Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Expanding the expansions….

On Monday, I wrote about innovation and today I wanted to write about an interesting idea I had about introducing a new expansion. I read a lot and I particularly enjoy (surprise, surprise) fantasy-scifi books.

One of the more popular authors in the genre, Raymond E. Feist, wrote several trilogies in a fictional world called Midkemia. The first series in that fictional world was called the The Riftwar Saga . It told the tale of a war between the world of Midkemia and a world on the other side of a rift portal called Kelewan. The original series is told entirely through the view of several key characters from the world of Midkemia. By and large, the books mostly take place on that side of the rift and only one character travels to Kelewan for any notable period of time.

It’s a classic series and I won’t offer any spoilers. However, the reason I am reminded of this series when speaking about MMO expansions is because of a later trilogy of books that came out called the Empire Trilogy that was written as a collaboration with Janny Wurts in Feist’s fictional world of Kelewan. The story takes place DURING the Riftwar, but from the point of view of characters that are on Kelewan. It doesn’t tell the same story and Kelewan is wildly different then Midkemia. And yet, it’s still very familiar with certain key world events (like the opening and closing of the Rift) shown in an entirely new light. It’s an excellent trilogy and my favorite of all those written in Feist’s universe.

Last week, Syncaine and Tobold both shared some concern about MMOs that simply “raise the level cap” when an expansion is released. Syncaine outright asks that MMOs stop raising the cap and Tobold makes the point that at the current trend, the 10th expansion for World of Warcraft will raise the level cap from 150 to 160.

I was struck with the contrast between that idea (the level cap) and the experience I had when I read the Empire Trilogy about Kelewan. An expansion doesn’t need to be “more of the same” or a continuation of the existing story – it can be a parallel story arc or a different perspective on something we already know. In fact, one of the things that people really enjoyed about the Burning Crusade was the Caverns of Time which allowed people to revisit and re-experience events they already knew.

Now also consider that one of the most successful and popular expansions in MMO history was Ruins of Kunark for EverQuest. That expansion was wildly praised not only because it increased the level cap, but because it also introduced new content from level 1 to the new cap. A player could re-roll and not need to quest an area that they had already played.

In combination, these two things tell me that an expansion that provided a new leveling experience and had a parallel story arc that offered a different perspective on the old content would be wildly popular. After all, people do enjoy the familiar – they just don’t want it to be the same. Imagine if the Burning Crusade hadn’t been when the portal re-opened and THEN you find out what had happened to Illidan – but instead started when Illidan first entered the Outlands after the portal had been closed. Your experience STARTS with the closure of the portal and the eventual re-opening happens somewhere in the middle of the expansion.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the Sunwell patch were the World objectives that were needed to make “progress” in the war effort on the Island. As the objectives were met, you could see that we were retaking the Island, but the quests stayed in place for anyone who came late to the game. In a WoTLK interview, Jeff Kaplan compared the old way of World events to this new technique:

"Players in MMOs always go "I want to go into the village and burn it down, and from that day forward the village is always burnt down," and like the guy who comes a week later "Dude, where's the village?" ... "Oh it was epic, we burned it down!" ... "Well I wasn't there for it!" But an event like this, you feel like everybody, even if you miss the event, you gain from it having happened rather than feel like something was taken away from you. "

I’d like to see more of this type of thing in expansions as a way of progressing the story. I also believe that this type of thing is great for building a sense of community and ensuring that your population paces itself through the game TOGETHER as much as possible. From a story tellers perspective, it allows you to be creative and unfold things at an interesting pace.

Take my BC example from earlier. Lets say that you have a leveling experience that is unique to the new Blood Elf and Draenei races that take place in new Outland zones rather than tacked onto Azeroth. This experience tells us what Illidan did in Outland when he first arrived. As players progress through the first twenty to thirty levels, Illidan establishes his reign and the Draenei begin their exodus to Azeroth. Young blood elfs, led by Kaelthas, are revealed the truth about their leader.

Meanwhile, back on Azeroth, a series of world events for level 60s takes place that ends with the opening of the Dark Portal. At this point, the newbie Blood Elf and Draenei are tasked with escaping to the Azeroth from Outland.

The Blood Elf story arc heads them back to their homeland to repair the havoc wreaked by the Scourge. The Draenei story arc takes them to the Azuremyst Isles to establish an new capital city (Exodar) in Azeroth. The level 30-45 experience is centered on establishing the new capital cities through more World events. The 46-60 experience is centered on establishing treaties with their respective Horde and Alliance factions.

