Tobold's Blog
Friday, May 23, 2014
Not all quests are equal

The discussion this week on this blog about quests mainly showed that the term is far too broad. People complain about quests, but in reality it isn't all quests they are opposed to. Of course we want some hand-holding (preferably optional for alts) at the start of the game to explain the game mechanics to us. Of course we want some form of story-telling to happen which explains us the lore and background of whatever we see in that virtual world. What we don't want is and endless series of being told to kill 10 foozles or to carry an "important message" to an NPC 10 meters away.

In the current adventure of my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, there are quests. There is one main quest, collecting the 22 cards of the Deck of Many Things, and over a dozen side quests which serve to tell the history of the abbey, or to direct players to locations they might otherwise have missed. The overall idea is that at the end of the adventure the players not only are in possession of the Deck of Many Things, but also in possession of the history of that artifact, so as to enable them to make an informed decision on what to do with it. None of the quests is completely trivial or involves "grinding" a specific number of enemies. The main quest, and one side quest about finding sacred vessels, do not give the players the information where exactly to look for the items. Rather the idea is that the players will do ALL the encounters in the adventure and therefore ultimately find everything that there is to find. It would be totally possible to play the same adventure with the same encounters without using any main or side quests, but that would give a less interesting result and story.

What I do like in Wildstar are quest series which do similar things than the quests in my D&D game: Telling me a story about a location and letting me interact with that story. What I don't like is two particular things:
  1. I don't get a choice how to interact with that story, other than either following the story line or not. I don't get to choose whether I trust the quest giver and I don't get to make any moral decisions. I'm just a stupid grunt who is doing what he is being told.
  2. I receive instructions about things to do which are somewhat arbitrary and don't really relate to the advancement of the story. The famous "dickwolf" cartoon from Penny Arcade, before becoming a PR disaster, was meant to be about that issue: Why would a quest ask me to free X slaves, or kill X monsters, and not all of them?
Both cases are obviously due to technical and financial limitations. "Free X slaves" is a kind of a placeholder in the story, representing the player/hero freeing "the slaves" in the story. If you wanted to represent that by him actually freeing all slaves, you would need to deal with the question of how the player knows when the task is finished, and how his freeing the slaves interacts with the player next to him freeing the slaves as well. Wildstar has "adventures" with decision trees, but for normal quests having multiple choices and better story logic would require a lot of costly phasing, and loss of the little remaining multi-player atmosphere.

And then there is the issue of how much information a quest should give the player. I remember one quest in the original Everquest where you were asked in the dwarven city to go out and find a certain dwarf, without being told where. That dwarf was in another city on the other side of another continent. The result of that sort of quest design was that people used the internet to find out where they were actually supposed to go. Even far more hand-holding games like World of Warcraft STILL have third-party websites that list all quests and give hints on how to solve them in case there was the slightest ambiguity left in the quest description. So games are giving more and more detailed instructions, with arrows pointing out exactly where to go and what to click on. I don't remember which game it was, but I remember playing one game where you could click on the quest tracker to auto-run to the quest location. So on the one hand at least some people demand very detailed instructions, but on the other hand these detailed instructions remove any sense of exploration and adventure from the game.

I know what I prefer, but I don't know a solution that would make everybody happy. It is hard to imagine a working system that gives different degrees of hand-holding to different players. Even if players would be happier with having to explore a bit more, chances are they would go the path of least resistance and turn on all quest help features if they were optional.

Your D&D game is more akin to a single player game than a MMO. In a single player game, quests have meaning because they are part of the world story, not just nail polish put on top on a permanent and unchanging world (or changing just for you with phasing).

The problem you mention about people using internet to solve quests is also the outcome of the issue core issue: everybody gets the same quest. If you were running your D&D adventure to 100,000 groups of players worldwide, they would also share information between each other on the internet.

The real technical question is how to make quests which are both unique and appealing.
I agree that quests in WoW get old real fast. I wish there were dynamic quests that could change based on what players are doing. Maybe a mine needs to be cleaned of spiders, once the spiders are gone ore needs to be collected. Thugs then attack the mine and you have to defend, etc.. it could even wrap back around to spiders invading the mine. Instead of killing x mobs, there could be some kind of algorithm that determines how many mobs are available and you complete the quest when a certain percentage has been killed.

Maybe instead of having quest givers; town NPCs could give out rewards if they notice you have certain items. i.e. - you have a bunch of wolf pelts on you so a farmer comes over and thanks you for getting rid of wolves that have been attacking his chickens and gives you gold.

My biggest pet peeve is going into an area, killing x mobs, turning in the quest only to get a new quest to go back to that same area and kill their boss now.
I'm not sure what you mean by phasing being "costly." I understand it to be a rather elegant solution to these sorts of problems. The server only has to render one copy of the zone/area, with everyone in it, they just can't "see" each other. The end result is that everyone gets their own virtual instance, while causing very little additional load on the server.

And I honestly find it very frustrating that no game has effectively used phasing to solve your problem #2. Simply give the player their own phase, which has 10 foozles or 10 slaves, and you literally kill/free every one of them. This also fixes the respawn issue, that anything you kill will only reappear out of thin air 30 seconds later. Additionally, it gives the ability to make areas actually different after you complete the quest, giving you more of a feeling that your actions do impact the world.

I somewhat agree that this reduces the multi-player atmosphere. However, with the current design, I haven't heard from anyone that doesn't regard other players in the same questing area as anything but an annoyance. And in fact, you could use scaling in phases to make grouping more balanced, instead of making already easy quests become faceroll easy when you try to play with your friends.
@ Samus
I agree with you phasing is an elegant solution and I find it an improvement for immersion.

However this solution sounds like an admission that "MMOs" are nothing more than a single player game with options to bring a few friend along.
Turning off the quest assistance features in World of Warcraft was the greatest thing I could do to improve my leveling experience - it went from mindlessly slaying trivial mobs to actually reading quest text (which usually contains plentiful clues) and exploring the area before getting to slaying those same trivial mobs :-)
Of course, turning it on for a bit to get through a roadblock is always an option
Those that don't like "quest" games are really expressing disinterest in the "on rails" experience. The best example is level based zones. Once you are done, you move on and likely never come back unless its with new character.

I point this out because it's false attribution to blame quests for this problem. Quests are merely a vehicle to provide direction and encourage exploration.

The solution for assistance options that everyone turns on is to turn them on independent of the player.
When the player kills his 20th mob not related to one of his quest he gets some drop that gives additional hints. When the player visits a tavern after 30 min of having a quest he can ask tavern patrons (NPCs) for more clues etc.
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