Fake freedom in MMORPGs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 March 2014, 7:45 am
I did a direct comparison of The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar this weekend, playing the former all day Saturday, and the latter all day Sunday. And what I noticed was that ultimately the two games are very similar. Sure, there are lots of differences in the details and the style, and I prefer the better feedback of the Wildstar combat. But what I couldn't find was any significant difference in the quest and progression system. Particularly I found the claim that TESO gives you more freedom were simply not true.

What is true is that in Wildstar you would have an easier time to follow a chain of level-appropriate quests, while in The Elder Scrolls Online you constantly need to look on your compass while traveling to not miss all those hidden quest-givers. But neither game gives the option of NOT doing all those quests. You can't go out as you wish, kill mobs, earn xp and loot from those kills, and advance your character. Or rather, you can, but you would be horribly punished for doing it. Killing 100 mobs somewhere in either game gives you less xp and loot than doing one quest which requires you to kill 10 of them. So linear questing is your only sensible choice. You might be given some choice of in which order you want to tackle those linear bits, but that is all the freedom you get. It is a fake freedom.

Another option you don't really have is whether you want to play solo or in a group. Content is designed for either one or the other, and much of the leveling and questing content is designed to be soloed. Again, you have the theoretical freedom of forming a group, but in practice that freedom also turns out to be fake. Doing a quest in a group might well end up being harder or slower than soloing it, because of issues with phasing and such. And there is no advantage to grouping. Back in the days of Everquest people complained about "forced grouping", but I find "forced soloing" to be not any better.

So what you do in both games before hitting the level cap is very much the same: A long series of one quest after another, solo. You either play on those rails, or your character doesn't advance. "Exploration" has been reduced to finding predefined spots on the map on which you need to click for some achievement or bonus. There is a bit of PvP and a few group content dungeons, but otherwise the quests totally dominate these games. That gives me not much sense of a there being a living "world" in which I can adventure freely. And often the story line which declares me to be some sort of hero and savior clashes horribly with the long list of rather mundane chores I am asked to perform all day long. Not to mention all the other saviors around me, following exactly the same long list of mundane chores.

In the South Park parody Make Love not Warcraft the kids kill 65,340,285 level 1 boars, which is obviously not much fun. Nobody wants a return to the days of Evercamp, grinding mobs at the same place all day until you leveled up and moved to the next place. But quests have evolved from a useful tool of getting you to move around a bit to essentially BEING the game. And I would very much prefer a game where if you are being sent to kill goblins at a stronghold, you would actually have the freedom to stick around for a while and kill more goblins than the quest required, without that being horribly inefficient. And I would very much prefer a game in which entering that goblin stronghold alone or in a group would both make perfect sense.

And technically all that is very easy: One just needs to balance the experience points and loot that quests give against the xp and loot from killing mobs. And likewise the rewards of group play need to be balanced against the rewards of solo play, as not to totally favor one over the other in efficiency. MMORPG players are very much motivated by rewards, so if you create one way of playing the game which is obviously much more efficient than any other, you'll get a herd of lemmings trampling that path. 
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