2D is State-of-the-art [for NPCs]

Okay, so 2D isn’t state of the art. But two-dimensional characters are. How many indistinguishable NPC’s have you run into in your travels through Azeroth or Norrath or wherever? More than you can count. I’ll let you in on a secret: quest text really is fodder. There’s nobody behind the scenes writing up the bios and storylines for these shmuck NPCs. A quest implementor writes that text as quickly as possible and goes on to the next one. And usually, the task of writing filler quests is given to the junior quest implementors, to boot. Quest text like this:

Example of WoW quest text

This text is nearly the first thing you read in WoW, if you start as a Tauren. You’d expect this to be some of the best quest text in the game. But no. Why is this terrible? Just for starters:

  • It makes you read things that turn out to be irrelevant
  • It’s boring
  • It tells you nothing — zip, nada, zilch — about the NPC
  • It teaches you that reading quest text is a waste of time

Sometimes quests are unglamorous. That’s just a fact of MMO life. But when a quest is unglamorous, you have to work extra hard to make the NPC interesting.

Or how about this quest excerpt?

Example of WoW quest text

Notice the line I highlighted? That’s the line that says, “Everything you just read was a waste of your time. Ha ha, you’re stupid for still reading quest text. Haven’t you learned by now?

There’s a reason that players never read quest text, and it’s because MMO’s teach them not to. I’m picking on WoW here but rest assured that I could find similar NPC’s in every MMO. And I admit that I’ve written some stinkers myself. Making interesting NPC quest text is hard, and you need a ton of text, and I don’t have an easy solution.

Okay, actually I do. Have you noticed that occasionally an NPC is memorable? To use WoW again, there’s this one guard in a nondescript inn who asks you to collect the heads of nearby murlocs. And when you get back, he asks you to do it again because his boss didn’t believe he did the work himself. And then he asks you to deliver all the heads to his boss, because they’re gross and slimy. He’s somewhat memorable because he’s a jerk. Now, he’s not REALLY memorable, obviously, because I don’t remember his name. But he’s a start. If everyone in WoW was at least this memorable, players would be raving about the “story” in WoW. Alas, 99% of the NPC’s are utterly indistinguishable.

That guy’s character can be summed up trivially: a lazy oaf who wants to pawn his work off on other people. He’s a two-dimensional character at best. But compared to the zero-dimensional characters all around him, he’s deep like Hamlet. So, this is where quest writers should start. It’s a trick that tabletop game masters have been using for decades: give every NPC some memorable aspect. Nothing fancy, just a simple detail. You can brainstorm a list very easily, but I’ll get it started.

How about an NPC that…

  • Hates clouds
  • Adores his puppy, which is actually a full-grown wolf
  • Keeps trying to get you to try his cooking
  • Speaks in rhyme
  • Keeps laughing at very inappropriate times
  • Has a giant purple hat, of which she is very proud
  • Believes the local store owner is actually Santa Claus
  • Wants to quit his job at the inn and become a lion tamer
  • Runs a failing steamed-rutabaga vendor stall

You can still make really boring quest text, even if you have a quirk like this. We’ve all seen that happen. You have to take the time to write something interesting; there’s no magic bullet. But this is magic gunpowder, which is the next best thing.

Now take it a tiny step further. Give each town something memorable. What if this town…

  • Is full of mimes
  • Is having a feud with the town across the river
  • Is full of aristocrats who despise common adventurers… but need their help
  • Has a strictly-enforced dress code
  • Has a very unusual religious belief
  • Has just been terribly conned by a snake-oil salesman

Not everyone in town should fit this two-dimensional profile. Say, perhaps two-thirds should fit it in one way or another, though.

It all sounds lame, doesn’t it? Cheesy. Stupid. But yet… look at the quest text we have now: it’s so banal that nobody anywhere actually reads it. These “cheap tricks” will help us take NPC’s to the next level, which is admittedly level 2. Some day we might be ready for NPC’s with actual depth. But let’s do one dimension at a time.

