Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Explaining Questing

The number one question I am trying to answer since I started reading MMO-blogs, and especially started blogging, is "Why is WoW so successful?". I tried to tackle the question several times before.

There are several well-known theories:
1) The perfect storm
2) The Blizzard polish
3) The skinner box
4) The network effect

And maybe some more. Make a comment if you want to add an explanation. My problem with all these explanations is that it isn't enough, in my opinion. I never believed the perfect storm. Sure, the initial conditions were good, but so they are for many other games. WoW grew long after the perfect storm.
The Blizzard polish certainly plays a role. But then, we all know that classic WoW wasn't that polished, really. There still were many bugs, and especially server problems. I still remember my buffs disappearing when I entered an instance for a long time after release. The skinner box might be a good explanation, if other games couldn't just copy it. Skinner boxes are extremely easy to produce. And finally, the network effect is certainly a major factor. But I don't think it is a sufficient explanation.

So, at the end of the day I feel these explanations are not satisfactory.

Regular readers won't be surprised that I now try to explain WoW's success with what I wrote about the last 10 days or so. So, let's have a look at quests. Why quests? Because quests are at the heart of WoW's success. About 99% of the players who ever reached maximum level on their first char did so through quests. Consequently, even though a lot of players claim to never have liked leveling, they all leveled to max level once. And they hadn't done so if it had been that terrible. I do believe that many don't like leveling any more. But that happened after they reached maximum level at least once.

Quests are actually extremely repetitive and do more bad than good for the simulation. So why does anybody like doing quests? Well, a lot of players claim they don't. But in my opinion that's really just a claim. Few people quest because questing is fun in itself, yes. But a lot of people quest to gain levels, explore their characters, explore the story, raid, you name it.

And that's because questing is like improved TV-channel zapping. You wouldn't do it without the option to stay with one channel (a goal). But you really don't mind if it takes a little longer. Quests are the journey to power in WoW. And so we need to look at how they keep the player's mind busy.

While questing itself is very repetitive, it is anything but boring, because it stimulates a lot of different parts of your brain. I'll focus on a typical kill quest.

Classic WoW kill-questing included
- Reading and learning about the quest (and perhaps even the story)
- and planning the optimal route between quests
- and deciding on whether to use teleports
- and anticipating quest rewards
- and execution of the planned route

- Exploration of the new landscape

- Planning which mobs to attack
- and searching for ways how to attack just these mobs
- and decision making as to what abilities to use (long CD abilities?)
- execution of the plan
- and frequent rewards that result from the nested Journey&Destination (J&D) that is killing mobs (Experience)
- and checking ('exploring') the current status of the quest

- Guessing a mob's strength with a slightly higher level
- and deciding on whether to attack
- and planning the attack / deciding how to attack
- and anticipating looting the mob
- or planning as to how to circumvent the mob
- in any way: tension, climax, adrenaline

- Fear of death
- and anticipating the consequences of death
- and corpse running as a penalty
- and planning where/when to resurrect

- Searching for (exploring) places to eat/drink
- and perhaps planning on how to get there
- and deciding whether, where and when to sit down
- and relaxing for a short moment while eating/drinking
- and gaining mana/health

- Checking the minimap for resource nodes
- and decision making as to whether to gather a node
- and planning the route towards it
- and anticipating gaining the resource
- and executing the route

- Gaining new items
- and planning to sell/keep
- and anticipation of future rewards from selling/equiping
- and equipping and exploring them,
- and learning about new items (look, stats, name)
- and managing bag space

- Judging other players, if present. Especially important on PvP servers.
- and deciding whether to work together or against other players, or to stay neutral.

- Anticipating a level up
- Gaining a level every now and then
- and deciding where to spend the talent point
- and planning when to return to the trainer
- and exploring newly gained abilities

If you can think of some activities I missed please leave a comment. It would be really appreciated!

You can see, your mind is absolutely kept busy with all kinds of different stuff. And quite some stuff was optimized away in recent years by Blizzard. Often because it had become 'frustrating' (you know what this means by now) in Blizzard's eyes.

What's interesting is that all the activities seem to fall in a few categories
- planning (usually exploring all options + decision)
- learning/exploring/searching
- decisions
- educated guesses
- optimization/management under constrains
- interacting with other humans (that's a category in it's own right)
- relaxing/climaxes/tension/adrenaline
- anticipation of future rewards / penalties
- gaining/growing and rewards from nested J&D
- pressing buttons/moving the mouse, the actual execution

There is some overlap here, because this is just a blog post ;)

My current hypothesis of fun is this: Add enough of these activities to a journey, combine them in a 'non-frustrating' way. Do it in a way that is not too exhausting. And you gain a journey that does not become boring for a long, long time.

What do you think ?

Definition of 'frustrating': An activity is frustrating if the player thinks that he shouldn't have to do that. Catchword: entitlement. This is a subjective definition, because fun is subjective.


