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Matt Miller: Give It a Read!

Column By Matthew Miller on February 19, 2013

As most of you know, today’s MMO’s evolved from text MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) of days gone by. Text MUDs used flowery descriptions to convey environments and creatures. As these types of games moved into a world of graphics many games still used good descriptive text to convey things that the art could not. Eventually the art caught up to the point where detailed descriptions seemed a little out of place, and gamers found they needed to read less and less in order to complete their tasks.

This became a staple question I asked in job interviews for mission designers: “How can you convey your story to a player who will not read any of the text boxes?” There is no right answer, I generally wanted to know if the designer even saw this as a problem that needed to be overcome. I got answers all over the board, including everything from custom art assets and animations to burying solutions within the text to force a player to actually read it.

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A lot of time, quests and missions are completely finishable without reading more than the summary text in your quest log. This is a fine way to play the game, but someone was paid good money to actually craft the text to go along with that mission, and you may find your immersion a little bit more believable if you at the very least skim the story of why you need to do what the designer is asking you to do.

I’ll admit that I have skipped text when powering through levels, but many times when I stopped to read I have genuinely been impressed with the story being crafted. In Mists of Pandaria for instance, there was a simple escort quest in the Jade Forest where an NPC “read” my character. I admit that the profoundness by which the NPC equated my class (Death Knight) to my race (Blood Elf) and how the Pandarians saw me had a true emotional effect on me that I hadn’t experienced with the character since I first created it. Had I skipped the text it would have been an extremely tiresome quest line and I would have missed out on a great, character defining moment.

I am going to diverge a bit here and talk about something else: Twitter. For those .0001% of you who don’t know, Twitter is a quick way to message the world at large a thought or idea, or simple communication. It has to be short because Tweets (messages sent through Twitter) are limited to 140 characters. Posting to Twitter can be a challenge, but one that I take on all the time: how can I condense my thought into 140 characters? I try to never use more than one tweet to get a message across unless I absolutely need to.

How does this relate to quest text? I believe that Twitter hit upon a “magic” number. Anything longer than 140 characters and a lot of peoples’ brain starts to wander, and you lose people trying to read your quest text. By keeping quest text to “tweet length” as a rule of thumb you can get a lot more people reading your text. At the very least, a writer can summarize their quest text in a small blurb at the beginning (or the end if you signify it as a summary), and get a lot more players reading at least some of the story they crafted around their mission.

Now as a player does this excuse you from reading lengthy quest text? Absolutely not. I believe you owe it to yourself and whatever money you are giving the developer of the game you are playing to get the most out of your in-game experience. Most games do not allow you to re-run quests with the same character or go back and re-read text you may have skipped over. This can be a shame if you are in the middle of a quest chain and catch a snippet of text that strikes your fancy and you suddenly want to know more about why your character has been tasked with doing what they are doing.

Of course lengthy quest text has a tendency to get boring, so here is a trick my friends and I would do when leveling up in a group together. We would log into the Ventrilo server for our guild and one player would read aloud the quest text as if they character was speaking it. Occasionally someone would give a character a funny accent or something, but most of the time we did “dramatic” readings which had a levity unto themselves. In the end, everyone would hear the goals of the quest through the entire description the quest writer intended, so even if we sometimes were mocking it, we at least knew the entire story of why our characters were doing what they were doing.


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Matt Miller
In this bi-weekly column, Matt "Formerly Known as Positron" Miller of City of Heroes fame seeks to clue MMO gamers in on the minds of developers, their decisions, and what it's like to craft these massive games.
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