Shocker, MMO questing sucks.

Having gone back (again) to TES Oblivion, its once again painful how bad questing is in MMOs. When you compare the best quests from your favorite MMO, and you look at some of the better quests in a game like Oblivion, it’s not even remotely close.

Oblivion has a bunch of ‘random’ dungeons and ruins to explore, non-quest stuff you enter to skill up and gain loot. These are entirely optional, the difficulty, length, and rewards vary (more so with one of the mods that tweaks the games auto-level feature), and you can go in/out at will. These locations are generally the equivalent of most MMO quest content, and in some cases far better. But Oblivion never pretends that these dungeons are its main content, or its focus, and that’s something MMOs have yet to learn.

MMOs try to hide simple tasks behind the word ‘quest’, and spend a lot of time putting filler around that task to make it seem special. That needs to stop. The reason most people skip flavor text is because there is too much of it and the good gets lost in the bla. If the game wants me to kill ten rats, just have an NPC tell me “go kill ten rats and I’ll give you gold”. Don’t pretend the rat kill task is something epic because the poor static NPC’s family is starving due to the rats getting into his grain bla bla bla. I don’t care, I’m killing rats in order to move my xp bar along, not because I want to save the static NPCs family (which I can’t anyway, and we all know that going into it)

If an MMO was up front with its tasks, the actual quests would in turn stand out, and players would have a better understanding on when they are working on something more epic, and when they are logging on for an hour to move their xp bar along. Just like we don’t like quests with simple tasks, we also don’t ALWAYS want to be working on something epic, sometimes we just want to log on and grind out some mindless content, as that can be relaxing and non-committal.

Labeling the simpler activities as tasks also allows the developer to drop the other unnecessary quest trappings like flavor text, repeatability, and a set reward. What if every task had a somewhat random reward, with a 90% chance to get just gold, and a 10% chance to get something random, be it gear or bonus gold or an xp boost. Nothing too major, just something to spice up the act of turning in the task a bit. Leave the major loot for the actual quests, and make sure players know exactly what they are working towards from the start.

The other major fault of current questing in an MMO is its static nature. If you ‘save’ a village, you have just repeated what the past 1000 players have done before you, and the next 1000 will do after. The logic behind this is that if the first player saves the town, and it no longer needs saving, the other 999 players miss out on that content. However if we limit such events to a select group of actual quests, the developers would have a few options to make this work. One would be to create a chain reaction system, where the completion of one quest opens up other choices for future players, and eventually the chain goes back to square one (hopefully long after the first player has moved on). While not a true change, it would at least give a zone some life based on the players. Another option would be a tug-of-war style system, where a player picks a side to quest for, and those quests would put the players directly in competition against each other, each completed step pushing that side further towards victory, changing objectives and available quests. As different players enter the level range of the zone, they too would pick sides and continue the system.

It’s scary that actual questing has changed so little in the MMO space, especially with some many PvE-focused games. Playing it safe is certainly the current trend, but how many elaborately written rat kill quests can we stomach?

28 Responses to Shocker, MMO questing sucks.

  1. Tipa says:

    11 million players think braindead questing is the way the best MMOs do it, and then there’s you with your radical idea about making quests something you might care about.

    Yeah, EQ has that kind of quest. So, EQ has like eleven people playing it, and WoW has 11 million billion people playing it.

    Oops, one of those eleven EQ players just moved to WoW.

    Off to McDonald’s for my Whopper. I suppose you have problems with my choice for the best food in the world that, what, 20 billion people love?

  2. syncaine says:

    To be fair, the angry whopper at Burger King right now is quite awesome.

    And even in EQ or LotRO, the rat stuff is still called a quest. At least in LotRO the ‘book’ quests are tagged as something to actually pay attention to, but it could go farther. Not all quests labeled epic/group/whatever end up being so, so as players we grow accustomed to treating those as nothing as well.

  3. Thallian says:

    Actually, I do, I prefer the Big Mac, Oh wait, no I don’t. In fact nobody does that I know of :P But I does love me some Arbys.

    I think what Syncaine is suggesting was sort of kind of attempted in WAR with PQ but they stopped at a rudimentary level. City of Heroes Task Force missions could work this way, with a timer for reset or destruction of an area or whatever. Lots of options available and none really taken very far is our constant whine.

  4. Minn says:

    Dynamic questing systems might pose a lot of trouble during MMO launch periods, but then again nothing ever goes right with a thousand characters in a small area. A tug-of-war system sounds like it would go out of hand if the majority of people went with one side, constantly keeping that side on the winning edge while players become frustrated trying to progress with the losing faction.

