Stepping off the conveyor belt.

Next time you’re reading quest text, try to do so in the voice of a terminally bored actor or tour guide delivering the lines in a rote fashion. I find that this helps to highlight the superficial nature of any dramatic event when an NPC is standing motionless in front of you and (in my mind) droning on in a monotone voice

“Oh no. Please help. The <Token Enemy> are invading. We must mobilise our forces. You must go and defeat <Arbitrary Number> of <Token Enemy Minion>. Saves us, [looks at script and rolls eyes] for we cannot save ourselves.”

Now picture all the NPCs standing around having a cigarette break after you leave, before quickly throwing their filters to the floor and putting them out with a twist of a foot, then resuming their usual positions, absent-mindedly flattening down their outfit, and delivering the exact same lines through a face flat of expression and dead of eyes, to the next hero who ventures along.

I think it’s fair to say that the majority of MMO players skip quest text. World of Warcraft is trying to enhance its storytelling instead through the use of phasing and cut-scenes, a design which gets in the way of the natural flow of game-play and seemingly restricts the player from doing what MMO players most want to be able to do, namely: group with friends, kill monsters, and gain loot and XP.

I wonder if the public quests in Warhammer Online and Rift have not been taken far enough as a concept; perhaps we should move on from the industry standard NPC who hangs around street corners in a town with a big neon sign hanging above their head declaring them open for business like some sort of prostitute; not a sex worker, a quest worker perhaps? The technology is there: public quests in WAR and Rift, as I mentioned; Lord of the Rings Online has quests that are automatically added to your journal upon entering a dungeon; WAR has its open RvR areas, and WoW has PvP zones such as Wintergrasp; DDO has its exploration zones. Instead of a quest hub that a player runs into, grabs all the quests from (without reading any of the text), and then immediately opens their map to see which areas are marked with quest objectives, why not instead have the quests activated when the player enters the right area in the world, much like public quests.

Your character walks into a forest and a message pops up saying that you’ve noticed a sign pinned to a tree with a reward for killing wolves. A quest is added to your quest log to kill X wolves, and when you complete the requirement your character is rewarded with XP. Coin and loot comes from the mobs that you kill, and perhaps chests guarded by boss mobs. Better items can be bought in towns by trading what you have found in the wild; crafted items are valuable instead of being merely redundant due to better quest and dungeon rewards, either at the time or through mudflation.

But players would have to go out and wander the land looking for quests! They… they’d have to explore! It might take…t-t-time! I know, wonderful, isn’t it? A structured MMO, but one where you also have to explore and discover and adventure. An MMO where your group of friends can find an area with a quest and you all have it in your log instantly at the same stage, and you can work through it together. An MMO where the economy of the world is not built on the foundation of NPC characters with an infinite number of Unique Swords of Legendary Power to give out to any passing PC who is willing to kill ten rats for them.

I wonder if the quest hub isn’t a large part of the problem with MMOs, and whether the nature of having to speak to an NPC to get a quest, and then subsequently return to that NPC for a reward, is an outdated mode of a time before we had the technology for public quests, open instancing and phasing. I think there may be a better way to allow for quest-based structured MMOs to exist, without them being the drab uniform conveyor belt that drags players slowly and inexorably towards raid content, which most players have discovered can be quickly skipped if they decide to run along its length.

10 thoughts on “Stepping off the conveyor belt.

  1. Melmoth Post author

    I think I’m going to refer to all quest NPCs as Quest Workers from now on, and imagine them all working in Yellow Light districts.

  2. darkeye

    Can’t wait for Guild Wars 2, just having the freedom to roam about and take place in whatever catches my attention (daily achievements, acquiring traits or events), is going to be a welcome change. Almost makes me want to give up on traditional quests and games that are built around them.

    Have been playing CoH, and there is less handholding and no obvious quest hubs there, players move from contact to contact and there is choice and exploration involved in that, especially in the new zone, Praetoria. Only problem is quests take place in identikit instances.

    Tried to start EQ2 but couldn’t get very far, and hit a bit of a road-block in Lotro, in Mirkwood where the quest-hubs are so routine and boring basically.

  3. pjharvey

    I have seen this happen, in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, of all places. In Vashj’ir, the underwater zone, I killed an annoying eel. My quest log lit up, told me that ‘these eels really are quite annoying, aren’t they?’, and told me to kill more of them. I killed more and got the quest completed, being rewarded with XP and gold just like a normal quest.

    If I thought there were plenty more of these quests to find, and I wasn’t hampered by the obnoxious use of phasing every third quest, I’d be quite excited. Hopefully this is the way forwards, as you suggest.

  4. Melmoth Post author

    @darkeye: I’ll be interested to see in which direction Guild Wars 2 takes the dynamic quest idea that WAR, Rift and others have also worked with. I hope it’s a little more than just ‘public quests with consequences’, unless those consequences are indeed persistent, unlike the transient ones that are found in Rift, for example.

    @pjharvey: Most intriguing! I never got around to playing any of my high level characters, having already decided that WoW wasn’t for me while playing a Worgen alt, so I haven’t seen any of the new high level content. I wonder if there are more quests like that, and whether it’s another example of Blizzard testing out new ideas and future concepts in the live game again. I’d be interested to hear about any other quests of the same ilk, either via your blog, in the comments here, or in an email.

  5. Carlton

    Following up pjharvey with additional quests, there’s the mercurial(?) oozes in Deepholme as well. This gives you a quest to kill the oozes (I forget what exactly this was for) but leads on some details of a researcher gone mad. Then a follow-up quest is to put the mutated researcher down in a nearby cave.

    There’s also killing the diseased vultures in Uldum. However, you can only get this when you start the coyote (wolf?) quest in the exact same area.

    The above two are the only one I found, and remember, which was out of the way of other quests. Or rather that I didn’t pick up the quest starting item as a result of killing a mob required for another quest.

  6. Melmoth Post author

    So it’s more than just a one-off then; perhaps Blizzard are trying out new ideas on the general populace, I’m sure it wouldn’t be the first time.

  7. Gankalicious

    It’s a brilliant idea. DCUO was brilliant in that when you finished your quest you could complete it there and then, and the next one would pop in your journal- all without having to go back to the ‘quest giver’, or hooker, as you suggest ;)

    RIFT has a limited amount of quests obtained from killing mobs- an item will drop, and if you ‘take the quest’ you return it for rewards.

  8. Melmoth Post author

    Certainly sounds like plenty of MMOs are trying variations of this out already. It will be interesting to see if one of them can find the magic formula that really catches the imagination of players.

  9. Jonathan B

    Somewhat relatedly, Lone Lands in LOTRO has a couple of quests started by picking up a medallion that spawns in a random killed orc/goblin. This gives you a quest to find and return it to the owner.

  10. Tremayne

    I like the idea, but you know what will happen if anyone built a game like this. A week after live, there will be websites with maps showing the locations of all of the “good” quests, with arrows showing the optimal path to run in order to get the most XP in the least time. players will run along that path, clicking the Accept buttons without reading the text, and alternating between moaning about how linear the game is and throwing out random Chuck Norris jokes as a roundhouse kick to any dreams of immersion the developers may have had.

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