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The Lunch Break Blog

For those of us who would rather be leveling right now.

Author: cmagoun

The Quest Grind (or A Horror Story Told In !?!?!?!)

Posted by cmagoun Thursday June 4 2009 at 10:22AM
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The wise, old sage looked straight at me and said, "Kill 10 Randy Badgers and bring my their Steaming Entrails."

To which I cleverly answered, "Huh?"

"You heard me, Adventurer. The nearby woods is overrun with badgers and I hate the dirty buggers." The sage look a bit annoyed. "Now get out there and play Whack A Badger!"

I sighed, "I don't know. I am a little tired of the whole 'killing 10' thing. The last sage I talked to needed 10 Obnoxious Fox Nostrils for some nefarious purpose. The sage before that had a hankering for a parts of Endowed Beavers that I am not willing to discuss."

"Oh yeah, those guys are my cousins. How are they doing?"

"What is it with you people and small mammals?"

The sage shrugged, "So do we have a deal? Just hand over your Quest Log and I'll sign you right up."

"Can't you give this assignment to someone else?"

"Just did. See those three over there?" He pointed to a ragtag band of mercenaries dressed in the Tattered Armor common to all amnesiacs who were found washed up on Newbie Island. "Now those guys know how to hunt some badger. Come, talk, accept, kill, return, BOOM, job done. Didn't even bother to whine about the flavor text, unlike someone else I know." The sage scowled, "Look, we going to do this? There is a queue forming behind you."

I waffled, "I don't know. I am so bored...."

"I'll throw in this nice belt: +1 strength, +3 haggis resistance."

"Ooooh, a belt. I'm in."

Ok, I may be embellishing a bit, but I think I have just described the lowbie experience for the vast majority of MMOs on the market. What's worse, I have described the mid-level experience and a heck of a lot of the high-level experience as well.

When people think of "grind", they typically think of hunting a spawn of mobs over and over. Quests were designed to alleviate that grind and they have succeeded. I rarely have to spawn camp and hunt mobs anymore. Instead, I bounce from static NPC to static NPC, following quest arrows and glowing ? and ! icons mindlessly to gather and turn-in quests. My quests logs in WoW and EQ2 typically had 20+ quests in them at any given time. My quest log in Runes of Magic currently has 17. The devs of each game have done a wonderful job making sure I always know where to go, that I always have something to do and that when it is time to move on to a new zone, I am led there by a level-appropriate task.

Yay! We have replaced the hunt-grind with a quest-grind. Welcome to the MMO Themepark... please keep your hands on the WASD keys at all times and try not to fall asleep.

In theory, I like quests. They give decent rewards, they provide a sense of progression through the game and they tell the game's story. Unfortunately, the way all current MMOs (that I have played) have implemented quests is just terrible. Before we construct possible solutions, let's take a deeper look at the problems with quests. Those of you that don't like ranty lists (or listy rants), please turn away.

Kill and Deliver: One of the main problems with quests is that too many of them follow the same 2 formulas: kill quests or delivery quests. If you are lucky, you might a quest that has you killing and delivering all at the same time. If you are unlucky, you end up returning to an NPC after a kill quest, only to have him give you another kill quest... for creatures one spawn over from the last. Overall, it's a horrible situation. I can see where it might be tough to conceive of more quest templates -- a lot of the ideas I have come up with fall roughly under the categories of kill and deliver. Nonetheless, we need more formulas, or better ways to dress up the old ones.

Too Darn Easy: I understand that the trend in MMOs is towards easy, accessable content, but if I get a quest to kill 10 creatures and I can run out, get my kills, and turn-in, all in the space of a few minutes, what is the point? If there is no risk of dying at all, why bother giving me this task? Now, not every quest should be forcing you to face creatures that outlevel you and can kill you with a blink, but on the other hand, if the quest situation entails no risk, then I am just grinding. Any situation that warrants a special reward should entail some level of risk -- meaning if I screw up, I am going to have to recover, run or die. If I have to take care and use a little thought, then I am not grinding, I am questing.

