boring in more recent games such as Rift and WildStar? After all,  these games are modeled after the MMORPG behemoth, aren’t they?

On novelty

One answer one quickly comes to think of is that it’s all down to the feeling of novelty. In 2005 when World of Warcraft was released, the experience was new – not only was leveling solely through questing a new and refreshing choice of design, but most of the game’s players were also new to the MMORPG genre as a whole. So one could argue that it was the newness of it all back in the day the that made the road from 1 to 60 feel like a magical journey, even to people with previous genre experience.

Indeed one could make the argument for novelty, but before claiming it all on that one feeling, I would consider this: was the original questing experience of World of Warcraft really that similar to that of more recent games like Rift and WildStar?

Gradual changes

World of Warcraft’s questing experience today is not what it used to be. Expansion by expansion and update by update, monsters have become easier to kill, experience requirements have been vastly reduced, money has been made more and more irrelevant, milestones like mounts have been made more trivial, and dreaded new features like the Dungeon Finder and QuestHelper have been introduced. Finally, the third expansion, Cataclysm, has revamped the whole leveling experience by replacing just about all of the old world’s quests with new ones as well as by shaping it’s landscape to suit the new story better.

While the changes have been rather gradual apart from the great leap forward of the Cataclysm expansion, its quite clear that the current leveling experience of WoW is completely different from that of the original game.

Breadcrumbs and overdone questhubs

Looking at how questing works now and then thinking back to 2005 to compare the two eras, the original experience was not quite so linear in the end. In the first one or two zones you encountered as a fresh character you might have found a breadcrumb quest that would lead you to your next zone, but after that such quests were a rare sight.

Finding quests, let a lone efficient quests in a new zone was not as self-evident an act as walking to the nearest town and gathering the five to ten quests from there, all of which are simple gathering or killing quests that take mere minutes to complete. No, new characters had a lot of exploring (or Googling) to do to simply find suitable quests.

With quests being spread so sparse and many quests spanning over multiple zones or even continents,  as well as with the absence of breadcrumb quests, some exploration can be with good reason said to have been encouraged by the basic design behind the system.

On the contrary, the post-Cataclysm system does not have hidden or off-the-beaten-path quests, or if such things exist, they do not make much of a difference in leveling speed or how efficient leveling feels to the player.

Mimicking the wrong era of the game

In it’s post-Cataclysm state, World of Warcraft’s questing system can not by any measure be said to encourage exploration. Now more than ever it can with good reason be said to be overly convenient.

But here’s the deal: we are talking about a 10 year old game. In the case of such an old game, it actually makes sense to sacrifice some credibility of the game world in order to make things feel more convenient. Your playerbase mainly consists of people who have seen everything there is to see, explored every corner there is to explore. When they level up new characters, it’s OK for them the experience is over very fast. They’ve done the content so many times they like the fact they no longer need to focus on memorizing which zones to go to at which level or which quests to pick. To them, it’s not a problem equal level monsters no longer take up to a minute to kill, because they’ve been there, done that, and they just want to get done with their business.

Exploring a new game world is fun, even if it is just a themepark world built solely for the leveling experience, but as a game ages and it’s subscribers along with it, the call for convenience starts raising it’s head. This all brings me back to the leveling design of Rift, WildStar, etc. Their questing  experiences were super linear from the get-go with little variance and a very handholdy feeling.

When it comes to the leveling experience of the major WoW clones,  I tend to think they tried to mimic the wrong era of their role model. When a game has just been released, it is good for it to encourage exploration through a less linear questing experience. Autopiloting through a preset path filled with huge amounts of simple, overcrowded quest hubs is simply dull to a new player.

Once your  game matures and the players start becoming routined, you can start making things more convenient, albeit at the expense of the magic any newcomers are going to feel on their first playthroughs of the content. But before that, I would take the approach that questing in itself should encourage players to explore that beautiful world your dev team has put a lot of effort into creating.

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