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13 Responses to 2D is State-of-the-art [for NPCs]

  1. Robert says:

    wow. I never realized before how right you are.
    I didn’t always skip reading quest text in WoW, for a good portion of the game I did read the text.
    I do remember the murloc guy who was just slacking off. I also remember a guy in the hut of Dustwallow Marsh trying to uncover the mystery of the Inn that burned down (which never was revealed, but I hear in a more recent patch they extended that storyline).

    It would be REALLY interesting if someone were to compare the quest texts from the different games, try and see how they stack up. Maybe even get a good sampling, and see overall which game has better ACTUAL story rather than just ‘filler’.

    Anyways, good post :)

  2. PooBear says:

    As well as interesting quest characters and locations, what about interesting activities/settings? I haven’t player WoW in a year, nor have I tried Lotro or TabulaRasa, so perhaps things have improved – please tell me if they have :)

    One of the few quests I remember from years of mmorpgs is one at the start of DarkAgeOfCamelot. A castle commander asks you to travel to a nearby outpost to get an update from one of his scouts. The undead are threatening and he’s worried about his borders. When I read this my eyes glazed over and I thought “A->B message carrying quest YAWN”. However, when I got to the group of scouts who were stationed on a nearby bridge, a horde of skeletons spawned and attacked. There were more than I could deal with, but with the guards helping it was fairly easy. This wasn’t an instance either, other players were nearby and one joined in.

    After playing UO, Everquest and AO I’d become quite jaded and wasn’t expecting this at all. I couldn’t believe it and made the mistake of assuming the rest of the game would build on this idea of quest activated mini world events. I was so excited. Sadly, I played on until about level20 and I only saw it happen once more, I was very disappointed.

    I know it’s possible for other players to ruin non-instanced events like this, I know it would be impossible to permanently affect the world, but this one quest was perfect. Even if high level players were waiting for me to trigger the event and annihilated the skeletons I think it would still have been an impressive memorable sight. It only becomes a problem if flaws in the game allow EVERY quest “event” to be interfered with.

    Imagine if quests were well written, with memorable characters, interesting locales AND triggered real world events. I would be in heaven.

    Please reply with “yes, that’s what happens after you hit level X in mmorpg Y” :)

  3. Seraldin says:

    I think part of the problem is that reading is becoming a “lost art”. Writing too, for that matter (but it’s a different subject altogether).

    What you’re saying is absolutely true (at least in my opinion)… but isn’t necessarily completely the fault of the quest writers. There are other factors playing a part:

    1) More and more players seem to have less tolerance for that pesky “reading” than in the past (okay, I have zero proof to back that statement up). Good detailed quests would probably require more of those annoying “words”. Why write them if a large portion of your player base is going to ignore them anyway?

    2) It takes more time to actually design, write the dialogue, and implement the better quests. With the push for “tons of content” over “quality content” (at least it seems that way)… what’s a poor designer to do? Spend a day writing one awesome quest, or spend that day writing 4 mediocre quests that adds more “value” to the game (value not in my opinion, but in the “number of quests is important” opinion).

    Now, I’m in no way saying that a game with fewer (but better) quests wouldn’t do well. I’m just saying that quest design and implementation time is a limited resource.

    Or something. Just throwing it out there.

  4. Seraldin says:

    (Sorry for the double post… brain… being… slow)

    Another contributing factor is play style.

    There are players that play RPGs with “collect loot and level” being the primary motivating factor. The “e-peen” factor, if you will. I’d assert that those players will *never* care about how clever or interesting the quest is.

    There are other players who’s primary motivator is, for lack of a better term, “role-playing”. *Being* that character… experiencing the world… doing the quests.

    And, of course, there are those players (like me) that fall somewhere in between. One night I may be “into it” and want to have a great quest series to take my mind off the world. Other nights I may just want to kill stuff… and doing the quests is just a means to an end.

    So, for games that have the carrot as “items and level” having more quests is more important than having better quests.

    Maybe. Sheesh. I think I’ll go back to lurking now.

