Jeremy Gaffney, executive producer for the upcoming MMORPG WildStar, has had enough of traditional MMO endgames. His frustration is such that he’s even taken to distancing himself from the name, preferring to call the concept the “elder game” in his discussions about Carbine’s latest pet project, and his face betrayed a comparative lack of enthusiasm when I asked about the dungeons and 40-man raids he plans to release with WildStar’s launch later this year. His true hopes for WildStar’s longevity lie elsewhere, and while he constantly reminded me that I’d have to wait until the coming months to learn some of the specifics of what he has in mind for WildStar’s endgame, I was at least able to walk away with a better understanding of what we can expect.
In particular, Gaffney believes that WildStar’s single player content in the elder game will distinguish it from the other MMORPGs on the market. “Solo end game content is both very important and almost completely underserved in the genre,” he said, arguing that around 60 percent or so of MMO players play alone. Despite this tendency, he said, “on average, solo content sucks. It’s daily quests or crafting grinds or reputation grinds, and it’s pretty tough to make a fun grind.”
Stay Awhile and Listen
Gaffney’s plans for improving this experience revolves around the frequent introduction of new story content, which, as with World of Warcraft, shouldn’t be a problem owing to WildStar’s two warring factions. His inspiration in this regard comes not from homegrown competitors such as Rift, which made a name for itself over the past two years for lightning fast content updates by Western MMO standards, but rather from China, where MMO developers tend to release content on a near weekly basis. Gaffney’s plans aren’t quite that ambitious; rather, he plans to introduce new content every month.
“We’re tailoring these monthly story content updates toward these solo players,” he said, citing his belief that solo players have a tendency to “consume” content, whereas raiders and dungeon-runners repeat it. Similarly, he’s also skeptical of the way that several of today’s most successful MMOs pile their best story content inside raid instances. “It’s hard to get story in something like a raid setting,” Gaffney said. “You know, you’ve got 39 dudes all around you and someone’s asking you to step on this rock or stand in that corner or cast more DoTs–trying to learn the story in all that is nigh impossible. But if you’re alone, you can take it at your own pace.”
It’s Not So Dangerous to Go Alone
His solution is to implement a series of single-player dungeons, similar in concept to Rift’s Chronicles or Lord of the Rings Online’s Skirmishes. The details are still sketchy at this point, but Gaffney at least related that many of these single-player dungeons will be tied to one of WildStar’s signature “Paths,” which let players focus on an element of the game they enjoy the most. If you choose Explorer, for instance, many of your missions and solo dungeons will center on climbing peaks and surveying terrain, occasionally exploring underground passageways that only you can access. “Paths also unlock a different set of dailies,” he said, “or, at least, that’s our intent.”
But Gaffney wants everyone to get something out of these content releases–not just story buffs. “There’s also a strong reward structure behind solo dungeons,” he said. “If you’re story focused, you’re going to do it to learn more about the story. If you’re reward focused, then you’re going to be doing it as a part of the achievement ladder.”
Shaking Up the Routine
He also wants these solo dungeons and to remain interesting each time players go into them–along with regular dungeons and raids–so he and the Carbine team are toying with the idea of randomness to their design. It’s such an obstacle, however, that these elements may not make it into the final release. “It turns out that when you talk to hardcore raiders and hardcore dungeon players that they hate randomness,” he said. “If you talk to casuals, in general they love randomness. Randomness is the enemy of the elite.” Even so, he’s attracted to the idea because he believes that the current tendency of most “normal” guilds to simply copy the strategies of elite raiders off of YouTube has hurt the genre. “I think those random elements can help you learn to play the game rather than to play the script.”
One possible solution, he said, is to level the playing field. Under the model he has in mind, dungeons would change slightly every week, allowing for guilds or groups to make a name for themselves on a weekly basis. “You know, as in this week there’s a random configuration, and everybody gets the same week to be the first, the best, the fastest to beat this sort of thing, and then we reward whoever’s able to pull it off the best run of that dungeon,” he said. This ideas carries over into Carbine’s general affection for rewarding player achievements. “We’re big fans of leaderboards because, in general, we’re big fans of broadcasting information,” Gaffney said. “People do it anyway. If people enjoy it–if you’re the best of the best–we might as well reward you for it.” The greatest obstacle, Gaffney said, is time investment. Hardcore guilds go into a raid expecting to get something for the three or four hours they spend in there; with too much randomness, Gaffney said, they’ll likely feel as though they’ve wasted their time. “That’s the line we’re trying to walk while implementing our elder game–the right dynamic elements to make it fun, but not the ones to make it frustrating.”
LFG Spam No More
Gaffney also stated that WildStar will launch with a dungeon finder tool, and that players will have a chance to use their path abilities in the dungeons. The implementation, however, is still in the works. “We’re not scared of the holy trinity of tank and healer and DPS,” he said, “but we’re also trying to give everyone the chance to fill multiple roles. We’re also trying to make paths be helpful but not required. We don’t want people saying, ‘We need to wait for a warrior, and that warrior needs to be a scientist.'”
Yet Gaffney is quick to emphasize that all of WildStar’s endgame content won’t take place in instances. “For a lot of the higher level group content, we take a lower level zone and do something interesting with it,” he said, while remaining coy as to what ‘something interesting’ entails. “This gives you a new way to play through a zone that you’re already kind of familiar with so you’ve got some context there,” he said. “One of the problems [with current MMOs] is that you consume all the content as you level up, which means that you go through an area once and you never come back.”
Part of the answer to the question what players can expect upon revisiting these lower zones may lie in Gaffney’s method of dealing with “zone fatigue,” or the tendency of players to get sick of a certain zone after they’ve been leveling through it for a few hours. Typically, he said, players leveling through this zone will be interrupted by spaceships or other vehicles dropping from the sky, urging the players to come help with a pirate invasion in space or some kind of other conflict elsewhere in the world. He said they’d turned off these missions for the purposes of the press hands-on preview, believing that none of us would have the time to devote to the grouping the missions required.
Barring all that, players can also jump into WildStar’s highly anticipated “warplots,” which push player housing to new limits by letting players design their own battlefields. We’ll get a chance to look at those in a couple of months, but the concept already sounds like one of the best ideas we’ve heard from an MMO developer in a long time. “The general concept is that we have all this great technology for housing, where you get to build gardens and you get to put a trampoline on your plot and go bouncing around,” Gaffney said. “There might be a cave full of goblins on your plot and you can go out and kill the goblins so you can harvest gold out of there for the next few days.” That’s interesting in itself, but it gets better. “We thought it’d be cool if we took all the same powers of this and see how it could affect gameplay. And so, in PvP, we now allow players to craft their own battlefields by adding terrain or capturing a raid boss and pinning it down on your battlefield so you can send it out to kick the crap out of your enemies. The early tests on this actually turned out to be quite fun.”
Gaffney’s words have left me cautiously optimistic. I confess that I wasn’t all that interested in WildStar until I had a chance to sit down and play it last month, and even then, my playthrough was limited to a single zone and maybe four levels’ worth of content. But I liked what I saw. WildStar is in a unique position to shine this year as it’s one of the few MMOs set for release that makes any real attempts at innovation, especially when compared to last year’s almost monthly barrage of new MMOs. But as we’ve seen with The Secret World, TERA, Guild Wars 2, and others, its success will depend on delivering a satisfying endgame that lives up the promises of an enjoyable leveling journey. As 2012 taught us, most MMOs have a hard time living up to those promises, but if Jeremy Gaffney manages to get most of these ideas into WildStar in time for launch, we at least have cause to hope.