Table Top

Questing and the Common Man

You simply can’t make a game anymore in the RPG hyphenate genre without including quests and quest mechanics. Whether you call them missions, quests, objectives or anything else you feel like tossing around is irrelevant. Dress it up how you want, you are still telling the player to go murder the evil elf wizard to get the herb to help the sleeping elf princess or whatever the fuck. Traditionally you have had your main story quests, and a varying degree of side quests. This gets boiled down to the following quest types:

1) Kill – Those ten rats are ferocious and a danger, son!
2) Collect – I need thirty grams of space cocaine.
3) Escort – I have to hide these bloody knives before the Orc Police are on to me, you’ll protect me from these swamp bees right?
4) Interact – Go light the villager’s scarecrows on fire to make them think their god has forsaken them.
5) Delivery – Hand this letter to Hilda the Easy, and then bring me the ointment from Dr. Face. Also, go tell Bob he’s a big ol’ fart head.
6) Crafting – Make me a giant trumpet so my brass playing Ogre section will be complete. (See Ma, I’m supporting the crafters!)

I want to state clearly that I do not begrudge the industry for working through the cruft for the original genre titles and making them more accessible to the masses. A game would be crazy to ship without a quest log or a built in quest objective map piece. These have become demanded features of any new game that is going to launch and have a chance at being successful. Even more than that, they are so ubiquitous that having them isn’t even seen as a boon any more, but rather a critical piece that can’t be done without. Anything that helps the user experience is a step in the right direction, but at some point this has crossed into the realm of function over form, for me at least. If you played World of Warcraft, I would be extremely surprised if you did not hear or say the following phrase, “I turned on instant quest text because I was tired of having to read all the quests all the time. It’s too slow”. Even in the glorious land of Voice Acting, I have had one of my core group tell me that he just space bars through all the dialogue to make it faster. The same goes for flashpoint play in a pick up group. Everyone is so impatient to get on with the game play, they get irritated if someone wants to experience the content. “Do it on your own time”, they say. Questing has evolved so that it’s nothing more than an alternate form of gaining experience points and leveling faster. In the rush to “get rid of the grind”, they created an alternate grind through the proliferation of quests. While several different formats of quests have been tried, they have really coalesced into two main formats. You have your “organic unlock” and your “quest hub”.

The “organic unlock” method revolves around the idea as you do the first one or two quests in an area, the rest of the citizens will become aware of your behavior and start to offer more and more quests as you complete them. Instead of gathering ten quests when you enter a town, you will get ten quests in the town but never more than two or three at a time, and they tend to be at least loosely linked together in some fashion. This connection might be as tenuous as “Go talk to Bob after this, he needs help too” or as tightly bound as “I know not of the Dragon Thieves, speak to Kalasa learn their signs and track them down”. While this certainly slows the pace and makes it feel less gonzo-game-show, it requires a lot of returning to the same spot over and over again. Often, these quests require you to return to the same area and do something else, like draw a “more different S”. This leads you to shout “For fucksake, just tell me to kill the pigmen AND burn their huts down next time. Asshole”. The benefit of this is that you are more likely to pick up the story and theme of an area rather than just rush through it entirely. It also does a much better job of filling up the world in a way that seems slightly more realistic and less plotted. The story lines seem to naturally lead to the next area, or they culminate in “complete this instance that is the resolution of our story line”. You see pieces at a time, and the world unfolds in a microcosmic way that is seen through the views of the NPCs and interpreted by the PC. This might be overstating the impact, but I feel confident that this is the storytelling mechanic and modus operandi of the theory. When contrasted against the next method, I would say that I enjoy this method more than the “quest hub”, but that in modern gaming I desire both, though maybe a 4:1 ratio, give or take, in preference of this style.

