Bill Murphy's recent article on ArcheAge's major flaw – that it focuses too much on themepark questing when there's so much more to the game – echoes sentiments I had about the game during my time in alpha. The first comment, from DMKano, raises the perfectly valid point that MMO players have grown so accustomed to seeing “!” over NPCs' heads that there's no other way to “steer” players, especially new players through the early – and some would say “all” – parts of the game.
I say that it can be done, and that Guild Wars 2, as probably the most successful MMO to take a different approach, can lead the way.
The heart of the matter
“But wait,” you'll say, “Guild Wars 2 has hearts, which are basically the equivalent of theme park-y 'kill 10 rats' quests!” You're correct. There was even an old panel from a convention (Gamescom?) a year or so before the game came out where the dev team was talking about the perceived need to include some sort of “station-to-station” gameplay to go along with their wonderful world of dynamic events. They expressed concern that players might wander around too much wondering what to do when there wasn't an event going on, or even that they would ignore anything that didn't seem connected to an NPC with a “come hither” icon over his or her head.
So what exactly are hearts? They are, as mentioned, something to do when there's not an event nearby. They're cleverly disguised “kill 10 rats” quests, “in-between” content, stuff for you to do that's always there, that you can do when there isn't anything more exciting, like a dynamic event, going on. That's not a bad thing for an MMO to have, but as we're seeing more and more lately, that type of content doesn't have to take that form.
Dry Top is the perfect example of how a different philosophy can be applied. It's rather event-dense, but even if there's not anything going on nearby, there's other stuff to do. There are the usual exploration points – vistas, skill points, POIs – but also the challenges and Lost Coins to gather. In essence, Dry Top doesn't need hearts to provide that “in-between” gameplay. That non-event-based gameplay is absent from the other heart-less zones, such as Orr and Southsun Cove. Still, the fact that areas like this exist prove that you can still have fun in zones without hearts.
I don't see any reason why this approach couldn't be applied to other MMOs. Instead of occupying us with KTR quests, why not offer more in the way of exploration or challenges, whether dynamic events or “in-between” content, that aren't just about watching a kill meter fill up?
How did we get here?
There are a couple of major reasons why this approach isn't more widespread. The first is that the “old way” is just easier on developers. I'd imagine that even the simplest GW2 dynamic event is a lot harder to program than the most complex KTR quest. With time and practice, I imagine it gets easier, but you still have to overcome that initial hurdle of training your team to think and do things that are vastly different from what they've played and programmed in the past.
Then there's the question of what the players are used to, as DMKano pointed out. I'm not advocating that a game be completely devoid of linear questing; even if GW2 did away with hearts, it would still have the Personal and Living Stories, which would lightly guide players around the map. But if the main part of your game is exploration-style (I hesitate to go all the way and call it “sandbox”) gameplay... make it the main part of your game. Not something that occupies players 10% of the time on the rare occasions when they wander off the quest-giver-to-quest-giver path.
So many MMOs overwhelm you with so much linearity at all points in the game that it's easy to miss the “other” stuff or to believe (sometimes rightly) that it's not as rewarding because it isn't as constant and regular. ArcheAge is a prime example of a game that does this, at least in the early going – I only made it so far in alpha before I couldn't go on. So was Rift when it launched, and, from what I'm hearing, WildStar. Guild Wars 2 struggles a bit with this, too, due to hearts – remember when people thought there was a content gap in Queensdale because they did all the hearts and weren't level 15 yet?
If your goal is to encourage exploration-style gameplay , the only way to do it is to all but eliminate other options. If you have equal parts KTR quests and dynamic events in a game, the vast majority of people are going to gravitate toward the KTR stuff – especially when, in GW2's case, they're splashed all over the map, making them that much more convenient to find. They're obvious, they're always available, and they're what players have been doing for years.
Ripping off that Band-aid might hurt a bit, though. While some players will give up on a game like ArcheAge because it seems too run-of-the-mill, there are a lot of players – perhaps even the majority – who expect that kind of handholding, don't know how to deal with anything else, and will quickly get frustrated and lost in a more open world with less direction.. And before you get all, “lulz noobs go back to WoW and carebear handholding,” realize this: If you don't convert people to this “new” way of approaching MMOs, those games never sustain the critical mass needed to continue development. It's in your best interest to get people playing, and loving, your type of game. Inclusion, not exclusion.
So, how can it be done? How can die-hard, “!”-followers get into games with more open questing and events? Guild Wars 2 gives us some answers. In the years leading up to GW2's launch, ArenaNet published a ton of articles and did plenty of videos outlining their philosophy and how the game would be very different from most MMOs on the market, with its lack of a trinity, reliance on events over quests, minimal gear grind, etc. You can debate whether those approaches were effective, but at least they put it all out there for everyone to see.
The problem is, there were a lot of people who didn't pay that much attention. I know it seems that every MMO, GW2 especially, is hyped to the moon and back to the point that by the time it launches, you're sick of hearing about it, but that's only if you're the type of person who... well, visits sites like this one and reads and comments on articles every day. I've heard various statistics quoted, that only 10% or 20% or 30% of players ever visit a game's website beyond what's needed to set up an account. The vast majority of people don't read news, visit forums, watch streams, and so on. It's likely that a significant number of people who bought GW2 were just expecting a prettier World of Warcraft and were greatly confused with how to really play the game. You still see it in forums and on Reddit today.
If those people aren't going to read the PR and marketing attached to a game, the only way to reach them is within the game itself, to essentially force the information on them. No, you can't copy everything from the website and cram it into tooltips, but you can do more to direct them toward your game's unique features. How many MMOs have you played where the first tooltip you get tells you how to move with WASD and activate your skills with the number keys? You skip those over as quickly as you can and, sometimes, skip the next few tooltips too, missing vital information.
Guild Wars 2 does a better than average job on this front. At the start, you're told to visit a scout, who pans out the map and explains to you that there's stuff going on all over that you should jump right in and help people. True, he mostly tells you to do hearts, but at least the “Don't wait for an invitation” invective hints at the notion that you don't need to collect a quest before setting out, and future scouts direct you toward event hotspots. It also stops all other action in the game and forces you to look at the map and listen to the voice-over; it's not just an additional window that distracts you from a monster in your face and that you have an urge to close immediately because “I know how to play an MMO.” I think more games should halt the action like this and provide impossible-to-miss information to outline their unique features. It might break immersion a little bit, but it's better than losing a player due to frustration.
It will still be a while before MMO gamers are ever comfortable with doing things that aren't handed to them by a man (or an elf or a quaggan) without an exclamation point (or a heart) over their heads. Maybe it will never happen. Or maybe games like Guild Wars 2 can lead the way in creating a new normal and free us from the punctuation-shaped shackles of our gaming forefathers.