In a recent forum thread discussing the removal of head enchants and the possible conflict in game design with putting valor gear on the reputation vendors in Mists of Pandaria, Ghostcrawler discussed all the varieties of optional content. I thought it an interesting topic because in Mists of Pandaria, optional seems to have a different meaning than it has before.
When optional doesn't count
What's interesting here to me is the idea of "too optional" activities. That if you make something completely optional, it doesn't count. That in order for an activity to be worthwhile, it has to have a compelling enough payoff that it moves from completely optional to only somewhat optional.
Really, the option here isn't in unlocking your reputation vendors. The option here is which one to unlock first. If you care about getting your character more powerful gear, you're going to level those reputations. The real difference is, in Cataclysm, you knew in advance which ones you were going to level first. You were going to get the tabard, and you were going to run dungeons with that tabard on until you had your head enchant. There wasn't even an appearance of option here.
How to present choice itself
The system in Mists of Pandaria is not meant to give you complete freedom to choose, because that would include giving you the freedom to skip it all entirely -- and that's not the goal. The goal is to give you freedom to choose which faction you want to level first, not to freely disregard making the choice entirely.
Sure, it's possible to forgo factions entirely and just run dungeons, then raids, or to craft items. But it's not especially compelling to do that -- and it is that lack of compelling reasons to skip the reputations that is what's meant by not being so optional that it doesn't count. The choice is intended to be between the factions, not the choice to ignore them all. And that's what interests me about the system. It's meant to give you more options but also to constrain said options so that you choose between meaningfully distinct but not overwhelmingly superior or inferior choices.
Another interesting point made is the balance between WoW players who want to play sporadically vs. WoW players who desire more things to do in game. Sure, raiding and dungeon running are fun, but people want minigames. They want dailies and scenarios and all sorts of alternative content. Mists is aimed at giving us accessible solo content like pet battles, the Anglers, the Tillers, and rep factions that serve both the needs of the player who has an hour or two every few days and the needs of the player who'd spent six hours a night playing WoW if they could just have something constructive to work toward.
This is fascinating to me because it builds on that idea of what optional is, exactly. Content for people who can only play a couple of hours or so at a stretch has to be optional by its nature, because it also has to stand alone. It has to be content players with limited time can focus on and do at their own pace, or they end up feeling frustrated and behind. Players who can dedicate more time end up feeling burned out on it, since they can spent hours and hours working on it.
Raising the daily quest cap means that the goal is not that you do every single daily quest available every day. It's that when choosing your daily quests, you don't end up not doing some that interest you because you don't have room to do them.
This is a fascinating shift in tone. Essentially, the vast majority of content is now on a tiered optionality. As you progress in reputation, for instance, it goes from somewhat optional to more optional as you go from the rewards available at revered to those available at exalted. There's a great deal of content, and you don't have to do a great deal of it. That's amazing. This is the expansion as buffet, where you can eat a lot or a little, depending purely on your appetite and time constraints.
It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!