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News & Features Discussion  » General: MMO Underbelly: Take This Column To NPCX

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Novice Member

Joined: 1/07/04
Posts: 2425

OP  5/22/09 4:43:04 PM#1

Low level quest design and how it really works is the subject of this MMO Underbelly. Sanya Weathers looks inside how quests are really designed and put together, talking to some real professionals in the field. She finds out why you often kill ten rats.

“Text limitations mean you have to learn how to write again. No lengthy descriptions, no rambling dialogue. Short, concise, yet still interesting,” says a content producer on an upcoming triple-A MMO. That seems easy enough, but that’s not all. “You can't write in your own "voice." You have to learn someone else's writing guidelines, that you may not agree with, and often times write quest lines that you flat out don't like.”

Text limitations are actually fairly new. It used to be assumed that people playing an MMORPG wanted story – as they did in their single player RPGs - but then the industry introduced metrics. The fact is, people skip walls of text. They might listen to a voiceover (LOTRO’s primary means of dishing out long bits of lore), and they will occasionally pay attention to backstory if it’s a large part of the game’s feel (see also Warhammer Online), but for the most part, if the text consists of more than two sentences, forget it. In fact, one of the newest MMORPGs (Free Realms) usually keeps their quests to one sentence blurbs interspersed between one sentence task assignments.

Read the full column here.

Dana Massey
Formerly of
Currently Lead Designer for Bit Trap Studios


Elite Member

Joined: 2/27/07
Posts: 7205

5/22/09 5:13:02 PM#2

Funny, the game that I played the longest and had the most fun in was UO and there were no quests, at least when I played it.  Of course this was before EQ and Wow decided to cater to the "I want it now" generation.

Your article describes to me what is wrong with all the new MMO's coming out lately, the story and the questline are basically after thoughts.

Asheron's Call was one of my favorites , the story line was deep and the quest line followed and enhanced it.  While the game had other issues, namely botting, it still had the best story and integrated questline in the genre and still does in my opinion.


Apprentice Member

Joined: 3/09/05
Posts: 288

5/22/09 5:30:02 PM#3

So, Twitter and SMS should be training a whole new generation of content writers for MMOs eh? :)




Novice Member

Joined: 10/09/06
Posts: 349

5/22/09 5:41:50 PM#4

This blog highlights why MMO quality is sliding so fast. Its design by the numbers, dont even dare to think of anything that hasnt been done by someone better than you previously, and god forbid actually make a gamer think.

Its interpretation of statistics with very little talent.

The games that hit it big, the games that manage to stay relevant, arent done with 2-sentence questtexts and "Kill 10 Wolves". Its just another way to eliminate a variable and go the safe way. Of course, I see the necessity, or rather, the allure of that path... you dont risk much. But you also get no chance at being good.

You know, if you ask me, the basic flaw is not actually in the texts, or their length. The basic flaw is that everyone and their dog just swallows the clumsy way Blizzard introduced the massive-number-of-quests-grinder into the world: A big block of text in a window with a small tagline telling you whats really up.

That is the problem. The industry has latched on, by and large, a pretty bad method of delivery, because I suppose if Blizzard does it, its safe. Age of Conan does it differently, and far better. I am one of the types who skips most run-of-the-mill quest-textes, but I read most dialogue in Age of Conan. Its far, far superior to a little Window with a generic wall of badly written text. And mind you, I spend quite some time checking out all dialogue options in AoCs conversation trees, as do pretty much all people I know at least on the first playthrough.

Change the way you hand out quests. Blizzard did a lot of good stuff, but the Questtext-Window spam wasnt one of them. it works, but you can get a lot more mileage out of different systems.


Novice Member

Joined: 5/26/05
Posts: 958

Sadness is but a wall between two gardens. -Kahlil Gibran

5/22/09 5:52:39 PM#5

That was a fun article to read, and very nicely structured (I loved the rat progression). The MMO Underbelly column has become a favorite of mine; while I never had any intention of going into the gaming industry (and would actively avoid jobs in that area after reading what it's like to work there), it's always valuable to see things from other perspectives. I appreciate the insights and the fact that the author is able to provide not only her own commentary, but also remarks from others working in the field.

Most of what one hears from MMO developers and community managers tends to have the same "low-detail, ultra-positive, non-confrontational'' spin to it (and for good reason), so it starts to become easy to forget that there are actual people attached to those brightly-colored names on forums instead of an "us" and a "them."  And, of course, a Scruffy.

