Area completion in MMOs

I’ve been spending some time recently playing GW2, and I think in some respects they’ve done a better job at solving the problem of area completion of any MMO yet. I don’t however think that the problem is fully solved; some issues remain.

What is area completion?

When an area is “complete”, that means you’ve exhausted all content in that area; there’s no longer any reason to visit. In most MMOs, this is a serious problem. Devs spend months and years building areas, filling them with content, balancing everything, testing, and perfecting… then players complete those areas in a matter of hours or days and move on to the next areas.

It’s common for MMOs to have endgame areas, where players are expected to remain once they hit the level cap or equivalent. These areas are intended for longer-term use than other areas, so one often finds e.g. daily quests or gear grinds or other ways to keep players busy. Even these areas though are susceptible to completion, depending on the design.

It’s my beliefs that area completion is a bad thing on many levels. If we never truly completed an area, we’d continue to have reasons to revisit, meaning old content would remain useable instead of being used and discarded. Completing an area often feels to me a bit like putting a nail in a coffin lid; it signifies that I’m one step closer to exhausting the game’s content, and leaves me with fewer options for places to explore.

How do current MMOs address this problem?

GW2 has the best solution I’ve yet seen, though it’s decidedly incomplete. In GW2, every area has a maximum level; players above the area’s level cap will be automatically lowered down to one level above the area cap; thus no player will ever be drastically more powerful than the PvE content around them. Because all content remains challenging regardless of the character’s level, GW2 is able to reward characters based on their level instead of the level of the content. Mechanically, this means that a lvl 25 player will get lvl 25 rewards from killing stuff anywhere in game.

Not only do the GW2 mechanics sustain both challenge and reward, they also make it very difficult to know when you’ve actually experienced all the content in an area. I don’t think the game takes this far enough, but the solution currently implemented is pretty good. In short, the answer is dynamic events.

Yes, I know. They’re not really dynamic. Let’s move past that. 😉

Dynamic events are sequences of in-game events that are triggered by players. They can be short and simple or branch out and have many steps and many possible outcomes. Most importantly though, they’re not predictable in any meaningful sense.

In SWTOR or TSW, the two games I’ve played most recently besides GW2, a typical MMO approach to questing is used. Player characters wander the world looking for quest givers, and when we find them, we select one or more quests from the list offered by that NPC. The fact that the list exists in the first place though is an immediate indication that the game will be to some extent predictable and controllable; you can choose what content to do at what time, and when you’ve completed it all you’ll know; there’s a finite list of quests offered by any NPC and it’s easy to tell what you have and have not done.

With dynamic events though, there’s no way to tell how many of an area’s events you’ve experienced. There’s no master list in-game to tell you whether you’ve done 1/4 or half or all of the dynamic events in that region. That means it’s challenging to determine how much progress you’ve made relative to the area’s total content available; this is a Good Thing.

The other consequence of the dynamic event design is that players cannot easily control their questing experience. Rather than essentially having a list of every quest in a zone, and being able to decide which ones to do in which order, we have a list of unknown length, from which quests will periodically be offered in various areas. As a player, our only choice really is whether to participate or not.

What this means to me as a player is fairly revelatory; I’ve already commented on how GW2 changes my whole approach to a gaming session. In other games, I plan everything out in advance, because this increases my efficiency. In GW2, I can’t do a lot to control my efficiency, as far as dynamic events go anyhow, and so I kind of go with the flow. It’s quite liberating.

Now, there remain several ways in which area completion does exist in GW2. Some of these I think are ok, and some I think should be changed; I’ll get to that last bit later on.

The simplest and most obvious way in which area completion exists in GW2 is in the map itself, and the linked area exploration reward. Every area has a set number of waypoints, points of interest, skill challenges, and vistas. Those are map elements, and exist largely to encourage players to visit more locations. I think these work well enough and don’t need to be changed.

