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Mark Kern: Can We Make Quests Matter Again?

Column By Mark Kern on May 23, 2014

We would all love to see MMOs take new risks and new directions. While the standard formula is good, and games like WildStar are set to deliver top notch experiences based on the theme park model, most of us are jaded enough to want something different. 

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Our biggest problem is boredom: we’re bored with the same old quests (we don’t even read them anymore), the lack of content (we’ve mastered speed running MMOs) and the lack of variety and re-playability. For developers, they are exhausted: exhausted by trying to make enough content to stay ahead of the locust waves of players, exhausted by the same old design without the chance to do anything new, and exhausted trying to monetize an increasingly jaded and fickle audience who will dump your game in a heartbeat for the next new thing.

So here’s three promising areas of MMO development that we can explore together as gamers and developers. Two of these are already being attempted. The third I feel is largely untapped and unexplored. I am most excited about the third possibility, which taps into the large supercomputer that MMO servers use on the backend to deliver exciting new gameplay.

The first approach that has been tried before is dynamic content. Rift and Guild Wars 2 are pioneers in this area. The idea is that instead of following static quests all the time, at least part of the world is dynamic in the sense that events can happen around the player that are unexpected. These are still statically created by a game designer, but the server has control over when and where these events occur. I still believe this is a promising area of development, but based on feedback from players, there are some weak points. Dynamic events are often limited to a small, standard library of events that don’t really change much. After a while, it feels like you’ve seen enough rifts over and over in Rift, and that you’ve figured out that Guild Wars 2 events are always in the same places, and just flip flop between two states (peaceful and under attack). Your decisions to intervene never affect the broader world, and frequently the encounters just seem random and without meaning. In short, dynamic events need to be more dynamic, have more procedural variety, scale better with players participating, and have meaningful change and impact on the world. But it’s a start, and I believe with more research dynamic events can overcome these limitations and still offer huge future promise.

The next approach is relatively new to mainstream MMOs, and that is user generated content on a vast scale. We’ve had attempts at user generated content before, with City of Heroes and Neverwinter offering ways for players to create their own quests. But what is happening now is far more ambitious. EverQuest Next and Landmark hope that players will create entire zones and towns and dungeons that they can selectively add into the main game. Presumably there will be a kind of green light process, where either SOE or players will vote to choose the best content to add into the mainstream game. But this approach has many challenges. Policing content for appropriateness is difficult, and I don’t mean your proud friend’s new penis tower that he just built, although that too is problematic. No, I see the main issue with user generated content, when set in a strongly themed IP, is about fit and appropriateness to support the fiction of the world. I can see users creating many wonderful things, but which might dilute or clash with existing EverQuest lore and graphic style.

SOE will have to enforce some sort of guidelines here, and let’s face it, it’s tough being the arbiter of taste which can be viewed as arbitrary. There could be several instances where players love some user created zone that someone put months into creating, only to have SOE turning it down because it just doesn’t fit their lore. That would have a chilling effect on players attempting something like that ever again. The alternative is a mishmash…and one only  needs to look at Second Life to see how user generated content without guidelines creates a chaotic world that is potentially very unbalanced for leveling or play. But that chaotic world is also the power of Second Life. Anything goes, and you can make what you want and everyone can see it. I love user generated content, but I feel that it’s better for games that don’t have strong balance needs or thematic settings that rely on a unified lore to be effective. Still, EverQuest Landmark (I am in the alpha/beta) is doing a great job so far and I’m excited to see the results.

The third approach is untried, and I think can eventually help the problems I outlined in the first two approaches. MMOs have a stupid amount of computer power available, and store huge amounts of data about player behavior and game events. We literally have terabytes of logs, enough clustered computer power to rank in the top 10 supercomputers, and yet, we do very little with it for gameplay. We use the data for cheat detection, economy analysis, customer service, for data mining and *shudder* F2P monetization, but what a waste. Let’s use it to create a better game experience for our players!

One way to use the vast troves of information MMOs collect is to monitor player activity and watch it for signs of action and boredom and use it to control pacing. Left for Dead and Payday 2 use this to great effect to keep a small number of maps feeling fresh and dynamic as an AI “director” works to try and shock and surprise you, at just the right times, with new waves of attacks. I could see using similar algorithms for breaking up the way that dynamic events unfold in MMOs and extend each event’s re-playability. But what if we used our vast computer power and data to do something even more ambitious? What if we could create an AI director that just didn’t control spawn waves, but actually wrote story, lore and quests on the fly?

Narrative Science (www.narrativescience.com) is a company that writes news stories. But unlike most news stories, these are not penned by a hard boiled writer sporting a five o’clock shadow and a dangling a cigarette between his lips, but by an Artificial Intelligence.  Narrative Science predicts that in the next 10-15 years, 90% of news may be written by a computer. And it’s good. Good enough that you really can’t tell the AI stories from the human written versions. The computers churn out hundreds of thousands of articles on sports, financial news and other topics using a vast trove of past data and sophisticated AI code. Narrative Science requires a large amount of data to effectively generate its stories…and guess what, MMOs have tons of data. 

Imagine an AI quest writer that not only had a huge amount of information about the lore of the world, the items and locations within it, but also a complete history of all the epic deeds of every player who set foot in the world? Could this AI now generate great story arcs on the fly, perhaps even mentioning or featuring the great deeds of players to help weave a dynamic, ongoing story? This story would truly reflect the players actions, and combining it with dynamic events and L4D style dynamic spawning and pacing, could actually let player actions have impact upon the world. Let’s call it something, I’ll go ahead and name it “synthetic narrative” and I believe it’s the most exciting new area for MMOs to explore. 

Now combine all three techniques together: Dynamic content, user content, and synthetic narrative…I think we just might be onto something now that would keep me very, very interested and entertained as a player for a long time. How about you?

Mark Kern / Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.

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Mark Kern
Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.
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