Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Quest Design in MMORPGs: Part Three

This last part of the series is just going to be a collection of miscellaneous other stuff that relates to "quest" design.

Experience points don't have to be a reward for every player action. Seriously. I'll explain toward the end how I'm not just being idealistic.

You can offer tasks for faction, jobs for money, quests for treasure and fame, and duties for the possibility of the player keeping his head on his shoulders. The possibilities are endless, really.

The introduction of player-impact into MMOGs offers a new reward type: player-impact. Allow the player to shape the gameworld in some meaningful way. Providing and enhancing ways in which players can celebrate and proclaim these impacts (such as titles, ceremonies, newspapers, tavern talk, minstrels, etc) will go a long way in making them an acceptable substitution for other rewards.

Most would probably agree that the Diablo 2 loot system is too random for your typical MMORPG, but the basic concept of loot tables is a good one; a roll of the dice determines which of a collection of possible items is dropped (with some items having better odds than others). Note that this system can be manipulated to be as random or as limited as the designer desires (there might 50 possible items or there might be only 3 ). In that game, this reward system was applied to mob corpses only, while the mission system had specific rewards. But that doesn't always need to be the case. Sometimes the player should know exactly what the stakes are, but certainly not always.

Also, something I loved in EQ2 was that some quests offered a choice of rewards to the player. Upon quest completion, a reward window would pop up with 3 or 4 items and the player would choose the one he or she wanted. So if your character prefers 2-handed skullcrushers (like mine did), then you can choose one of those instead of some girly rapier. =P

Timed missions are usually more compelling when the timing feels natural and not like someone's waiting on you with a stop-watch.

For example: In EQ2, there was one quest in which an NPC told me to come back that night. She would talk to me, but would not advance the mission until nightfall. Imagine yourself racing against the coming dawn (if you're a vampire) or against the setting sun (because the nastiest creatures hunt at night). In those cases, enormous tension can build by the player's awareness of a timer infinitely more imposing and compelling than a ticking clock. Other times, players might have to do something "before [Name] gets back" or before that NPC leaves for a journey, etc.

Timing can also be used to provide opportunities for non-combat PvP. Two or more players could race to get something done before the others, or possibly even race their mounts. Contests, in other words.

Sometimes, when missions or challenges must be timed by something more similar to a stop-watch scenario, then it may be beneficial to make the timer's presence in the UI more interesting. The timer could be like a sundial icon with shadow measurement, or a candle slowly burning down to nothing, or a moon changing from a new moon to a full moon.

The basic idea is that often, while accepting a mission, the player has the option of making the quest more or less difficult, depending on what the player is in the mood for at the time (though the minimum difficulty must be significant to prevent players from spoiling their own fun).

I never played Fable, but a video I watched once suggested that the game accomplishes player control over mission difficulty through a boasting system. Here's the example provided in the video:

The player discusses taking on a mission to escort some traders safely to their destination. That's the basic mission and cannot be altered. But the player can boast that they can accomplish a number of things. Boasts for this particular mission include fighting bare-handed, fighting without armor, or taking no damage. If you succeed in your boast (wager), then you receive a little extra money. If you fail, I think you just don't get that extra money, but your reputation might suffer as well.

Here are two modifications I would make to that boast system:

Honor: Make it so that a person who fails to meet their boast will be laughed at by the mission-NPC (or perhaps sympathized with by kinder NPCs).

Hazy level requirements: Allow players to receive a some reward from a mission below his or her level by succeeding in a difficult boast. For example: While a level 5 player would receive 50 gold for killing a level 5 mission mob, a level 8 player might receive 75 gold for killing that same level 5 mission mob bare-handed.....or a level 9 player might receive 90 gold for killing the mission mob without armor. Of course, the level 5 player could try to kill the mob without armor for the same 90 gold, but he would likely fail.

This system has 2 big benefits:
1) It increases the level range of players who can perform that quest, have fun doing so and be rewarded sufficiently for their actions. (more bang for your buck)
2) It gives players more control over the difficulty of their own playing experience (sandbox). Players who live for a challenge can take advantage of this system the whole way through the game. And gamers who prefer an easy, relaxed game experience can just perform the quests the simplest way.

There can be complications, of course. Obviously, a character of a class that specializes in boxing shouldn't receive a better reward for fighting bare-handed or without armor, since he usually fights that way anyway. So boasts (extra mission options) should probably be limited to ones which all classes can perform.

Groups could be able to boast as well, which would require all members of the group to adhere to what was boasted.

