Sunday, September 10, 2006

Quest Design in MMORPGs: Part One

This blog is primarily a transfer of my thoughts from a few Vanguard threads. In it, I plan to do two things: 1) critique the general state of quest design in MMOGs up to this point, and 2) propose my own tentative models and concepts.

The labelling of many things as "quests" in modern MMORPGs is inappropriate. Though some games might use the term merely to create a sense of familiarity, I think it is typically a marketing ploy to make the simple and redundant sound grandiose and compelling. In a game that truly wants its players to RP in a virtual world, the word should be treated with the proper sublimation.

However, I disagree with the common perception that true quests are defined merely by their complexity. Here's Merriam-Webster's definition (undoubtedly just one of many possibilities):

"a chivalrous enterprise in medieval romance usually involving an adventurous journey"

The key words in that definition are "chivalrous" and "adventurous". In order to be chivalrous, an act must be both atypical and noble. In order to be an adventurous, an act (or series of actions) must be atypical and difficult (dangerous?).

So a quest is defined by at least these 3 attributes:
1) atypical
2) difficult
3) noble

An epic quest would be grander in all respects.

By atypical, I don't mean that quests in an MMORPG need to be rare. But they do need to be abnormal or they will otherwise lose their adventurous nature. If everyone and their mother was a rock climber, rock climibing wouldn't seem like much of an adventure to me anymore. Games aren't immune to that phenomenon. Epics, being an exagerration of a quest in all ways, do need to be rare. Those should be the stories that circulate in player tales for months, or even years (like The Sleeper of Everquest).

Abnormal and rare mean more than simply that a particular player will oddly or rarely experience that quest. The player's experience must not be an exact replica of every other player of that race, class, skillset, etc. The reason for this has been made clear in previous games. How heroic does climbing the mountain, slaying the dragon and looting the Grand Sword of Uberness feel if you know that someone will do the same thing you did and receive the same "grand" sword 5 minutes later....and then another player, and another, and so on? [and yes, I use the word "uberness" with maximum disdain] How cool is it meeting a famous NPC when, as Lee Sheldon put it bluntly at the AGC, that NPC is basically a PEZ-dispenser and you're standing in line for his quest.

The hard truth is that the community in these games, the "MM" in "MMORPG", is a double-edged sword. You can't play up the importance of the community and expect players not to care if their characters are not unique and valuable among that community.

Though adventure is hard to define in its modern context, I was once told that it came from the Medieval French "aventure", which literally meant "what comes to you". Adventure, in the Romantic sense, is something the adventurer did not plan on or foresee fully. Likewise, a quest should involve surprise and searching (to which end spoiler sites are an obvious stumbling block).

I also mentioned nobility, but I'll save that one until a later blog. It deserves its own discussion.

So if "quests" are to be something other than every opportunity offered by an NPC to a player, let's separate out other types of opportunities. Be sure to continue on for the explanation of why these divisions are absolutely necessary if MMORPGs are to improve this aspect of gameplay.

A task is an act which a person has been assigned or commanded to perform. The word originated from the Latin word for "tax", hence the typically negative connotation. Gamewise, this is something the player must do to save his/her own skin or to serve a superior, perhaps for only a faction reward. The player usually knows generally what they're getting into.

An assignment is a task subdivision, defined as one of a series of actions to complete a greater objective. This might involve multiple players acting in differing roles in one experience; like if the wizard maintained an enchantment and the warrior distracted the guards while the thief opened a chest and stole its contents. Or it might involve the actions of players being related only in their outcome and not in their means. The players receive and perform tasks separately, without the ability to know who's doing something related to them, and receive their reward (or the best reward) only if all other players involved succeed in their tasks. Want to strengthen the community aspect of your game? There you go. To curb griefing, of course, an NPC would only accept failure from a particular player so many times (the griefer would have to be an exceptionally selfish arse anyway...cause he wouldn't know who he was griefing, but such bastards do exist).

A duty is an obligation to a superior and usually not limited to a single act. Unlike a task, a duty is something that is regularly expected and not in accordance with an impulsive command/request. So while bribing a new competing gang might be a thief's guild task, making sure a bribe gets to a particular NPC once a week would be a duty. To prevent redudancy, a duty could be as general as "kill a criminal", "steal 50 gold (from anyone)" or "bring back 5 furs" per time period...thus allowing the player to choose the specific nature of the action. Some developers cringe at the idea of forcing a player to do anything; but I'm a firm believer that players often spoil their own fun, so players need to be strongly encouraged to mix up their gameplay to some degree.

A job, like a task, is something which bears little mystery (the player has a general idea of what they will encounter) and is an action performed with a reward clearly in mind. The player should usually know generally what the reward will be before he/she accepts the job.

A favor, like a job, is performed with a reward clearly in mind (though the precise nature of that reward might be unknown), but the reward is a service, rather than material. Service rewards include offering a job or quest, puting in a good word with someone (faction), and allowing access to new territory or NPCs, among others.

