Friday, August 29, 2008

Public Quests

Probably the most acclaimed feature in all the post-NDA reports on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is public quests. Even the people who reported negatively on WAR usually had something nice to say about public quests. Pretty much everyone who tried public quests found them fun, and so did I. But I didn't want to write about them too early, because I think the analysis of public quests requires some deeper thought: How do they work? Why are they fun? And could they become a standard feature of every future MMO?

I'll start with a description of how public quests work in WAR. Public quests happen in open world areas: You walk around in the open world and suddenly find that you just entered a public quest, with a big message in the middle of the screen alerting you to that fact, and a smaller message telling you about the state of that quest. The state of a public quest is, as the name suggests, public, and not private like the other quests. While a normal quests would ask you to kill 10 foozles, a public quest demands 100 foozles to be killed, but doesn't care who does the killing. Typically a public quest has 3 stages (at least I didn't see any other number): In the first stage a number of normal mobs has to be killed, and there is no time limit. In the second stage there is a time limit, typically 10 minutes, to perform a smaller number of tasks, which are somewhat more difficult. For example to destroy 8 catapults, guarded by champion mobs. You can usually solo a champion mob of your level, but it takes much more time. In the third stage typically a hero monster has to be killed, which definitely can't be soloed, and again there is a time limit.

Everybody in the same public quest area sees the same quest status. And to kill the final hero mob of the third stage, players necessarily have to work together, or at least simultaneously beat on the same target. Once the final mob dies, a treasure chest appears, and loot is handed out in a so-called Vegas Loot System. Basically all your actions in the three stages of the public quest were counted in invisible contribution points. The person with the highest contribution point score receives a "gold medal", giving him +400 on his loot roll. The other high contributors get lesser medals and less bonus points on their loot roll. Then everyone rolls a random number between 1 and 1,000, and adds his bonus from the contribution to that. The rolls are invisible, but you can click on the loot window to see the details. The high roller gets the best loot bag, and the other players get lesser loot bags depending on their total roll. If too many players participated, some will get no loot at all. Obviously getting a +400 bonus on a 1 to 1,000 roll gives you an increased chance to come out on top, but you can still roll a 1 and come up empty, while people who contributed much less roll a 1,000 and get the top loot bag. A loot bag, when opened, gives you a choice of various treasures. Even epics can be found in the best loot bags, starting as low as level 10. If you already got the item from your loot bag, or better, you can always take the trade goods or money. After distributing the treasure, the public quest resets and starts over with stage 1.

Even if you never roll high enough to get a loot bag, you will be rewarded. Every monster killed gives out some influence points, distributed among everyone who contributed (including healers). Typically killing a stage 1 monster all alone would give you 100 influence points. Influence points accumulate on a bar to the right of the mini-map showing three reward levels. At about 2,500, and about 5,000, and about 10,000 influence you can get a reward (these values from the preview weekend, not sure about higher levels). Getting the reward doesn't reduce your influence point counter, and you can get each level of reward only once, so usually it is best to gather the 10,000 points and get all three rewards. The first reward is just a potion or so, the second a green item, and the last reward a blue item which is better than anything you could get as random drop or regular quest reward, albeit not quite as good as the best reward from the Vegas Loot System for the same public quest.

Usually there are several (2 or 3) public quests in the same zone, and they share the same influence point counter, but as far as I know have different Vegas Loot tables, so after winning the top loot bag you might want to move on to the next one. Or if you are in a group repeat the same one and hope a friend wins next time. There are even some RvR public quests, in which for example the orcs have to kill 100 dwarf NPCs, while the dwarves have to kill 100 orc NPCs. Only of course that doing so will flag you for PvP, and enable the players of the other faction to kill you and slow down your killing spree, so they can finish theirs first. First faction to kill their 100 enemies advances into stage 2, while the other faction can only try to sabotage them from completing the next stages.

If you are alone, you can solo the first stage and then usually fail to do the second stage, but will certainly fail on the third stage. So no solo epics for you, but at least you can grind influence points. A decent full group working together, or slightly more people if they don't cooperate, can finish the third stage (again this is observation from tier 1 and 2 from the preview weekend). But there is no way to limit participation, so sometimes there are 20 people or more in the same public quest. That finishes the public quest quickly, but of course you only have a 1 in 20 chance to get the best loot bag. And you'll have to decide whether you join a group (usually there is at least one open group going in any public quest), or just let everyone fight for himself. Groups are usually more effective, because influence points are evenly distributed between them. Not sure about contribution points, as they are invisible, but I didn't have the impression that they were evenly distributed in groups. Dirty little secret: Healing appears to give a lot of contribution points, my healer in one big public quest with over a dozen players came on top of the contribution list 4 times in a row.

