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The Free Fall

Random thoughts on MMORPG's and gaming in general from a long time player, fan, and hater. I've spent my time tasting porridge, and have yet to find the one that is 'just right.'

Author: Sovereign797

Dynamic Questing, the Future of MMO's

Posted by Sovereign797 Sunday March 22 2009 at 4:42PM
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I want to talk a little bit about quests.  I'm definitely not the first, so I won't harp on the obvious failings of the typical MMO quest.

There are so many better ways to do things, and of course, I'm here to tell you how.  For one thing, you all have to just accept that static questing is sick and wrong and should be quarantined and if it cannot be healed, put down with a spear through the chest.  Good. 

An MMO should behave as a somewhat natural, living, breathing, world.  The NPC inhabitants will have problems ranging from the very small to the very big and everything in between, all set off by their interactions with each other, with players, and with the environment.  If the environment itself is dynamic, the NPCs are able to react to it dynamically, then players will be able to have varied, original, and purposeful quests that affect their surroundings and maybe the whole world.

Example time:  A pack of wolves has gotten very large from overbreeding and a lack of larger predators (presumably those were killed by skilled adventurers).  They need more food and are starting to roam into the village to get it, endangering the citizens.  Citizen A now has problem 1 attached to him and if someone is so inclined to speak with him about what troubles him, he will offer a quest.  Now Citizen A has given a quest for problem 1 and will not give another to anyone else unless the person he gave it to fails to return after a few days.  The player kills as many female wolves as he can find and the population settles back in and retreats to the wilderness.

Citizen B has different ideas on handling the situation, so when the player goes to him, he gets a different quest entirely that should have the same desired effect.  He thinks they should just build a wall around the village, thereby keeping wolves from ever getting in.  You spend some time helping villagers collect wood, hire some laborers and help build the pallisade.  Problem solved, you get some money, fame, and you personally changed an NPC town.

All interactions can be flagged and tracked, and held in an NPCs memory for a length of time determined by how important it should be to the NPC.  If Tom Jones happens upon someone he doesn't know that was robbed by Player C, it wouldn't be as important to him as if he himself was robbed.  So Tom Jones may hold on to the story and retell it to the next few people he meets, the man who was robbed will likely tell it for a very long time. 

Given enough word spreading, a player may get a quest from an NPC to deal with another player, either by getting back what was theirs or just exacting revenge. 

This dynamic world scales as well.  When the King declares war on another nation, the whole world will spring up with possible quests for either side and for no side.  It will be possible to get quests from the king's men themselves with special jobs for mercenaries, or to join the army.  Some quest givers may be spies for the opposing nation or counterspies looking to root out spies.  Someone may just want the escort of a trustworthy adventurer in dangerous times. 

The possibilities are endless and only limited to how much a developer can think of and put into a dynamic quest generator.

OddjobXL writes:

I think you're on the right track but things needn't be quite so complex.  The illusion of depth and meaning is probably much easier to achieve than creating massive networks of NPCs and mobs with realistic behavior and memories.

The near future of dynamism, outside of player instigated dynamism in open PvP settings like Eve Online, likely is threefold.

Player created scenarios can be tailored, like tabletop roleplaying, to cater to a small group and provide a sense of meaning and continuity.  Roleplayers in any MMO do this just by telling stories to each other often with one fellow acting in the traditional Storyteller role who invents mysteries to be solved and villains to be foiled.  More fleshed out tools are provided in Star Wars Galaxies through the Storyteller system.  Ryzom offers a very powerful suite of tools to create instanced, interactive, adventure settings.  Soon CoH will do something with Architect along these lines as well.

The next two are mostly theoretical but both will be explored in some yet undetermined fashion in Star Trek Online.  They're both approaches I've been excited about in the past when they were just ideas.

Competitive PvE.  A strategic model with persistant effects and consequences.  Two or more AI factions are waging war and assign missions to players.  The types of missions change depending on how the flow of the war is going.  Players may be able to pick their own targets in some instances as well but the goal is to pit players against NPC foes in a manner that keeps the player immersed in what appears to be a very real war, in an unpredictable but rational context, without the downsides of direct PvP.  That most often being PvPers and their mode of communication.