In direct contrast, you have the gonzo-game-show of the “quest hub”. You know the scenario. You roll into a new area and your mini map, or world map if it has quest integration (which is expected, see above), lights up like a Nevada casino. You have to be careful not to bring up your map too many times or you might trigger an epileptic fit. The benefit of this method is that you are instantly engaged by the area and you never lack for content of the appropriate level. In such a system, you rarely traverse the same ground twice. The proliferation of quests makes it such that you will likely both kill the pigmen and light their houses on fire at the same time. This sort of consolidation is often viewed as a positive thing, and certainly revisiting the same areas over and over again in a short period of time is something to be avoided. This is possibly a matter of preference, but it seems that if you have to continually return to the same area and just draw the “more different S” it is perceived as a lack of meaningful content. When so much of the world remains unpopulated or as setting pieces, revisiting the same areas, and in some cases re-returning, is increasingly frustrating and disheartening. However, it’s not all roses and progression. The “quest hub” means that you are increasingly unlikely to take the time to read the quest and take in the story. You rush around and Hungry Hungry Hippo the quests then just check your map so you can devise a route that minimizes travel time and maximizes experience. When you return from these jaunts, you turn in your ten quests and cash out your chips. You get a plethora of items, money and experience. It is not inappropriately compared to winning big in a casino. This satisfies us on some basic level, as our bars increase quickly, our money goes up in large amounts, and our ridiculously sized backpacks get more and more filled. This satisfies all of our “do all the things” tendencies that are expressed in our gaming. In a “quest hub”, there is never just one round of this, however. You generally have two or three rounds of this that either result in “do this instance that ties into the story you didn’t read”, or “go to this next quest hub, you’re our hero”. “Quest hubs” are certainly the easier mechanic to implement, and many people express their approval for this method due to the casino effect and the speed at which you end up being able to advance. However, I think they damage the story aspect of the genre more than they help the game play experience. It encourages and enables people to race through the content and areas, while picking up next to nothing of the story. In a game that has spent time and money in developing meaningful content at all levels, this just seems wasteful. I don’t want to undersell this approach, as I understand that is has its place and you can’t make people listen to the speeches or read the text. I, personally, find my attention wandering during “quest hub” experience much more frequently that I do in “organic unlock”. I might be in the minority, and I by no means think that my preference dictates the majority response.

At the beginning of this post, I outlined the six types of quests. Those six types exist in this format for the simple reason that they are easily repeatable from a design process perspective and, this is important here, easily tracked by the quest log mechanics. In all games, however, you can find glowing examples of quests that have it all. World of Warcraft exemplified this in their early key-quest lines, Onyxia for Alliance and everything Ahn’Qiraj opening related really stand out here, as well as the Black Temple quest line. I will not get into the key/gate method of content blocking here, and I am simply illustrating interesting quest lines. The class and legendary weapon quest series were also amazing. The latest experience of the rogue legendary was one of the most incredible quest experiences of my MMO life. Rift did this just about every patch cycle by having the Planar Legacies. Each patch you got a long, involved quest line that involved you spanning the world, revisiting content you have long forgotten and then engaging in the relevant dungeon and raid content of that patch cycle. These quests result in fun items, titles and some decent equipment or enchantments, but they are not required for game enjoyment or progression. SWTOR has the (mostly) incredible class story lines that are in-depth and personalized. However, beneath their glossy exterior, they are still able to largely be broken down into only a few of those neat categories above. Where it shines is the story element, which is stronger in any game that has come before in terms of accessibility. I stress the accessibility part, because those other games do have some excellent story elements buried in them, but it’s like panning for gold. Most of what you get is buried so deep as to be contextually unusable by most people. They are dense walls of text in speech, books, and dialogue that isn’t brought to the forefront at all. You have to really work at information gathering and assimilation to build the story of the game world. A lot of times, it doesn’t make any sense. This doubly compounds the problem of the greater story. When you lose this, you have to rely heavily on your per zone or per area content, per patch cycle content as well, but that’s still a pretty new thing so I will give it a pass for now, pausing only to state that Rift has done it the most successfully, despite its flaws. When you lose that, or its unclear, the six greater categories take focus and become obvious, independent events.