    After all, the majority of MMORPG quests serve to grant experience and levels, so devs won’t be putting much effort into making linear (pre-maxlevel) content more interesting. On the bright side, killing 10 rats to complete a measly quest is better than grinding 30,000 rats to gain one level.

  5. Ravious says:

    I am in the minority that actually reads all the quest text. I love the stories, and many of them are well crafted. In Moria, killing ten orcs would just be killing ten orcs or clicking on the glowy thing would be 5 seconds of activation. If you read the quest text it becomes battles between very different orc tribes, power grabs, silly dwarf greed, etc.

    I guess years of play pen-n-paper RPG’s gives me enough imaginative excitement to make up for what the game is lacking in visual gameplay.

    Your suggestion about a cyclical event world was one of the features I am most excited about for Guild Wars 2.

    I do fully agree with your final statement though. Things have been played too safe. Public Quests, IMHO, were the first major improvement in years…. and look how that turned out.

  6. syncaine says:

    I still think PQs are fine in their idea, I just don’t think WAR is the right game for them necessarily. Put PQs in a PvE game, and they would get a lot more attention. Sad when a PvP game brings the first major change to PvE in years though…

    And I agree about the quest text, it does make the 10 orc quests better. However, why not combine the two, and give interesting quests good writing, and save the boring gameplay for limited text. Just need better separation IMO.

  7. Bonedead says:

    I’d rather grind 500 rats to find a .2% drop rate level 12 uber sword, and oh hey, I leveled too.

  8. sente says:

    I think the best “quests” I have seen so far in an MMO game are the Guild Wars cooperative missions, which esentially moves the campaign story forward. Even the quests that are actually called quests and that are non-essential to the progresison in GW typically has some other goal than just kill or collect stuff., e.g. resuce someone, do some scouting etc.
    There are a few other quest/mission types also, which provides good variation.

    City of Heroes/Villains also have at least some split up of the types of missions. Newspaper/police band mission are just xp grinders with little story. Mayhem missions are pure destruction fun+bank robbery.

    The regular missions with story arcs have varying levels of quality, but the good ones can be quite nice. Perhaps not epic, but neat. Task/Strike forces take that one step further, although quality varies here also.

    Too bad though that one the story telling is not so easy to follow with the fast-paced fighting that usually is the case in a team.

  9. Yeebo says:

    I’m a fan of questing, personally. The story that emerges from a well crafted quest chain really increases my entertainment value a ton.

    I just wish that more MMO designers took the prose of quest dialogues seriously. It bugs the crap out of me when a quest reads like an early draft from an inexperienced writer (which I imagine is all too often true).

    Hellgate London stands out as a shining beacon of poor quest dialogue. Every future quest writer should be forced to play it so they see what not to do.

  10. smakendahed says:

    RE – your last part of the blog entry, impacting the game world:
    What if developers instanced these areas? The first time you go through you need to do something significant. The next time through you get the ‘all is well’ version (as do others that completed the quest).

    Making it modular like that means they could swap it out again if some other big nasty comes through and tramples the town, letting them reuse content (sorta).

  11. mbp says:

    Oblivion had its faults but it sure had some sublime side quests. Have your done the one in the floating inn or the house that guy offers to sell you for a knock down price or the one with the painting or the naked dinner party or the nightmare or the ….

    The list just goes on. It almost makes me cry when I think of the millions of generic four legged furry animals I have slayed in the name of mmo entertainment.

  12. Mordiceius says:

    For once, I think I agree with you 100%

  13. Malakili says:

    The problem is static v. dynamic worlds. Dynamic worlds ARE possible in MMOs, but the problem is they must be largely player driven. The problem is that in dynamic worlds, not everyone can do everything. To me, thats fine, but most people say “i pay the same 15 bucks as the next guy.”

    I still hold that the best “persistant world” experience I’ve ever had was in Neverwinter Nights PW servers, because the DMs catered to their individual communities, made changes based on ongoing storylines, etc. I’m not sure if that is possible on the 1000s of players scale of an MMO, but it was on the 100-200 (40 at a time) scale of the NWN PW, with DMs online interacting with those players frequently.

    If we could recapture that kind of experience in an MMO, you’d have a pretty much perfect game…but I’m not sure its viable.

  14. spinks says:

    I think that’s a really good idea. Tag the more involved quest lines as something different from the standard xp-gaining tasks.

    I never could play Oblivion for long though, I just didn’t get the levelling up system and always ended up with things getting too difficult for me. So dunno what to compare with. The single player games which had quests I loved were partly great because every single quest was tailored around your character and its story.

