The Unbearable Lightness Of Stranglethorn Vale

Richard Bartle explains in great detail exactly what goes through an MMO designer’s mind when playing one of the more painful zones in WoW. Except he rather likes it, see.

So, my view is a bit different. As I noted, I actually see Stranglethorn Vale (STV) as one of Blizzard’s less well designed zones. To wit:

  • It’s too large, and until very recently there was no easy way to move from one end of the zone to the other. While ideally, as Bartle noticed, there is a slow progression from one end of the zone to the other, realistically players will not play through the entire zone in one sitting. This is especially annoying for Alliance players – they have a small NPC hub, without a “innkeeper” resting area, in the northern end of the zone, while Horde players have a more central location, with an innkeeper, to work from. This is really the largest problem with the zone – it’s just too large. And because it’s too large, it keeps you there far too long. What may have given you a sense of place and wonder at level 30, to put it mildly, no longer does by level 45. (Another zone, Dustwallow Marsh, was recently revamped specifically to give players a place to escape to during that level range.)
  • The quest design relies far too much on “kill 10 of these. OK, kill 10 of these! OK, hey, kill 15 of these.” Yes, that’s inherently what WoW (or any Dikumud PVE) game play is. But those sorts of concentrated kill quests, while gravy to powergamers looking for the easiest way to leverage the mindless button pressing that destroys them of everything that makes them human, really highlight the artificiality of the enterprise. And that’s what most WoW quest design manages to hide very well. You’re not just killing 10 wolves, you’re saving a troll village from starvation or whatnot. Sure, it’s just a storytelling veneer, but it’s important veneer. It also helps break up the inherent tedium involved in “kill 10 of this, fetch 5 of that” questing. And because WoW is usually so good at this smoke-and-mirror hand waving style of quest-driven storytelling, when it breaks down, it’s notable. And STV is an excellent example of where this breaks down.
  • Hitting more on the specifics of faulty quest design as opposed to the content, STV is where players begin to be punished in earnest by poorly thought out world design. When you have too many players hunting the same thing in the same area, you either encourage cooperation or competition. However, WoW by its very nature as a solo-friendly MMO rabidly discourages cooperation (at least until it’s hit forcibly over your head when you switch to end-game raiding), so very few people actually think “Hmm – we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, we should group up and kill them together!”. Instead, they think “Hmm, we’re all hunting for 10 panthers, I BETTER TAG THEM FIRST!”. Other poorly thought out mechanics include the “Green Hills of Stranglethorn” mega-collection quest (which the author himself is on record as regretting as “the worst quest in WoW”) which usually serves as a focus of inventory-related frustration for the intended new player audience and as powergaming grist for those already familiar with the zone, and some quests with an insanely low drop rate for quest-related drops that, again, encourage frustration over fun.

So, that’s generally what I think of when I remember that zone – long, tedious, lots of panthers, and an abiding hatred for Hemet Nesingwary. A hatred, by the way, which Blizzard gave a knowing wink to in Northrend – after Nagarand, aka STV 2.0, reuses the kill-20-panthers quest design yet again to even more wretched excess – when you can actually start killing off Hemet’s buddies. Generally, if a well-regarded part of your content involves killing off a quest giver, that may be a sign people didn’t like those quests.

A lot of what Bartle writes on STV is interesting, especially as it relates to its quest design. He definitely comes at looking at STV from a different angle than I do. Specifically:

    Well no, because these quests are stepped: the levels appropriate for the tiger mastery steps are 31, 33, 35, 37; for the panther mastery steps they’re 31, 33, 38, 40; for the raptor mastery steps they’re 34, 36, 41, 43. The final boss is also 43, but elite (so "bring friends"). This interleaving allows for variety, and it despatches the players off to various different parts of STV where the target creatures lie, thereby causing happy interactions with other quests relating to areas they pass through. However, even though this is very well done, it’s basically just well-accomplished craftsmanship. No, what we also have here is some actual art.

    The stepped nature of these hunting quests mean that whatever level you first encounter the Nesingwary camp in STV, there’s going to be a quest of an appropriate level for you. It’s like a net, spread wide to catch players.


    Well, no. Thanks to how WoW quest chain dependencies work, you actually have to start at the beginning no matter what your level, and work your way through the chain. It would be awfully nice if the quest givers did actually recognize that, yes, thanks to being Level Awesome you can dispense with the Somewhat Mighty Junglecat slaying and move straight on to the Fiercely Mighty Junglecat part of the quest. (Which Warhammer Online also tried to implement, by the way.) At least, it would be if you were playing the game as designed. Players, who are playing the game to win much of the time, would then resent the loss of experience and faction and gold and everything else, and hammer away at the lower level quests despite their being level-inappropriate, because they don’t want to lose any rewards due them at all. (The fact that they will then kvetch about that content being tedious is entirely beside the point.)

Bartle’s primary point, to move away from nitpicking semantics, however, is that the entire Hemet Nesingwary saga is an artful storytelling device which funnels you through the wonder of the jungle, forcing you to ask if you were predator or prey, as you travel down a road which mirrors your character’s growth and confidence. And as designed, the core of STV – which can easily be a metaphor for WoW’s character development model itself – does indeed work that way. Proper game design (at least as one cynical wag put it) doesn’t present you with a complex challenge, but tricks you into believing you’ve conquered a complex challenge. And in WoW, that “complex challenge” is the investment of time. Invest enough time in STV – or WoW itself – and you will eventually win. That’s its inherent promise, and to a large degree the polish in which that promise has been delivered is why WoW is so incredibly popular, even years after its release.

And yet, even with that well-executed promise, there are problems along the way. Server queues. Lack of meaningful social gameplay. Class imbalance. Lack of meaningful PvP. Same old diku, different day. And STV mirrors that as well – even with all of WoW’s promise, and even with STV’s world design and immersive environment, there are times when it falls flat on its face.

And so we have Dustwallow Marsh. Which is everything STV isn’t – a hub-spoke model of world design, less immersive world crafting, more attention to detail and interesting quest mechanics. And with a game and community the size of WoW’s, this is really the solution to STV’s problems – simply create so many options that everyone can be happily grinding their way to vir
tual nirvana.