Zangarmarsh was the biggest perpetrator of this in all of World of Warcraft. The only things the zone had going for it was that it was easily traversed on mount and that it had major quest hubs, allowing you to rip through the leveling grind. The story just wasn’t there. Nagas are stealing the water? I guess? What the fuck? Oh I have to escort this asshole, now I have to fish, now I have to turn in some armor, now I have to escort another asshole, ok let me kill these naga, one second while I collect these naked women statues…and so on. It’s so wildly all over the place that the flaws in the system which can be overlooked in areas of cogent story telling are there slapping you in the face with its penis of filler content. Nagrand had a lot of this too, which made the mid level slog even worse because the areas were back to back if you chose to go that route, and hitting Terrokar wasn’t too much better. When you don’t have overarching content that keeps surfacing, your per area content better be very strong. When it isn’t, it becomes less and less about story. Don’t be surprised when it’s accepted more and more as only a game, and less as a vessel for lore and story. Now, I am sure that people are going to come to defense of World of Warcraft here and rail about the lore and strength of it, and yes, it exists, but you have to work for it, that’s my point. It shouldn’t have to be that way. So what does this have to do with questing? If you don’t have these things that I am discussing here, it feels more and more like a grind mechanic. The entire point of adding quests was to get away from the grind, or at least disguise it, right? When it’s stripped bare and presented as a raw mechanic, we are left dissatisfied on a level that’s difficult to articulate.

Now, allow me to wax nostalgic here for a moment as I don my rose-tinted glass lenses. I want to discuss three things that have been entirely abandoned in the pursuit of slick, packaged, usable, and streamlined quests.

1) The feeling of discovery
2) Player-generated, or gm-generated, content
3) Usability

One of the coolest experiences of Everquest was talking to NPCs and discovering, holy shit, this guy wants me to do something for him! Now, I would wager that some of the investment came from the effort, however minimal, that it took to do this. Having to ‘Hail!’ someone, and then type keywords in the appropriate combination as if it was a text adventure, combined with the fact that I better be prepared to write shit down if I wanted to follow up on it, presented a level of investiture that I have never felt again. Some of this I attribute to the fact that it was my first elongated MMO experience, but I think at lot was the fact that I was putting in actual effort. There was no “I’ll read it later”. If I wanted to read it later, I would have to hope that someone had done it already and posted it to Allakhazam, a site that I contributed to many, many times, or I had to just go back to the NPC and read it later. There was no quest log or way to easily recall the information. I understand quite clearly that this was a sub-optimal method of questing, and that most people did not quest in any large or meaningful way. I KNOW I’m in the minority here. I loved the hell out of it. I had a notebook filled with quests, links, items and crafting formulas that worked. People did not do enough of these quests to make the system a success, and thus was born the current incarnation of quests and questing. This was seen as a marked improvement, though I think it’s a shame that this system wasn’t ALSO brought along. Too often you find something strange and check your inventory and it has the phrase “this item begins a quest”. Yes, this is great for the user experience, but wouldn’t it be nice to find a way to also reward exploration and content participation? Rift tried this with its puzzles, and I loved them, but it rewarded exploration only. There was no tie in to anything greater than the puzzle itself. Still, including meaningful puzzles is great, and that should be brought along in the future. SWTOR has done a little bit of exploration rewarding by those people who click items that glow and then read the codex and follow the conversations on other planets. In true BioWare fashion, everything is in the codex. I like having a handy source of reference, but most people aren’t going to read that shit. The benefits of reading the codex are minimal in a game sense, but I still like doing it. Sadly, there were problems with the implementation of the SWTOR exploration questing, outside of holocrons which are fun benefits but aren’t really quests, they are more akin to the Rift puzzles in that way. Pure Shockfrozen Water was not long for the game world, and we all knew it. Still, why not have quests like that? There is nothing to be lost by doing it this way, especially if they are fun, fluff, or just self-gratifying rewards. People will take the time to explore and put in the work if they have a reason. Players will just need to be trained that these things DO exist. Having a few of these alternatives quests each patch cycle will keep people going back to your content and exploring, I promise. In fact, the spontaneous Rift system of invasions was almost a codified version of this. You’d walk into an area and it would be vastly different, affording you fun and different ways of questing for a short duration. While I recognize this isn’t the same thing, it’s in the same vein. Explore, experience, reward.

