Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What WoD Needs: Intelligent Zone Design

This is the second in a series of posts about things I would like to see in warlords.  Part one was about non raiding gearing options, you can view it here.

What WoD Needs.  Part 2: Intelligent Zone Design

I am not saying that zones are designed poorly in the game, that would be about as far from the truth as you can get.  Blizzard does a great job of tying zones together and making them move from one place to the next as smooth as possible.  Maybe with the exception of the clusterfuck that cataclysm was, but that was just one huge design mistake that should have never been made so lets pretend it never was, please.  They have gotten better at this connected questing with every expansion they have added to the game and I would be wrong to not make a note of that here as I just have.  Mists took questing connection and zone connection to a whole new level, a very well designed one.  I mean something different however.  Something different that just making a zone "tight".

The timeless island is the perfect example of what could be and since it was released I have been thinking about it.  There is a design to it that was very intelligent and I have mentioned it here before in other posts about other things and people responded "wow, I never noticed that".  Well, I am weird that way and have a slew of alts with varying gear levels all over the place so perhaps that is why I noticed it while others did not.  What am I talking about?  The scaling difficultly in the zone as you progress through it.  It was designed fantastically.

You might be saying to yourself, what are you on about this time grumpy, and perhaps rightfully so.  Many people, most even, did not notice the intelligent design of the timeless island as noted by previous comments when I mentioned it.  I'll explain.

When you land on the timeless island you land in an area where there are absolutely no hostile mobs. There are of course turtles all over the place.  Small turtles, medium turtles and huge turtles, all of which will leave you be and never attack you unless you attack them first.  The absolute perfect design for "ease".  Just like the starting zone when you create your first character.  You fight when you want to fight only, except this time unlike a starting zone you can pick your difficultly level.  You can attack the easy to kill non elites, the elites or the huge elites.

From there when moving to the center you could find yourself running into a snake which will gladly kick your ass if you are melee and not well geared, but those snakes are easily avoidable.  You might find yourself bumping into a yak or a crane as well and while not as deadly as the snake can be to most they too could provide a minor challenge unless you are appropriately geared and/or skilled.  But they are few and far between so like the snakes they are easily avoidable.  There are also, like with the turtles, varied degrees of conflict you can get into if you choose to with non aggressive small yaks and small cranes and medium yaks and medium cranes.  Basically it is a slight step up in difficulty bump over where you landed.

Once you move on from that center part it steps up the challenge a little bit with slightly more dangerous mobs over at the panda village, no elites, but all aggressive and all quite painful if you are not yet prepared.  If you head north a tiny bit there are tigers, small non elite ones and the usually sleeping elite ones so while they are aggressive they will usually not attack you unless you walk almost directly over them.  Wouldn't anyone attack someone that walked over them while they were sleeping?  Don't blame them for trying to claw you to death, you stepped on their tail while they were sleeping.

The further you explore the larger the challenge gets, the tougher the opponent you will face.  From the alementals to the frogs to packs of tigers in 3 and 4 instead of 1 and 2.  Then there are the very imposing rock creatures walking around slowly but they will not aggro you even if they are labeled as aggressive unless you walk almost through them, sort of like the sleeping tigers, once again allowing you to pick when you are ready to challenge them.

The further you spread out, the harder the challenge gets.  And then there is the time you start to head up the hill and run into the yungols which begin to pose a much more difficult task when compared to everything else you have thus far experienced on the island.

You can pick some small packs of non elite mobs, some packs with 1 elite and 2 non elite, some with 2 elites and some with 2 elites and 2 non elites.  Each pack is progressively harder in that bottom part of the hill, each with their own unique abilities that teach you to use abilities that interrupt or stun and avoid stuff on the ground.  It stepped up the difficulty level considerably from those mobs you fought below.

