The quest to end all quests
Posted by Rem on August 3, 2009
The upcoming (NA/EU) release of Aion once again sparkles musings about cultural differences in Western and Eastern gaming habits. At the centre of it, as a reoccurring theme, are quests. The Asian MMOs are typically referred to as “grind-fests”, while the Western are .. well .. what? Quest-fests?
Two bits of reading got me thinking. First, there was Eurogamer comparing the (claimed) numbers of quests in Aion and WoW.
But times have moved on, and in this day and age – after the deft pacing and storytelling expertise shown by Lord of the Rings Online and Wrath of the Lich King – simply having quests in the first place isn’t enough. And while NCsoft’s claimed total of 1500 quests may sound like a lot, we learned from former WOW lead Jeff Kaplan today that World of Warcraft had some 2600 at launch, and now has over 7600. With a strict division in questing between the two playable races, it will have to be a fairly compact world and short levelling curve for these to fill it out.
So far so good. Let’s keep that notion in mind for later reuse. Then there was Keen “Comparing Aion vs. WAR” and stating the following:
I don’t LIKE questing. I feel that it is overused, simplistic, mind-numbing, and a shortcut.
Huh. Now that came out unexpected. And the first thought is probably “eh, dude, sure you’re playing the right genre?” Because MMOs/RPGs/MMORPGs are all about questing … or are they? Let’s spend a second thought and ask ourselves, what it is that seems to make questing desirable for us. For the sake of an argument, let’s split up the players in three categories. And before you come after me with torches and pitchforks, yes, I am fully aware and taking into account, that a single player well might represent any weighted combination of the three, as well as switch between any imaginable weighted combinations within the course of one gaming session. That’s not the point. We’ll get to the point, bear with me for a moment. So, the players.
The Endgamer. He wants to reach the level-cap, because that’s where the game truly begins for him. For him, the levelling curve is just a progressing tutorial. As far as he’s concerned, quests yield good and easy XP, getting him that next level and edging him one step closer to the content he’s actually aiming for. Don’t expect him to soak up the quest background, because he honestly doesn’t care. He’s certainly pleased by playing in a nicely designed and rendered environment, but why he’s doing what he’s doing isn’t of interest for him.
The Altoholic. He has 3 level-cap characters and 5 others in the making. But he’s not doing it for the sake of the content, he’s doing it out of curiosity for the class mechanics. Much like the endgamer, the altoholic gratefully accepts every extra XP he can get, because every next level unlocks more class-specific goodies he’s being after. Finding out how exactly to infiltrate the troll hideout won’t get him excited, because he did it before. Like, 5 times, on his other characters. And another 10 times to help his altoholic friends.
The Explorer. Now things get interesting. Because this guy actually cares about the world as such, wants to soak up its atmosphere and enjoy the trip itself. He’s prone to reading quest dialogues and going after unorthodox quests, even though they might take him more time. He’ll stop and look when he sees the sun set, the moon rise, the rain drop, the sea .. uh .. swash? He’ll sidetrack and go explore a mysterious cave, just because it’s mysterious and a cave.
I’d say this roughly covers it. Again, I’m fully aware, that gamers are usually “hybrids” of those, and switch their degree of hybridazation with an arbitrary frequency. That’s not the point. The point is, that questing in its current form isn’t really a fantastic experience for either of them. But, hey, what about the explorer types? I think, for them it’s actually the most disappointing.
And here we get back to the first quote. See, it’s the mass. The sheer amount. There’s no good having 7600 quests, when 7500 of those are just identical copies of each other, delivering you the Reason Of The Day why to go and kill baddies in this particular area. The true and massive caveat is, that you cannot possibly develop any sense of involvement or dedication to Task #1829. There’s no point in reading all the quest text, because your mind won’t be able to store – and, more importantly, distinguish between – all the countless quest texts you read. So, you just scan over it, picking up keywords and/or just scroll down straight to the “objectives”. Or don’t even bother with that and hit “accept”, because QuestHelper will figure that out for you.
I fancy myself an endgamer-explorer hybrid. I love endgame, but I also love the world I’m gaming in. I love to love it. So I try to read some of the stuff thrown at me, but, in the long run, I fail. My memory is just incapable of actively keeping track of all the tasks these 8 NPCs just imposed on me. I got a rough sense that Gadgetzan is generally concerned with its water supply, which makes sense with it being in a desert, and serves nicely to, well, point out that it’s being in a desert. But beyond that? No idea. I just go out and hit stuff, basically. Luckily, I love doing that, too (very much so).
