You've just picked up a quest to slay a dragon. Not just any dragon, the big, bad dragon of burnination. The king has told you to pass over the western mountains and cross the plains to reach the northern wastes where the dragon dwells. You make your way across the mountains, through the plains, and reach the vast snowfields before you. The dragon's lair looms before you, heavy with smoke. Bravely you ford forth, brandishing your Nifty Sword of Dragonslashing into the bowels of the cave and come across …
Wait, hold on a second. The dragon's not here. Am I in the right cave? Did the king mean the western mountains, or the slightly northern western mountains? Maybe the dragon has multiple spawn points. Well, we better do what most do in a situation like this. Time to consult a guide!
FAQs seem to be built into a modern gamer's DNA, which is an intriguing development. For a sub-culture that seems obsessed with documenting changes in pixels, finding long-uncovered easter eggs, and recording game scripts, there's surprisingly little documentation or discussion about the evolution of the FAQ, guide, or walk-through in gaming history. As gamers, we have relied on the help of others since our early gaming days, but pinning down the first published guide for a game – whether for free or commercially done – seems to be much harder to do. From those early guides, we have transitioned to full-color printed guides, to entire websites dedicated to the collection of guides and FAQs, to video walk-throughs. Quest guides have now evolved into implementation into the game itself, particularly in the MMO genre.
Looking back at gaming history, we can see that simpler games, like Pong, required no real puzzle-solving or uncovering. Games, at one time, were simply too small in scope to need any real assistance in their completion. As games have evolved, however, so did the information required to solve them. Many have resulted in a “Wait, what was I supposed to do again?” syndrome – try picking up an RPG after months of inactivity or going through an old dungeon crawler without a hand-drawn map. Many of us gamed in the old days with a notebook and pencil at our sides as a faithful companion; now, we have the ease of relying on the graces of the Internet and those who have done it before us to help solve those needs.
Games today are complex, and MMOs are hardly an exception, with multiple quest lines, factions, rewards, zones, and experience to consider. The immense scale of MMOs, plus their daunting nature, makes the idea of relying on guides far more appealing. As a result, games have adapted to community needs with new innovations that many of us take for granted; for instance, the implementation of a quest log with recorded quest text to offer in-game hints. The past two years have also seen a surge in games providing assistance through map markers, including highlights on the world map and on the mini-map itself. Many free-to-play games also incorporate auto-routing, the ability to simply click on the name of an NPC or an objective and be directed there without having to manually travel.
The building of databases, wikis, guides, and fansites reflects well on a game's community. It shows both passion and commitment toward the game, as well as an eagerness to help educate players. At its core, these places serve as a community-driven hub for ideas and information to be deposited, built upon, and discovered. On the flip side, the community that builds around these websites can become arrogant, and push players to “just read the website” instead of actively helping players, driving the wedge between 'noob' and experienced player further. With conflicting information across multiple sites, the knowledge war gets deeper, pitting fans of certain sites and strategies against each other, rather than combining their knowledge for common good.
While building a community based on game knowledge is altruistic, it seems that our reliance on quest help has intruded into our gaming too much. We're forgetting the joy of exploration and puzzle-solving. Is there fun in figuring out how to solve a puzzle for the first time, in learning the individual nooks and crannies of a dungeon, of following hints to discover the object of our desires? Absolutely.
The philosophy of implementing this kind of quest assistance into a game's programming, and then telling the player “Just don't use it if you don't want to,” is flawed. By making quest help defaulted into the game's mechanics, developers also show a devaluation of the quest content itself, and encourage players to follow suit. When you can click to auto-route to the quest giver, then auto-route to the mobs, kill until you get what you need (handily tracked on your UI), and then auto-route back to turn in, story and immersion are left behind. The attitude of simply following the quest guide also indicates a lack of passion for the game world and its lore, a lack of game depth, and the presence of the great grind masked with “go fetch” tasks.
Developers aren't the only ones at fault; however. The database mindset begins with the community that takes a helpful collection of information and transforms it into the holy text of the game, all in a drive to make leveling up easier. What some have seen as the 'dumbing down' of MMOs is simply a two-part cycle repeating itself: the community demands easier leveling, and developers comply.
Likewise, it devalues what the company has done in order to create an immersive world. Precious few actually pay attention to quest text anymore. With the information available on various websites, games can simply become a race to go from point A to point B to earn experience and wealth in the fastest, most efficient way possible. Lost are the stories the NPCs tell. Gone are the twining storylines that tell us why the evil evilness of evil is suddenly invading our territories. Some people believe it easier to have the developers skip the story altogether, and go straight to telling the player what to do.
The database style does have some unique perks, however. Finding rare quests, items and creatures suddenly becomes much easier. Hidden gems show themselves much more to a much wider audience. There's precious few secrets anymore thanks to the wiki-style site, but showing everyone the nifty Easter egg is better than no one else understanding what you're talking about when you tell others about it.
There are plenty of flaws in our FAQ driven nature: it has many ways to spoil us and our gaming experience. Like any tool, however, what you use guides and quest help for, and how much reliance you have on them, is the determining factor in whether they prove a useful tool or a crutch. After all, being stuck is no fun, but neither is being led by the nose.