After you cross the first bridge they give you a taste of whats to come with much harder enemies than anything you have faced before on the island but they are spread out and easily picked off one at a time.  They are a test of ability, to see if you are ready to move on, to see if you are ready to avoid the avoidable, to see if you are ready to use those interrupts and stuns, or if you are already well geared, to see if you can just rip through them for a quick and easy kill.  Either way the difficulty has been stepped up.

At the top of that zone there are some harder mobs mixed with these, I'll call them medium mobs.  They are a little tighter and less likely to be able to pull one at a time unless you are an expert puller, which is a skill in its own and something you will learn to do if you actually take the time to try it.

Then you can pass over the next part of the bridge and face the hardest mobs you have faced so far.  These guys will brutalize you if you are not prepared and even if you are a "good" player if you are not appropriately geared even one seemingly minor error and you will be walking back from the graveyard, once again upping the difficulty as you moved further on to the island.

Then if you have the legendary cloak or use the kite you can buy on the island you can jump over the next bridge, the broken bridge, and face even harder mobs in tighter clusters.  You might often see people looking to assemble groups to kill them because they can be brutal.  I've seen them rip 5 mans apart like they were tearing up a parking ticket and throwing it back in the police officers face.  They will put you down faster than the cop will cuff you for being a jackass. 

For the higher geared player these become a test of ability to see if you can do them.  Killing one solo is always fun and often an adventure and not to be taken lightly just because you or me can do it.  It is an accomplishment for sure and if you take the path all the way around the outer sanctuary you will find yourself face to face with the priest, the most deadly of deadly mobs here and truly test your ability as a player or as a group if you can not solo it.  I might have soloed it that first week, but I am a hunter, I still see people that now out gear where I was on that first day die to it.  I've seen 5 people in a group that all greatly out gear what I was originally when I killed it die a violent death to it.  This is a challenge like no other.

As you see, the further you go in, the harder the mobs get.  And then there is entering the sanctuary but that is for those that have the cloak only and once in there you can understand way.  How about tackling two of those priests at the same time?  If 5 people with cloaks can repeatedly die to one what do you think will happen when they happen to run into two of them with a chanter at the same time?  Yeah, it just got real.  The difficulty level has reached max level here.

See, that is the beautiful design I love about the timeless island and something I call intelligent zone design.  The further you get into the zone the harder things get.  It builds the zone not in story alone like a leveling zone would but in difficulty.

Now I understand if this will be the new patch zone approach and I hope it is.  Lets face it, the island of thunder was nothing like this.  The lightning mine at the end of the opening, the furthest part in, was no more difficult than the troll zone which was one of the first zones you even stepped into.  Actually some might argue, myself included, that the saurok, troll and mogu zones we first experience were harder than the later areas we opened.  This is the exact opposite of intelligent zone design.  As we opened areas each new area should have been harder, not easier or near equal.

Adding this to new zones that are added end game is easy, sure, see how well it was added to the timeless island.  It was added so well that most people did not even noticed that the further you went into the zone the harder the mobs where, because it was all scaled and set up so damn well.  Most just thought, that area is too hard and never realized that area that was too hard was in a direct line further into the island, that is what makes it intelligent zone design.  Bravo blizzard.

I would like to see a little of this approach added to the leveling areas.  Perhaps something of a throwback to the pre-cataclysm days when there actually used to be some danger in the world while leveling.  Like those ?? dragonkin outside of forest song that told me, "you do not belong here hunter".  There were mobs like this all over the world, level 60 zones that just happens to be in a level 20 zone or a level 30 zone or a level 40 zone.  We just saw the ?? and did not go there, or walked into them and died a violent and extremely quick death and knew not to go back there.

There is no reason that a leveling zone needs to be just for leveling.  It can have multi purposes.  Lets take jade forest for example.  We have the serpent riders there, a quest hub and area you really can not do until 90, so why not make that entire area for 90s and make the mobs around it appropriate to 90?  When leveling through there at 85 you will see them and go, "oh shit" and run like hell or die like a man, either way, you will have faced some real danger in the world.

