The Tower of Azora and EQNext
The Tower of Azora stood in eastern Elwynn Forest, aloft on the left side of the road for the traveler headed toward Redridge Mountains. This traveler usually is a fresh level ten finishing the last few quests in the novice human area. For her, there is seemingly nothing of interest in the tower: no chests, no trainers, and most importantly no quests. So what is the use of the Tower of Azora to the traveler? It sparks her imagination. And, at level 21, she can get a quest from there. But she must have had to be directed there by some mishap or by another player. At level 10, she went upstairs and found nothing of the numerical nature, not even a barrel of spring water, but she happened upon an artifact called the Eye of Azora, which she touched eagerly. It showed a distant tower in a land she might go later on, surely. She descended the winding staircase and set out to look for exclamation marks. Some more of those and she could enter the new zone she had descried from the farm. The eerie skull-leveled wolf had invited her across the river.
The Tower of Azora stands for something that I believe is gone from the design of the newer MMOs, and the revamped ones (WoW-Cataclysm). At the outset of the genre, the Tower came first and then went the player. The world was designed before the player’s interaction with it was taken into account.
The Tower was not remade in the wake of Cataclysm, but its quests have been removed for some arcane reason. Still, that is better than what had happened to most of Azeroth. If Blizzard had cataclysmed Azora, they would have added a new quest hub in there. Some gnomes complaining about the magical distillation of the tower and giving the player two quests to kill mutant butterflies and discipline living buckets back into submission. The following quest would have the player collecting magic slivers around the tower, or perhaps inside the bellies of wolves. Last mission, end of the hub and move on: kill the gnoll that lives conveniently across the road, he had stolen the Eye, or eaten it. The mystique of the Tower evaporates with every goofy quirk of the gnomes griping about flying cutlery.
Even worse is what they have done in areas like Silverpine Forest. First I should make a disclaimer: I did enjoy the ride. It has plenty of fun quests that diverge from the superannuated ‘kill ten rats’. Yet it stopped being fun after the first playthrough. And it became annoying as I went over it in my mind: Sylvannas disclosing her plans to my lowly level 12, just out of the tomb? To me, and to every xxSwordzmastaxx that she chanced upon? Apart from the obvious trouble of conciliating my snowflake tendencies with the array of heroes that are becoming intimate with the undead queen, even if I ignore this and suspend disbelief, what makes me worthy of her attention, even at max level? I am just an adventurer, a mercenary. I quest for gold and will torture the Imprisoned Beryl Sorcerer if there is something to be had. In the official lore I might be one in that ‘band of heroes’ that slew some dragon. The protagonist I am only of the stories I myself create (like that time when we brought Anachronos all the way up into Orgrimmar).
If Blizzard had cataclysmed Azora, they would have had it explained out to passers-by, they would have stripped it naked for the player to stare and yawn, commodified it into a quest hub. No enchanting trainer at the top of it: what for? Every profession is now found in the capital. No more inconvenient trailing back and forth.
They ironed out Azeroth. Every thing that stood out as unique was pressed down upon the flat surface of convenience. In so doing they turned a world with its peaks and valleys into a two-dimensional print. Following the creed of balance they made everything equal: nothing harder or more desirable, nothing different. Enchanting, with its inaccessible trainers and excessive material expenditure, and its grindy furbolg reputation that granted a much-coveted recipe only a few obtained, and with it fame and clients. Then they made each class equal in what they could do, so that nobody was discriminated in the basis of being a paladin without crowd control. The saddest of these equanimities was the shadow priest that now just did raw dps. Tanking and healing styles were fused into one big blob.
This did not only affect the enjoyment of the gameplay - it also changed how players viewed the world. The shadow priest was more effective now that he could put out more damage, but he was no longer fulfilling a unique role, different from all the rest. He might as well be firing darkened fireballs. They ‘balanced’ the gameplay to the detriment of the world.
Like Wolfhead, I want to believe in a game that promises to bring back the world, in EQNext.
I hope they get it. The world ought to come first. If the world depends on the player, if the environment is tailored to the experience of the individual, the world becomes a farce. Sylvannas chatting away her plans. Sylvannas, as well as the world, happen in spite of you. They are the background to your adventure, which does not deal with the highest powers - not alone, and not in the beginning of your journey -. The Tower of Azora doesn’t explain itself to you; it is there, you might find out about it if you follow the hints. Maybe you come back in a couple of levels and it gives away a quest. Maybe not, like so many unexplained places.
With my claim that the world ought to go first I do not mean to imply that the player should be overlooked in the design process. Only that reagents, no matter how cumbersome, were part of the world, and they were removed for gameplay purposes. That enchantment was difficult to level up because it was supposed to be a reputable profession. That warriors are supposed to be just warriors, with no special magical abilities, just their prowess, and therefore should not be able to reflect a spell without a shield.
I am not advocating for a clumsy gameplay. I know reagents are generally disliked. What I want is for developers to realize the consequences of cutting down on features that made classes, professions, and the world unique. They cannot turn the Tower of Azora into another quest hub.