So, Cataclysm dropped yesterday. For those unaware, this is the latest expansion for World of Warcraft, and it has successfully drawn me back in. I lost interest a little while after the last expansion (Wrath of the Lich King) and turned my account off for a while, but I turned it back on just before Thanksgiving in anticipation of Cataclysm.
In fairness, most of what I wanted out of the game came in the pre-release patch they issued in November that updated the world and introduced everything but the new content (The ability to level up to 85, opening new zones and so on). That may not seem like much, but it was actually quite huge. Basically, they rewrote the whole setting from the ground up.
In game, they have effectively moved the clock forward. How much is a bit of a question, as I have so far seen indications of it being anything from five to twelve years, but the net result is that the world has changed in ways that are _intensely_ satisfying to someone who paid attention to the lore. Important NPCs have died, boundaries have shifted, and as a result of the eponymous cataclysm, geography has been drastically altered in places.
At the same time, Blizzard has taken the opportunity to fix...well...everything. Virtually every zone has been scrubbed and rebuilt according to the lessons they've learned from running the game for six years. They've made travel easier, clustered quests more intelligently and removed a lot of the busywork of play without removing all of it. That last is perhaps the most brilliant of them - some busywork is necessary to help maintain the addictive nature of play, but striking just the right balance with it is essential. As an example, I will point to mining.
In play, there are little nodes of metal deposits scattered throughout the world. If your character is a miner, you can click on one of these and, after a few seconds of animation, you'll get some metal. Originally, you did this once, got one piece of metal, and the node disappeared. The result was that metal was fairly scarce, and at some point Blizzard patched it so you could do this several times per node (usually 3) before it disappeared. This was better, but you had to do the click and wait 3 times. Now, you click and wait, and you get several pieces of metal - the same reward as doing it several times, but without the extended wait. It's a small fix to a small minigame element, but it's the kind of attention to detail that makes a game work.
Even if you never play WoW, there are lesson in Cataclysm that you can probably take back to your game. To my mind, the big three are:
Make Fun Easier With the Right Kind of Challenge - Cataclysm does this by restructuring quests by putting the guy who gives you a quest much closer to where you need to do the quest. Similarly, the game makes it easy for you to find where you need to go to do it. Now, this is not to say that you should start saying that your game should start collecting 10 wolf ears to give to Hornswaggle Beltbuckle, but you should look at the structure of it. Challenges which are difficult, but which have a clear course of action are FAR more satisfying than challenges which are frustrating because the course of action is unclear.
For example, if you are given a quest to kill goblins until you find 10 goblin beads, then bring those back, there are two ways you might be stymied (beyond the goblins' objections): The goblins aren't dropping the beads fast enough, or you can't find the goblins. In the first case, you might be annoyed, but you know what to do: just keep killing goblins. In the second case, you will quickly end up frustrated, maybe check an offline resource or otherwise completely break your flow (there's an even worse version of this where you're killing the _wrong_ goblins, but that's a whole other thing). WoW has minimized the likelihood of this second kind of problem, which means that most problems that remains are ones you address by playing the game. Presuming the game is fun, that's as it should be.
Immediate Feedback is Powerful - Feedback is a curious two-way street in MMOs, because it applies to both play and design. Blizzard mines data on play like mad so that they can judge the impact of changes they make, and while GMs might take a general lesson from this (pay attention!) we tend to lack the tools and sample set to apply that sort of rigor to our games. However, we can take a lesson from how WoW handles feedback to the players.
Characters in WoW level as you would normally expect in an RPG, but they also are progressing in dozens of other ways at the same time, between their faction with other groups, their profession skills and the assorted accomplishments and awards one can get throughout the game (such as for exploring a zone completely). Because there are so many of these in play, if you don't pay attention to them, then the rewards they give when you achieve something come as pleasant, semi-random surprises that occour with fair frequency (more often early in play than later). That's powerful by itself because it hits the same part of the brain that wants to give slot machines money. But what makes it more subtly potent is that if you _do_ pay attention to one or more of these, there are concrete actions you can take which will improve the one you pay attention to. It can take work and time, but the ability to generate immediate, measurable improvement triggers a feedback cycle that does not limit itself to paying out once per session or once per level, but rather, rewards the activity. So given that, how often does your game give rewards?
A Changed World is a Richer World - Bumping the timeline forward is incredibly rewarding both to players (who can appreciate the changes) and to GMs (who benefit from re-purposing old materials), and even if not done as a dramatic jump, it is incredibly cool to come back to the town outside the dungeon you cleaned out a few years back and see how its changed (for better or worse), especially when those changes tie directly back to the PCs an their actions. If you look at a lot of published adventures, they often depend on the backstories of the people involved which do not touch up on the PCs at all. Being able to make the PCs part of that backstory? Priceless.
As a bonus, this is a great way to take ownership of a published setting. Even if you started in Eberron as published, Eberron five years later is much more clearly YOUR Eberron. It's perhaps not as dramatic a statement as killing Elminster, but it is more widespread.
Anyway, enough of that. I have goblins to kill.
1 - For the MMO ignorant, "drops" are loot. You kill something, loot the body, and find what it's carrying, usually some coins and junk. If it has a bead, it is said to have dropped the bead.