13 Aug 2010

The Quest Converyer Belt

Spoiler Alert: Discussion of the phasing technology used in Cataclysm, it’s history, application and the problems surrounding it. Some allusion to in-game events/quests, although no specific details.

Back in Vanilla, Warcraft was mainly a scattering of quest hubs, each with their localised set of quests. Sure there may have been prerequisites such as a minimum level, but by and large you could quest where you liked. In Cataclysm the experience is streamlined into quest tunnels that guide you through a zone from one end to the other. To help with this, phasing is the toy of choice in the quest designer’s toolbox.

Phasing as a technology started out with a single quest in Burning Crusade. “Intercepting the Mana Cells” was added in patch 2.4.0 as part of the daily quests for the Shattered Sun Offensive. These quests were part of the overall Sunwell Plateau content update, adding the final dungeons and raid instances before the release of Wrath. In the quest, the player used a device to move “out of phase” and be able to interact with the items they needed to complete the quest.

Since then, phasing has evolved even further. It was put to heavy use in the Death Knight starting area in order to enrich the storytelling experience by changing the location of NPCs and even the weather after key quests were completed. It’s also heavily used in the Icecrown zone in Northrend in order to show the impact of player actions on the game world.

That’s not to say that it’s been entirely without it’s problems. One of the most common issues is with the summoning stone outside the Icecrown Citadel raid instance. Because players need to be in the same phase in order to interact with each other and the stone, both must be at the same point in the Icecrown quest chains in order to start summoning others.

Enough history. In Cataclysm, phasing has been extended even further. It’s not just the NPCs that change, it’s the entire environment. Buildings crumble, rivers turn to streams of lava and entire villages sink under the waves. It’s impressive to watch and absolutely epic to play through. For a storytelling mechanic inside an MMO, it’s very compelling.

Like everything there are pros and cons. The con in this case is the linearity of the gaming experience. If you’ve played an RPG like Halo or Mass Effect, or even Dragon Age: Origins you’ll know what I mean. The shift of the game changes from being a world where you wander from zone to zone picking up quests as you go, to one where you go through a very structured tunnel. Go off the beaten path before it’s time and you can find yourself lost and lonely. You haven’t progressed to the next phase of the game yet.

The real frustration with phasing creeps in because of the quest tunnel it places you in. Currently if there’s a quest chain you don’t like either because it’s frustrating as hell or because it goes against your character’s (or even your own) moral compass, you can ditch it and move on. The next town over will welcome you with open arms, showering you with jobs and stuffing your mouth with gold coins. As Pewter describes over at The ‘mental Shaman, there’s a risk in Cataclysm that your progression will grind to a halt if you reject a quest for whatever reason, ideological or otherwise.

At the moment, phasing is a new toy or effect. It’s like when Hollywood first discovered CGI – it ended up everywhere you could possibly imagine it, partly because film directors wanted to play with the new medium and partly because it was the must have tech for a while. Nowadays, CGI is a subtle affair that’s carefully applied for the right situaions. And of course, the best CGI effects are the ones you don’t notice.

In time, it’s likely that the use of phasing will be toned down a notch. Quest and level designers will work out how to introduce them subtly, rather than at every opportunity. In this regard, Cataclysm can be seen as something of an experiment for both the dev teams and the playerbase.

After all, we’re playing MMOs because we like interacting with other people, and that interaction should extend outside of raids, dungeons and battlegrounds. Being the lone hero in a massive world is just that – lonely.

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