Evolving Quests

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.

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19 Responses to Evolving Quests

  1. Was it really a lack of vision? Or simply a lack of sufficient piles of Diablo II revenue to pay an entire studio for the years it took to make enough content to have it not be repeatable?

    As a WoW tourist who’s not ashamed of the label, I just worry about whether the big budget quest-based MMO is unsustainable simply because the entry barrier for the new guy is so high. You must beat WoW and other polished, 5+ year old games on quality, but your customers won’t hesitate to cancel their subscriptions and go back to those old games if you can’t also bring enough quantity to justify multiple months of subscription fees.

  2. David Armstrong says:

    It wasn’t for lack of polish or presentation that I left WoW. I left because my character never mattered.

    Phasing is a step in the right direction. I left WoW because my characters could neither love nor hate on the world. The best I could do was aid a player or complete a quest, and the worst I could do was grief or not login at all.

    I’m ready for a genuine sandbox that isn’t EVE, because EVE is a trainwreck. The “WoW” killer will have mountains of customization and built-in growth for the player’s characters. Player housing would only be the start. Features like your characters’ appearance being kept separate from its gear, like in LOTRO.

    It’ll take theft from dozens of other games, but in the proper mixture, and with a lot of love, that’s how WoW will be outdone. Like how WoW stood on the shoulders of it’s predecessors, the next-gen MMO will stand on the shoulders of WoW, LOTRO, DDO, EVE, WAR, Aion, and others.

  3. Matt says:

    Like you say companies have moved on from the WoW copycat mentality, however the latest fad seems to be metrics driven cash shop shovelware. I guess it’s an evolution of sorts, but I’m not really interested in designing better ways of parting the player from his cash as quickly as possible.

    There is some hope though, particularly for indie development. I read your series last year on using SmartFoxServer and Unity with interest, well now you can add BigWorld and HeroEngine to the indie tool box too.

    As MMO development costs come down and more people realise you don’t have to clone WoW or Farmville to be successful I hope we’ll see a rise in niche games where there’s perhaps more room for innovation and experimentation.

  4. Nils says:

    Wonderful, such rational perspective.
    The MMO industry, just like the entire game industry, is changing. And for the better. Money is basically waiting to be picked up right now.

    It almost seems like there is more money than (reasonable) game designers. ;)

  5. Zoso says:

    One of the frustrations in the post-WoW era is games that, pre-release, seem to be evolving; case in point, relating to quests and bears, Paul Barnett of Warhammer Online describing in a video podcast the absurdity of killing hundreds of bears, then being given a quest to kill ten more. WAR wouldn’t do that. After release, turns out WAR does precisely that, but there are some ‘kill collectors’ scattered around who give bonus XP for certain types of kills, whenever you made them. I don’t know if that was Barnett over-promising based on vague ideas being kicked around, or there turned out to be implementation difficulties and things were simplified during crunch time or something, but something seems to be going a bit wrong between interesting design and implementation. Here’s hoping Guild Wars 2 and others live up to their hype a bit more.

  6. darkeye says:

    On the issue of letting players skip talking to NPCs, I was questing in the Enedwaith zone in Lotro and Turbine has attempted to do something like that but with mixed results. I’d noticed a waterfall with what looked like a tunnel behind it, attempts to enter were met with ‘you do not have the corresponding quest’, a while later killing mobs I got a note that started a quest and mentioning about prisoners in a cave behind a waterfall except before I got go to the cave I needed to return to town to get the necessary quest. That was particurily egregious bit of design. There was another pick-up item that the player wouldn’t really know the meaning of it without getting the spiel from the friendly tribesman to whom the object is turned in, however if the player made the connection through finding other clues in the landscape, I think I’d prefer that kind of questing. In contrast there was two quest items that I found when looting two types of mob that appeared only at night, turning in those to the NPC I was given a reply along the lines: ‘I’ll look into it and see if I can discover anything about their origin’ with no follow-up quest, and me as a player is left thinking is there another object to find that will continue this arc. I’m still waiting for a game that will improve on that type of questing, while WoW is slick there is very few puzzles and mystery to solve, and Lotro seems to get some things right but fall down on others.

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  8. Koal says:

    It is unfortunate then that WoW’s end game devolves into exactly the same quest model as earlier, less evolved or ‘visionary’, mmo’s in that the player will find themselves repeating the same daily quests, rescuing the exact same damsels, over and over again for the many months they must wait between the last content drop and the next.

    Personally I would like to see the same level of evolution in open or virtual world MMO’s as we have seen in the theme park model. Games where there is such a depth and diversity of user directed content that no one misses the dozen exclamation marked NPC’s lingering around every town or encampment.

  9. Tiran Kenja says:

    While I agree with the general gist of the post, it is somewhat problematic to “fix”.

    In the scenario with the bear attack it would be relatively easy to simply allow different ways into the quest. Either talking to the person you saved, or talking to the worried father. The former would simply skip the conversation forward a couple of steps. Where the latter would allow for a better reward negotiation – if the given game was doing something like that. But other quest types would make it somewhat tricky.