Possible boasts:
Timed: Perform quest within a time limit.
Examples: Kill the mob in under 1 minute, starting upon the 1st attack. Spy on the mayor and report back with the needed intel in 20 minutes. Deliver message in under 15 minutes (by not getting entangled in the mobs in your way).
Limited Actions: Perform quest with [x] number of actions.
Examples: Kill the mob in 10 moves or less.
Limited Resources: Perform the quest with limited resources.
Examples: Kill the mob without using any skills over level 5. Craft a Grand Dagger with no more than 7lbs of ore (whereas the 5lb Grand Dagger usually requires 10lbs of ore, so the smith must be more precise when hammering impurities out of the metal).

There is potential for fun in missions that go terribly awry or leave out important info, and get the player into trouble. One thing that's lacking in most missions these days is surprise.

Non-malign Misinformation: An NPC knows he won't get any help unless he fudges the facts a little bit (leaves out that a troll is guarding the heirloom the NPC "forgot after a picnic"). Or an NPC might send you to a dangerous area under the pretense that you are to collect something, but you find out afterward that it was a scouting mission..."Sorry about that, mate! I needed to know how many there were, and you might not have gone had I told you."

Ignorance: The player is sent to another NPC to retrieve a borrowed item, but that NPC says he lent it to another NPC...and that NPC lent it to another NPC, and so on. What seemed like a simple chore turns out to be a headache (but with plenty of humor and a better material or xp reward than originally anticipated).

Malign Manipulation: There's also the possibility of NPCs using you. You might unwittingly be aiding in a crime. The item you are sent for might actually belong to another NPC, and you're stealing what you thought you were just returning to the original owner (tricked into hurting your faction a bit?).

Those damnable spoiler sites would be a problem, of course. Even if you didn't ever look at them, all it would take is to tell your group "Well, I'm headed to finish my Dougan's Ale quest" and someone might pipe up (thinking that they're being helpful) and tell you "Don't even bother with that quest. The NPC is lying...you don't get any decent loot." I can remember players asking people to quit shouting spoilers on public channels, but it didn't stop them.

Ok, so why not offer experience points for every player action? If levelling up is the only path to fun in your game, then you've got a problem. A "grind" is what happens when the player is so obsessed with reaching a goal that they are unable to appreciate the journey; or wandering about, even. There are several ways to help avoid this problem.

Reward tables take player focus off leveling, to some degree. In Diablo 2, the player is often not focused on leveling because he's trying to complete his set of armor (set items were a stroke of genius) or hoping to stumble onto a "named" item. More interesting is when the player has found a truly badass weapon and actually doesn't want to level right away so that he can enjoy the weapon's awesome power before that power is relatively diminished by moving onto stronger foes.

Faction can also take focus off leveling entirely. In Star Wars: Galaxies, I often ignored my character's skill progression for extended periods while I stomped out infestations of Rebel scum. That game had the significant advantage of the Star Wars movie saga, but enthusiasm for faction conflicts and service can be encouraged to a similar degree without a famous IP.

One of my main cricitisms of that game is that players were only really encouraged to become enthusiastic about the two main factions, to the exclusion of many secondary factions. That's a very limited range of causes for player characters (and those causes were the primary interest of a significant portion of SWG's playerbase). Provide players with minor factions to align themselves with, and that content development will be sufficiently rewarded. Small faction causes are often more personal.

Factions encourage community identification. Player-created factions (guilds) also do this, but NPC-bound factions are more stable than player-created factions. Guilds change, fall apart, and often involve more melodrama than drama.

Fame (social appreciation) is an excellent avenue of reward that can distract completely from leveling. City of Heroes dabbled in this, but left it very peripheral. Fame can be developed for every level of gameplay, using tavern talk, monuments, newspapers and libraries (in-game event records) and impressions upon the gameworld (like an NPC who was once depressed is happy and productive again...for more than just a few minutes), among others.

Fame can also be developed as an ultimate goal (like it often is in reality). For example, let's look at dragons. In your typical game, players will band together to slay the mighty beast for awesome loot; only a handful of the group gets something, so they return to kill the same beast hours or days later to spread the wealth around. But what if player "armies" were amassed for reasons more similar to reality? The more participants who are involved in a conflict, the less the explicit goal is about individuals. What if players slayed the titanic monster, knowing they would receive no loot or xp whatsoever, in order to free an NPC or player town from danger and oppression? The effect could be visible and lasting, but also recounted in NPCs memory/memorials for the duration of the game's lifespan.

I mentioned "The Sleeper" of Everquest once before. I wasn't playing EQ when that beast was around, but its tale is told years after it was killed (a singular spawn)...one of the more attractive tales for non-EQ players considering the EQ game experience. When EQ players talk about it, they don't even mention loot or xp rewards. They talk about the challenge and the fame of creature and its slayers. While the optimal degree of focus on singular spawns like that is debatable, that basic type of experience should not be as exceptional as it is. Regular expectation of such events by players would be a huge boon to player attraction and retention.

I'm sure there are other possibilities for lateral gameplay, but this blog has gotten long, so I'm going to stop.

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