How do you change a persistent online world in a way that makes it feel like completing a quest made a difference? Blizzard's phasing was one way, where parts of the world were altered to reflect the consequences of your actions. You could see it in Northrend after Wrath of the Lich King launched and throughout post-Cataclysm Azeroth. While phasing fights the impression that you're running around a static, changeless prison, it also separates you from others if they're not as far along in the same quest. So while you may be running around in a sparkling flower garden filled with eternally grateful, glassy-eyed woodland creatures after vanquishing a threat, your friends still a few quests behind will be stuck in a charred wasteland filled only with ill-tempered demons. With Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard is hoping to avoid cutting up the social experience for the sake of story.
"I always tell my quest designers that phasing is like the story sledgehammer," said Dave Kosak, lead quest designer at Blizzard. "We want to start using it sparingly because I found the downside of phasing is it separates the players. It separates people. You've done the content, I haven't done the content, suddenly we can't adventure together. If you do too much phasing pretty soon everybody's seeing something different and they're not together. We didn't like that, so we are still doing phasing for those big, really important story moments where they have a big visual impact on the world in a very specific area, but otherwise we're trying to avoid doing a lot of phasing. It separates the players and that's less of a fun experience."
Mists of Pandaria's upcoming talent tree redesign.
Though large-scale phasing won't be as prevalent, the team still wants to use it to convey subtler effects. "I might see flags everywhere, I might see fireworks going off, you might not see that yet because you haven't done those quests, but we're still adventuring together," said Kosak. "We did that with patch 4.2 in Cataclysm. We had a series of daily quests that had an individual progression so you and I could be in the same place. Because I've gone farther in the quest line, I would see that the [quest] hub has evolved. I would see a vendor standing there. If you're earlier the vendors aren't there yet for you. We can adventure together but still see changes in the world. We're doing a lot of that kind of thing in Pandaria so you'll definitely get a sense of a personal progression in a lot of different places."
In addition to favoring smaller-scale phasing, the quest lines will be broken up so there are fewer extended, linear stories. "In Cataclysm we had some really linear zones that you play through in order and we had a really tight story," said Kosak. "But the second or third time you play through with a different character you had to play it the same way." By breaking the quest lines up into smaller chunks and spreading them out across Pandaria's zones, Blizzard hopes to make quest progression a little more open-ended. "You'll be able to pick and choose the stories and the quests that you want to play through. They're all thematically related so they all kind of deal with the big theme of the zone but you can play them out of order. We just wanted to give players more freedom to experience the level up process differently with each character."
For more on the Monk class, check outour previous coverage.
In past expansions Blizzard has introduced quest types where you hop on temporary mounts and are presented with a new ability set for the quest's duration. While these help break up the pace of standard questing, don't expect to see quite as many of these quest types in Mists of Pandaria. Instead, Blizzard wants to use special quest types sparingly to ensure they don't become too distracting. "I think that if, as a player, you get too many quests in a row where you don't get to play your class, it stops feeling like WoW," said Kosak. "Your Rogue stops being a Rogue because 'Oh, I'm driving in a car, now I'm driving a tank and now I'm climbing a tree.' We want you to feel like a Rogue. Those kind of special quests are nice when sprinkled about so that they become a highlight, they become something you really appreciate."
Kosak used an example of a quest in Mount Hyjal where, in the midst of a burning forest, you toss baby bears from a tree onto a trampoline to save them. "It's a one-off quest, I can't say there was much gameplay because it's very easy, it was more of a toy. You could throw the bears at other players, you could do all kinds of fun stuff with it, so that quest felt special because afterwards you went back to fighting again. If every quest you do is trying to be special then none of them are special, so we really try and mix it up."
This contributes to Blizzard's idea of World of Warcraft "flow", as Kosak called it, which determines quest structure and story delivery. "You shouldn't be more than a couple of minutes away from combat," he explained.
When you reach level 90, you'll find a different style of daily content. You'll get a series of quests to raise a Cloud Serpent mount, for instance. The process begins as you receive an egg, then continues as you essentially raise the Serpent through a series of quests until it's mature enough to ride all around Pandaria. In the Valley of the Four Winds, one of Pandaria's seven zones, you'll be able to set up a personal farm with one of the factions there. You can plant crops, set up herbalism harvesting nodes, harvest cooking ingredients and maybe, just maybe, some kind of harvestable pet.
Kosak provided another example. "There are these four temples for the August Celestials, the guardian spirits of Pandaria. Every day there's a problem at one of the temples and that's where your daily quest hub is that day. So there are different sets of dailies and at each temple there are also little randomizations as well; it won't always do the exact same thing at the temples every day. So working with that faction should be really different every day. There should be a lot of different things you can do and we really just put a lot of emphasis on that and a lot of emphasis on telling a story as you progress through the faction. We wanted factions to not be just a bar in the bottom of your screen."
Quest progress through Mists of Pandaria will also occasionally take you through dungeons, teasing eventual encounters you'll have with a five man group. Some dungeons, such as the towering Stormstout Brewery, are built fully to scale out in the open world. You can run around the entire Brewery as it's simply sitting in a field in the middle of the terraced farmlands of the Valley of the Four Winds zone. "That was a huge, huge thing for us because historically, you know, a dungeon is just a portal," said Cory Stockton, lead content designer. "Normally everything's faked, you know? Like back with Hellfire Ramparts in Outland, it was a version that was like twenty percent the size of the real version to get it to fit in the world. Then the real version was huge because it had to really work for a five man party."
In terms of what you'll find inside dungeons, Blizzard is pushing for clarity over complexity in Mists. "Looking back at Cataclysm, we had some fights that were in our eyes still too complicated for a lot of players to deal with right up front," said Stockton. "We firmly don't believe that someone should have to come into a fight and have to read this detailed journal to know how to complete the fight. If we find out stuff like that is happening, we'll go back in and try to find out ways we make the fight still super fun and engaging, but have it be clear enough that you don't have to go to Wowhead."
Within the Brewery, for instance, you'll face a giant rabbit boss called Hoptalus. After you fight your way through packs of vicious bunnies, some of which carry explosives, Hoptalus bursts from a beer keg and assaults you with a whirlwind (which Blizzard is calling a furlwind), a carrot breath attack and a hop attack. "He actually hops can land on someone," said Stockton. "When he does that he puts a giant marker on the ground so that you can see it and know where he's coming."
This is part of how Blizzard hopes to communicate boss mechanics to players so checking the dungeon journal isn't a requirement for success. "A dungeon is there to beaten," said Stockton. "A dungeon is not there to have you fail on a boss seven times because you don't know what's going on. If that's happening then we're not reaching our goals. So moving into Panadria we're not going to make things so simple that people can just walk through it, but we want things to be more clear. I think there's a big separation between clarity and something being complicated."
Through Mists of Pandaria's quests and dungeons, it seems as though existing gear will be replaced fairly quickly with the rewards offered in the expansion. How fast, exactly? "By the end of the first zone for sure," said Stockton. "We're actually looking at giving out rewards in a little bit of a different way. We're not going to actually give out rewards on every single quest. Instead we're going to give out rewards that directly correlate to your class and your spec." Stockton explained that quest rewards will be handed out more sparingly, so that you might go through seven or eight quests without getting an item reward, just gold. But then when you are finally offered an item, it'll be more useful and meaningful. "Most players throw away ninety some percent of that stuff. They just look at it, vendor, boom, gone. We just don't think that's fun. It's almost more of a chore. Why not just give the players the gold? If they're not going to get something useful, give them the gold."