Another point where my nostalgia kicks in is with regards to player-generated and gm-generated content. I am in the unique position to discuss both, as I was part of the volunteer game staff for EverQuest, the Guide Program, and I ran several player events as if they were GM events. Part of this was the unique way in which EverQuest was established. The textual quest system, coupled with the turn-in system, really contributed to a seamless feel, here. A player or GM could easily generate quest text by simply placing a few key words within the appropriate brackets, such as [quest text]. The people participating would say “What quest text?” and then you would simply trigger the next event phrase. You could macro all of this, so you could do the work ahead of time and simply run the event. I mentioned the turn-in system, which was really no different than initiating a trade with a player. You dragged the item over the NPC and released it, which was one of the ways to initiate a trade with a player. There was no conceptual disconnect about who might reward you how. There was no thought of saying “Oh, this guy doesn’t have an exclamation point or a recycling symbol, so it’s not a real quest”. This was heavily reinforced by the fact that very few things were really unable to be reused or traded. Even in raid encounters, you could always come across several tradeable and non-bindable items. If you were on a roleplaying server, the rules were different entirely, and even fewer things were not able to be traded. You could make extremely elaborate quests and events if you had the participation, and these would be all but indistinguishable from GM run events. The current systems just simply don’t allow for this level of interaction and involvement. The interface isn’t set up for it, and the economy is built, sadly, around the idea of bind then vendor or destroy items. In edition to limiting quests to being a game produced event, it also damages the community when people are further removed from the content process, and roleplaying is all but culled from the player perspective. Yes, this was also not for everyone, but when people think back to EverQuest, this type of involvement is something that gets frequently brought up as a boon of the system. I know that in shear numbers that it is impractical to put this onus on the Game Staff, but allowing your players to do some of the heavy lifting for you is a good thing. If you make it difficult to do so, they won’t do it. Nowadays, this is limited to raiding or pvp events. These can be fun and enjoyable, but it’s rare that anything emotive or impacting arises from this on a roleplaying and investiture front.

My treatise on usability is really two parts, repeatability and use in all items. One of the facets of the EverQuest economy was the selling of no drop items that were able to be “multi-quested”. The quest system was such that the person turning in the last item was the one who got the reward. Since everything was trade and inventory based, the events triggered when you gave the items to the NPC in a true trade format, rather than it triggering based on your inventory. This allowed for no drop quest items to be resold to the player base at large, and purchased to allow a player to complete a quest. This is pretty damned amazing when you stop and think about it. Now, I know this is all but impossible in the current quest systems, but I would love to see it make a return in some fashion. It could be limited to group turn ins with some dialogue options along the way, or even a “group turn in” functionality that would check the inventory of the entire group and prompt for a single turn in with confirmations. Of course, I would love for the idea of bound gear to die a little bit, but that’s a different discussion. The point here is that this “multi-questing” was a vibrant part of the economy and it was something that should have been adopted by other games. I feel this is a system limitation oversight more than anything else, but it’s time to bring it back. Let the players have a bit more control over quests and interactivity. The second part of this is the idea that you can repeat most quests if you have the inclination to do so. In fact, the Rogue Epic in EverQuest is consistently upheld as one of the best designed quests in the genre, end of story. The reason for this is that you could, and were encouraged to, repeat the quest and end it at different points by selecting different options, such as betraying different people along the way or turning in items to another person. This level of in-depth questing and nesting is pretty unheard of in a world where repeatable quests just means to do the same quest day after day for cash or tokens of some sort. I am talking about the equivalent of doing the Onyxia Key quest over again, only to sell out the Alliance to Onyxia, or doing the SWTOR class quest and opting to end your story voluntarily at a certain point to have a new mentor or companion. It’s really that level of complexity. I would love to see that sort of experience added back into the quest system. Nested, repeatable quests are fantastic! It’s the equivalent of reloading the save file to see what the other selection would have gotten you in a single player game. This is self-sustaining content if a lot of these quests exist. Not only that, it lets people see the same content in a completely different light or with different goals in mind. Even more so than just a harder version of the same content, this is self-selected content. When someone self-selects, they show their interest. This is the same philosophy as achievements, titles and vanity pets, only with more tangible rewards and a larger impact. There is no reason that can’t be implement in the current model by forking quest options. This has sort of been shown a little bit with repeatable quests in SWTOR when Light Side and Dark Side options exist, and by malleable conversation forks. More of this is what the genre needs, not less.