  1. The only point I would expand is the interaction with other players.

    Independently of all the rest, the big advantage of an MMO is the fact that even a repetitive activity can be fun when you're doing it on TS with one or more friends. At that time, the fact that the activity is repetitive and not too complex allows you to "just chat" while playing, which is a huge advantage multiplayer games have on single-player ones (and probably one of the reasons they can get away with inferior "solo" gameplay).

    As for the long-term success of WoW, I think it's mostly due to the existence of an end game.

  2. I deliberately left other players (mostly) out, because most players quest alone. But you are right that doing it together or chatting / talking while you do it is an added advantage.

    I guess the main advantage of other players (and of a persistent world) is that they make the goal (a strong character) more worthwile.

    You are, also, absolutely right about the endgame. This is also the main difference between WoW and its later rivals/clones.

    However, while endgame is a large part of the explanation of WoW's relative success today, in the beginning it was not. WoW grew to millions of players before it had a reasonable end game (Molten Core was patched in later, so were BGs).

    In fact, questing is a success story no matter which game uses it. So by understanding why, we might also be able to understand why some endgames are good and others are not.

  3. Warcraft had also some strong IP in games, with the Warcraft 1/2/3 series. This probably pushed a lot of people who had played the RTS to try the MMO, providing a boost of the initial numbers of new players.

    As for questing, I think that your analysis is correct: it can provide a lot of activities "packed" in a single one. From this point of view the extreme streamlining provided by Blizzard is not a good thing, since it reduces them.

    I think that the problem remains that there are two distinct class of players: those who see the quests as content to explore and read, and those who see it as a stepstone to level cap.

    The first group dislikes questhelper and the objectives on the map, since it basically killed the quest texts (why bother explaining where to go when a nice arrow on the map will indicate it?). The second one loves this change since it allows to level faster.

    Personally, I'm in-between. As much as I like to read a story following a quest line, what's sure is that I won't like it the second time.... Paradoxically I have decided to do the new Cataclysm quests on my main character, but since I played several zones during beta, I'm quickly bored of re-playing them, since I already know the story....

    On LotRO I did more questing, but LotRO quests are like the old WoW ones, stories are a lot less linear, many group quests block progression (it's impossible to find people to group with at lower level without wasting a ton of time), there's too much empty travelling and kill ten rats. I end up forgetting what's going on and switching to the "fill the XP bar mentality". Ok, Moria is the exception since I really like the place.....

  4. I think the fraction of players who would quest even without ever gaining a level is tiny, Helistar. For the vast majority of players questing is a journey towards a worthwhile goal. But that doesn't mean that they don't like it.

    It just means that they are happy each time it becomes more 'convenient'. What they don't realize is that it also becomes ever more boring the more convenient it becomes.

    Because convenience is just the teardown of rules. The same rules that generate the need for the activities. Every single of the activities I listed is easily connectable with a restriction/rule that generates the need for it.

    On the other hand, Blizzard was right to slowly relax the rules. Some things became frustrating over time, because players became more entitled. What is important to understand (and actually I am pretty sure Blizzard understands that), is that the more of these activities you remove (by removing/relaxing the generating rules), the more boring questing becomes.
    And the more boring questing is, the more convenient it has to be, so that the goal is still worth the effort.

    At some point questing is so damn boring (like today..), that just making it more convenient doesn't work. If I don't like to quest for two hours total, because it's so damn boring, I don't care whether Blizzard allows me to reach max level in 1 instead of 13 days /played.

    Long stories in quests are a two-edged sword, really. In Cataclysm they have more disadvantages than advantages.

  5. Social interaction is at the heart of why WoW was so successful. Or more accurately, the lack of social interaction. WoW is essentially a single player game and it was the first so called MMO to introduce this method of leveling primarily through solo quest grinding. where every other diku based game until then required you to work with other players in some manner.

    As the cylons, Agent Smith, or Skynet will tell you, people are messy and irritating. Earlier DIKU games like EQ and DAOC had to adjust bonuses for people in groups because despite how much faster the experience could flow, in practice it didn't because people had to afk, they weren't ready, the dog ate their wand, etc. WoW did away with all that.

    That allowed Blizzard to break tasks into very short segments that people who don't have time for MMOs can complete. Or as it's been put, you can log in for 15 minutes and get something done. This is something you simply can't do in older MMOs (I would call them "real MMOs").

    WoW is the most successful MMO precisely because it's not an MMO and most people don't like MMOs.

    Every one of Blizzard's innovations was to remove not only the massive, but also the multiplayer from the game. Other than raiding, every activity has had all the human interaction stripped from it in WoW. The random dungeon finder even allows grouping with other players to have any social factor removed. People are and are treated as essentially very smart bots.

  6. Yes, and no, Numtini. If Wow had been a single player offline game, it would never had been the success it was. It might actually have been a flop. The persistent world and other players were crucial to make the effort of questing worth the goal (a powerful char). In a single player game I would never have quested for 13 days /played on my original char. No way.

    Also, irrespective of prior games, classic WoW-questing must have had something going for it. To explain the success of questing by only focusing on the fact that it's solo-able, is like explaining the success of the iPhone with its smooth form: It's really not the only reason.