  5. Eric says:

    Seraldin – hi! you’re right that some players will never read quest text, and others will only read it occasionally. But still, it’d be a nice way to make a game stand out from the pack — at least SOME players would be excited by that, if not all of them. And if a game’s quest text is interesting, players feel like they’re “missing out” if they skip it. It causes them to want to read it a bit more.

    As you said, it’s very hard to find the time to make all the quests a game needs, but if games want to compete with WoW, they can’t just be as good as WoW — they have to be BETTER than WoW, by raising the bar.

    PooBear – sorry, no recommendations :) As for having interesting quest mechanics, I’m all for it, but I’d just like to see developers do the “easy” stuff like quest text before they spend a ton of time exploring new mechanics. New mechanics can be amazing, but they can also be really frustrating. Half of WoW’s “escort” quests are really tedious. They’re sort of memorable, but… yeah.

    Robert – a comparison, eh? That’s not a bad idea…

  6. Tholal says:

    I think a big part of making quests more interesting is not just coming up with better copy, but is based around giving your NPCs personalities.

    Take for example your suggestion of “Has a strictly-enforced dress code”. I think that’s brilliant! Imagine a town where everyone wears hats and your status is determined by how many feathers your hat has. If a player walks into town hatless, noone will want to deal with them. But if they put on a feathered hat suddenly everyone is more friendly. And maybe if they get ahold of a really fancy hat, new quests will open up that weren’t available before!

    Sort of like a reputation grind, but without the grind. A reputation puzzle would be a more appropriate term. Of course it would be nice if you could give some hints to the players and maybe even have a drunken, hatless slob who lives in an alley and will explain the towns hat etiquette if you give him some booze.

  7. LadyPao says:

    Eric, nice topic as always. I learn so much about the thought process that *should* be behind games from your website. Always good food for thought.
    I agree as to the 2d-edness of quests for the most part. After 2 years of playing WoW and not really understanding the lore from the quests – which I did read most times, but there was rarely anything of interest to retain and use later – I read 7 of the Warcraft novels in a vain attempt to revive my flagging interest in the game. Sadly, the writing quality in the novels was banal and hackneyed, full of teen angst. While it filled in some gaps in the lore, it didn’t really connect me to the game, so I left.
    @PooBear – I’ve played LoTRO for close to a year now, and while the majority of the quests are the standard variety, there are some outstanding differences. The game has an epic quest line revealed in Books that you complete, with you helping towns, individuals and so forth, on a long running story which culminates in a confrontation with the Witch King (eventually). You very much are involved as a participant in the story. Caveat – you’ll really need a group to complete these story line quests – parts are soloable, but the instances really are not, esp at higher levels.
    Additionally, I can think of 2 outstanding quests, one a class quest (loremaster) where I witnessed the grief and sorrow of a pair of friends who had been separated by death – one elf had gone to the West, the other remained in Middle Earth. It had me in tears. Now *that’s* a story!
    Another instanced quest was me waiting in ambush for Gollum after setting out fish with an NPC. Gollum appears, sees me, and runs. Chase ensues, Gollum leads me into an ambush with his troll buddy. Totally unexpected and so much fun, even my husband stopped to watch.
    I am now playing Tabula Rasa, and while its fun ‘action wise’ – fast and furious – the quests don’t seem to be supporting much of a story line, other than the stereotypical griping of military recruits, and are of the standard formula for quests. At level 23 of a 50 level game, I would expect to see/understand the story line by now…
    Perhaps if game designers spent less money on end game grind, and more on hiring mature quality writers, we’d get quests that didn’t focus on finding a porn mag (my latest quest in TR) or were titled “Kicking the Bane in the Jimmy” (also from TR). This would make the game much more immersive and meaningful.

  8. First off, I’m no game designer, at least not professionally, I have been playing MMO’s for many many years and before that I used to do a fair ammount of table role-playing.

