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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

“The Serendipitous World 'Isn’t Fun'”

Posted by Ortwig Tuesday June 19 2012 at 8:35AM
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At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing. 
The original Ultima single-layer games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated.  There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread.   At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and decent-sized notebook.  If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story.  Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.
Fast forward to the modern MMORPG, where “quest logs” are considered a standard model.  When you speak to your “quest giver” he or she gives you a short story, usually a text description, but sometimes in an animated cut scene – the conversation is one-sided, and most games don’t give your character the opportunity to interact other than to accept or decline the quest.  Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic uses their standard “dialogue wheel,” where you generally get to choose from 3 types of responses (typically friendly, neutral or hostile), and this has some small effect on the conversation and/or quest.   Once you have your quest, your main map almost always sprouts little markers showing you where the target of the quest is located, and your minimap often has little arrows keeping you on track for your destination.  There is no need to keep a notebook in the modern game since all the details are kept in a quest log where you can simply re-read your accepted quests. 
My point in the conversation was that people have grown so bored of this modern model that they rarely read the quests and simply run to the map markers, quickly perform whatever the quest asks, and speed back to turn in their quests, the goal being to “level-up” as quickly as possible.  I wrote about this in my last blog, and was speaking about it here in a group of folks working on improving the experience.  While part of that problem rests with impatient players, I was arguing that game design is also pushing people in this direction.  Why not just place objects in the world, I said, and let the player decide what to do with them?  Maybe they find a ransom note with some clues that may or may not be true?  How about an NPC that spins some tale that is 90% tall-tale, but 10% true, leaving the player to parse out what piece to investigate?  Why do we need quest hubs, quest lines, and decision trees at all?  “Just put the breadcrumbs out there, and let the players pick them up at their own leisure, without an assigned “quest?”  My argument was that we need to stop packaging quests and instead imbue stories within the world, and let players find and investigate them serendipitously.
“Because that’s not fun,” was the reply. 
I was stunned when I heard it, and actually couldn’t think of an immediate response at the time.  “People don’t want to take the time to figure out all those clues – they just want to get on with it.”
Really?  Because I had a ton of fun playing that style of game in my early days.  Figuring it out for myself/ourselves was a huge component of the fun in our tabletop roleplaying, and that fun extended on to Zork, Ultima, Myst, and in more recent settings, Bethesda’s Skyrim and Funcom’s The Secret World.  Sure, you can still look things up on the internet when you get stuck, but there’s a vast difference between an NPC telling you what the plot or clues are and figuring it out for yourself.  Opening that secret door in Myst was an event!  
Upon reflection, I do believe that designers think they’ll capture a larger number of players if they do more leading-by-the-nose.  I mean 10 million Warcraft players can’t be wrong, can they?  And logically, making things easier for players when they first start a game as complex as an MMORPG can only increase the likelihood they’ll stick around.  I understand the argument.  I also understand that people play these games for different reasons, and puzzle solving and roleplaying is only a fraction of them.  Not everyone will think it’s fun.  And yes, there are folks who actively hate this type of gaming, and want to spend more time bashing monsters or other players. 
But these game worlds are also big places with lots of room for different styles of play.  Heck, Warcraft just introduced Pokemon-style “pet battles” which is of course targeted at a very specific demographic.  The designers know full well that not everyone is going to like or play this feature—the great thing about it, though, is that it’s entirely optional; it’s just another part of the game that players can choose to play or ignore.
“It’s not fun?”  It may not be fun for some people, but please designers, recognize that there’s an enormous group of players out here begging you to make us use our heads for things other than min/maxing our character and optimizing our gear.