Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cure for the Common Quest

Questing has long been a venerable tradition in MMORPGs and was inherited from it's Dungeons and Dragons ancestor. Originally, quests were rare and used to award players for completing tasks or dungeon crawls. However, this changed after a couple of years and quests started to be used more as a leveling mechanic to direct players to new areas. This was a much better use of quests and it made earning levels more fun. However, developers for a number of different MMORPGs started to approach quest creation in a machine gun like fashion. All of sudden a large number of games in the genre had quests that were very similar to one another and usually involved killing/gathering x number of y mobs/items.

This created a situation where players started burning out on questing and "lack of originality" became a common complaint about the MMO genre as a whole. Afterall, the entire point of using quests as a leveling mechanic was to break up the boring process of just killing mobs for experience. Thankfully, within the last couple of years we've seen serious attempts to spice up questing and some new ideas have started to show up. These ideas generally fall into three basic categories which seek to improve different aspects of questing.

1) Area Wide Quests - making quests more social
One of the problems with quests is that to make them truly epic and interesting the difficulty level has to be increased to give players a challenge. Without challenge there is no sense of accomplishment and questing remains bland. Unfortunately, since most MMORPGs use a class system it can often be more of a challenge to build a working quest group then actually doing the quest. Area Wide quests attempt to address this problem by automatically building raid groups when the quest starts. It's more like an automated mini event then a quest, but they are very entertaining when done right. I've seen them implemented in both Warhammer and Champions Online, but they do tend to run into problems when zones have a lack of a players.

2) Storytelling - making quests more interesting
A lot of players really enjoy the role playing elements found in MMORPGs and like quests to be more then simple objectives hidden inside a wall of text. Developers have learned to incorporate things like voice dialogue, cut-scenes, and environment changes into quests to make them more exciting. The best examples of this that I've seen so far was the starting island of Tortage in Age of Conan and the Wrathgate event in World of Warcraft. Bioware seems to believe heavily in this method and is building a large and detailed story into their Star Wars:The Old Republic game. While I enjoy the story elements found inside MMOs they tend to loose their entertainment value when leveling multiple characters through the same content. Then again I hear Bioware will be doing unique quest paths for each class in the game. Age of Conan did this throughout Tortage, but didn't have enough money/time to continue after the starting zone.

3) Unique Gameplay - making quests more fun
The best method for improving questing in my opinion is to move as far away from the kill ten rats template as possible. World of Warcraft gets a lot of blame for turning questing into a repetitive grindfest, but they improved their act greatly in the last expansion. Wrath of the Lich King is filled with unique quests that often use specialized vehicles and items. Some of my favorites include riding a storm giant around to kill an army of undead and having to navigate a minefield to rescue a goblin. It may take extra development hours to put the effort into the quest, but it gains a repeatable entertainment value. Of course not every game has the budget to do this.

The best method for eliminating boring quests would be for every MMO studio to try to implement improvements in every category. Unfortunately, this would probably increase the development hours and be insanely expensive. What we'll probably see over the next few years is games specializing in one area and only those studios bloated on success or venture capital trying to improve across the board. It's almost a catch-22 situation, but it doesn't mean small studios are out of the running. Even a game like World of Warcraft has it's weak spots and a new game can always focus on improving in an area where Blizzard is a bit weak. I have a feeling that The Old Republic will explode onto the scene next year and show that good storytelling doesn't just involve pop culture references and jokes.


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