  15. Mithgonion says:

    If you actually had people online to provide the quests instead of an NPC I think this might be a bit more possible to have a progressive quest line tailored to each player. Maybe not for every quest, but even a few would spice it up a bit. Have GM’s in game offering quests and interacting with the players as NPC’s rather than GM’s much like the Dm’s of NWN player made worlds are able to do. NWN Dm’s don’t get paid and can provide this for 40 people at a time… why not paid GM’s for a few 100 or even 1000 at a time. I am not saying it would be easy, but it could be interesting. Though, I do not think it would be practical in a something as mainstream as WoW… Sad to say roleplaying is more of a niche thing now than it used to be.

    I really enjoyed the player made worlds for NWN, but the thing that really bugged me was the lack of other players and the lack of world size. A a Massive Multi-player Online with the ROLE PLAYING of NWN would definitely be something I would pay 15 bucks a month for, maybe even more.

  16. Malakili says:

    Yep, Mithgonion, I agree 100%, and I glad I’m not the only one who has fond memories from that game.

    I don’t have such a huge problem with world size and player base though, to be honest. I think a small group of 50 people who play every day is going to be a great community anyway. I’d love to have more, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think it bothered me then, or would it now. World size is something that is really dependent on the module you were playing. I used to play on a fairly popular NWN PW server called City of Arabel (i think it still exists actually, even now). The world was pretty sizeable, and constantly growing and undergoing revision. Consider the fact that a world seems much larger when it is truly dynamic than when it is static, and I think that you can get a pretty large feeling even from relatively small worlds.

  17. Swift Voyager says:

    When Eve implements the walking in stations expansion, players will be able to “hire” NPC bots and program them to do different things. It’s possible that players could program their NPC’s to give out player-generated quests (it’s in the design at least). If the system is adequately feature-rich it could be revolutionary, but I’m not holding my breath just yet.

  18. PTD says:

    It isn’t perfect, but the phasing implementations in Wrath are actually pretty good. I personally think Blizz did a great job with the quest lines in Northrend, but then again, I am a fanboy. :) Did any of you do the Wrathgate questline, or the Icecrown quests to open up Ebon Hold?

  19. syncaine says:

    Yea but phasing does nothing for the world. It just makes parts of the world mimic a single player game, and that does nothing for anyone else. If anything, phasing is a cheap answer to this, and one that imo takes the genre a step back. I don’t want more instancing/personal content, I want a greater world feel. The idea that I change my PERCEPTION of the world, and its just what I see, just seems like a very wrong concept in an MMO.

  20. Silus says:

    I think that having many instanced areas would allow for real changes, with an option to reset a given instances’ plotlines, to allow it to be replayed. If a group of people enter, the plot point in the instance could be set to the lowest level completed by any one of the players. This way, higher ups could still aid lower level players with instances.
    In this set up, each zone would be its own instance, with its own plot to advance through. While the resetting of an instance does break the immersion a good deal, I think it is a more of an aid than a hindrance.

    To achieve a dynamic and changing world without instances or phasing, IE real changes for everyone when a plot is completed, would require either massive amounts of time spent by developers and GMs to modify the world and keep coming up with new material, or a an AI program that probably doesn’t exist yet. The problem with the story driven world is that most companies can’t afford to have that many people on staff constantly dealing with advancing quests and changing the world. There would likely end up being set events that would occur every few days, meaning that players could only do plot at certain times. IIRC UO tried something like this at one time. Various cities would come under attack for a week or so, and at the end of the time there would be a really powerful creature that would attack and have to be driven off. Of course, with this set up, there won’t be any standard quests or rewards to be handed out, and players would have to find their own things to occupy their time. Probably grinding.

  21. Malakili says:

    EVE actually does a pretty good job of these “dynamic and changing” worlds in 0.0 space. Sure, high sec and even low sec space, to a degree is static (though still arguably more dynamic than most MMOs), but what they’ve done in 0.0 is quite remarkable compared to most of the rest of the MMO market. The content there is almost completely player generated, they’ve created such a robust set of game mechanics that they don’t need to constantly change their game world, the players do it for them.

    Or even look at Second Life as a more extreme example. Imagine the powerful tools players can use to create content in that game being available in a fantasy or sci-fi setting (of course with restrictions or guidlines that make sure the content stays within the realm of the setting, so it isn’t a free for all like Second Life, which is a lot of fun, but not really even a proper “game:”).

    My point is, to have a dynamic world at the MMO level, it pretty much HAS to be player driven I think. There are 1000s of players, compared to a very small staff working on an given game in comparison. If those 1000s of players are creating content, that amount of possible content goes off the charts right away.