Procedurally generated PvE missions.  Not truly dynamic but randomized around various routines these create the illusion of unpredictability in isolated scenarios/quests.  Depending on how it's done one mission could even draw some context from a previous mission as part of the procedure.   Mostly likely, however, it each mission will occur in isolation but never the same one, precisely, would be encountered twice.  While some might think this could get repetitious I'd just point out the success of games like X-Com or The Sims where one sees the same gameplay elements over and over but they're mashed up enough that the experience is still unpredictable and engaging.

Could there be, one day, an MMO where each NPC is a fully fledged individual with motivations and memories, where the ecology functions in a realistic manner?  

I think so.  You can go back several years and look at Terminus.  It's a pretty obscure space sim but it had NPCs who functioned just like players.  They did the same missions, fought over the same jobs and could even remember friends and enemies across factional divides.  It wasn't odd to see a Mars pilot flying in formation with a couple pirates who saved his hide from the Terran forces or visa versa every so often.  Make an NPC made enough, without killing him, and he might issue a bounty on you that another NPC (or player on the persistant world server) would pick up!  Of course you could do the same.

But until we get to the point that, instead of creating entire MMOs from scratch, companies specialize in parts of MMOs.  Say a firm that does nothing but create animal AI or another that designs economies and we've got a shared standard to plug all that work into...MMOs are just too complex to handle that.  A ship in space is one thing but living, walking around folks, acting in believable ways and generating dynamic missions is going to be a long time coming.

But come it might.

Sun Mar 22 2009 5:50PM Report
dcostello writes:

   Yeah I agree that questing should be more dynamic, but I also think that it should contain more of an objective.  What's the drive or purpose for a player in the game...revenge, loot, prestige?

Sun Mar 22 2009 7:16PM Report
Sovereign797 writes:

I think that the purpose for every player is different.  A big one is probably leaving their mark on the game itself, having accomplished something that truly changed the setting, rather than being the first on a server to defeat a boss that will eventually be killed thousands of times.

Instead, be the only person to create a thousand man army and march across the continent leaving destruction in his wake. 

Why quest in a dynamic environment that I described?  Why help an old lady cross the street?  No real reason, but she might think well of you.  Reward will come in form of gold, fame, and most importantly accomplishment.

To Oddjob, I have been reading some of your blog, good stuff, I am an old roleplayer myself.  I agree with you, there are other ways to do it, simpler ways even and mainly ways to make it feel like the world is dynamic.  But to be honest with you, I don't think we are all that far off from being able to create that sort of simulated world that would be ideal in the absence of players.

Eve happens to be one of my favorite MMOs today because it actually has a lot of what I'm looking for.  The interactions of the players shape the universe, from great battles and sovereignty to crafting and trade routes.  I think where Eve falls flat is in its PvE, the stuff you do when you're not with other players, the stuff you do to make the money to support your (explosive) interactions with players. 

Ideally, to me, you could just rely on players to form the whole basis of the game (I've seen it done).  But today, it's not really possible, so I am a fan of making the NPC part of the world react to its surroundings and every player, providing a living world even when your friends aren't online. 

But hey, I'm also not a fan of /tells and guild chat.

Sun Mar 22 2009 9:59PM Report
Rekmesh writes:

Thinking from a dev standpoint, it would just be... to difficult to implement this sort of questing in a game. A game with this questing would have to be constantly analysing numerous amounts of data for quests such as those in your examples, which is why it isn't implemented in mmo's (Well, at least none to my knowledge). Does that mean that its impossible? No, look at the example OddJob mentioned about the game, Terminus. Anywho, I'm positive that a true dynamic quest system will done in the near future if developers focus on it more.

BTW, has any game developer tried to improve Terminus' npc system?



Sun Mar 22 2009 10:37PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

Terminus had a distinct lack of polish and it was also very technical to play.  Newtonian physics and all kinds of different thrusters you needed to map to sticks with lots of pots and hats.  If I didn't have a fancy HOTAS at the time I'd have been out of luck.  When it vanished all the interesting dynamic campaigns (both real time economics for traders and a dynamic war being waged by two AI factions along with pirates and freelancers getting involved) vanished too along with the unique NPC behavior.

I haven't seen anything that's come terribly close since.  Some of the behavior in The Sims is interesting but it's not really the same thing.

Sun Mar 22 2009 11:59PM Report
Velexia writes:

My goal in Project Vex is to make the NPCs near indistinguishable from the PCs (except in the cases where you can tell that it is an NPC because the character is doing a menial task that players should never have to do).  This Terminus game sounds interesting.  That along with what the MMO Glider team has done... seems to be my track so far.

