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Sanya Weathers's MMO Underbelly: Take This Column To NPC X

Sanya looks at the truth behind low level quest design in this week's edition of the MMO Underbelly.


You’ve been playing MMOs for years, and if there’s one thing you’re sick of, it’s the verb number noun quests. Kill ten rats. Fetch twenty pelts. Talk with four NPCs. Gaaaaah! Is there anything more dull, more mind numbing? Anything less original, less compelling? You did better when you were the DM for your Second Edition campaign back in elementary school, for crying out loud.

Let’s say you’ve put your money where your mouth is, and you’ve gotten yourself a job at an MMO studio doing quests. What’s the first thing you’re going to do?

You’re going to implement all the kill ten rats quests someone else wrote, for starters. But let’s back up and go through some of the things you’ll find.


Every studio uses a different tool to get quests from your brain into the game – it comes with the game engine, typically, but is then modified heavily for the needs of the team. The extent of the modification varies depending on the imagination and ability of the tools programmer who landed the task. A great engineer can fix the tool so that you can copy and paste straight from a Word document, without the formatting screwing everything up. But you could be using anything from a straight text uploader to a fully integrated system with all the bells and whistles.

You’re going to be working with NPCs and locations that someone else designed and placed. As a senior quest person, you’d have some freedom to make requests and work with content designers about specific ideas. And as a lead, you’d be part of designing the showpieces – the epic quests, the custom content, etc. But as a newb, you’ll be shown a village, told how many quests go in that village, and handed a deadline.


“Text limitations mean you have to learn how to write again. No lengthy descriptions, no rambling dialogue. Short, concise, yet still interesting,” says a content producer on an upcoming triple-A MMO. That seems easy enough, but that’s not all. “You can't write in your own "voice." You have to learn someone else's writing guidelines, that you may not agree with, and often times write quest lines that you flat out don't like.”

Text limitations are actually fairly new. It used to be assumed that people playing an MMORPG wanted story – as they did in their single player RPGs - but then the industry introduced metrics. The fact is, people skip walls of text. They might listen to a voiceover (LOTRO’s primary means of dishing out long bits of lore), and they will occasionally pay attention to backstory if it’s a large part of the game’s feel (see also Warhammer Online), but for the most part, if the text consists of more than two sentences, forget it. In fact, one of the newest MMORPGs (Free Realms) usually keeps their quests to one sentence blurbs interspersed between one sentence task assignments.


It’s not just metrics that proves that this is what people want. It’s the feedback.

Lisa Krebs was a quest writer on Dark Age of Camelot and all of its expansions. Today she’s a career consultant for a video game degree program. She remembers having to remove a lot of narrative work in response to player feedback. And she remembers the feedback she got when she tried to depart from the FedEx norm. “We'd do a story based low level quest where you'd have special low-level mobs that only popped if you were on the quest. We'd have a special ending where you 'affected the outcome.' There would be special effects. But because it took the player out of the mindset of 'to level I need to go through these kill mom quests and fed ex quests' the results were really hit or miss. Roleplayers loved them. Everyone else hated them, especially the people who were very methodical about getting to the highest level as efficiently as possible.”


That’s the hardest thing about designing MMOs, by the way – people want to get past all of the content as quickly as possible so they can get to (and consume) the “real” content. That “real” content is the least tested and least complete part of the game, but if there’s a way to powerlevel past the tested and polished material, people will find it.

Part of leveling quickly means avoiding anything that might require time. Puzzles, word games, and riddles are only acceptable if the answers are already posted in spoilers on fan sites. The hardcore enjoy solving puzzles, but the hardcore aren’t keeping the servers running. The truly dedicated will alt-tab out to a spoiler site and continue playing, but everyone else will simply quit playing. One anonymous source told me that in a zone with a quest completion rate of around 70%, the sole puzzle quest will have a completion rate of 15%. And it wasn’t that high until the answers were on The Brasse and Allakhazam.

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Sanya Weathers