    For instance one major category is collect/fetch quests. While it would sometimes be obvious a given drop would be worthwhile to keep (and some games already start quests like that), it is much less obvious that your character should even consider saving, say, the stomach of a boar. You may have killed a great deal of boars when you get the quest. But the likelihood of keeping everything you kill would be slim.

    Kill quests are also somewhat tricky. As already mentioned, Warhammer promised you’d already be done with kill quests if you had killed all the given mobs before you speak to the quest-giver. Of course that never materialized. But how would the logic work anyway? The quest-giver tells you that he is having a problem with some sort of creature and he needs a given number of them dead. You tell him you already did so. And he’ll either tell you: “Fine! But apparently they are still causing problems so it wasn’t enough”. Or: “well you can’t prove that”.

    Personally I don’t necessarily think the problem is the quest life-cycle that is the problem. But more the increasingly simplification of how to get and complete them. It’s been a while since I even bothered to read quest texts. As usually you can just pick up as many as possible and then go nuts in an area. And you’ll have completed a good number of them.

    Everything you need to interact with will be glowing. Everything you need to get will automatically be picked up from the corpse of whatever drops it. Any location you need to find will be marked on the map. So the only though you have to put into questing is what order you do them in, to make it as efficient as possible.

  10. Matt says:

    I keep seeing blogs that seem to completely ignore the wonderful new things GW2 is doing.

  11. JeremyT says:

    I returned to WoW for Cataclysm (after a hiatus starting with TBC) and realized that it *does* have quests like you describe. Quests can trigger off of events, walking into areas, killing baddies, what have you; the capability is used rather sparsely, but it *is* there, and at this point it’s a design decision (and not a technical limitation) as to where to use it.

    It brings me back to the biggest problem facing WoW clones: WoW keeps slowly grinding forward. It seems inevitable that if your game is to be “WoW plus feature X” you’re doomed from the start; either WoW will eventually add the same feature (maybe even before you launch), or the feature isn’t a big draw to begin with. The cutscenes in WoW quests now, for example, remind me of LotRO cutscenes; when WoW gained that capability, Blizzard knocked the “cutscene” check mark off of LotRO’s meager “non-WoW features” list.

    As long as you’re incrementally enhancing gameplay, you’re essentially just “WoW plus something,” and Blizzard can always reverse-clone that “something” and negate your innovation. I think the only chance you have is to implement something that simply doesn’t work in WoW due to the fundamental design of that game; of course, that means *your* fundamental design needs to be radically different from WoW, and good luck convincing investors to give you the money to make *that* game.

  12. JasonM says:

    Warhammer Online does this to some extent. If you kill Boss_A before you get the quest, the game still registers that you killed Boss_A and so when you get to the quest_giver he credits you with it and completes the quest.

    I agree, this method is far more entertaining and heroic than running into a town, greeting every npc to grab all of their quests, then running out to fight. Being able to do it “in reverse” feels more like a single player rpg to me (i.e. more story-driven).

  13. Shena'fu says:

    OTOH, all these non-repeating tasks felt like more like errands than quests. It felt like I was checking off my list of errands for that zone. Once the list was mostly finished, then I’ll move on and start a new errand list.

    Sparser quests make them more valuable and epic. (And no, aggrandized non-interactive cut-scenes don’t make them epic.)

  14. Michael Helm says:

    Sometimes in the past there are other things that games did right.
    In AC2 there was a repeatable quest called “ Bringing Down the Catacombs”.

    Quest Walkthrough:
    (FYI Olthoi where like the bugs in the movie Star ship troopers)
    (After your group found the Olthoi Catacombs egg chamber entrance portal which had at least 6 different locations).
    Once at the surface kill the Adult Olthoi Gardners that spawn around the portal.
    They drop a Olthoi Scent Gland.
    A Feral Intendant than use’s one of these to create Olthoi Scent Gland lining
    A Sage then uses these to make Purified Olthoi Scent Vial
    You then need an Alchemist to use the potion. He will then get a new recipe to create “Diluted Olthoi Scent Potion”.
    Each person then uses the vial which gives them the Olthoi Scent quest.
    Note: this quest is just to grant you access inside the catacombs, and the egg chamber.
    You then enter the portal to the Olthoi Catacombs. Make your way down and locate the Egg Chamber, its entrance portal randomly spawns in the dungeon so it’s not often in the same location. Once you go through the portal you will receive the “Bringing Down the Catacombs” quest.
    Within the egg chamber (which was a HUGE room) there are six massive pillars supporting the cavern, they have 100,000 life each and must be destroyed, The cavern is swarming with olthoi, and more spawn with the destruction of each pillar. When all of the pillars are destroyed, the cavern starts to collapse! It’s basically a DoT with lots of nice crashing animations. A portal appears in the cavern for you to exit before you are crushed under the falling rock. The portal leads back to Teltawa, upon speaking with him you will finish the Bringing down the Catacombs quest and receive your reward.