If you’ve made it this far, I commend you for your fortitude and diligence. To wrap this thing up, I just want to voice one final thought. The level of accessibility that MMOs have achieved is no excuse to not revisit old ideas and implement them in new ways, or to stop considering how to do things more efficiently or flat out better. Keep the RP in the MMORPG genre and focus on the things that make it a definable genre. It’s not a sum of slick parts, it should be an entire beast. The idea of questing was one that revolutionized the genre, but is approaching the level of tedium that simply stabbing goblins over and over again produced. Until questing is again treated as something immersive, meaningful and directed, it’s simple a means to an end. That might be experience or items, but it’s rarely experienced for the story. The industry should begin to recognize this and experiment with it. BioWare experimenting with the multi-player single-player experience is a bold step forward, but it’s the tip of the iceberg. Let’s re-explore what worked before, and how we might revolutionize it to make it a better version of itself.

3 comments

  1. Don’t know if you ever saw this: http://web.archive.org/web/20061125012621/mythicalblog.com/blog/2006/02/22/repost-quest-objectives/

    As usual in these discussions, I point out that I’m really hoping Guild Wars 2 shakes up how the industry thinks of quests with what are basically two tenets “most quests are scalable public quests” and “quests branch based on completion criteria and visually change the world state.” Will this just result in worse problems? Dunno yet.

    You’re never going to put the wiki genie back in the bottle. Even back in EQ, you could look stuff up online, and these days players have been trained to do that. A quest that forces you to figure out something deterministic is a failure of your own quest UI that will be propped up by plenty of walkthrough sites. The only way you could get back to anything like getting players to write down clues and think about them would be to have a quest system that procedurally generated something semi-unique for each player. That is, there would be enough variations on what any individual player is expected to do to succeed that it would be hard to generate a simple walkthrough. Given that something like that might lead to a greater sense of player ownership in the events experienced by his character vs. someone else’s, that’s probably not a bad thing to consider.

    I also wonder if advancement addiction (http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/oneshot01apr05.html) isn’t a huge contributor. When a player skips through the story as fast as possible to get more exp, you can’t claim that he isn’t doing exactly what the designers implicitly told him was his goal: get the level up and gear at the end of the quest, because that’s what’s fun in the game. As many reservations as I have about an Eve-style character progression that’s completely unlinked from player achievement, something on that order combined with a game that has quests might result in some interesting behavior… or you’d have to incentivize quests in some other way and start the problem again.

    1. Rift had scaling public quests already, and I think they worked incredibly well. In fact, that and their patch content cycle were the best things about the game. My only concern with public questing is that there is a fine balance between story driven and randomization. Rift didn’t have enough story driven public quests, while that’s all the Warhammer Online had. I love public quests, and I want to see more implementations of them, for sure.

      I don’t think that putting the genie back in the bottle is exactly what I am talking about. I know that there is no way to ever recreate that level of information lockout, and I wouldn’t want to do so. Players that are inclined to study a walkthrough will, and there is nothing that can be done about that. The Rift puzzles were a lot of fun, but you could get a guide to just zip through them if you were so inclined, so you could receive your gear. I don’t consider that a failure, just a side effect. The idea of hidden quests or easter eggs are something that players actively discuss wanting. I’d be ok with an implementation of this exploration based system that opened up quests if you picked up items that were strange. I’m also ok with quests that begin in weird, out of the way locations. In either case, it does require effort on the part of the player and a little bit of searching. The point is that effort does beget interest on a small scale at least, and I am sure there are ways to link that more clearly. The holocrons are a good example of exploration leads to reward, but imagine there was a quest on top of the jawa balloon ride? That’s what I’m getting here. Still, there are issues with it, and I recognize those, but I believe a balance could be struck.

      Rushing to the end game IS what games want you to do, but they aren’t sure why they want you do it. Part of this is because of the built-in level differential that exists. There are ways to break the chains of this system, but no one seems interesting in taking the risk and exploring those. Side-kicking is one such method, but it’s far from the only one. However, any system that attempts this needs to rethink equipment as well, which is long, long overdue.

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