Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Current State of Leveling in WoW, Solutions Edition

Last week, partially due to coincidence and partially due to prevailing circumstances of an ongoing Hearthstone/World of Warcraft promotion, I criticized the state of leveling in World of Warcraft. This has been a problem in some way or another since World of Warcraft has been released such as a lack of general story coherence and quest density during older times. However, even in the face of solution after solution, including a massive rework of old zones that admittedly did improve the state of leveling in at least some respects, there's still a lot left to be desired when it comes to a leveling experience.

In last week's article, I primarily focused on the enjoyment of solo leveling being hampered by broken immersion and a lack of preparation for playing at level cap. As promised, I am back with many solutions to these issues related to leveling, including one I failed to acknowledge despite having personally experienced the frustration myself repeatedly. In this follow-up article, I will initially go over these solutions in detail, explaining why they would be helpful for improving leveling in World of Warcraft. Afterwards, I will provide implementation logistics by determining what could be done in preparation for the Warcraft movie and Legion release and what would have to be left for later along with explanations for my reasoning. With that said, let's dive into the solutions noting that the focus of the fixes is on the following:
  • Improving immersion by addressing experience curve anomalies and a lack of incentive to break the mold of following quest chains to completion.
  • Make the leveling experience more vital to newer players by preparing them for level cap gameplay with reasonable challenge and access to various resources that promote independence.
  • Provide more room for players to pace their leveling experience instead of artificially extending it excessively when accounting for the above.
Update: 6.2.4 hotfixes provided some small fixes to leveling. Here's my thoughts on them.

Suggestions List

I don't typically label suggestions numerically, but for the sake of organization in the following section, I am numbering them this time:
1. Improve scaling spawn rate based on players in area, especially in areas prone to crowding. Implement Draenor quest objective phasing, which was added in a hotfix shortly after the Warlords of Draenor release. This was a feature that allowed players to individually see and loot quest items in a manner similar to treasures where possible. 
To start off, let's go over the issue I failed to acknowledge: overcrowding of quest objectives causing a bottleneck. This appeared to be a frequent complaint during the crossover promotion with issues like this happening in starting zones in particular. Thus, I reasoned that while improving spawn rates for mobs (and probably objects too), which is suggested in an above link discussing leveling solutions, it might not be a bad idea to bring back the Draenor quest object phasing so players don't have to compete to loot objects. While I can't seem to find evidence this was hotfixed in, I did notice that after some point I was able to loot quest objects that other players clearly looted. This seamless object phasing surprised me especially since it didn't create a disconnect from other players like other phasing tends to do. It stands to reason that having this feature in place in crowded areas like starting zones would be a big help when paired with a spawn rate fix.

Regardless, I apologize for the failure to acknowledge this problem, but it seems easily resolved and is a more circumstantial issue compared to the ones I mentioned. It would also be nice if Blizzard stopped adding more of these problem situations too, but we'll have to see in Legion if they learned their lesson (scaling zones should help though, right?).
2. Rework experience gains from questing and other sources to better align with zone completion. Specifically, try to target 90-95% of experience needed to meet the upper level limit of a given zone from quests alone. This calculation would include optional quest chains (ones that aren't associated with a zone's main quest chain/chains).
I was legitimately hoping the squish in Warlords would address this since experience gains and requirements to level up were altered during that time, but from what I can tell the issue hasn't improved. This would directly resolve the issue of outleveling zones through questing. There may even be some wiggle room to do other activities like PvP or Dungeons, especially due to optional quest chains being added to the calculation.
3. Phase group questing back in, creating a choice between group questing, optional quest chains, etc. when it comes to leveling up.
There are a few of these around even after the apparent purge in Wrath and Cataclysm, but it wouldn't hurt to have some more group-oriented world activities in the form of group questing. Group questing would involve its own quest chains as opposed to something often tacked onto solo quest chains like in older content, creating a separation of playstyle that allows players to choose when to dabble instead of being forced into it. To help with the dabbling, communicate information that such quests exist through various means (beyond breadcrumb quests, such as via aggressive use of the Adventurer's Guide).
4. Promote and reward exploration as early as possible. Add rewards for exploration in the form of treasures, chests (that are less rare than Cataclysm chests), and other tidbits.
With a streamlined questing system, going off the beaten path is likely going to involve some passive and active prodding. With a few well placed general pieces of advice and reminders in the Adventurer's Guide, players may be incentivized to create scenic routes for themselves while questing.

The treasure reward has been one of Blizzard's method for rewarding exploration in the last expansions, with some loot being exceptionally potent. Why not share this with the more barren lower level zones? They don't need to be as potent but such treasures could be worth seeking nonetheless.