    This particular topic is something I have also given a fair ammount of thought in, I’m fully aware that research is showing that players want their quest information in front of them as fast as possable, most likely due to the way the internet is affecting peoples way of skim reading for what they want, I think games like WoW with thier pointless quest text help to increase this trend too. This makes writing interesting quest text even more difficult. Personally, I believe chat trees are the way to go, not massive trees, but trees small enough that skim reading gives you the generel details of what you need to know, but long enough that you can’t just skip them (Wow wise this would be similar to the Darkmoon fair sage). This also has teh knockon effect of maing the player converse with the NPC, giving the oppertunity for emotes to be used as well as allowing a dialogue that is more memorable (I’m assuming that is the goal intended here).

    Earth and Beyond used the chat tree method and I believe it working very nicely, more so for roleplaying, but also for exploration content, many an NPC had different reactions depending on what you had in your inventory, this caused alot of the explorers out there to transverse the entire world filled with backbacks of strange items, also, the chat trees allowed players to make choices which could effect them further down the line. I know this ofcourse takes a little more effort than writing one paragraph, but it certainly adds more depth to the NPC’s and Earth and Beyond was pretty good for having memorable NPC,s to the point that even thoguh that game has been down for over 3 years, I can still remember some of thier names, whereas with WoW I barely remember a handful. Saying that Earth and Beyonds storyline was evolving with quests altering as the galaxies story evolved, which of course costs more resources to do.

    I’m no fan of walls of text with no purpose though and if players are just going to click past them anyway, why not make simple chat trees which give the players the choice to actually learn something about the NPC from your reactions to them?.

    @ladypao – Earth and beyond had fragments in an alien language that you had to translate and fragments in a code you hade to decode dropping of various mobs, there were hundreds of them and when combined they actually made up 2 books describing part of the storyline, they had no actual purpose progression wise in the game, but they were so much fun to collect and complile for the storyline junkies (like me). I agree though, it would be nice if more designers focused on trade and exploration aspects in MMO’s than the combat side of them, which for the most part isn’t needing huge imporvements to make more fun.

  9. Quest text and the poor NPCs who deliver it have always been a troublesome affair and I really enjoyed your article outlining just why it’s so problematic. I’ve noticed a few games that used different approaches to quest text from the generic blah-blocks telling you how many bat-flanks to collect:

    Interactive, or Reactive text pops up occasionally, in which you can steer the conversation a bit, although I don’t think anyone’s tried to make text that can diverge wildly (say, like in KOTOR where you have dark/light choices on things). DDO and EQ2 both have forms of this. I was pretty impressed that either game had dialogue branches, given that my prior primary experience at the time was WoW-based. Unfortunately, neither game really offers “real” dialgue branches, where, say, the nature of the quest could change one way or another based on how you talk to the NPC.

    There are only two games I can safely say I remember many quests with regularity: Guild Wars and DDO. DDO works well, I think, because the quest-giver isn’t the only tether to the point of the quest in question; by using its format of instanced dungeons with a narrator and numerous attainable and optional goals, every quest becomes interesting (that and the fact that you usually end up repeating them a lot). Guild Wars stands out, I feel, because there’sa clear over-arching storyline that is relayed very well in it’s mission-based instances, and the side quests are loaded with little extras that can shed light on the main quest. More importantly, everything in GW is character-centric; the dialogue generally shows bias for or against the PC; since the quest-text is referring to the PC in terms of his or her deeds and progress in the story, it makes the character feel like something more than just another faceless cog with a lot of gear (a problem I think WoW and TR suffer from).
    I can’t say too much about LOTRO, except that I look forward to starting the “Books” quests I hear about, because unfortunately, except for the acid-trip chicken quests, I’ve found the fannish-faux Tolkien quest text to be painful to wade through in that game.
    Anyway, my notion about improving quest text is to also make it more interactive with the PCs, make it more relevant to who and what they are; when the PCs react differently to a character based on where they’ve been and what they’ve done (beyond basic factionalization), it’s a memorable effect. To take achapter from WoW, it is possible to make enemies out of certain factions, although it’s rarely done unless it’s intended. Now, imagine if, on becoming an enemy of the goblins in Booty Bay, say, every time you approached a goblin they shouted out lines of text about how they recognized you, and would never forgive you for the massacre of (insert here the location/area that the PC reached enemy status)? Or, upon becoming honored in IF, NPCs in Ironforge would make casual comments about how excited they were to meet you….what if the quest-giver insisted on an autograph, for example? (Which could be turned in to a quest to get ink, quill and paper, even.)
    I also wanted to say to Tholal: I really like your ideas, too! The hat-equals-status town, for example, very cool and player-engaging concept which also allows for a form of non-grinding factional improvement.

