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Som Pourfarzaneh : Is There a Better Alternative to Questing?

Columns By Som Pourfarzaneh on August 28, 2015

Is There a Better Alternative to Questing?

Games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft have given us so much, providing the conceptual framework for the majority of MMOs that have been released over the past decade plus.  Most contemporary MMORPGs, although distinct in their own right, emulate one or more tropes from their predecessors, which in turn were inspired by other video games and pen-and-paper RPGs.  Some of these conventions, such as the use of classes, races, and character progression, still work well across a variety of modern games.  Others, like traditional quest hubs, feel more old hat, and are in desperate need of revitalization.

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There are a number of tick boxes that we as MMO players check as we start playing a new game.  Two or more factions?  Tick.  Different races and/or classes from which to choose?  Tick.  Crafting?  Tick.  Dungeons and PvP?  Tick and tick.  Most tellingly, if an MMORPG starts out with a bunch of NPCs sending you from one hub to the next in search of quests, you’ll know immediately that you’ve been here before.

Quest hubs are the most clear sign in a new MMORPG that the developers have not attempted to do something new with the core gameplay formula.  They signify that even if the combat is more active, the classes diverse, and the story innovative, the central activity is relatively unchanged.  Thus, no matter how interesting the game’s trappings might be, if you don’t like or are tired of the rote represented by questing, you’ll most likely be bored after the first few levels.

For some people, being locked into preset class archetypes feels oppressive, requiring a more open and malleable character progression where you can dabble in different skills and abilities.  For others, the concept of strict player vs. environment content is uninspiring, necessitating a more fully-realized player vs. player component.  Yet, the use of quest hubs is one tired area of MMO gameplay that persists without much large scale variation, and is often overlooked as one of the reasons that new MMORPGs can feel old fairly quickly.

Quests and their hubs fulfill a very specific purpose: dole out the game’s story in tiny breadcrumbs while keeping players in the world for as long as possible.  The reason for this approach is straightforward: the longer a person is in the game, the more money they’re apt to spend on cash shop items or subscriptions.  Thus, the quests themselves tend to be tedious, requiring you to kill X monsters or collect Y resources, which in turn feed into other time sinks like crafting or reputation grinds.  Even if the developers’ intentions are less mercenary than simply trying to turn game hours into revenue, the use of quest hubs may not necessarily come across as any more interesting or compelling.

This trend begs the question: is there a better alternative to questing?  If the sandbox mentality is to be championed, one could say that having no quests at all could be one solution.  Games like Darkfall: Unholy Wars certainly seem to have created their own niches without relying on guided adventuring, instead dumping you into the world and giving you some light pointers about how to progress your character.  Other, more theme park-oriented titles like Guild Wars 2 have promoted dynamic events as a central gameplay activity, providing for a certain type of randomness that attempts to break free from the predictability represented by quest hubs.

My personal preference is for an MMO to feature equal parts sandbox and theme park elements, with a central storyline that I can return to among dynamic activities that keep the gameplay feeling fresh.  The eponymous rifts in Rift, for example, are my favorite parts of that game, breaking up the monotony of quest hubs while adding that little bit of craziness that occurs when a bunch of random players get together to tackle a dynamic event.  For the same reason, I tend to gravitate towards PvP in most MMORPGs, because of the unpredictability inherent in player versus player combat.  When I can get both dynamic events and PvP that are integrated into the larger game world, I’m really hooked, which is why Guild Wars 2 continues to be my cup of tea.

It’s clear that quest hubs are carryovers from older MMOs, but perhaps they still work in some capacity, or are at least bearable to the extent that they can be overlooked among other gameplay systems.  For my money, if I enter a new game and it’s clear that questing is going to be the activity de rigeur, I’m more than likely to get bored and look elsewhere after the first few levels.  I may not always have a better suggestion for how the developers could make the game more interesting, but I know repetitive gameplay when I see it.

Do you like questing?  What do you think are some good alternatives to quest hubs?

Som Pourfarzaneh / Som is a Staff Writer at MMORPG.com and a Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.