I am sure there are well written, meaningful, out-of-the-box quests. In know, in fact, there are. But the even bigger crime is, that you have a really, really hard time spotting those under the endless heap of kill-rats. Since you’ve been conditioned to at best scan over the text, in the rare case when it contains something actually worth reading, you just won’t know.
Which brings us back to what a quest should actually be – namely what the word actually means, in its classic meaning. Setting out on a quest (mind you, one quest, singular) used to mean pursuing some extraordinary enterprise. It meant you’d go on an adventure, search for places, people, hints and items, fight villains, solve riddles, make decisions to achieve a goal you might not even be fully aware of when you started. And when it would be over, you’d look back at your quest and say, wow, that was quite something I did there. What we have instead at present, is all of the aforementioned tasks split up in separate and, at best, loosely connected, well .. tasks! Feel the emotional difference between “quest” and “task”? Because what we’re doing in the game now, are no quests – it’s just tasks.
WoW surely has a lot of quests. And at times, it feels like they’re all out to get me. I’m running to the forge in Stormwind, and I see this exclamation mark popping up, and I’m trying not to look at it, because my quest log is full, and it’s probably for an area I had no immediate plans to go to, and will be greyed out by the time I do. I’m just trying not to think too much about those probably 70% of the content I’m just passing on, because the other 30% are more than enough to get me through the level progression. Hey, I’m telling myself, it’s probably just another meaningless errand. Of course it might also be the most exciting quest chain ever written, and I’ll never know, unless someone explicitly points me at it (and I probably will have outlevelled it by the time I could get around to do it).
Yet we cling to our quests. Why? For the same reason we fear those Asian MMOs. The grind. The evil word of terror. We don’t want to be sentenced to have to kill millions of rats and boars for our level-up. But what does this effectively mean? It means, that when we chew through quests barely reading them (and, be honest, we do!), all they do for us is XP-amplifying. Instead of just getting 500 XP from killing 10 boars, we get an additional 5000 on top of that! It just speeds things up by giving us additional candy for doing specific things at a specific time.
Caveat to this: quests discourage exploration! I read this somewhere, but forgot where, thus no link, but it makes perfect sense for the way I play. When you enter a new area, what’s your first thought? Mine is “let’s see what’s around here”, run around and just see what’s where. When you see a cave, or a castle, or something of that sort, what do you think? I think “let’s go in there and clear it completely!” But then, I will remind myself, that I’ll most probably get a quest to go just there and kill the same mobs … again. So, instead of looking for adventure, I first look for the quest-hub. Because these are the rules of the game, and if I don’t play by them, I don’t receive the candy. That doesn’t stop the process from being a grind, it just makes me grind quests, rather than mobs.
So, what are the alternatives to this system?
Age of Conan has the Destiny quest-chain, which starts at character creation and runs through to level 80. It is supposed to be your quest, you know, the one with adventure, decisions and dragon slaying. While the idea is not a bad one, it’s basically implemented as a single-player campaign. And it’s not the solo-aspect (in fact, I have no idea if later stages might even involve grouping) I’m criticizing. But its entire plot focuses around you being such a special snowflake, a unique individual in possession of a unique artefact who should uniquely change the course of history. Hey, newsflash, this is an MMO, and there’s lots of other snowflakes running around. It’s a freakin’ snowstorm! Besides, for such a supposedly personal experience, there’s a stunning lack of interactivity, as in decision making. While you have to click your way through intricate dialogues (just as you have to acquire the quest to kill 10 rats…), your choice always boils down to being railroaded to your “destiny”, or standing around with nothing to do. Plus, it’s only one quest-chain. And while the entire point of this article is advocating “less is more”, I didn’t mean just one. One you don’t even get to choose! Gah.
Aion has two sorts of errands: quests and missions. Quests are supposed to be the regular daily stuff, the boar and rat killing, while missions are designed to be more, well, epic. So, you see, we went from “tasks and quests” to “quests and missions”, because the word quest was devalued so much over time. It’s an interesting take, maybe reminiscent of LotRO‘s division in regular and book-quests. I reserve judgement until I get to experience it myself.
What I will do instead, is pick it up from there and go a step further to suggest Rem’s Quest System. We start with Aion’s quests and missions pattern. First, we take the quests … and throw them away. Out the window. And don’t even look to see where they land. We don’t care. Once we’ve rid ourselves of those, we can rename missions into quests again. Or into Amazing Adventures. Now comes the trick: we tell our content department (we still have one, we didn’t throw them out the window with the “quests”!) to sit down, take their time, and really turn those amazing adventures into what the name suggests they should be. From 7600 quests 7500 of which are just copy-and-paste crap, we go to just 100, which are brilliant pieces of gameplay mechanics and storytelling. Hire actual writers. Play with everything your game engine has to offer. Pull all stops. Have them be few, but meaningful and exciting, such that when a player finishes one of those, he feels like sitting down and writing a book himself about his amazing adventure and his (and his friends’) way of solving the challenges thrown at him (them). High quality instead of meaningless quantity.