I think there is a place for multi level zones when leveling just as if that area would have been for 90s or the area near forest song would have been for 60s.  Zones can fill more than the purpose of just one level and making them scale up in difficulty, sort of like the island did, so there are harder areas you can accidentally walk into that you are not ready for, like on the island, would be intelligent zone design. 

Perhaps have an untied quest hub there with red quests that people that want the challenge can choose to do it and those that don't can choose to follow the regular story line.  Like the people that want the easy route on the timeless island stay below and kill cranes and yaks and tigers and the people that want the challenge go across the broken bridge and start killing chanters.  Both level 90s, both doing what they are capable of doing.  The "red" quest zone would be for the people that want the challenges like going across the bridge and the regular quest line that tells the main story would be like staying below and killing cranes and yaks and tigers, oh my.

It would also leave people options but there would need to be an opening for those options.  Again, using jade forest as an example.  Perhaps I want to try and beat those level 90 mobs as a level 85, I can go in there and test my ability as a hunter.  Hey, you know the saying, "If I can kite it I can kill it."  So now there would be some epic experience while leveling, killing mobs in the "elite area" just like there were the elite areas in the old world before cataclysm destroyed all the fantastic design of the old world for the more forgiving, horribly boring, new design of the old world.

It is not only about making zones more alive with the leveling in difficulty it is about making them more interesting, that is another part of intelligent zone design.  It also includes something else that many people might have never noticed that I found really early in the expansion almost by accident.  A right place at the right time sort of thing, a conditional rare elite spawn.

I only did the wilds on one character, my main, for the loremaster achievement.  If it were not for the treasures to be found, rares to be killed, warbringers, anglers and landfall patch none of my other characters would have ever stepped foot into the zone.  It served no purpose what so ever and the only quests I have ever done there are either landfall ones or anglers ones.  The zone is useless, completely.

That is until I found the single best spawn in the game there, the one I mentioned most might not even know about.  It is a large elite spider who's name escapes me at the moment, I am sorry, that drops a fun little toy that lets you summon a large mob of spiders that will follow you around and fight with you for 10 minutes.

You have never seen anything like this you say?  Not surprising, even more so if you are not on a populated server that usually had a lot of people there questing.  See, the spider only spawns after enough critter spiders are killed in the area.  How many?  No one knows for sure, I've went there and killed thousands before not to see it spawn because I wanted to get me a new toy as my old one ran out of charges.

Triggered events. Not events like on the timeless island that come at a set time but triggered events are what I would call intelligent zone design.  Enough spiders are killed, the rare elite spider is spawned.  In this case it is not a shared tag mob so if you want to toy you need to be the first one to tag it but they can fix that and make it shared.  That would encourage people to work as a team to kill spiders to spawn it.

So for a useless zone it will always be a zone I remember for that triggered event spider with the toy.  Now that is awesome and I would like to see stuff like that around a lot more often.  Every zone no matter what could have various conditional things like this added for single person spawns or multi person spawns with a shared tag.  It makes zones more alive.  Imagine if that spider dropped something more fun and was a shared tag?  There would be people in the zone all the time killing spider critters to try and get it to spawn and that would get people out in the world and it will give a zone, a bad one like the wilds, an identity.

There is a lot they can do with the leveling zones than just be zones for leveling.  They can add some intelligent zone design to them so they are more than that.  They could be something that is worth visiting all the time, they could have areas that are meant to spend time in when at max level, they could have events that are triggered and would inspire people, lots of people, to work together to trigger them often, they could give people that want a challenge a red quest area with harder mobs.  Leveling zones do not need to be just for leveling or just for a daily quest hub later, they can have life, long life, too.  I would like to see more intelligent zone design.  Or at the absolute least, more design like the timeless island when added land masses come where the further you go in the harder it gets, that is good design.


