Side-quests are a classic game mechanic, as ancient as roleplaying. When playing D&D with friends, we’ll stumble upon a traveler being mauled by a bear and we’ll take swift action — if we’re a band of do-gooders, at least — because that’s what do-gooders do.
And if there was actually a “quest” to save the traveler, some guy down the road who begs us to save his bear-bitten daughter, perhaps, well, that’s fine. The game master will give us the reward whether we talk to him first or talk to him after we save the daughter. In fact, when we do it second, it feels a lot more heroic, and we feel a lot more clever.
We didn’t capture that experience in early MMORPGs like Asheron’s Call 2 because the quests needed to be repeatable. Every week you’d stop by and redo the handful of available quests. In the mean time, you’d just bash monsters for the fun of it. If we counted those monster-bashing activities toward the quests, you’d never have a directed experience at all.
WoW changed the thinking here. For the most part, it never even occurred to us in the MMO industry that it might be possible to create so much content that players could level entirely through quests and never repeat a single one. That was an inconceivable amount of work. It was a lack of vision, and it took Blizzard to show that it was possible. Blizzard evolved what had come before, and much for the better.
Players may talk disparagingly about a “theme park mentality” in WoW, but they never saw the theme parks of the past, where your hero would line up every week to save the same animatronic damsel. There’s degrees of “theme park”, and WoW upped the quality bar.
But if quests aren’t repeatable, there’s a lot less reason to make you talk to the quest-giver before you do the heroic deed. And there’s a neat psychological effect if you are able to do it the other way — it lets you be heroic for the sake of being heroic.
Are you evolving?
Well, WoW did its part: it evolved MMO game mechanics for the better. What’s your game doing to up the quality bar?
In the case of letting players complete quests in the wrong order, you might argue against me. You could show that there’s lots of good to be had in making players talk to an NPC before they do the quest. I would counter-argue about the fun of doing things in the other order, but that’s really beside the point, at the end of the day.
The fact that we’d have this conversation about the game mechanic, weighing the pros and cons: that is the point. That is what it means to be a system designer. A designer that doesn’t consciously consider the various facets of what they’re designing is just a muppet-like parody of a designer.
Imagine a surgeon who just mimics a training video exactly and can’t deviate from what they’ve seen. Would you want that surgeon, even if the video was very good, and they could mimic the video precisely? My guess is no. Every surgery will be different, so perfect mimicry doesn’t sound like a very safe plan for a surgeon. There’s some skill in mimicry, but that’s not what the word “surgeon” means. (Or the words “game designer”.)
For a few painful years, MMO companies were paralyzed by WoW. They were afraid to analyze it, because they suspected that WoW’s precise gameplay formula was the secret alchemy needed to get infinite players. There was no use arguing any mechanics changes, because game producers couldn’t hear your words over the imagined sound of millions of players thronging to their perfect replica of WoW.
That has not happened, and will not happen, and finally people are getting it through their thick skulls that WoW’s design can and must be improved. Yes! Finally, we can get back to evolving the state of the art.
So keep examining things, considering your choices. Keep improving things. A bunch of small improvements make the world of difference to your players, and to the art of MMO creation. And it’s not hard to find tons of things to improve: this is a genre that can and will still see dramatic evolution. It just takes thought and attention.
Do your part. This is the quest I give you. And if you’ve already been doing it, well, then you’ve already been getting your reward.