Magic Compass Revisited
Spinks had a post up a while ago about in-game magic compasses, tools that guide players to areas and tasks that suit their character’s power. These days, compasses come in all shapes and forms. They can appear as quests that guide you into new regions that fit your level, map markers that guide you to quest objectives, group finding tools that assign you to a dungeon that suits you, and more. In theme park MMOs these compasses are vital to making the ride enjoyable. In sandboxes you won’t find them as much, but they can still be quite useful. At what point do they start playing the game for you, however? How many hints can the game give us until we reach a “press x to not die” level of triviality? (The latter is a level of guidance that I will not talk about today. Sorry folks, post is long enough as it is.)
Power Based Guidance
Whether you believe Keen or Bioware, role playing games (and therefore MMORPGs) include an element of character growth. Over time, player characters get stronger and are able to tackle stronger foes. I’ve written about monster scaling before, but MMORPGs don’t usually scale monsters to the player level. Instead they provide various regions to play in with stronger monsters in some, weaker monsters in others. When I came from Ragnarok Online to World of Warcraft I was impressed by the way that quests always guided me into the correct regions for my level. In Ragnarok you either had to explore regions and test the monsters in them for their strength (i.e. try to fight them), or look the difficulties up on the internet. It wasn’t uncommon for a region with very weak monsters to be adjacent to one with very strong monsters. An unsuspecting newbie could quickly find her death that way.
WoW’s quests function as a power based (or level based in this case) compass. Level limitations on the quests themselves see to it that you only get quests that you are powerful enough to complete. This is the basic concept of a themepark MMO – always guide the player in small steps to the next part of beatable content. While players can leave these rails, the game strongly encourages staying on them. That doesn’t mean, however, that sandboxes can’t have this type of compass. If your game has character advancement but no monster scaling there have to be monsters that are harder than others. While it’s possible to mix and match these, that will lead to many a dead player. In most cases there will therefore be easier and harder regions to play in – and it wouldn’t be very user friendly not to give any guidance as to where to find which.
Sandboxes wouldn’t want a fixed line of quests to follow, but they can – for example – place guards in strategic positions that make passing into the harder zones difficult if you are not powerful enough. They could also just provide users with a map that denotes zone difficulty, though that is obviously somewhat immersion breaking. Clearly, the danger here is always that the sandbox might become a theme park with too much guidance involved. Careful balance on part of the designer is required, but that’s still better than throwing people who don’t look up zone difficulty on the internet to the fishes.
Objective Based Guidance
Unlike the power based compass, objective based guidance tells you directly where to go and what to do there. In WoW you used to get a quest description, a text detailing your task, and a loose description of where you would need to go to complete it. Nowadays, games often highlight quest objectives on the map and might even tell you what exactly you are supposed to do when you get to that place. The World of Warcraft add-on Quest Helper, for example, was hugely popular when it surfaced. (These days, the new quest map in the WoW client makes it less interesting.) The add-on queries an internal database of quest objectives and then calculates the optimal path for completing these. The player gets an arrow on her screen that points in the direction of the next objective and lists what to do when the location is reached.
I used Quest Helper a lot myself and enjoyed it because it greatly improved the speed at which I could complete quests and therefore reduced the time needed to get my characters to the maximum level. It also meant, however, that I cared even less about the content of the quest texts than I did before. I have no idea what most WoW quests are actually about, I just wanted to complete them as fast as possible. Quest Helper, therefore, was good for me because it allowed me to reduce the time spent in parts of the game that don’t interest me – but a really good game wouldn’t even have those parts. My Dragon Age: Origins adventures showed that it is possible to craft a story that I actually care for, MMORPGs just haven’t been able to achieve that yet.
Play Style Based Guidance
I don’t think this type of magic compass actually exists, at least i haven’t seen one yet. A play-style based compass is a tool that shows a player the way to other players with similar interests. I have briefly touched on the subject in my posts on server structure, especially in the third one. If you have a channel-based structure, what’s to stop people from somehow describing their play style and then game then assigning people to channels based on that? Role players would generally meet other role players, while achievers wouldn’t have to deal with people that have to say “I will smite you with a mighty blow from my magic hammer. Forsooth!” before every attack. Akin to the looking for group tool that caused Spinks to write her post, play style based guidance would likely be automatic in that case.
Guiding players is important for their comfort, and as a game designer you want your players to be comfortable or they won’t play your game. One of the bigger annoyances in Star Trek Online, for example, was that some quests didn’t really tell you where to go. Now that they added the ability to scan for anomalies on missions, the “find X pieces of Y on planet Z” missions became much more bearable. Along the same lines, the only mission that I actually dropped in the game was one that said “Find the planet with a ground battle on it in this sector and win that battle for us.” (paraphrased). There was no way that I would just fly around space, checking out the 20 or so star systems in the sector until I stumble upon the one that I need. That may or may not be realistic, but it isn’t fun.
Too much guidance is dangerous, however, and one should always look critically upon the game if a lot of guidance is needed to make the players happy. Chances are that parts of your game are actually quite bad if people desire guidance to get through them faster.