World of Warcraft seems perfect for scratching that Achiever itch. This may just be part of the newb experience, but there are more flying numbers, color splashes, and dinging bells than I have seen anywhere else.
When I fight, my chat box gets blue text telling me how my weapon skills and defense are increasing, and I can switch between weapons to get even more blue numbers. After the fight, numbers fly over my head, indicating experience. A purple bar keeps me updated constantly on that. I click the body to receive cash and loot. I may be able to skin the enemy, and if not, walking around is probably rewarding as I find other things to gather. I have two trade professions and three secondaries, with a fourth coming next year. Back to the enemies, they may relate to a quest, so I get more numbers for each kill, plus maybe more numbers when I check the body. The quest numbers update on the right side of my screen, and if I have Quest Helper, they even change colors. I have various factions that like me more with each quest. I have pages of achievements, most of which come naturally as I do other things to get numbers and colors above my head. There are clarions and splashes of color for everything. All of these things let me buy new skills, ranks, and other things that will add a number or line, with the accompanying animation and sound.
On the Explorer side, I do not see much. I mean, I can wander around and look at things, but I do not think of touring through Disney World as exploring. It is funny that The Lord of the Rings Online™ out-theme parks WoW in the early game, but it feels like one for Explorers.
At least in the early game experience, the theme park pathing is even clearer in Shadows of Angmar™. Quests lead you from town to town, contact to contact, point of interest back and forth to a contact several times. WoW has quests that send you from hub to hub, but the granularity is much finer in Middle-earth.
The Explorer game feels richer because the zones are larger, more granular, and seem more open despite the quest pathing. What does Zubon mean by “granular” here? There are more distinct areas within each zone or sub-zone. In WoW, I see large expanses with bears and boars, and why have one kobold camp when you can have three next to each other? If you have a field of level 6 wolves and level 8 harpies, the best thing to put over the hill is a camp of level 10 harpies with level 11 wolves. LotRO is far from immune to this, but you have more diversity and landmarks. That forest has wolves and bats, next to the goblin-infested river. The forest to the north has bears and hawks, bordered by a stone-walled dwarf hold, a newer camp with wooden palisades, and then the wight mounds to the northeast and the spider areas to the southeast. Even within those, the wights have a ruined castle and a few special mounds, and the heart of the spider camp is its own beast.
There are also fewer impenetrable walls of trees and hills. You can mentally measure the degree of sandbox-iness by how far you can run unimpeded. It is almost a straight line from the hobbit newbie area across the entire Shire, across the Brandywine, through Bree, clipping Bree-town, by the human newbie area, across the swamp, by the Forsaken in, all across the Lone-lands, strafing Ost Gurth, into the Trollshaws, and with only a few twists to the Ford of Bruinen, which you may recall as the point where a huge wave took out the Nazgul. And there is a quest to do that run as a level 1 chicken. My most hated zone in Middle-earth is the Trollshaws just because the openness stops, and it becomes a maze of insurmountable hills and cliffs that box the player in.
Meanwhile, that boxing feels immediate and omnipresent in WoW. Hey, maybe the blinders come off in later levels, as they trust you not to wander to your death and cancellation, but it certainly feels like I have a linear path defined by hills and trees. The quest pathing in WoW does a fair job of not making you want to test those boundaries, except that many early quests take you right to them in search of caves and contacts. Maybe that is intended to instill a sense of “I need to get out of here, into the real game past the newbie preserve.”
City of Heroes at least has the honesty to throw up huge glowing walls. “You cannot pass here. You can only zone through the gates.” There are no suspiciously wall-like hills. The one zone that is a maze of walls (Perez Park) is hated for it, so players stick to the open areas and groan if a quest sends them to some save door hidden in the forest.
WoW connects landscape exploration to Achievement rather than Exploration. Seeing new sub-zones grants experience, and they build ot achievements. Each new zone has a few moments of novelty in how its landscape and palette differs, but the discipline imposed on zone design seems to have created significant within-zone uniformity.
Another factor is that I see less gameplay Exploration. When I look at the skill list, I mostly see levels of existing skills. Don’t get em wrong, I like getting better magic muffins, but Summon Muffins VI does not change the gameplay from Summon Muffins I-V. I know there are new skills in there, but they seem drowned in the Achiever play. Ditto on achievements: a few game changes, but I see a lot of “-0.1 second”s and “+2% damage”s. One thing I have enjoyed with the Druid is the diversity of options to explore within the one class.
I expect greater gameplay Exploration at higher levels, as there are raid encounters to learn, but that again seems like a tightly channelized theme park. Whatever I might say against the Mines of Moria™ instances, you can mix up the tactics quite a bit with various team compositions. Everything I have ever heard about WoW raiding suggests that it is a choreographed dance, with one right way (or a very narrow range) that someone learned via trial and error. It is learning but not discovery.
But then I have never heard anyone describe the raiding game as a voyage of Exploration. It is another layer of Achievement, and people post about which bosses they took down and who got what loot. If it was a really fancy night, there might be an achievement involved. You do not do the same raid yet again to learn anything new.
Again, this is speaking from the early game experience with classic WoW. Feel free to chime in with today’s edition of “the expansions differ.” I am aware that I am speaking from incomplete information in well-worn territory, kind of like going to your first baseball game and ruminating on the designated hitter rule. I am also aware that much of this is going away in a year. That is kind of the point of trying WoW now: experience the old world content while it still exists. Presumably, some of the things I am saying are reasons why the zones are being revamped.
Of course, that might not be in the direction I mean. You can usually make more money by going against my preferences, and maybe the new newbie zones will be more carefully guided, more channelized, even more theme park-y. The MMO blogosphere hardly represents the mass market. But I digress.
Socialization fuels the late game but is almost entirely missing in the early game. You stay to play with your friends, but unless you bring your friends with you, they are not in the newbie zones. Population is scarce, it is often disruptive where present, and the chat channels seem either silent or profane. Visiting a city changes all of that, a mix of constant spam and profane.
The early bits seem actively opposed to the Social game. I have found one quest I could not easily solo. Many quests are “collect 10 foozle bits”; “kill 10 foozles” encourages grouping, because you can share kills, but if each foozle has a 50% chance to drop a bit, a full team needs 100 foozle kills for that “collect 10 foozle bits” quest.
Triple-xp encourages very small Socializing: you and your one friend. If you group with others, you will out-level them very quickly. And again, you are bringing your friend with you, so the game is not adding to what you brought. The two of you could have as easily played something else together.
There is no early Killer game. I am on a PvP server, and I have seen a few level skull Horde running around, but they have not bothered to swat me. And it is not as if I could do anything about it if they did. I saw some level 2 Night Elves attack a level 80 Tauren Death Knight. That lasted a few seconds. They then talked smack about getting their level 80s before admitting they were only level 70. That kept me entertained for a few minutes while dancing and waiting for my triple-xp friend to log on.
It suddenly makes me miss the early PvP of [another game we do not mention because the company is persona non grata]. I will never miss the useless level 1 teammates, but the MMO version of TF2 is surprisingly satisfying.
Tune in next time, when we again welcome Zubon to 2005.