  1. Swtor does this. I know I wind up mentioning that game a lot but I only really play it, Warcraft and Marvel Heroes.

    In Swtor there are planets. Take Nar Shadaa for example, both factions level 21-24 there. However, there is a bonus series for the republic at least which becomes available at level 31 and has level 32/33 areas. I haven't done a lot of free exploring in swtor as you are moved very seamlessly around so I don't know with 100% certainty whether you can stumble into the wrong area. Some planets like Taris are level 16-19 for republic and 32-36 for the empire.

    However, there are also heroic areas. These are where you do heroic quests. Sometimes they are instanced but quite often they are just open in the world. You get a message pop up in the center of your screen in purple saying "Heroic area: name of area" and so I promptly backtrack and go elsewhere. Heroic quests sometimes are for 2+ people, 3+ or 4+ so some of them require more than others. These are designed to be done at level by a group, rather than somewhere that higher levels are sent solo. So I guess it's like old group quests.

    There are also quests which are within the different planets. Like the Bounty Hunter event which happens every month. There's the standard quests which scale to your level. Whichever planet you go to you'll fight mobs the same level as you. Then there's the elite quest which spawns a max level boss, again no matter the level of the planet.

    Class quests also have the same. Sometimes you get sent back to a low level planet. Often this will be in an instanced area but sometimes there's no green instance wall to run through, and it does just seem like it's in the world. The mobs are the level of the class quest so if you go for that quest too early then you can easily die to it if you are under level.

    There's world bosses which require a max level raid group on low level planets. I accidentally summoned one once. There was a glowing item, so I clicked on it thinking it was a lore object and this level 50 boss spawned and overkilled my curious levelling character.

    I get what you are saying as I agree with you. I run through all the zones for loremaster on my main and then never go back. The zones are built for levelling and that's it which is IMO such a waste of resources. They did re-use a lot of art assets from levelling zones for scenarios which is something. If they want us to be in the world then they need to give us a reason to be there and making zones relevant across all level brackets, or at least again at max level as well as levelling, seems like a really good start. I don't just mean in a daily quest hub way either, but in the difficulty/level of the surrounding mobs too.

    1. "I accidentally summoned one once. There was a glowing item, so I clicked on it thinking it was a lore object and this level 50 boss spawned and overkilled my curious levelling character."

      OMG I laughed so hard, that is awesome. I can just picture it in my head. Oh look, sometimes sparkling, let me go get it. Oh crap, I am so dead.

      I've seen lots of people do that on the island of thunder with the summon things. I think that it why they changed it to have a longer cast time, so people would notice it.

      It is true they reused a lot for scenarios and I hope they keep doing that. In a way it means they can make more of them as the art is already there.

      There is a lot they can do to the leveling zones, they just need to stop thinking of them as leveling zones and think of them as story telling zones. That might be the first step. So they can build them up over time instead of saying, but this is just for level 85.

  2. As I was reading this I had the same thoughts that Taitrina mentions. I've been dabbling with SWToR as well and it reminds me of pre-Cata WoW in the sense that "there is danger Will Robinson" around the corner.

    I have not come across one zone where you only fight one mob at a time (they are usually in packs of 3-4). If you do find one wandering alone it is always an elite of sorts that can tear you a new one if you are not prepared.

    There are 1 to 2 World Bosses on every planet that require a full raid group at level...or a smaller raid group with a few max levels toons in it. These World Bosses are no push over at max level either. I was in a raid for one (a level 18 World Boss) where the max level (level 55) tank was one shot. Mind you, after the tank died he said in chat that he had forgotten about that boss' such & such ability...but still...a level 18 WB one shot a max level character that was well geared?? That's some serious business!

    To boot, as a questing/leveling toon on that planet one of your quests takes you right by that WB. If you aren't paying attention and run up the ramp towards it, following your quest, you are in for a rude awakening.