Back in Outland, the mid-level 60s enter Outland and start making War on all the Outland factions that we know and hate. As we slowly progress through the expansion with a series of world events as we learn about Outland and establish outposts in all the high level zones. This whole process takes the better part of the expansion and culminates with an attack on the Black Temple.

From a story and experience perspective, I think I would have really enjoyed that Burning Crusade. The point here is not that they did BC badly, but that an expansion offers a wealth of opportunities. There is no reason why they can’t do something like I described above with a future expansion.

On a similar note, I think the call to action for things like new continents is misplaced. As I mentioned earlier, people like to see new stories for familiar places. There are a lot of possibilities to progress the WORLD story and retune that content to higher (or lower) levels.

I have quested through every inch of Azeroth and helped countless questgivers with each of their problems. However, everytime I roll an alt, I help those same questgivers through the same problems they have always had. Can you imagine how fun it would be to go back through Azeroth and everything was UPDATED and while that old problem was solved (and we see the effect) they have a whole host of new problems. Maybe we were successful in driving out those Ogres from the badlands, but we accidently drove them up into another area and they gained a few levels.

And what about Invasion and counter-Invasions. Imagine if the war between Alliance and Horde was back at full force. Alliance were pushing from Dustwallow Marsh into the Barrens. Horde were pushing up from Stranglethorn into Duskwood and Westfall. That would be a blast and could act as an expansion all by itself. This is the World of WARCRAFT – where’s the WAR?


Shalkis said...

The trouble with updating the world as the story progresses is that it's at odds with the notion that newbies should not be excluded from old epic events. If you update the world to the point where Barrens is a warzone, the newbie can't experience the initial invasion.

At least, unless you use a lot of instancing. Then the newbie's Barrens won't be the veteran's Barrens, and they can't play together if they wanted to.

sid67 said...

Hmm. Well, what I am advocating here is a progressive world that evolves over time as the story evolves. I would argue that a new player doesn’t need to experience the same 1-60 game that I experienced in order to find it a fulfilling gaming experience. As long as the experience remains a good one, then it doesn’t really matter if they missed out.

It’s perfectly reasonable that as the world story progresses, some high–level zones are tamed into newbie zones. All of those eradicate and slay quests actually did something and made things a bit safer in those zones. Likewise, other previous lower level zones could be evolving into higher level areas.

I’m not talking about a simple facelift like was done with Mudsprocket. That little town was a bit laughable and I was really disappointed when I quested an alt through it. I’m talking about progressively changing the entire world in the same manner that the Dailys progressed Sunwell Isle.

Also consider that Azeroth (in particular) has a lot of wasted space compared to Burning Crusade. By BC standards, you could easily fit in 50-70% more content just within the existing geography. Blizzard also cut down the time to level 1-60 by almost half with the 2.3 changes they made. As a result, the 1-60 experience actually needs less content overall, so that frees up geographical real estate for use by higher levels. My post-2.3 alt leveled to 70 never even visited Slithilus, Blasted Lands, Searing Gorge, Felwood, Blackrock Spire, Sunken Temple, Stratholme or Scholomance.

I get what you are saying though and to your point about instancing – well, there is already a market for people demanding “classic” servers, so this would be a good reason to do something like that. A new player that really felt he was missing out on the epic event could join a classic server and be allowed a free transfer to a progressed server when they had their fill of the old content.

Shalkis said...

For Blizzard, that would mean having to re-do most, if not all old content. And as we can see from that Kaplan quote, I doubt that Blizzard is willing to do that. They've already complained that doing Blood Elf and Draenei starting areas took time from developing Outland.

sid67 said...

I agree and that’s why this is one area I am critical of Blizzard. It’s pretty clear that they are very much of the mindset that “more content” means new zones, new abilities, new levels, new race/class. I just don’t believe that ALWAYS needs to be the case.

It takes two years for them to come out with a single expansion because they need to create new zones, talents, abilities, races, in addition to new quests, NPCs, storyline, and so forth. The time invested in creating a whole new continent like Northrend with new talents and abilities to balance is much more significant than a series of “story updates” to the existing world.

Don’t get me wrong, the “continent” patch with all the new stuff is great. In fact, a schedule of every two years for that type of thing would be OK with me if I had some type of “story update” expansion in the year between those major updates.