So what makes public quests so much fun and so much different from lets say World of Warcraft gameplay? In WoW in the open world, other players are basically your enemies: The last thing you want if you are on a quest to collect 10 foozle ears in a certain area is to arrive in that area and find already half a dozen other players there hunting foozles. They'll kill "your" foozles, and force you to wait for respawns. Even if you could persuade them to group with you, you'd end up getting your quest items slower than if you had soloed with no one around. In a WAR public quest, other players are automatically your allies. The open group system makes it much easier to join them in a group, but even if you prefer not to group it is better to have those other players around, so there is a chance to kill the stage 3 boss and get some loot.

But shouldn't WAR public quests rather be compared to WoW dungeons? Lets do that! A WoW dungeon has an upper limit of players you can bring. And it is usually balanced so that you need a good mix of classes and talent specs. It is totally possible for 4 players to be looking for a 5th to start a dungeon, and then rejecting somebody who wants to join them because he doesn't have the right class. WoW is exclusive in forming groups, you want to exclude certain players to have a chance to succeed. In a WAR public quest the 4 players could already start killing mobs in stage 1 instead of stupidly standing around the meeting stone. *Any* 5th player joining them would be welcome, because there is no upper limit to people who can participate. Even if the person joining is contributing very little, he will contribute *something*, and have only a lower chance to win the final loot. Last guy joins the group and there is still no healer? No problem at all, lets turn the group into a warband, which is like a raid, only that you still gain xp and everything. At some point the group will be large enough to kill the final boss regardless of group composition. WAR is inclusive, you want to include as many people as possible into your public quest group to speed things up. You *could* make a closed group, but that wouldn't prevent other players from gaining contribution and influence points, so there is no advantage to it. Forming a big group is usually better, because it helps with healing and buffing.

Are public quests perfect? Certainly not. One problem is that they aren't marked on your map before you stumble upon them. So of the several public quests in the same zone it is totally possible to have one overcrowded, because it is closest to a road, while some other public quest is standing empty in some corner. Of course you can transform that into an advantage if you are playing with friends and guildmates, by leaving the crowded PQ and looking for the empty one you could have for yourself. There are some minor balancing problems, with some public quests being noticeably harder than others in the same zone. But of course the main problem is that you have very little control about the number of participants, and can be stuck either with not enough people to complete the last stage, or with so many players around that your chance for good loot is slim. But fortunately at least the overcrowding tends to auto-balance, with people leaving out of frustration or because they got lucky with the loot, or just filled up their influence counter to maximum.

So, if public quests are so great, what are the chances that lets say World of Warcraft just copies the idea for their 3rd expansion? Not as high as you might think. One obstacle is that you can't just borrow part of the concept. Imagine a public quest in WoW where the first group to deal damage to the final boss gets all the loot, with everyone else coming up empty; it's clear that this wouldn't work. The contribution points and Vegas loot system are integral to the public quest system. Even the open group system is, if not necessary, then at least a strong contributor to the overall fun of public quests. That's a lot of new features to add, especially since Blizzard already demonstrated that looking for group systems and contribution systems (in battlegrounds for example) aren't their strong suit. Another problem is that public quests are great if you have them from level 1 to the level cap, because they are a good alternative to solo questing if you want to level and gear up. How would WoW do that? Rebuild all the old zones to introduce public quests in every zone? That would be a huge amount of content to add, most of it barely used, I doubt even Blizzard would have the manpower to pull that off. And if public quests only existed in the new zones of a new expansion, lets say only from level 80 to 90, then their impact would be much diminished. They would also pose a risk to standard dungeons of the same level, as people might prefer getting their gear in public quests instead of wasting time looking for a group for a dungeon. In short, public quests are kind of incompatible with World of Warcraft in its current form, and I don't see Blizzard completely changing their game just to introduce them. We might see public quests in WoW2 or World of Starcraft, but not in some WoW expansion.

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