While we're populating the world with more stuff to find, adding back some chests would be nice. Cataclysm attempted this but they were so rare (with rare loot) they were found more by a stroke of luck as opposed to intense exploration. I wouldn't mind more common chests with lots of less valuable loot similar to older WoW, which also happened to have them spawn in environments where they seemed to mesh well.

As for other tidbits, they could be anything from an easter egg to a shortcut to another location. The potential is endless, as is the immersion potential.
5. Add challenge encounters ranging from Pandaria rare spawn-like enemies to entire subzones with elites.
This suggestion attempts to address the issue of immersion, difficulty, and mentoring all at once, serving as one of the main suggestions to improve the current state of leveling.

On the front of immersion, challenge encounters would typically be tucked out of the way and might require some exploration to find much like with trying to hunt down rare spawns and elite mini-bosses in Pandaria and Draenor. To assist with this somewhat, such enemies should show up on the minimap (but much like with rare spawns, not all of them need to). Elite subzones are nothing new and previously there were many of them scattered throughout the game and often segregated well enough that a new player could avoid it. Aside from potentially having some lore-related tidbits through discovery, group quests could involve such subzones much like in the earlier days of the game.

On the front of difficulty, both challenge encounters and elite subzones would be statistically strong mostly in terms of health with appropriate experience and loot rewards to match. In addition, much like with Pandaria rare spawns, there would be a pretty strong focus on mechanics. However, to ensure a fair difficulty curve, the damage for failing to avoid a mechanic shouldn't be as ridiculous at lower levels. Instead, it should just be harsh enough to provide an understanding that such mechanics need to be handled correctly. This sort of mechanical focus would be greater on challenge encounters compared to elite subzones as the former is representation of a boss fight while the latter is more representative of trash mobs in an instance.

Finally, on the front of mentoring, the similarity to encounter mechanics along with its increasing difficulty would help to prepare players for the level cap. The difficulty need not increase purely in terms of damage to aid the mentoring process. For example, the delay before a mechanic resolves could decrease at higher levels requiring a faster reaction or there's less of a telegraph to determine the nature of the mechanic requiring improved perception.
6. Increase some quest boss health dramatically and consider adding mechanics that extend the length of the fight. Adjust mechanical lethality based on level and have all quest mobs scale based on players fighting it and allow multitapping (similar to some rare spawns, quest mobs, and other mobs at the moment).
While normally this would contradict my ideal against fiddling with health and damage numbers as a (constant) bandaid fix, I make a huge exception in the case of quest bosses because many tend to have notable encounter mechanics that would make them interesting to fight. The problem is a lot of these quest bosses tend to be made out of paper to the point they're roughly as durable as normal mobs, which definitely should not be the case. The call to adjust mechanical lethality is to fall in line with the previous suggestion, which specifically mentioned mechanics should not be as punishing at lower levels to create a fair difficulty curve.

What the change should ultimately encompass is that quest mobs take a while to defeat and thus live long enough for players to experience the mechanics even if there's a few people fighting it at once.
7. Adjust the challenge of normal mobs. While there may need to be some health and damage altercations, it may be better to play off of their small fry nature to increase mechanical challenge, such as by having on-death effects.
It would be a very Diablo 3-like mistake to throw normal mobs under the bus, especially since they are a core aspect of leveling gameplay due to their involvement in the many quests of WoW. Unfortunately, they are also probably one of the more lacking aspects of the game when it comes to difficulty curve, which is made worse by how badly they get affected by power creeped instakilling. However, this will likely be a problem again and again even if statistics for normal mobs are adjusted, which in itself is likely a time-consuming task. This is where my suggestion comes in:

The idea of my suggestion to increase the challenge of normal mobs is to play into the rapid-fire fast kill gameplay. From instant damage on engagement to a delayed blast on death, there's plenty of concepts that can work well with ensuring normal mobs have enough bite to keep players on their toes. Ideas for mechanics that could work well include but are not limited to this brief list:
  • On death, the corpse becomes septic and applies a stacking debuff if the player is too close. The debuff may reduce various statistics and/or deal damage over time. The debuff may also have an additional harmful effect if it reaches a certain amount of stacks.
  • When attacked, the mob unleashes a volley of poison bolts that strike the ground and damaging everything they touch. This effect bounces a specific number of times.
  • Instead of dying, a mob at low health will attempt to heal themselves to full (only) once and is immune to death during this time. If interrupted, they die. This effect does not activate if the mob is crowd controlled.
  • A mob spawns a bunch of tiny adds when they die. They may or may not be affected by AoE.
  • When killed, the player gets debuffed in some way that requires them to do specific actions to remove it (like jump around or enter water or lava).
To maintain consistency with my other suggestions, mechanical difficulty would scale with level.
8. Remove all guilds currently in the Guild Finder, forcing players to relist. In addition, eventually rework the Guild Finder to remove inactive guilds automatically.
This is a two-stage suggestion that addresses problems with the Guild Finder. I might've talked about this at some point, but it never hurts to cover my bases since I cited it as a source of a lack of mentoring in my previous article.

