This article won’t surprise most sandbox MMO fans. In fact, I can hear their replies of “We’ve been saying this for years!” already. And I’ve written on this topic before, most recently in my WildStar Review for the site. I’m not a partisan MMO gamer. I’ll play a sandbox, a themepark, an Action MMORPG, or anything that offers me fun when I boot up the title. But if there’s something made clear by recent MMO offerings, it’s this: traditional questing as a means of progression is really getting tired.
Jason Winter’s recent Guild Wars 2 article is pretty spot on. For its faults, GW2’s leveling experience is very well done. Some will say that the hearts serve the same purpose as Questing Hubs, but I don’t think that’s fair. Up until nearly the end of the beta, the Heart Icons were not a part of the game. ArenaNet had to implement them because too many players didn’t know what to do or where to go. And that’s kind of the issue, isn’t it?
World of Warcraft made questing the de facto way to level in a theme park MMO, and it was a revelation when Azeroth first ushered in the age of exclamation points. But that was ten years ago now and very little has changed in the past decade. That’s more than a little sad. I thoroughly enjoy almost all parts of Carbine’s WildStar… but I’d enjoy it a whole lot more if the main mode of progress from 1-50 wasn’t running from objective to objective killing things and then pressing C to complete the “quest”.
When I was a kid, growing up on Ultima on my PC, or Final Fantasy and Breath of Fire on my SNES, quests were something altogether more ambitious. They weren’t just ways to keep your players busy to milk subscription dollars out of them. RPGs of old were built around undertaking perilous tasks for great rewards and glory. Somewhere between Brittania and Azeroth, MMO developers lost that notion. Instead of setting us out on epic adventures, we became errand boys and species decimators.
I suppose that’s why I admittedly fawn of Guild Wars 2’s own version of quests. There are some less exciting activities to be found around Tyria, but by and large the majority feel interesting, engaging, and heroic. Even on repeated play-throughs, long after the game has lost its initial feeling of awe, I’m still able to enjoy zones like Kessex Hills. So why don’t more developers try to move away from the standard run of the mill questing experience?
Perhaps titles like The Secret World are partially to blame. Easily the most impressive questing experience you’ll find in the MMO genre, TSW wasn’t exactly a major hit. Sure, it’s one of MMORPG.com’s favorite games, but our users are the hardcore and the niche community among the masses the MMO studios want to attract. We’re an important segment of the market, but only a fragment. The Secret World’s thought provoking, research inducing, Morse code using missions might have gone too far in pushing the quest from simple task to heroic endeavor.
The best quests in MMOs have always been those that make players forget they’re on “yet another quest” and instead make them feel like part of the story, the world, and as if they’re actually doing something useful. I’m not writing this column to say I have the silver bullet with which to cure a problem facing the industry. I’m just writing to reinforce the notion that “The Quest” needs change. Funcom, ArenaNet, and few others are obviously trying to advance the questing of our favorite pastime. Is the answer to do away with quests altogether? I’d actually argue that even Sandbox MMOs should have guided content, so that’s a no in my book.
Instead, I think that developers of upcoming MMORPGs should focus more on the AI of the worlds they’re building. In creating more realistic NPCs, and by giving the players more control and interaction with the world itself, it’s possible that quests can unfold without the developer needing to script every single facet. The creation of quests is labor-intensive, and the need for hundreds in a single game is one of the reasons so many “adventures” wind up copy and pasted from one hub to the next.
It’s for this reason that next month’s SOE Live should be interesting. I’m not trying to put the weight of the genre on Sony’s shoulders, but their insistence that StoryBricks and EverQuest Next will redefine the MMORPG does that work for me. Let’s say that the work SOE and StoryBricks is doing doesn’t meet the lofty goals being set. Fine. But the MMO genre is still going to be better because someone tried to break mold, rather than live within its confines for another ten years.