The rat is dead, long live the rat!


Apprentice Member

Joined: 9/11/05
Posts: 541

5/22/09 5:56:00 PM#6

I never knew people actually gave feedback saying "We hate quests that are outside of the let-me-level-fast quests." That saddens me greatly...

Why do people complain about it now?

MMOs Played: I can no longer list them all in the 500 character limit.


Novice Member

Joined: 12/23/07
Posts: 1097

5/22/09 6:01:25 PM#7

Instant Gratification for the win!

Of course games that deliver instant gratification are rarely capable of holding a persons attention over the long haul, leading to people leaving the game for the next source of instant gratification. After all, once everything has been handed to them there is no reason to stick around.

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.
Benjamin Franklin


Advanced Member

Joined: 11/11/08
Posts: 790

5/22/09 6:05:53 PM#8

As much as I have loved you since the early DAoC days, please don't write another one like this. My hopes for a future MMO worth actually playing died a little more with every paragraph. I know it is the reality of the situation, but I usually get through my day without facing it.

Facing the reality that MMOs are being steered towards the ADD-rattled and lemming like masses makes me want to start building the bunker out back and writing a manifesto...


Novice Member

Joined: 5/02/09
Posts: 6

5/22/09 6:33:30 PM#9

I liked this one a lot. Mainly cause it's something I've always been curious about. I mean, kill 10 rats was fun when EQ did it. *pats Scruffy* But seeing another kill 10 rats quest these days is probably what makes myself, and a lot of people, skip quest text in general.


MMO: "Kill 10 rats."

Me: "Ah, so that's your delivery? Cool. I'll stop paying attention." [insert quest text skipping and powerleveling mentality... right about now]


The game has already told me that it has zero desire to actually give me an experience while I play. It's like, having one of those low level retail/fast foot/etc jobs where if there's not a whole lot to do, your boss will tell you to mop the floor. And if there's -still- not much of anything to do, your boss will give you a toothbrush and tell you to clean between the tiles. Just to justify your existence on the payroll for that minute in time. "There was a blizzard outside so we had no customers, but that's okay, Johnny scrubbed tiles and floor boards all day. Isn't the store shiny?"


I appreciate the opinions of people in the industry, but I'm pretty dismayed by this article. It was well written and interesting, but the content is just sad. It leads me to the very very sudden realization that in the chase for money money and more money...


the MMO industry has forgotten how to make MMOs.


For shame.


Novice Member

Joined: 10/25/05
Posts: 362

5/22/09 6:49:49 PM#10

Have to agree with the previous posts. The main thing I pulled from that is since players skip the lame txt in the fed-ex quests to level faster means that players want short lame quests. As the previous poster mentioned thats just piss poor interpretation of the stats they are seeing.

(Goes a bit off topic here... ) /rant

In my opinion, players dont even want to do them at all... just have to to level. And thats the problem. Eventualy a game company will strike gold when they do away with levels and skills, which ruins the community and content from day one.

Everyone should be able to play with everyone. In every aspect of the game not just in the large battles where the lowbies are only there for fodder and to clutter the screen and make target selection more difficult. Skill base games come close but rather than take the high road they take the low and make each skill it's own treadmill just as worthless as a level.

Skills IMO should be like a buff that increases at a good pace and degrades rather quickly when not used(durring gameplay). Gains should depend upon how well you do what it is you are doing. You should only be able to have so many points ( like UO) and another skill would start dropping. This way it can be a quick cycle with almost instant benefits but with enough skill types to allow for alot of diversity in skill sets between players.


 /end rant


Once we do away with the poorly though out revenue model, or levels,(eventualy people open their eyes...) we can then start thinking of making good solid questlines that will send you on an adventure from one end of the world to the other. With epic stories and challenges that reward cash and reputation both PvE type and PvP type. That actualy have meaning in the world and affect the way things develop.

Like mabe, delivering a transport of medical supplies to a player village on the outskirts of your kingdom that was recently raided by a neighboring kingdom. If they recieve the supplies they may be able to recover and hold off long enough to bolster the defences helping keep the enemy out. If they don't they may be completely wiped out and the area anexed by the enemy weakening your kingdoms stance in the world. PvE stuff can obviously be more epic, but atleast even the low PvP quests can have "some" meaning.


