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World of Warcraft Column: Quest Hubs Are Dead, Finally!

By Mark Kern on September 11, 2012

They were my fault to begin with, at least partially. You see, I worked on World of Warcraft, the most quest-hub heavy game in existence. I even helped come up with that dang exclamation mark, borrowing it from Diablo 2 and being inspired by Metal Gear Solid.Since WoW, everyone shifted their online quest design to hubs and spokes, and a forest of exclamation marks as far as the eye could see. I, for one, am glad someone finally killed them for good.

I mean, of course, Guild Wars 2. The incredible success of the game has caused them to suspend digital sales, something I haven’t seen since WoW (which stopped shipping boxes so the servers could catch up in capacity). The momentum of Guild Wars 2 is incredible, and a credit to a team who dared to change the formula.

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If you haven’t played it, I’ll risk a quick aside. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have quest givers, instead, you explore the map in a largely non-linear fashion, traveling the map as you please, or as your level allows, and experiencing the content in a more exploratory way. As you travel, you encounter situations that need your help in areas designated on the map by hearts. You fill up a bar by doing what needs doing, fighting centaurs, retrieving stolen goods, etc. These happen automatically as the game’s UI alerts you to nearby events, you don’t need to speak with an NPC.  But that’s not all. Layered on top of that are Guild Wars dynamic events. Each location seems to have at least one dynamic event that occurs periodically, and they have repercussions. If the bandits are raiding the farmers, players should defend them, or the farm will fall. But if it does, there is always a counter-event to reverse the situation, you can now drive the bandits from the farm, and return things as they were. These function much like public quests in other games, everyone participating gets rewarded (grouped or not), and the state of the game world changes, at least for that small location on the map.

Why is this change so significant? Well, I think its obvious by the way players are voting with their dollars by snapping up GW2 in droves. It just feels…new. Your perspective shifts from just trying to grind through quests to actively exploring and experiencing the world. The entertainment factor creeps back in, much higher than other MMOs where players have long since figured out the optimal ways to level. You find yourself starting to pay attention more to the story and are therefore drawn into the world more, like a good book. All this is achieved, despite GW2’s approach of light dusting of story vs heavy and long cut-scenes or dialogue trees. It’s kind of amazing.

The feeling of grind melts away, and you just enjoy yourself. That’s the key, because all long-term (100+ plus) online games are about progression. The grind is still there, as it has to be for any progression based game. But the manner in which we go through the progression of Guild Wars 2 is fresh and unique enough to keep us interested and entertained for hundreds of hours. They did to the WoW formula what WoW did to the EQ formula. You see, quest hubs and such were heavily promoted by Blizzard to hide the fact that you were just grinding mobs to level (which was the original EQ formula). You were, in fact, still doing the same things as EQ, it just felt like you had a purpose and a story that guided you through it. It distracted you from the grinding. I remember early EQ players in beta for World of Warcraft. They would just run out into the fields and start killing monsters…and be disappointed. When I asked them if they tried the quests, they would always react with shock…they never tried them, or in some cases, even noticed them. But once people started questing, it was a completely different experience, and the rest was history.

I honestly can’t see myself ever going back to an MMO with exclamation mark NPCs and traditional quests ever again. Guild Wars 2 has changed that forever, and I’m sure will drive a host of imitators. And for that, I thank the team at Arena.net. At Red 5, a company I founded to try new things, we’ve been cooking up our own version of dynamic world events for a few years now. It was always a challenge to try and communicate what we were doing with our game, Firefall, to traditional MMO players. Thanks to Guild Wars 2, someone big has paved the way for people to learn a new way of playing MMOs, and we’re proud to follow in their footsteps and, maybe, just maybe, contribute to the trend of breaking the mold and trying new things. But more about that in my next article.

Ed Note: You can follow Mark Kern on Twitter: @Grummz

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Mark Kern
Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.
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