Friday 28 January 2011

Long distance information

Melmoth’s quest-ly pondering set me thinking about related subjects, like the supporting tracking and logging mechanism for quests.

Back in the Proper Good Old Days, the quest log was a piece of paper. You ran up to an NPC and asked if there was anything you could do for them (none of this glowing punctuation nonsense), and if you were very lucky they might drop some hint about something that might be relevant. Nothing so vulgar as “go kill Bandit Leader Geoff in the bandit camp on the outskirts of Swindon, two miles north east of here, I need his sword.” No, more “I hear there are some bandits in the area. Yes, they might well have a leader, people say his name is Geoff. Apparently Bandit Leader Geoff has a lovely sword. Yes, I would really like a sword very much like that. It would be terrible if something happened to Geoff, though, WINK WINK. No, I don’t know exactly where he is. Maybe over there somewhere *waves vaguely to the west*.” The game wouldn’t insult your intelligence by recording this or anything, you’d jot it down on a post-it note, and get confused when going around a supermarket later “bread, yup, milk, yup, Bandit Leader Geoff’s sword… huh, probably down the kitchenware aisle with the cutlery…”

I think it might have been plausible deniability, in case the NPC was investigated for Incitement To Murder or something, though it could go a bit wrong if you misinterpreted the hints, came back with Geoff’s sword (with Geoff’s bloody hand still clamped around the hilt) and the NPC shrieked “I just wanted you to go to a blacksmith and have him make something similar, you maniac!” Still, at least it was better than the proposed Mime Artist faction in an early alpha of EverQuest who would’ve given all their quests through the medium of charades:

“It’s a… quest! Three words. Right. First word… sounds like… eat? Swallow? Oh, what you’re eating… tablet? Pill? Pill, yes! Sounds like pill… bill, fill, kill… Kill! First word, kill. Second word… tenth word. Wait, I thought it was three words? Second word… oh, that is the second word, ten. Kill ten…”

Anyway, over the course of time the quest mechanisms evolved, quest givers became more obvious, add-ons or in-game features recorded objectives and your progress towards them and things generally improved (or “were dumbed down to the point of infantilisation, here I am, brain the size of a planet and you’re patronising me by recording all this information that I’m perfectly capable of writing a large spreadsheet to support, cross-referencing three years of accumulated research, oh all right I’ll go and kill those ten boars but I won’t enjoy it you know”, depending on your point of view). When Warhammer Online launched, its vaunted Tome of Knowledge was a splendid thing, recording where you’d been, who you’d spoken to, how many of them you’d killed, and what weird random things you’d clicked on in case they were an unlock. Warhammer’s quest log is also part of the Tome of Knowledge, where the splendidness is slightly tempered by being coupled to a straightforward “go to camp, talk to the punctuation, do quests, return to the punctuation” PvE quest-hub structure, and further shackled by a limited number of quests it could track, as m’colleague and I posted about at the time. I suspect “so near and yet so far” features like the Kill Collectors were great ideas that proved tricky to implement really well, and with RvR being the main post-launch focus it just hasn’t been worthwhile to go back and seriously revamp them.

I’ve been hitting quest log limits in Lord of the Rings Online as well; where back at launch it seemed there was a bit of a barren patch in the 20s were you had to do every single quest you could get your hands on to eke out enough XP to level up without too much grinding, there are now a plethora of options; from assorted skirmishing, festivals, questing and crafting I’ve pretty much out-levelled the Barrow Downs without setting a foot in the place so I just cleared out a bunch of quests around there to make room for new ones in the Lone Lands. It’s not really a problem, the old quests were all obsolete so I wasn’t missing out on much (apart from scratching the nagging completionist itch), though a bit of an expansion in the quest log as a whole could be nice (for a mere 1,995 Turbine Points, perhaps). What’s slightly more irritating than the overall limit is the active tracker, that can only monitor five quests at a time. I frequently have to fire it up, deactivate all the quests it’s tracking, find the (possibly) relevant quests in the log and activate tracking for them, and then repeat the process whenever you go somewhere else.

Here’s hoping The Old Republic and other forthcoming games might solve some of these minor annoyances. If nothing else, the Star Wars universe surely allows for remote communication such that you don’t have to physically return to a questgiver every single time, something a little more difficult to plausibly work into fantasy settings without resorting to good old “magic”. Though maybe…

“Right, Mayor, here’s a tin can with some string through it. I’ll take this tin can on the other end of the string, and when I’ve killed ten thugs I’ll shout into it, and then you can shout back to tell me to kill the ten ever so slightly different thugs who stand really close to the first lot who’d completely slipped your mind when you originally handed out the quest.”

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