I submit that the quest line in games can range from “random crap” to “epic tale.” This continuum starts with quests that have few to no links with each other, ranges through short stories and novellas of interconnected quests, and ends with a central tale that goes through the entire game.
The Lord of the Rings Online™ Volume One: Shadows of Angmar has two stories that cross its epic books (following the Fellowship, Amarthiel and the fall of Angmar). Most of the classic WoW zones keep a single theme across a zone, with a central story and a backup for miscellany, and it will have some link to the next and previous zones in the progression. Westfall, for example, has a central theme of fighting the Defias Brotherhood and a backup theme of “trouble on the farm.” All the random crap gets unified a bit by grouping it under the latter, what with killing pigs, gathering okra, and stopping rogue scarecrows. These zones tend to have one main quest hub with a smaller outpost somewhere out there.
I characterized Terrokar Forest as a series of short stories, with many small quest hubs that had only loose connections. Each had a few quests, leading to a mostly disconnected experience that left me with few thoughts on the zone. Zangarmarsh, contrarily, hewed pretty closely to a single, shroomy theme for the entire zone, with a smaller B-story linking it to the rest of the expansion. This presented the opposite problem of playing on the same theme too hard and too long.
I would characterize my Wrath of the Lich King experience as mostly novella length. The zones are not as tightly themed as Zangarmarsh or the classic world, but they have fewer story threads than a short story zone.
Dragonblight hits the compass points with three novella quest hubs in the west, center, and east, supplemented by two off-topic short stories at in the north and south. The short stories are the goblins and the walrus people, who need help with random crap. The west story is about the Azure Dragonflight and its quest to subvert magic. This camp serves as a prologue for the other two stories, as your contacts there send you to the next two novella hubs. The A story puts you in the center, talking to the dragons, which then becomes a scattered experience helping the various ‘Flights with their tasks. The B story sends you to the Alliance keep on the east side. This is the core story for the entire expansion pack, and I will address it tomorrow.
Sholazar Basin has its three novellas: Nesingwary’s hunt, the Oracles versus the Frenzyheart Tribe, and the battle with the Scourge. This last is perhaps a short story, having fewer steps, but it intertwines with the other two threads to keep it going longer than its quest count might suggest. The first two are long quest chains that keep to a single story.
I found the Borean Tundra to be on the more scattered end of “short story.” You have an Alliance base, and its concerns are split between defending against a Scourge attack and dealing with cultist subversion, leading to the nearby farm hub. You meet the walrus people at the mist-Viking camp, then have a few more mist-Vikings at the Walrus camp to the east. The Azure Dragonflight story starts in the north, and there is a random murloc chain just past it. Then we have DEHTA, a walrus/Azure crossover story at the quarry, a gnomish airport, and the fight against the Scourge. That is a lot of pieces to move not very far, although it fit perfectly with my rather scattered playstyle over the time I played through.
The short story approach has several merits. It creates small chunks that naturally feel like self-contained play experiences. You run three to five quests and move on. If you are playing with friends, there are no worries that they are on step 8 while you are on 13. You meet up, rampage for a hub or two, then have no problems when one person goes to bed. It is a good vehicle for telling small stories, keeping a theme alive across zones, or experimenting. You can more easily spread the work across many staff members, and the entire zone will not fall apart if one quest is lousy or buggy.
The downsides I have mentioned. There is no Borean Tundra Experience. There are several Borean Tundra experiences.
Novellas mix those merits with a bit of the longer form. You have fewer break points than in the series of short stories, but you still have some. It is not the case that you must complete the entire zone, gray enemies or not, to get the whole story. You have fewer opportunities for completing a story in a single (sane) play session, but you get a bit of the epic “I have been working on this for a while” feel. You can delve into a story or setting at some depth without becoming sick of playing the same theme for hours on end (this mixed metaphor requires a musical shovel).
A downside of having longer-form stories is losing the narrative thread. This might happen across several play sessions, as you forget why you are helping the oppressed bear people reclaim their homeland. In that case, the story is long, but not meaningful enough to be memorable across its length; this is a common game-writer problem, confusing “time-consuming” with “epic.”
When you do follow a thread to its end, you notice that it stops. If you are invested in the story, you wonder what happened when you cross the zone border and leap to a new subject. You battle the Lich King’s minions back in Dragonblight, with dozens of quests in the main chain and the side stories that accompany it; you fight across frozen wastelands and charnal fields strewn with the unhallowed dead; and then you cross the border into the Grizzly Hills, where everything is green and they want you to hunt the bears that are fishing in the river. It takes 20 seconds to ride from the frozen land of death to a quaint woodlands tale?
With random crap, you have no expectation of coherence. With short stories, you might like recurring themes but you suspend disbelief about having a walrus-man village, undead wasteland, and silly gnome playland all next to each other. Once it really looks like there is a story here, you want the story to matter. As a developer, you have something to live up to in a way that, say, Dungeon Runners does not.
Personally, I like the novella approach. I tend to have long play sessions, so I can complete a novella in a night or two. The short stories are too small of bites unless I am just hopping on at lunch, although I can see the appeal in my more casual moments. For me, that is the break-even point where you get more story, depth, development, and continuity without too much loss in jumping in and out.
To note, that applies to soloing or having a static group. If I were in small groups more often and had more friends at a similar point in the game (a rarity unless we all start at once), I would want smaller bites so that we do not get stranded several steps apart in a long quest chain. Or I would want a system that kept the epic feel without having long chain dependencies, and while I am wishing I will also take a pony.
Oh, and that all assumes you have deep enough staff quality to do it well. The longer the chain, the harder it is to maintain quality across it. If there are twelve three-quest chains, and a quarter of them are lousy, you might tough one out, take a friend’s advice to skip one, and abandon the third when the second quest is insane. You still have fun for the rest of it. If there is one thirty-six-quest chain, and a quarter of it is lousy, you either suffer or take your $15/month elsewhere.
That is the central problem of the epic quest in any game: there is almost always some dreck mixed in, and it is almost always required. If I tell you that seasons two and three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are some of the best television ever made, but that the show does not get good until School Hard in season two, you could legitimately wonder if it is worth sitting through a season of decent to poor episodes (with scattered moments of brilliance) to get there.
(Some games have this same problem with level ranges rather than content. If levels 10-25 are horrible but the endgame is awesome, that is related but off-topic. And besides, you can probably get a friend to powerlevel you over the pit of despair.)
So that is my take on Northrend without getting into the specifics of each novella. I really like the format when it is done well, and there are far more quests than I need to level, so I can skip to another zone if I hate the line I am on. I never felt the need to do so, although I did out-level some zones before I got the chance to see if they were interesting.