    So even though the quest was the same after you entered the portal, the actual spawn of the entrance was always different. Plus you needed 3 specific classes to make the potions to enter. You also needed the group hunting Olthoi for the potion parts and to defend the portal. It was always nice when your weekly timer was up to get a group together and head out to do this quest. So quest that repeats can not only be fun, it can be something to look forward too.

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  16. Jonathan B says:

    @Matt I don’t think blogs are ignoring GW2. I think it’s simply that until it comes out, it is only the wonderful new things GW2 is talking about doing, not the wonderful new things GW2 is doing. The team developing it has a good track record in terms of not releasing till they’re satisfied with it, so people I read are hopeful, but they’re still a little wary after being burned by various hype.

  17. Jonathan B says:

    One of the “little things” I like about LOTRO, not that other games don’t have it, is the way in which NPCs say little things that acknowledge at least some of what you’ve done in the world. If you join the Bounders in the Shire, other Bounders in the world will greet you and acknowledge you with short phrases. And the more you complete the Bounder quest deeds in the Shire, the more their choice of words treets you as one of them.

    In a similar way, I was so pleased in Pirates of the Burning Sea where a decision to save a life in one quest turned up the same character appearing to help me out in another quest. It’s one of the little details that makes it feel a little more like a real world.

    In Freelancer, I used to talk to NPCs just to see what little phrases they’d use based on your rep with their faction. “Ever get the feeling….you’re standing on plastic?” “Good to see you again, Trent”

    It’s a real challenge for MMOs to make your character affect the world. You might not be able to repeat the quest to kill 10 rats, but you can rest assured when you run through the area later, those same 10 rats will be back alive. You just won’t get rewarded for killing them again. And while rats can breed, this gets worse when you come to the big quests. If I kill the Lich King, and throw his ashes on the fire, shouldn’t there be no Lich King for anyone else to kill? If 736,328 other people have also killed the Lich King, maybe we should instead be killing off whoever is creating n+1 Lich Kings first before we kill the 736,329th Lich King and actually finally save the world and have no more Lich Kings? And if Farmer Brown has enough gold to be paying for 568 billion rats to be killed since the game opened, why doesn’t he just leave the farm to the rats that are eating his grain and go live in a palace in the city? :>

    Finishing the tutorial instance in LOTRO takes you to a world changed by your actions, and inhabited by other people who completed the tutorial (and changed the exact same world the same way, but that can’t well be helped). However, this can only be done so much within MMO mechanics. Every version of the world you split off has to be hosted somewhere, and the more versioning you do the smaller will be the portion of the player base who are on the same version as anyone else at any one time. Which leaves you in trouble when there are fewer people on your particular version at your time of day than are needed to complete the big group quest to reach the next version. And also leaves your MMO looking sparsely populated.

    If, rather than versioning the whole world, you just prevent people from going back into completed regions, you end up preventing them from helping lower level friends, or even just from going to watch the sunset from their favorite hill back in the starter zone, and you create a thematic problem of explaining why an invisible wall is preventing them from walking where they just walked from along a clearly marked road. :>

  18. wufiavelli says:

    I think there is still a problem with the WoW mentality. People still are under the impression that they need to make WoW and then put something on top. Because of this they do not think what they should not have.

    Take for instance battlegrounds. Many games try to have Open PvP and battlegrounds, because wow has battlegrounds. and wonder what the problem is when both dilute each other. PvPer are extremely competitive for every edge, and if you make battlegrounds, put all the best pvp gear in them. You open world is dead, better not to have it.

    Some interesting prospects coming out though GW2, secret world, and others.

    As for sandbox mainstream, life in your fantasy land simulators, they died with swg. These indies are nice but seem to lack the skill and talent to deliver. Or to caught up with being Niche and add features that drive general audiences away.

    Also didn’t COH do the level by content thing before WoW?

  19. Shena'fu says:

    @Michael Helm Yes, those kinds of quests in AC2 felt epic and organic. People and things come together to form a super special event.

    That reminded me of how AC2 quests get spoiled by the players. During patch day, players would rally or compete to be the first ones to finish new quests. This added another dimension of enjoyment and exploration. If players got stuck, usually the playtesters or devs would give hints or the complete instructions.

    People used to complain that instructions for quests should be found in game, rather than following a walk-through on a spoiler website. Well, WOW pretty much led you step by step, and yet lots of people still visited spoiler websites. Either because they got stuck due to confusing in-game instructions. Or players are just impatient or don’t want to think; they just want to finish the quests now.

    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.

    There’s a huge player-base who would enjoy doing nothing but camp in the same spots. Look at how popular Final Fantasy 11 is. FF and WoW are two extremes; whereas AC2 felt in the right medium, with great amount and quality of quests and great experience for campers and groups. Damn, those tactician groups were extremely fun and there has never been anything like that kind of experience since.

    Campers can be useful, too. Sometimes you’d find a helpful camper who is fighting the monsters you need for your quests, and they’d be glad to add you to the group temporarily so you can complete your quests. Really, I don’t get why camping has to be totally removed and full quest systems have to be instated as if questing were all that.