    I miss that sense of danger that WoW used to have. I would love to see some of that come back in WoD. Give us back some challenge to the leveling game please. Keep us involved and on our toes while questing instead of more of the mind numbing feature it has become. We get enough grinding when we reach max level as it is. Take that grind away from the leveling experience and give us back adventure and challenge.

    1. I've never played SW:ToR but I hear a lot about it. Not sure I will ever give it a try however. I tend to stay away from free to play games because I have a bad habit of spending a lot of money on them as funny as it sounds. lol

      In the beta the sha used to move around the zone on his own turning all mobs he passed into elites. On a slow day (which was rare on beta) the entire zone could be filled with elite mobs only almost. It was freaking scary. I understand why they changed it but that was kind of cool.

      I too miss the sense of danger as I have oft times said here. It has a place in the game and it is avoidable from the people that do not want the challenge. Not sure why they refuse to add it back.

    2. The zone design in SWTOR is why I actually quit. I remember it very vividly I was questing and they sent me to this guy who was a million miles away surrounded by groups of really tough packs took forever to get to him he sent me to another awful place a long ways away with even more packs to talk to another guy I got to that guy he told me to go back to the last guy. I turned around all the packs had respawned I said “LOL nope” logged out and that’s where my guy sits to this day. This was just a normal quest.

    3. Seems like the normal quests were a little too much for you. A normal quest should not be like that. Perhaps a "red" quest would be like that for the people that choose to do such a huge challenge.

    4. @Tiggi

      Yeah they do send you back and forth sometimes. Though with the Quick Travel option it's not that painful. The cd on it I suppose might preclude it's use everytime it would be useful, more so for free players than preferred/subbed but it is there.

      For Grumpy's/non swtor players benefit. Quick Travel is like a hearthstone only better. In all major sort of quest hubs, if there's a flightpath, there's a quick travel point. The quick travel works like a hearthstone but it'll take you to any discovered quick travel point that you choose. It's a quick way back to the quest turn in. Yes you do have to fight your way back in again somewhere, but you don't necessarily have to fight your way out. You can do and it's all xp.

    5. That sounds like it would be interesting. Port instantly to any flight path. I would not be against them adding that to the game as a guild perk even if it had like a 2 hour cooldown it would be awesome.

  3. One of the underlying problems with WoW, which I think Blizzard is well aware of, is the difference between designing good content, and designing content for "the race". By the race I mean all the various server firsts. Where as originally it was accepted that you would spend tons of time levelling, now it seems to be the case that you haven't started until you're at max level. Why would you take your time exploring while levelling, when you could get to max level... etc.. Which I think is why timeless isle's design is great for patches, but would be hard to implement for levelling zones. (i just read the other comments on here, and definitely agree that it would be better if the levelling zones were though of as story telling zones, and not just something to get you through to end-game).

    I personally would love having max level elites in my levelling zones. Because I play a hunter primarily, along with a blood DK and a Rogue. And I wouldn't mind avoiding those areas while levelling on my restokin, who's quite adept at prowling away like a little Nelf. I wonder, however, how the rest of the support classes would feel about that?

    I was quite late in levelling my DK, maybe you were done levelling all of your alts by this point, but I loved running into Zandalari Warscouts while levelling him. They were such an interesting challenge (at 85-87). I remember seeing one in the jade forest and battling with him for hours, each time I'd eventually take him too far away (trying to avoid the avenging spirits) and he'd reset, or just the fight would go on too long and he'd reset, but I could not kill one. At this point I already knew where all of them roamed, and what all of their abilities were from doing them on my hunter, but I imagine I would have died pretty quick had I just randomly attacked one when I was 85/86. And runnning into them occasionally in the different zones was even more exciting, because new zone generally meant I was a level higher, and could try again.

    Anyhow, I'm just babbling. Good post, good ideas.


    1. They need to escape building for "the race" and build for the masses instead. They don't seem to understand that even if they build for the masses the race will still be there. Do not build specifically for the race.