But what about those “quests”? They’re gone. And they’re not coming back. Never again will any douchebag be asking you to go fetch him 5 Flawed Boar Hides. Does that mean back to endless mob-grind outside of the amazing adventures? No, of course not. I still have a trick up my sleeve, and here it comes.
So, you go out into the wilderness and see this .. uhm .. boar. It’s an evil boar, so you kill it. And then you loot it. Familiar so far? Okay, here comes tweak one: no trash loot. Trash loot is called trash loot, because it’s just that: trash. Stuff no one in the game needs for anything. And since it’s useless, why should you even be picking it up? Obviously, because the NPCs are struck by some curse forcing them to purchase endless amounts of diseased rat livers from the player. Occam’s Razor says: out with it! If you can pick it up, it has to have some use – if it doesn’t have any use, you wouldn’t want to pick it up in the first place. But where do we get our steady money flow from, are we being forced into even more grind? Not at all, be patient and read on.
So, you loot this boar. You acquire this meaty looking shank and that solid peace of his hide. Or not. Same system as before, only, with the added rule, that if you can loot it, it’s somehow useful. You adventure for a while, gather this and that – like that very special flowers you can only pick up when you have the quest to do so, but which are invisible otherwise – and then, at some point, come across a village. Huh!
If you’re looking for exclamation marks now, forget it, they’re gone, live with it. What you do instead, is walk up to, say, the provisioner and “ask” him what the village needs. Hurray, they need boar shanks (who would have thought), and you just so happen to carry 9 of those in your bags! So, what you do is, basically, just barter. You give him 1 boar shank, and he gives you 250 XP and 20 silver. Bring more, get more. Now off to the tailor and see if he has some demand for those hides. You can go from here and construct an economical model with supply and demand, or you can just leave it at infinite demand. I’d go with the latter option – it’s a game, not a simulation.
Next you go to the sheriff (whatever) and he complains about brigands. No intricate stolen-ponies-story, we’re not in amazing adventure mode. Just brigands. Occam’s Razor. This is the point where you say (because the game kept track of it), that you assaulted their nearby hideout and slew 17 of them, including a semi-chief-brigand-dude. The sheriff breaks out in celebration and rewards you with 17*500 XP and 17*40 silver (uhm, throw in some bonus for the semi-chief-dude in there somewhere). How would he know I’m not making things up? Well, how do the current NPCs know I actually went out and killed those they wanted me to kill, rather than just walk around the corner, come back and say “done”? Same magic applies. Oh, and for those cases when I have to bring back someone’s severed head as proof, let’s just say, when I vanquished that brigand, I noticed him wearing an intriguing badge and took it with me. Collecting tiger claws because they look special to be used as a latter proof of fighting the .. tiger plague. Again, everything you can pick up, has a purpose. And players are basically willing to suspend any disbelief if they get fun in return. Note how realism discussions only ever appear to confront aspects that are not fun.
So, you just earned your quest XP and your quest reward money (as well as the trash loot money). Feel free to go out and do it again to earn more at the same rate, or to venture into new lands to discover more boars, brigands and villages. Oh, but what with the quest reward items? The awesome Ring of Sparkly Bling, are we taking that away? Of course not. And this part is ridiculously easy, really. Obviously, when you help a village out by providing them materials and fighting their foes, your standing with them will improve. You know, same way it does now. Remember the tales when a hero would save a city and then ride away clad in armour they gave him as thanks? Yeah, like that. You can make reputation a condition or even a currency in itself. Both systems work and have their pros and cons.
So, are we turning the entire game into one huge reputation grind? Well, yes and no. Yes, because .. well, we do. No, because there’s nothing inherently bad about it. Or even any different from the questing as it is now – we just remove the “acquire task before being able to accomplish it” restriction and scale the rewards more transparently. Reputation only has a bad .. uhm .. reputation, because it’s frequently used to stretch out the existing content beyond the actual .. uhm .. content. You know what I mean. It’s a long article and my brain is slowly running out of words. Anyway. If you build it right into the process of adventuring, make it as foundational and natural as XP and money, well, what’s bad about it then?
And that’s it. We remove the pretension of “quests” where they are just placeholders for trivial and mundane task, and turn them into barter systems, with the additional benefit of being able to do the deed before being tasked to. In return, we keep those really meaningful quests and build them into epic adventures people will want to do for their own sake, and not just the rewards.