Grouping and Roadblocks

I may be the last person qualified to talk about grouping, but as someone who doesn’t group a lot (whether it’s my decision or a decision that I have to make due to circumstances beyond my control), when I do get to group-up I feel particularly attuned to difficulties with grouping systems.

Last night in The Elder Scrolls Online I was joined by two others as I was dealing with a quest in Craglorn. I had to kill three atronachs, but at least one of them was in a delve, a non-instanced dungeon which usually holds a skyshard, which is a mechanic to earn free skill points. Even though my friends didn’t have the quest, the XP was good, the loot promised to be good, and there was a skyshard in it for them.

Now, the problem with themepark MMOs and grouping is that themeparks rely heavily on structured content, and that content is designed to move players through zones at a measured pace. For example, World of Warcraft is so micromanaged that you can set your watch by the guaranteed leveling schedule based on which quests you take. One benefit of this approach is that designers can chain quests together to create a much larger story arc and take a little sting out of the fact that they’re asking players to do the same tasks over and over (assuming you’re paying attention to the quest dialog, that is). It also allows devs to tune their zones to different levels, which is a nice way of saying “hey gogogo players, be sure you see all of the hard work that we did for you before you race off to that “end game” that we’re always telling you is the most important part of our product!”

Grouping upsets this pace by allowing players to group up with others who may be ahead or behind, but who can never be counted on to be at the exact same point in the content as anyone else at any given time. Many MMOs understand this limitation and allow for the sharing of quests with newcomers so that other party members don’t have to visit the NPC who grants the mission. Of course, this breaks down if the mission is a multi-part affair because first-step-plus quests cannot be shared, so if the group forms at any time other than during the initial quest then anyone who comes in at a later point is simply along for the ride and any accidental benefits.

This bit us in the ass last night in a way. Atronach hunting was a mission in progress, maybe the second or maybe fifth mission in the chain. The party could all see the targets and could participate in the battle, but once it was complete I had a step to talk to a mage who was then questioning the atronachs we had just defeated (and apparently captured). While I could listen in on this fully articulated interrogation, the rest of the party just saw me standing there, staring into space. They had no idea that anything was going on, although it was assumed, and they had to keep themselves busy while just one member of the group was reaping ongoing benefits. Worse, they got none of the quest-end loot even though they helped with a good 90% of the tasks that made up the complete mission arc.

On the one hand, I understand the reasons for this. First, spoilers, especially in “One Tamriel” in ESO where any player can go anywhere in the world for any reason now. My party wasn’t “homed” to Craglorn like I was, but if they ever made it to Craglorn themselves then seeing the mission through my eyes would have effectively ruined it for them later on. Second, there’s skipping content in a multi-part arc. While spoilers are one reason, not knowing what is going on, or not being able to receive the benefits of completing prior steps is certainly something that devs cannot code around. I’m sure that there are other reasons that are unique to each game (The Secret World is another game that “punishes” groups on account of “personal stories” and keeping content “pure” for self-discovery).

I’d be OK if party members could at least see scripted scenes when they are allowed to participate. One party member mentioned Star Wars: The Old Republic as a game that does group content right because every player gets to cast a vote during scripted conversations. I doubt that my party from last night would have gotten the full impact of the scripted scene were they able to witness it but having participated in the task that lead to the result without being able to at least see the result seems like an odd punishment for the player’s own good in a way. If this were a real-world situation, late-stage add-ons would certainly be able to witness a conversation even if they didn’t have the context that makes it meaningful, so it seems weird and counter productive when claiming group play is the way MMOs were meant to be enjoyed.

Working on a Chain Gang in Elder Scrolls Online

Being an MMO veteran, I’ve completed far more quests in game than I can remember. In fact, I’m kind of amazed at how fewdo remember. There’s one in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes that had me kidnap NPCs for a mage’s experiments, only to find myself disposing of the bodies over the edge of a bridge. I remember that because it actually disturbed me. A lot of times, quests I do remember have more to do with the fact that I did them with other people than they do with the fact that the quest was memorable. 

I blame the lack of creativity in how quests are offered. We’re still fed the line that in any MMO, the “game doesn’t start until the end-game”, which still annoys me. Not only does it belittle the work that developers and designers do on The Game That Precedes The End Game, but it’s basically telling you that all of the time you spend prior to the end game — basically, all that questin’ — is just busy work

Now, this is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Do we know that questing is busy work because we’re told in veiled terms that none of it really matters, or do we decide that questing doesn’t matter because, well, it’s so poorly done? I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who was totally gung-ho to receive yet another quest to “kill X number of Y” and bring the NPC quest giver “Z number of widgets”. These fetch quests seem to make up the bread and butter of a lot of MMOs to the point where the trope of “kill ten rats” is practically canon. We do these quests because they give us cash and loot and XP, and in theme park games, these quests are the people-mover that pushes us through the game world. We tolerate questing because, well, we don’t really have much of a choice, do we? We need to level up to reach the Promised Land of endgame content, and the easiest way to do this is to speed through quests. 

A fact which is not lost on the ESO designers…

It’s sad that the genre which offers the largest mass of gameplay opportunity relies on these one-off tasks given to us on behalf of lazy-ass NPCs. I think one of the reasons why I am so involved with The Elder Scrolls Online is because it tends to mask its presentation of boring quest tropes by stringing them together in epic quest chains. I’ve noticed that accepting one quest from an NPC on the side of the road can lead to infiltrating an occupied fortress, seeking a set of documents that outline the invader’s plans, retrieving an artifact that turns out to be the enemy leader’s weakness, and the confronting the enemy leader for the final showdown. Written like this, I’m sure there’s a lot of examples of how other games offer similar arcs, but ESO presents these steps in an almost unbroken chain. There’s not a lot of running back to a stationary NPC to get the next step, as ESO‘s technology allows for updating NPC position and even zone composition (i.e. enemies are removed from a besieged village after you run them out of town) at certain stages of the arc. 

#SorryNotSorry, other MMOs

The result, then, is that ESO presents more of a story over time than most MMOs because the story tends to follow the player rather than force the player to return to anchor points over and over. You can not only see the results of your actions in the world (and are sometimes called out by voiced NPCs who recognize you for your deeds), but the quests tend to fall in line one after another until the arc is complete. Many other games simply send you out with a clutch full of jobs, leading players to min-max their time and energy to get as many of them done as possible before revisiting their quest-givers to turn them in. 

I am very much enjoying the ESO method of questing, although I’m a little irked that there’s no native way to ensure that I’ve completed everything a zone has to offer. Even though the quest steps fall into place, I still need to make sure I pick up the starter mission. Considering that a lot of ESO‘s quests are given by NPCs who are scattered all over the landscape, it’s difficult to know if everything has been discovered.

Not sure if he’s talking to me, or that loaf of bread