Sorry I know I veered a bit off topic there and I am not a great writer but this article tugged at something had to get this out.





Novice Member

Joined: 1/08/05
Posts: 141

5/22/09 6:57:57 PM#11

Why write a wall of text? Why write anything even?

Its a game, an experiance, why should everyone read it as a book?
If I would want to read I would buy a great book to read not start up a game...

Show the quest in a different context. Videos, voice, a picture or something different and not a wall of text

And whats the hell is it with all mmos starting out exactly the same with exactly the same mobs in the start?
Why cant I meet a big ass dragon at lvl 1? why cant I experiance something different than to kill rats, wolves, rabbits, sheep, etc etc etc etc for the first 20 lvls?

Why do I need to kill 20 of that or fetch 10 skins of that? Why cant the quest be about stopping a great necro sorcerer and I must go through this big castle as one of the lvl 1 quests?

Its because developers are LAZY and quest makers are LAZY with ZERO imagination.


Novice Member

Joined: 9/12/04
Posts: 45

5/22/09 7:07:30 PM#12

I don't really have anything insightful that hasn't been said already.  The rats were just too cute to not comment on though hehe.


Apprentice Member

Joined: 4/03/06
Posts: 65

5/22/09 7:18:55 PM#13

One big reason that people don't bother reading quest text is because the quests themselves simply aren't worth it.


In your average game, how do you that "uber gear" and all the "top end" stuff? It isn't by questing, that's for sure. You get it from killing big bad raid monsters or PvPing.


All quests do in MMOs now is direct you where to kill some mobs so the game doesn't feel as grindy - when in reality it's actually more so. Instead of standing in one spot for 20 hours killing mobs, you spend twice as long running back and forth and only kill half as many for many equivilent experience.  Mob killing has been replaced by running in circles - which is arguably more boring.



Make quests worth doing and people might be enticed enough to read. But why should I waste 5 minutes reading a level 1 quest when it'll be irrelevent in 10 minutes?


Novice Member

Joined: 1/23/06
Posts: 526

5/22/09 7:40:48 PM#14

I'm guilty of not reading quest dialogue. Mainly, it's because when I'm in a group, there's seldom time to read long quest directions. Everyone is so go-go-go. The voice-over for quests is a good idea, but I can remember getting yelled out while playing DDO because I was more interested in listening to Gary Gygax than to what the party leader was babbling about on teamspeak.


Novice Member

Joined: 5/05/09
Posts: 94

5/22/09 7:43:40 PM#15
Originally posted by spawn12345

And whats the hell is it with all mmos starting out exactly the same with exactly the same mobs in the start?
Why cant I meet a big ass dragon at lvl 1? why cant I experiance something different than to kill rats, wolves, rabbits, sheep, etc etc etc etc for the first 20 lvls?

Why do I need to kill 20 of that or fetch 10 skins of that? Why cant the quest be about stopping a great necro sorcerer and I must go through this big castle as one of the lvl 1 quests?

Its because developers are LAZY and quest makers are LAZY with ZERO imagination.


I disagree. It's not that they're lazy; it's that the vast majority of MMO players are.

We here at might want clever quests and original game mechanics and all that jazz, but we're the minority, the small hand stuck up the back of a room full of angry, shouty types. The majority of MMO players want a simple and familiar way of levelling beause if they don't get it then they have to go to the hassle of looking the answer up on Allakhazam. Devs and quest makers are simply providing what's asked for by the majority because the majority are the ones who will decide if, in the eyes of the moneymen, the game is a success or not. You could argue people who make the decisions high up in MMOs are greedy but I don't think it's fair or accurate to say devs and quest designers are lazy.

And the other problem is Allakhazam and it's ilk. The majority of MMO players want the endgame and they want it absolutely asap. That's where the phat loot is and that also, perception would have it, is where the big and interesting quests are. This probably comes from the 'endgame' perception of movies, where the special effects and 'wham, bam' payoff stuff comes at the end. Why blow your wad in terms of story, graphics and 'ooh, wow' game mechanics early on when people are burning through content? People get stuck on a puzzle or a search for who drops what and when need only look up one of the endless sites tha will tell you everything you need to know. Solutions, walk-throughs, answers and who, where, what, when and how and all of it broken down into percentages and hit rates and dps and XP given.

The biggest group in the game, the casual players, just want to play a game with all the texture and consistency of babyfood and the second biggest group, the hardcore players, just want to play a game where they can grind out weapons and armour in order to get a few more dps.

