Wednesday 26 January 2011

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.

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