Enough with the ?!?!?! Aready: Again, I understand the themepark concept of a stream of easily gained "progress", but game designers should really consider cutting the level of handholding that is rampant in MMOs. Get rid of all the icons, arrows and auto-run features and instead, give us a reason to talk to NPCs and explore the world. Give us good hints in the quest text. Have NPCs give us hints when we talk to them. Pepper your landscape with noticable landmarks to help us find our way. Make us rely on the kindness of others... It's ok to have to spend time to search for something.

The Progression Is Always The Same: If I have played a game a bit, and then start a new character, I am almost certain to have a painfully similar experience to my last character's. Talk to NPC A and get his quests, then NPC B... then finish the quest in the cave for C and he will send you to D which is in the next town. There you can pick up quests E, F and G and H if you go to the tent city. Ugh... I expect some similarity from one playthrough to the next, but without fail, the quest progression for a given region is 95% the same for every character, every time.

Am I Playing A Single-Player Game?: Another flaw of many (not all) quest systems is that they turn the MMO experience into something a lot closer to a single-player game. Soloable quests become trivial and boring when you add party members to the mix. Two players on different stages of the same quest have to catch one player up, or repeat sections of the quest. Players that don't have the same quests slow each other down by having to kill different creatures, and run to different sections of the zone to turn-in. Ideally, questing should allow soloing, but encourage grouping. As it stands, most games' quests, allow grouping, but encourage soloing, except in the case of big boss monsters, where you are forced to group -- and some games allow you to hire NPCs to party with you obviating even that need.

All For Naught: Perhaps the thing I have come to loathe the most about quests is the fact that ultimately, they are meaningless to the game world. I can collect badger parts all day, kill evil wizards and rescue countless princes and the game world doesn't change one bit... not even temporarily. Ideally, a completed (or failed) quest would have some impact on the game world. Perhaps saving a merchant lowers prices in town for an hour, or killing a dragon causes something else to move into his cave for a day.

Because nothing I do in your world makes any difference, I focus on where I can make a difference, which is my character and his stuff. Quests become treadmills for experience, gold and gear and nothing more. I don't care about your story, or your world anymore... I just want to kill and collect. How many people even read quest text anymore? A few do... but most don't. Why bother? If I wanted to read a story over which I have no influence, I would read a novel. Instead, I chose to play a game. When I am playing a game, I expect to interact which means my actions matter.

What Next? There are probably a couple more items I missed or glossed over, but the rant has run its course for the time being. Yes, questing is crap, so now what? Well, I would like to spend the next post imagining a system that addresses these issues and makes quests a more interesting and engaging part of the game world.

What do you have for me? Is there anything about quests systems that annoys you? Are there games that do quests particularly well? What are the best and worst quest lines you have ever been on?

Sargoth writes:

The next level of games will require the world they are playing to change.  To keep it a mmo it will need the work of the masses instead of the individual.

Thu Jun 04 2009 4:35PM Report
daltanious writes:

More then anything else .... would like to hear suggestions how author plans to replace this horror.

Fri Jun 05 2009 10:18AM Report
Sargoth writes:

Ha, as with most blogs, you don't really get that information, just the complaint heard ten times before. 

Fri Jun 05 2009 11:01AM Report
cmagoun writes:

Oh no, I have ideas and a pretty specific set of them in this case... I generally just try to space things out because I don't have hours and hours to post and I am a slow writer. The next post in this series (just sent) lays out the basic idea of the solution and the post after that will give specific examples of the idea in action.

Fri Jun 05 2009 11:18AM Report
cmagoun writes:

Oh and one more thing, if you read back, I think you will agree that I usually try to follow up my complaints with some concrete ideas. I love armchair game design and hate complaining without offering alterative ideas.

Fri Jun 05 2009 11:20AM Report writes:
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