And between those two camps lie the third group; people who want quest text worth reading and original, if not revolutionary, game mechanics. They'd be the same people who want open-ended, 'choose your own adventure' style sandbox games, too and aren't likely to get that to their satisfaction as well.

Amd it's the devs and quest makers that are lazy for not pandering to a minority? Sure.

The ruptured capillaries in your nose belie the clarity of your wisdom.


Apprentice Member

Joined: 3/09/05
Posts: 288

5/22/09 8:41:53 PM#16

Actually, what I love about LOTRO is the care and love that's gone into a goodly fraction of the quest dialogue and quest lines.  Lord of the Rings is a strong lore to draw on, and Turbine is very lucky to have that IP to work with.  The quests are fun enough if you read the texts without having so much as seen the movies, but if you know the Tolkien lore, some of them are very clever, and give a sense that you are, indeed, a small but significant part of the War of the Rings as an individual.

Turbine does use things like cut-scenes as rewards for epic-line quests.  But there still end up being lots of errand running, kill ten wargs, and find-the-hidden-(glowing and sparkling for people who didn't read the quest color text)-objects.

Still, I am pretty happy with Turbine's quests and storylines.  Let's face it, SOE had great IP and lore for SWG and they squandered it on an incredibly grindy mission-terminal system, and a few quest storylines that didn't amount to much.

Props to Turbine's quest team.  Now if they could only make the servers more stable...:)





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Joined: 3/20/05
Posts: 1360

5/22/09 8:47:01 PM#17

Fantastic article.  Best thing I've read on this site (and I've been hanging around a long time...of course what should we expect from the infamous Tweety). Really explains a lot, and it saddens me to see what I suspected confirmed: most players don't give a rat's ass whether the quest dialogue is well written or not.   Goes a long way towards explaining why I find LoTRO enthralling, and the bulk of players that try it don't seem to "get it" at all. 

@El Guapo: great post, I agree 100%. 

@Shava: exactly!  LoTRO is a real gem if you are into engaging storylines or well written quests.  Even the fed ex and KTR quests feel more important because the dialogue is so well written.  The difference when you go back to another MMO is really jarring if you are as focused on prose and lore as I am.  The only MMO I know of to find storylines as engaging is City of Heroes.  And even there it's from the one quest arc in ten or twenty that's well written in the Mission Architect (player written missions).  The stuff that the devs came up with is all pretty pedestrian.  

I don't want to write this, and you don't want to read it. But now it's too late for both of us.


Apprentice Member

Joined: 3/09/05
Posts: 288

5/22/09 9:06:22 PM#18
Originally posted by Yeebo

most players don't give a rat's ass


NPC, probably in Tabula Rasa:  "If I didn't know better, I'd think you didn't give a rat's ass, maggot.  All right, soldier, get out there and collect me *TEN* rats' asses!  Hut!"

(sorry, it was the image that leapt to mind...  I'm just silly that way...)





Joined: 2/10/05
Posts: 2244

5/22/09 9:20:57 PM#19

Thanks to the new player mentality of rushing through content to get to the "end game" and not actually enjoying the progression - although it's stupid to read a whole wall of text if it's just for a single quest with no chain and in which nothing mentioned in it will ever be mentioned again when the quest is done. Because in that way I agree it is so not necessary to have a useless wall of text for kill x things.

Quests could be such a good opportunity to introduce the location, talk about the monsters, developing your role in that place and develop a bond with it. My dreams include basically endless quest chains on many different locations, that game is not about the level but about enjoying helping that specific location. And updates will also focus on further expanding these quest chains, which will also offer different paths to take, even leading into working against that location. But no, must end the quests here so I can go on to the ultimate level to go play the "end game".

This probably won't change though, changing this is a risk and it's not viable for most companies to risk millions to try to change this idea.

But yeah, currently quests are a way to help your level-race grind with variety, in return for a massive bonus XP and some equipments to help you level faster. This is sometimes a reason people hate asian MMOs, because some might not make quests in this way of shortcut on the level grind.

And mentioning LOTRo is cheating heh, it is an IP that will make players more inclined to doing quests for lore, after all it is a the IP is like a living legend that made it into MMOs. Not fair =)


Novice Member

Joined: 8/16/06
Posts: 215

5/22/09 9:34:24 PM#20

Please stop killing rats. They're such awesome little animals!

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