The other area completion mechanic in place is the renown heart system. Essentially, renown hearts are the replacement for static PvE content, and they are in some respects an improvement over conventional MMO quests. When you visit an area, there will be a group of NPCs there trying to accomplish something; e.g. to pacify foes, or conduct research, or do some fishing, or whatever. The tasks that would help the local NPCs are made available to any player character in the area; you can choose what you want to do from the available list. I appreciate that you don’t need to speak to an NPC to accept a quest, and don’t need to return to an NPC to complete the quests; you just do stuff. When you’ve done “enough” stuff, the renown heart goes from appearing empty to appearing filled; a filled heart signifies that you’ve done all you need to in that area. As you can imagine, this is a type of area completion, and so I’ll have some thoughts below on how this can be improved.

Now, there is a bit of an odd disconnection there, if you consider this from the point of view of your character. When you arrive in a new area, you just immediately and magically know what the residents most need. As you help them, the residents immediately and magically know what you’ve done for them. Not only is the information sharing… puzzling… but there’s also no agency on the part of characters to control the conversation; indeed, there’s not really any conversation at all with most NPCs.

How can area completion be more fully prevented?

I think the most essential element in preventing area completion is unpredictability. The more players are able to predict what they’ll find in an area, they better able they are to determine their progress towards completing all content in the area.

For instance, if an area is completely static, then it’s dead simple to know how far you’ve progressed towards area completion; there are X number of quests and you’ve completed Y. There will always be X number of quests for all players entering that area.  Now, if the area were completely dynamic (not achievable with today’s technology), then every time a player visited, the area would be different. Players wouldn’t know in advance what quests they’d be able to complete there, or what monsters they’d face, or what rewards they could seek.

Dynamic events are a great first step towards making areas less predictable, but they have a significant flaw; there isn’t always a dynamic event going, wherever you are. Players seeking a PvE experience are forced to rely, to some extent, on the static and predictable and non-repeatable renown heart system, and supplement that with dynamic events.

I’d like to see more static content added, but with all sorts of restrictions and limitations on it. Conventional wisdom says that you want to maximize use of all content; game developers don’t want to pour time and effort into making quests that will only be experienced by a small portion of the playerbase. This is quite understandable, but also unfortunate, because having RARE content can be a great enticement.

Say for instance there’s a wandering merchant who offers really good deals, who only appears very very rarely. Or perhaps when a given dynamic event has been completed successfully, an NPC will sometimes offer a static quest to go do something. This could allow devs to take the best of both words and merge them together. In my view, this would entail mixing the unpredictability of dynamic events with the amazing hand-crafted static quests and cutscenes of The Secret World.

GW2 has “jumping puzzles”, which are fairly complicated platforming trials in hidden areas; these are an excellent motivation for players to explore more. They are however sadly completely static, although they’re repeatable. TSW encouraged players to explore by scattering “lore” around the world in the form of small glowing boxes that characters could obtain; the lore would appear in a lore journal and would help the player piece together the plot and background. TSW’s lore is static and one-use though.

I’d like to see something a bit like that, but dynamic; it’d be neat if players simply didn’t know where the hidden rewards of an area were currently scattered. Rather than going to a webpage to find the hidden jumping puzzles, I’d love to have a game encourage us to literally just explore ourselves. Imagine how much more use could be made of existing content, if we were sufficiently rewarded upon re-exploration. These could not practically speaking be complicated series of puzzles or platform jumps, but they could easily by glowing boxes to click on, or the like; the challenge is in finding them and getting to wherever they are.

I think it’s good to use maps to guide players around, and in doing so, it’s fine if you mark where players have been. That in itself is only a mild disincentive to re-explore an area, provided a player has a high expectation of running into novel content.

To some extent this is simply pushing back on an old and well-known problem; players always want more content. I think though that it’s very important not to give players a sense that they’ve completed an area and should move on; it’s ok to allow them to move on but to the extent that they feel they NEED to move on, the older content is being wasted.

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