Shortly after the final patch for World of Warcraft’s Cataclysm expansion was released, Blizzard posted an interesting interview with Greg Street, one of the lead designers looking back on what worked and didn’t work in this update, and what they wanted to do better with the next one. One of the first things mentioned was the enthusiasm for redesigning the 1-60 level zones.
Having played in the classic zones in my first days of the game, it certainly was refreshing to see new quests and graphics for the new characters I created when Cataclysm was released. (Point of note: I started playing Warcraft late, only after the Wrath of the Lich King expansion had been out for a couple years, so my very first level Alliance character was the only one who travelled through the classic zones, and I never did get to see the Horde side of things).
The changes in Cataclysm brought along some very nice changes to the quests, and certainly made for a fresher feel to the game – the storylines were interesting, and the “kill 10 boars,” quests were mercifully reduced. But I also agree with Greg’s thoughts about the problem of linear quests. Quest storylines and “hubs” are now tightly interlocked, so to progress on, it’s often necessary to accept a chain of quests if you want to level your character, whether or not you agree with the goals of those quests. In one particularly memorable instance, my character was being asked to drive out native centaurs to make way for a greedy prospector seeking land rights to oil. As little roleplaying as is needed for to play Warcraft, the whole goal of the quest really rubbed me the wrong way – based on my imagined beliefs for my character, he would not accept such a quest, and I resented having to “complete the chain” in order to unlock later pieces of the storyline (and of course, the all-important gear rewards).
In the classic zones before Cataclysm, you often could accept any number of quests, color coded for difficulty – green for easy, yellow for medium, orange for hard, and red for very difficult (at least solo). When Cataclysm was released, it became rare to see orange quests, and red quests are now almost non-existent. In addition, many quests are not “unlocked” or visible to be accepted until your character is deemed to be the appropriate level.
It’s looking like Blizzard understands that there were some things in those classic quests that didn’t need fixing, but beyond bringing back quest difficulty and opening the questlines, I’ll go ahead and suggest going one further: how about introducing the idea of level-based questing within every zone? What if as a level 60 character coming back to, say, Duskwood, there were quests available in his level range (green thru red)? Now that “phasing” (the concept of the environment changing based on your characters actions or quests completed) has been successfully implemented, why wouldn’t it be possible for a higher level character returning to a zone he’d visited earlier to see a changed town based on what is going on, with new challenges to be overcome? Sure, there will always be high-level zones such as Icecrown or Uldum that will require characters to work up to being ready to for them, but it would be great if characters to experience a homecoming in those old zones, only to have to help out with a problem that only a higher-level character could solve. In this way, quest levels could be stacked within the zones for low, medium and high level quests, adding huge replay value not to mention leveraging nostalgia for those earlier zones?
Stacking story within the zones in addition to the (less frequent) building out of new continents for exploration (e.g. Panderia) keeps the world fresh and dynamic, and gives much more flexibility to the designers. While new zones are always wonderful and new, making existing zones last as long as possible, while keeping players engaged and interested would seem to be planning for the long run – Warcraft is already seven years old, and has proven to be amazingly long-lived for an online game. With Mists of Panderia on the horizon, we'll see if Blizzard's designers are up to the task of keeping up the attraction.