The second half of the suggestion is rather straightforward as it allows the Guild Finder to stay somewhat fresh, which allows new players to apply to active guilds without wasting invite requests. The first half, however, seems like a precursor to dumping the entire Guild Finder, but that's not the case. The general idea of the first half of the suggestion is that it's a primitive way to remove all the inactive guilds from the guild finder since more active guilds will almost certainly relist. Just to ensure they all do, it wouldn't hurt to have some communication when the removal happens.
9. Add/promote mid-level raiding content.
In the interest of covering all bases of mentoring, there's a serious lack of raiding content that a leveling player can realistically do without being carried by a level capped player. While some of my previous suggestions would help cover mechanics that one deals with during raiding, there's other nuances such as the social aspect that would be helpful to know before diving into even LFR at level cap. The one (realistic) way I think Blizzard could accomplish this idea is to add Timewalking raids, though there's alternatives such as making even more challenging world subzones that practically require a raid group to survive.
10. Promote premade dungeon grouping at lower levels.
While a lot of the focus for these articles is on solo-oriented questing content, I'm not going to pretend leveling dungeons don't have their own problems. A few of the suggestions I made here could be applied to dungeons, but then there's the problem of running into (possibly toxic) heirloomed players who are more prone to steamrolling through the content, carrying newer players in the process and allowing them to learn little. This is where premade grouping can come in since, especially with a bit of incentive, players can create a group that hopefully won't run into such issues. An extreme way to ensure this could happen is to lock newer players out of the Dungeon Finder until a much higher level, such as by requiring a level 30 achievement along with the level 15 base requirement.
11. Fix time continuity errors during leveling. *
There's a lot of ways this could be done but a good short term solution would be to have interim quests that involve Bronze Dragonflight who would help provide a narrative to allow travel to previous points in time, which would at least make the ability to go back to a Wrath of the Lich King Northrend and the like more logical. In the longer term, implementing flexible zones like in Legion may be a fairly good idea, though a potentially time-consuming one.

Implementing the Suggestions

With the major suggestions laid out, aside from the more difficult task of having Blizzard discover and, after careful consideration, decide to implement them, there's the aforementioned logistics of implementation.  As mentioned above, I will be dividing these suggestions along with a few additional minor ones between the short and long term.

Short-Term

These features are probably what could be in place prior to the Warcraft movie release. Doing so would also maximize benefits.
  • In general, focus on lower level content and work up from there to hopefully add features alongside players leveling up.
  • Add a few challenge encounters as described in suggestion 5.
  • Begin adjusting quest mob health upwards dramatically as described in suggestion 6. This may need to be done in a single implementation.
  • Start branching towards exploration rewards at lower levels (suggestion 4).
  • Adjust spawn rates of mobs and objects in starting zones to deal with overcrowding. Add quest object phasing if possible (suggestion 1).
  • List online resources in the Adventurer's Guide and Battle.net client.
  • Completely remove all guilds from the Guild Finder and remind players to relist.
  • Explicitly mention new players should not boost if they happen to have one, but to save it for later usage. Boosting early may heavily damage player retention, which would be the most steady source of income.
  • Add Bronze Dragonflight interim quests to address timeline continuity errors as explained in suggestion 11. *
Long-Term

With the short-term implementations out of the way, here's what could be done over the years that follow to account for the trickle (and possibly torrent) of new players:
  • Continue to follow up on the short-term implementations involving suggestion 4, 5, and 6.
  • Finish reworking the Guild Finder as mentioned in suggestion 8.
  • Implement suggestion 2, 3 and 7 together in its entirety when possible. This would be most effective when a new expansion is released (not Legion).
  • I'm not expecting much from suggestions 9 or 10, but it would be nice to see an enriched low-level dungeoning and raiding experience.
  • Make questing zones more flexible as mentioned in suggestion 11 if possible. *
     Final Statements (for real this time)

Leveling in World of Warcraft is in dire need of a change for the better and while there are those who say Blizzard is fine with only retaining a small percentage of potential players, I would respond with "but Blizzard can do a lot better." The game would get a lot more lively if instead of 1% of players who try the game stick around for a while, that number was 10% or higher. The purpose of the recent pair of articles was to draw attention to the idea improving the state of the game through an improved first impression experience that will better prepare new players for level cap than school does for the real world. It might even be enjoyable enough (due to the challenge) to tempt more players to raise up a few alts, increasing World of Warcraft's replayability. Leveling also doesn't need to intentionally be recreated into a time-consuming affair to accomplish such objectives, but rather the pace is more determined by the players themselves. I only hope Blizzard at least tries something over the next few months to address a possible torrent of new blood.

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