      There were things like that, dangerous max level mobs, all the way up to

      I have leveled and am still leveling characters so I know what you mean. My newest hunter ran into a war scout while in the summit and I kept trying to kill him but he kept resetting on me. I gave up but I spent a good hour on him playing around trying to keep him from resetting. It was great fun.

      Not sure if you ever read a post I made a long time ago about my horde hunter and when I ran into that rare in the dread wastes with all the adds that runs around and fighting him at level in low gear and how exciting it was. It had to be one of the greatest feelings I've had this expansion. I really love tackling the rares while leveling.

      Glad you liked it, thanks.

  4. I agree with your TI comments, I like that design for somewhat self-contained patch content. I don't think I'd want that design in questing zones, though, I like that there's generally a difficulty progression from zone to zone.

    What I would go along with is removing all level restrictions from quests. I'd like to be able to pick my own danger level. I'd like to be able to do L87 quests (and get L87-equivalent gear) on a fresh 85 toon. To some degree I do that already... first thing I do on a fresh 85 is to run to the Vale city and set my hearth there, which requires running past or through or fighting some higher-level mobs. My tank pet toons at that point have gone immediately out to Dread Wastes to hunt for the i450 BoA weapon spawns... at L85 those things give a nice chunk of XP. I stopped doing this once I had a couple of each of them but it was fun when I was doing it, fighting multiple L90 mobs at L85, even with a tank pet, is challenging... I died quite a bit. Still did it, though, the rewards were worth it. I'd like to see Blizzard allow that kind of gameplay, with appropriate cautions so players know that it isn't intended for their current level.

    I do like the idea of events. From the first day of MoP I noticed and appreciated that Blizzard included some rare non-hostile mobs out in the world you'd run into occasionally when running around (and in most cases would kick your ass). Events would be another step in that direction, content that's still in the spirit of what you're doing but enhances it, yet is purely optional.

    1. The level restrictions to quests do hinder the people that want more of a challenge. I would not mind going directly to where the shado-pan quests begin in the summit at 85 and just going from there on. I could easily handle it, at least on a character I am good at, so why not let me do it.

      I can understand some quest restrictions such as quest lines where you need to do one to open the other but for those side quests and mini hubs they should not be there. I think they just use the quest progression model for everything.

      So you did not like those old school areas where you accidentally walked into it and got your butt whooped? I thought those were great.

      I am more so talking about areas like the could serpent area that is a 90 questing area for dailies, it should have had level appropriate mobs. That way it fits for the quests that it offers and it gives a sense of danger to the area when passing through.

      Like I said, I do think the gradual difficulty increase does work better for a patch island like timeless island. I really love how that worked and was designed and I hope they keep up with that sort of patch content where the further in you go the harder it gets. Outstanding design.

    2. Well, working from your cloud serpent example, I would have much preferred that those be L85 dailies, not L90 dailies, or at least L90 tuned quests that you can do at L85 if you want. The island used for some of the dailies consisted of L90 mobs, though, so isn't that pretty much what you're suggesting? It's just a safer version. Having a mix of L85 and L90 quest mobs in the same general area seems odd to me and I probably wouldn't be a fan.

    3. The game always had areas with mixed mobs. At least until cataclysm came and totally dismantled the leveling experience and turned it to crap.

  5. No the main problem was that it was tedius not hard each pacjk had 4 or 5 guys and they were so bunched together you couldn’t skip one. And no I couldn’t hearth back the guy turn in wasn’t at a hub that had a flight point the nearest one was half a map away.

    1. I feel your pain when remembering those old school wow when you would get a quest that effectively had you going all over the world, on foot or flight point, back and forth. Or even better, trying to find yourself into an area you had never been to before. Maybe running through some areas you had no business being in to get there.

      It was fun and exciting and I loved the travel and exploration. But only the first time through it. Once I knew where everything was it no longer had the great sense of exploration, just the great sense of wasting my time.