  10. Mentat says:

    I think the BEST quest texts in WoW is from ragged John in Burning steppes. You talk to him about What happened to windsor. (For the Ony Chain) Ragged Johns reactions are the most human and the most humorous I’ve seen.

    And…

    It’s been a long time Eric, Glad to see you’re still around somewhere.

  11. Quest says:

    @Tim Davies: EverQuest had a sort of “conversational branches” like this, and I don’t believe it helped much. Generally you just scanned through the paragraph for the [bracketed word] and responded with that word until you got the quest.

    A big reason players may skip quest text (even the brilliantly written and scripted kind) is because of the sheer bulk of it. Go to a game like WoW, EQ, or really any traditional grinder MMO and look at the staggering amount of quests there are to complete per level.

    You’ve got 3 paragraphs of text per quest and you want to get 20 quests done today, because honestly, all of the quests are boring “go here and kill X.” The sheer bulk of all of the text is staggering to most players, even discounting it’s mediocrity. As a player, I would prefer designers consolidate their efforts into fewer quests with superior writing, scripting, and rewards (easier said than done, I know.)

    Another problem with mass quests is that the few good quest texts will be drowned by the rest. You condition players to skip all quest text, and that’s exactly what they’ll do.

  12. PJC says:

    Quests are an excellent tool which allow designers to better manage character development. Gear, XP, cash, reputation, etc. tied to quests can be metered much more carefully than world XP and loot. IMHO this helps designers make the game more fun.

    Quests also motivate that part of the brain that enjoys ticking things off a to-do list. Good modern MMOs are good brain-ticklers, and personally quests help me feel like I’m having fun.

    Quests direct casual players. DAOC had quests, but they were hard to find and had some pretty severe level restrictions. Leveling was all about knowing where to go to kill for XP/minute for your class and elvel, and knowing the backup spots if the best ones were camped. In Warcraft, you follow the brightly lit punctuation, and most of the time you’re on a pretty darn good road to leveling up. While all players have a personal preference, a designer looking for mainstream success can draw a very clear lesson here about quests == good.

    I reiterate all this because it is important to remember: QUESTS ARE GOOD THINGS. If you want players to go from level 17 to 18 in 2 hours, try to make sure that there are enough quests to achieve that. Do you want a completion tickle every 10 minutes? You’ll need about 24 quests (by quest I mean any step that players can turn in). Too few quests mean that the players have too long between completion moments, or worse, “run out” of quests.

    So, IMHO, a good game needs a goodly number of quests. Would they all be ideally epic and compelling and unique challenges? Yes, with an asterisk*.

    But saying that would be ideal doesn’t make it critical. “Easier said than done” is wildly understating the issue. The tradeoff of fewer/better fails because adding a new quest of a simple template does NOT use the same skills or resources as adding a new KIND of quest. Unique cool quests rock. Filler quests are filler, but unless you can fill a player’s time with unique quests, you need filler.

    In short:
    Do quests succeed as game design, even with lame text? Yes.
    Do we need “bulk”? Yes.
    Do MMOs critically depend on story? No.
    Would time spent on this problem be the best use of resources? No.
    Would making this a focus tend to draw resources into a sink? Yes.

    Triage hurts, and of course you can straw-man this to “hire monkeys to throw poop on the keys.” I’d prefer quest text to be spelled right and use proper grammar. What I’m saying is, the current situation is not a crisis, and not due to some simple oversight. Fixing this would not make your new MMO a success.

    * The promised asterisk. Sometimes people LIKE a good simple quest. It is comfort food, a palate cleanser, a thing to do while you wait for the raid to start.