Tuesday, September 16, 2008
The nature of quests
In spite of what you might have seen on South Park, it is not possible to level up to the level cap in World of Warcraft by killing 65,340,285 level 1 boars. It is however totally possible to level up to the level cap in WoW or Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, or most other level-based MMORPGs, by killing monsters of your level all day long, without doing a single quest. But although quests are thus not strictly necessary, they have become a more and more important part of the genre. Ultima Online only had a few escort quests when I played it, Everquest (in spite of the name) had a gameplay where killing the same mob repeatedly was a much bigger part of gameplay than doing the occasional quest. Anarchy Online and Star Wars Galaxies experimented with random quest generators, which wasn't a huge success. It was World of Warcraft where the quest system had its breakthrough, and questing became the main occupation of players. But after a few years the fizz seems to have gone out of the model, with increasing complaints about "kill ten foozles" quests being boring. So what is the function of quests, and how could we make it more fun?
If you tried to level up without quests in WoW, you would most likely go somewhere where there are mobs of your level and start killing them. If you found a large enough group, and not too many other players are around, the first mob will have respawned by the time you kill the last mob, and so you can go around in circles until you level up. At some point your level is so high that moving to a higher level mob would be the optimum strategy. But before that there isn't really a reason why you would travel around and look for other mobs than those eternal respawns. Of course killing always the same mob over and over isn't much fun, but there is some sort of activation barrier which you must overcome to motivate you to move on and kill some other mobs. And in a game with quests, the quests provide exactly that motivation. By handing out an additional quest reward in xp, gold, or items, it becomes more efficient to hunt one specific mob only until you fulfil the quest for that mob, and then move on to the next quest. The player does it because including the quest reward he receives more xp per kill. But the ultimate consequence is that he ends up traveling all over the zone a lot more than if he wouldn't do quests. That helps distributing players over the zone better, and is more fun, because you see more different areas, and fight more different mobs.
The other core function of quests is to answer the eternal "now what?" question. Especially at the start of a game it is easy to become a bit lost in a MMORPG, not knowing where to go and what to do. Place a very obvious quest giver with some floating symbol over his head in front of the player, and the problem is solved. Players quickly fill their quest log with lots of small goals, and so they always have a good idea what to do next. If well done, like in WoW or WAR, the quests even lead you to the next higher region once you've outleveled the zone you're currently in.
The only problem is that quest might not be the best name for that. Merriam-Webster defines "quest" as being "a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey", so the quest for the holy grail would be a good example. Going around farmer browns shed to kill 10 wolves there somehow falls short, and feels more like an errand than a quest. There are a few good quest lines, or destiny quests, or book quests, whatever the game might call them, that rise to the level of a real "quest", but they tend to get lost between the many errands in your quest log. What is most often missing is the personal involvement of the character in the story (honorable exception being the AoC destiny quest until level 20); most often the quest story is somebody else's problem, with the hero just being involved by accepting to help. Even supposedly evil characters are incredibly helpful to total strangers in MMORPGs.
I think quests would be more fun if there weren't quite as many of them, but they'd be more involved. Why not have one big quest line per zone, sending you here and there, but always keeping up one story line? The disadvantage of such a model would be finding a group for some step of a quest line, with everyone else being at some other step. But most people quest alone anyway, and other game activities like the WAR "public quests" (not a quest either, more like an event), or PvP scenarios, are more suited for players to play together. Stories are better told on an individual level, because in a group nobody has the time to read a story text or wait for a cutscene. Besides the big quest there could still be other motivations to not stay in one place too long, for example by introducing diminishing returns when killing the same mob too long. Instead of a a huge collection of short stories quests could become longer novels, with the player in the center as the hero of the story, with some personal involvement beyond just a reward. The starting quest line of the Death Knight in Wrath of the Lich King shows how that could be done.
In summary, quests serve a useful purpose right now, but I don't think this is already the end of the development. Running errands for some minor reward doesn't make the player feel like a hero, and it doesn't contribute much to the development of the personality. I don't know into what exactly this will evolve, but I'm sure there will be some improvement towards more involvement in the future.