An impulse is an act which did not originate with a command or request from an NPC. These are opportunities for rewards or service, but no reward is guaranteed (the reward might be only that you did what was right...or wrong ). An example would be if you happened to notice an NPC being robbed and stepped in to affect the situation. Though you have had no previous interaction with either the victim or the robber, stepping into the situation might alter the outcome and possibly merit a reward. The reward might be a ring if, you helped the victim, or an opportunity to aid in future crime, if you helped the robber.

A reconcilation is when a player must do something to escape danger, debt, banishment or disfavor. If a guild member (NPC guild/faction) failed to perform his weekly duty, he might have to perform a task to be restored to his guild membership or guild position. If a player has to earn faction to enter a castle, doesn't it make sense that he should be barred from entering if he angers that faction enough? (players hate contradictions, I assure you) This would help him get back into the castle. For debt, perhaps certain merchants would refuse service (because they know the guy you owe and won't pay) or a bounty will be placed on your head until you pay up. A player might also have to reconcile himself just for being a member of a race, class or faction, if that group angered or wronged an NPC long ago. Feuds are fun.

Words and names are not always cosmetic. Why do we call one car a Viper and another a Chevelle? We would know what each car is without naming them, right? Are we merely adding "fluff" to make a compelling illusion? No. We are naming them so that we may recognize and discuss them without having them in front of us to point to.

All of the terms I suggested are subsets of what have been called "quests" in past MMOGs, yes. But the scarcity of further descriptive terms in most MMOGs is evidence of how little effort typically goes into quest design (I realize tech limitations have come into play as well).

A fundamental lesson in linguistics is that a language adapts to the culture's (or industry/company's) needs and values. When we refer to a Chevelle or Viper with the generic term "cars", it's because the details that distinguish those vehicles from one another are not situationally necessary. But "Chevelle" and "Viper" are not words that are only useful to the auto-mechanics and manufacturers. Buyers and users find the details implied in those words useful to know as well.

Likewise, to refer to all missions merely as "quests" is to assign minimal value to those details. If developers believe those details merit discussion and manipulation, then they will naturally assign names to the variants. And if those variants were significantly distinguishable from one another, then those names would prove useful to players as well...because players would seek out and discuss the variants they prefer, just as the car buyers seek out and discuss the cars they prefer.

I highlight "significantly", because that is the subtlety that I believe many overlook in their consideration of previous MMORPGs. In EQ, there were quests, class quests and epic quests. Note that there is no distinction between search-and-destroy quests and delivery quests. That is because the essences of the two were so similar that the details ultimately did not matter (or such was the presumption of the game's design). In SWG, there was a distinction made between seek-and-destroy missions and delivery missions; and another distinction between faction missions and money-reward missions.

It is notable that MMORPG veterans, when discussing these games in general (rather than a specific game), rarely use terms more descriptive than the simple "quests". This should set off alarm bells!

Let's look at it another way. Is there really a need to label different kinds of "quests"?

Well, is there a need to label the guns in Halo? Names can help define how players understand and approach content. If a game labels all mission types as "quests", players will tend to approach all types with similar expectations.

There are certainly times when the developer would want the player to not realize what he or she is getting into, to let the player's excitement and anticipation build slowly as they learn the true nature of their situation. But there are also times when the devs want the player to be brimming with excitement from the get-go, perhaps by the NPC asking you specifically to accept a "quest".

If there's any sort of quest journal, wouldn't it make sense to categorize missions based on scenario, difficulty and rewards? If I've got a "duty" to bribe an NPC by tomorrow or I'll lose faction with my NPC guild, wouldn't it help to have a reminder of the mission's importance, rather than to have the duty mixed in with every other mission (those without a time limit)?

There are times for names to be prevalent and times for them to be "metagame information". To keep the terminology completely on the developer side would be an adverse limitation on gameplay. I agree that the terminology should not usually be staring players in the face, like a big red arrow above an NPC's head, as if to scream "QUEST HERE!!!". That would certainly detract from the game's flavor (assuming it's trying to be an RPG, and not arcade-style). When EQ2 added big red arrows like that to denote a player's current target (toggleable, I'm sure), I wanted to strangle somebody. But there are ways in which player exposure to terminology adds flavor.

All of this must be considered in relation to what could be in MMORPGs, instead of how it's been done before. What's unimmersive about an NPC saying "I have a job for you"? It might tell you that there is a material reward (possibly merchant faction too) and, perhaps, no experience reward. If some stuff gave only xp, some gave only loot, some gave only faction, then would it be watering down gameplay to make that information available to the player before he or she accepts that mission? No. By nature, a true "quest" does involve mystery, but a job or duty does not. What if an NPC directed you to another NPC because "he might have a job for you"? Does it not help to know that it is a job and not a quest?

Lastly, there's no need to hold onto mystery 100% of the time, of course, but mystery can be useful. Games that leave room for the player's imagination to roam can entertain long after the content has been explored and passed. It's like a virtual world (the player's imagination) inside a virtual world (the game). A kid could dream of bionic warriors without having anything in his hands, but a set of Transformers goes a long way in feeding that dream.

"Wait a minute... 'Part One'? You mean to tell me I read all this crap and you're STILL not done?!"

There's quite a bit more actually. I'll try to get Part Two posted sometime tomorrow.

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