  22. Scott says:

    Seems the first part of the article is mainly about semantics. Labeling a simple task of killing ten rats and bringing back ten rat tails to make a belt isn’t what I’d call a “quest” either. I’ve been complaining about the same thing for years too, and I really think simply making a new label of “Task” or whatever in your questlog to separate one from the other would go miles in players’ perceptions.

    I’ve been debating the whole Oblivion thing, but after reading this I finally decided to bite the bullet and get the GOTY edition today. I haven’t really gotten far at all yet so I can’t make a comparison of Oblivion to the typical MMO quest but I’ve also been slowly playing Fallout 3 (and I’m terribly afraid Oblivion is going to just be Fallout 3 with swords & sorcery) and while all the quest/task dialogue is tailored specifically for me, I’ve been doing nothing but Fedex, Fetch and Kill quests. Same with Mass Effect. If “the best” single-player RPGs are doling out the same content we bitch about in MMOGs, I think it might be awhile before we ever get anything truly fresh in that department.

  23. syncaine says:

    Personally I think the quests in Oblivion are a bit better than Fallout 3, but both have some real gems, especially the ‘core’ quest chain. I guess if you pull back far enough, the quests are fetch/kill quests, but the presentation is just so superior.

    For example, the early quest in Oblivion to close the first gate is basically a kill quest with a final fetch objective, but from start to finish does it ever feel like that?

    I guess if it does for you, Oblivion might not do as much for you overall. I just find the detail in the world amazing, and I still think overall it has the most fleshed out setting of any game in recent history. It depends on how ‘into’ Oblivion you get. If you just play it to game it, the details get lost. If you actually try to roleplay it, its a deep game.

  24. Scott says:

    I’m still in the first section of tunnels with the emperor and his guards, so I’m not far along at all. It’s very similar to Fallout 3 control-wise (I suppose technically the opposite is true, but I’m playing the games out of chronological order).

    My primary concern for Oblivion is the single-player. In Fallout 3, I guess humans have pretty much been wiped out and you just don’t see many people so the loneliness is part of it. But in Oblivion I’m worried I’ll get bored and wish that it was multiplayer.

    Fallout 3 and I have been having a rough relationship from the start though. Seems like 99% of the time I come across something to do I can’t actually do it because my skills are X but I need Y. I don’t like feeling like I have to go out and grind non-respawning mobs to level in a single-player game.

  25. syncaine says:

    The first tunnel? Dude that’s 1 minute into the game :) Let me know if the shadows look funny on their faces, I still can’t solve that one graphical issue.

    And Oblivion and Fallout 3 feel similar because it’s the same engine. Fallout just has better textures (among other upgrades)

    And you must not be THAT far into Fallout, because the problem you mention only really hits at the beginning (with Megaton), the rest of the ‘checks’ are generally things you can work around (like destroying sentry guns rather than hacking and disabling them). Most of the side quests you should be able to do regardless of current skills, and I don’t believe the main quest features and serious blocks either.

    I never got the ‘empty’ feeling from Oblivion, but I know others have, so its tough to say how you will view it. It’s a huge world, one that would make for an awesome MMO setting, so in that way the “I’m alone” thing does kick in a bit. For me though it’s a nice escape from MMOs, where I know the focus is purely on me and I have control over everything. Sometimes after playing MMOs for too long, you forget that aspect (at least I do)

  26. Scott says:

    I’m not far at all into Fallout 3 but I dinged 6 the other night and that seemed to be the turning point. The skills I’m using the most are finally to a point that my shots actually hit, I can pick the locks or hack the terminals, and I have a better chance for survival in general. Nearly level 8 now and starting to have fun finally. It’s a shame these western RPGs always start off so slow and boring…

  27. syncaine says:

    Keep in mind it also depends what you do in the first few levels. If you do some of the longer, but less xp giving quests, you obviously stay weaker longer. If you roam out a bit and just explore/fight, you hit 5+ quick and that makes everything easier.

    Fallout 3 scales slower than Oblivion as you advance, but it still scales, so leveling at the ‘right’ pace is something to watch for.

  28. Swift Voyager says:

    I always liked the branching, romantic sub-plot in Baldur’s Gate. I really liked how you had to choose between the various women (or men, when you play a female character), and your quest and dialogue choices impacted your romantic status in the game. There’s no reason why my character in Eve couldn’t have an NPC girlfriend. There could be all sorts of quests based around an NPC relationship, and everyone could have their own “unique” partners. That would be an interresting twist for an MMO I think. Heck, you could even have children or lose a family member due to some aspect of the in-game backstory fiction. There’s a ton of immersion possible with that line of thinking, and that’s what makes quests come to life.

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