Mon Mar 23 2009 3:06AM Report
Compugasm writes:

"The possibilities are endless and only limited to how much a developer can think of and put into a dynamic quest generator."

However, how many people would it take to plan out the events and consequences? Would completion of your wall quest, trigger yet another quest? For example, now that the wall is built, rodents cause a plauge as they're now safe from predators? As you say, the possibilites are endless. It would become impossible to build that quest engine even if you hired 99 monkeys to input it.

I think what you're really trying to accomplish woth your idea, is the the concept of alignment. Whereas you kill the wolves for an evil alignment, and build a wall for the good. The purpse of a linear quest is to determine who has completed the quest, and therefore aquired the experience to level up.

Under this alignment questing, if you were a good player, and killed the wolves, you would receive less reward for the quest. If you had built the wall, you would receive the full reward. This would affect the evil character in the opposite manner. Therefore, presuming both characters complete the Wolf Quest, with the appropriate action, they will be equal.

Mon Mar 23 2009 6:17AM Report
Sovereign797 writes:

Really, what I would like to accomplish with my idea or what I would like to see, is a living world with action and reaction instead of static quests that everyone does.

Now you say it would be impossible to input all the possibilties, but you didn't present a new possibility, you presented the same one with a different target.

So rats aren't being eaten, that is dealt with by the animal creature AI, they begin to overpopulate the town and now instead of wolves, the NPC AI sees too many pests of a different kind, rats, which generates a few solutions: kill them, introduce a predator (cats, dogs), or something else.  Given any specific problem there would be a few solutions, for a pest you could kill it, keep it outside physically (barriers), frighten it, or get its natural predator to deal with it.

Since all wildlife will be tagged for most of this information already, it's a matter of NPC AI selecting the solution from a table.

It would not be an easy task, but it is not really an impossible one either and new scenarios and solutions could be added over time. 

I neglected to mention, I suppose, that the quest isn't a measure of how much xp you have earned or could earn, but a method for spreading your fame and performing meaningful and interesting tasks while you learn the game and earn skills.  I am a big fan of MMO's without levels, and an even playing field for everyone, whether you started 5 years ago or 1 hour ago.  A level 80 human shouldn't do 800 damage with his fist when a level 1 does 4.

Mon Mar 23 2009 7:08AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

That's what I call the "power inflationary" system.  It's just so tried and true It's going to be hard to wean developers from that teat.  Even the most high concept tabletop RPGs tend to reward players with experience points that make them more powerful over time.

The question is, how much and how fast, really.  SWG had a neat idea early on with its classless system and the relatively small power differentials between new and older characters.  If you were smart you could do things you might not have been intented to do and that creates immersion and gameplay on its own.

To me the focus on MMOs should be on social advancement not personal advancement.  What can we do together?  Can we build a might city, a business or an empire?  A successful entertainment troupe?  Can we become a highly competant starship crew?  SWG and Eve Online really touch on many of these points which is one reason why they're both the games I still play despite issues I have with each.

Mon Mar 23 2009 7:16AM Report
Sovereign797 writes:

I have the same feelings for Eve and SWG, Oddjob.. Both have, at different times, given me exactly what I was looking for and at the same time everything I never wanted.

SWG, pre-cu, was, imo, the MMO then and would hold up today.  If they had stayed focused on their original plans I know I would still be playing. 

Eve online I still have active though I may be about to cancel for awhile.  While it offers most of the gameplay I'm looking for, it is also an evil grind for isk and in no way can I increase my training time through sheer effort as in other games.  I will be forever stuck in sub-capital ships.  Any game where I have to grind for anything at all makes me want to choke kittens but under most circumstances I grant the cat a reprieve and suck it up because the rest of the game is so good.

Mon Mar 23 2009 7:46AM Report
dcostello writes:

 So like in Project B.S. I intend to create like the greatest game ever through the "OMG how does this man not have a Nobel Peace Prize for being supremely amazing?" system, which I can't actually explain to you guys because I do not want anyone to steal my ideas; yet I constantly mention my Project B.S. throughout the site to hype-up un-supported enthusiasm for my god-like game.

Mon Mar 23 2009 2:39PM Report writes:
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