    The lesson is: social interaction is important in MMORPG. But never underestimate passive social interaction (like knowing that you're not alone).

  7. In my case, there was a simple reason for playing WOW. I came from EQ1 and EQ2 and, by comparison, WOW was just ... more fun.

    Of course it's not very useful to say that on its own, so I'll try and get across what I mean. It was countless little touches, such as:
    - early quests making you feel like a hero rather than a janitor (e.g. defeat invading humans in Durotar, rather than killing rats);
    - fast pace early on - things were happening, I was making progress;
    - a world that wasn't the usual fantasy cliche of pretty=good, ugly = evil - both factions had a legitimate case;
    - greater variety in the opening quest zones;
    - bigger differences between the classes (e.g. rage/energy/mana all play very differently).

    That fanatical devotion to making a good early-game experience is what won me over and I suspect many others too. After that, the network effect pulled everyone else in.

  8. 1)First imho to describe wow launch as " bad" is either dishonest or really uninformed. WoW was first MMO to actually have a quality release. I can go into long details of how such and such MMOs had x, y,z issues and how wow handled that perfectly. It would probably take over 10 pages.

    Regardless whether you hate wow with all your guts Fact is wow had awesome release and it was quality client trough and trough. It set up a new mark for MMOs.

    You cant discount polish of this magnitude. This is a difference between brother Wright's plane and Boeing 747.

    2) This is a continuation of "polish" in a way . But news flash - WoW had really fun gameplay. Moving was fun. combat was fun. traveling, questing, instances and leveling all were refreshingly interesting to do.Every little detail . It had a myriad of activities all of which were refined to the point of actually being enjoyable.

    Compare it to something like EQ- which had 1) god awful interface
    2) god awful combat
    3) god awful grind
    4) tons of time-sinks (aimed at making subscribers play longer without providing one iota of fun)

    What one has to understand that DIKU MUD at its core is a great concept. Especially to fresh addic..... ermm. .. customers. But there is a large gap between concept and quality implementation.

    It involves tons of little things which in the end constitute whether a game is "fun" or not. WoW did what EQ didnt - designed professionally diku mud to make it a great game and not just concept test drive.

    3) You are quite correct in saying that quests were in large part success of WoW. - but they were part of larger vision. - Make fun game. In this particular phase - make leveling fun. personally I think your analysis on quests is spot on .

  9. Some things became frustrating over time, because players became more entitled.

    You might be able to technically use that term, but I think the implied pejorative is unnecessary. Do you feel entitled to not have to repeat grade school as an adult? Do you feel entitled to be able to dress yourself in the morning? Do you feel entitled to not have training wheels on your bicycle? While I understand your definition of "frustrating journeys" is "player doesn't feel like they should have to do X," that feeling can be 100% legitimate and nothing like actual entitlement at all.

    I have a serious issue with you and Syl in regard to the implicit notion that a game cannot simply be badly designed. Elegance as a concept exists. Redundant and superfluous, as descriptors, exist and can be applied. Just like a novel or film can become weaker by the addition of irrelevant details or disjointed pacing, so too can a game. Entitlement should not be synonymous with the expectation of a fair exchange of value, else the word really loses all meaning.

    Besides, what of the idea that an activity naturally becomes less fun over time? Are players frustrated because they don't expect to have to do X anymore, or are they frustrated because X is now boring, but the devs haven't gotten the memo?

  10. I'd agree with what Azuriel says here. The word "entitled" is thrown around far too casually amongst gamers, to the extent that it has almost come to mean "doesn't enjoy the parts of the game that I like", rather than "wants everything handed to him on a plate".

  11. When I use the terms 'frustrating' or 'entitled' I don't really blame the player, Azuriel. Some of your questions, I would answer with 'yes'. If I lived some hundred years ago and were a noble man, there's a good chance I felt entitled to not dress myself in the morning. And that's a genuine feeling.
    Is it my 'failure'? Yes and no. I'm the one responsible for that emotion, yes. But then I can't control my emotions on that level.
    It is the task of the game developer to consider that, while players to become more entitled over time, they can't change that. The developer has much more influence on the changing expectations than the players. That's why the players cannot really be blamed for it.

    You write
    "that feeling can be 100% legitimate and nothing like actual entitlement at all."

    I don't think there a contradiction between legitimate and entitlement. It is absolutely possible to feel legitimately entitled ;)


    I have a serious issue with you and Syl in regard to the implicit notion that a game cannot simply be badly designed. "

    Excuse be, but that's not what I am saying, and certainly not what Syl is saying. Games can absolutely be badly designed. It's just that a lot of this depends on the 'zeitgeist'. Remake Diablo 1 today (exactly the way it was) and I can tell you, it is a flop. Things like endless town portals, loot management, endless healing flasks, and many other things (especially technical things, like the resolution), are bad today. Diablo 1 were badly designed if it would be released today, because players and their expectation have changed.

    Also, yes, activities naturally become less fun over time. The mind learns and few tasks are that good at keeping the mind busy that they don't become boring ever. Perhaps I should go into that a bit more.

    Thanks for the comment. It's good to have someone critical comment ;)