Jumping through hoops in World of Warcraft

2nd February 2009 – 11.49 am

I am exploring Northrend a little with my death knight, Gnomesblight, when I stumble in to Wintergarde Keep. It isn't my first visit, as a chat with some NPC in an eastern zone, probably Howling Fjord, ended up with me randomly being thrown on gryphons and sent half-way across the continent needlessly a week ago or so. I hadn't stayed long in Wintergarde Keep, mostly because I was only exploring the landscape that time too and hadn't planned on being flown so far west, but partly because there didn't seem like there was much to do.

This time, there still isn't much to do. I have one quest lingering from my last visit that involves a gryphon ride from the keep to somewhere, yet another entirely passive mission that takes time but not input to complete, which I decide to complete to clear it from my log, although 'decide' may be too deterministic as I think I just talk to the wrong person when trying to fly out of the keep and am sent on the quest instead.

Having been pulled away from exploration mode in to a quest I take the next quest given to me in the keep, to pick up villagers whilst riding a gryphon, so that I don't need to come back again. It's a curious place, the keep seems to be fully populated with buildings and NPCs, and it even has an inn where characters can rest, yet there is a dearth of quests. It feels unfinished, or a quest destination for Horde characters. But when I complete my quest the mini-map lights up suddenly with yellow exclamation marks.

This is a frustrating trend in quest-giving in Wrath of the Lich King. When Sapphire arrived in Borean Tundra there was little to do until I had been recruited to work for the Alliance Vanguard, working through a small chain of quests before anything else opens up for me to do. Gnomesblight found the same problem in Howling Fjord, having to complete a small quest chain before being able to pick up more than one quest at a time. I had hoped this was only a feature of the introductory areas, a welcome to Northrend, but now I have been exposed to it several times.

It is annoying enough to have to run back and forth to the same place for a single quest chain and it is made worse when it is the only quest you have for that area. In a game where it is possible to have a dozen quests available in a single place, where you can run around and progress multiple quests at the same time, it feels like slamming in to a brick wall when you have to slow down to concentrate on just one. That the game forces this emergency brake on your efforts to advance is bewildering.

I can understand the idea behind the design. The compulsory quest chain highlights the overall story behind the game's expansion, revealing crucial plot points in an attempt to engage your character to more than an experience bar. Unfortunately, not only does it come across as overly controlling the compulsory quests fail in an important respect. It's bad enough that you can turn up at a new area and feel like you are in the wrong place or that there is nothing to do there because there is only one quest to pick up, but it's even worse when you play more than one character.

I took Sapphire over to Howling Fjord in preparation for running Utgarde Keep with the guild. After completing nearly all the quests in Borean Tundra I had attained an honoured reputation with the Alliance Vanguard, yet the commander of Valgarde refused to let me work for anyone until I completed his petty little initial quests. I also face the same problem when I take Gnomesblight to Borean Tundra, and it looks like I will encounter it again and again in every new zone, being forced to slow down to a crawl to complete some initial quest chain.

These initial quests really need to be the pinnacle of quest design and adventuring excitement for this MMORPG-imagining of cut scenes to work. One of the pleasant aspects of World of Warcraft is its large number of quests, in that it is feasible to ignore the ones you don't like with little consequence. Now, however, if you find rescuing ten villagers too burdensome when five should be enough, particularly when your gryphon keeps throwing you off its back because you fly too close to Wintergarde Mine even though it is supposed to be happy to fly there, you have no choice. Either you tolerate the tedium or you forgo access to a considerable number of more interesting quests. To have to do this for every character you run through the zone will get tiring quickly.

It is a peculiar change for Blizzard to have made. The heavily limited level requirements on quests already feels horribly restrictive now, more so than Outlands ever did, forcing you to trudge on in a zone you would rather leave for some new scenery, but to further restrict quest selection before completing a compulsory quest of Blizzard's choice is quite unfriendly. In a period where Blizzard are trying to remove inconveniences from players—remaining mounted on ships and in more in-town areas, reducing collection times of quest items, and changing mining to collect all ore at once, amongst other changes—these forced-plot quests seem like a big step backwards.

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