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The Quest For Gameplay

Scott Jennings Posted:
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The quests in this game suck! Who wrote this stuff!

Thanks to World of Warcraft, which thanks to its approximately 20 trillion subscriber base market share is the only MMO in existence (all other MMOs fading to statistical irrelevance), we've been taught to think of quests as the primary means by which we interact with the MMO that we play. And thus, people pretty consistently complain that quests are boring and need to be improved.

How would we do this? Well, what if we created an MMO without quests? That sounds fairly revolutionary. If we're bored with the same old gameplay, get rid of the same old gameplay.

Except it isn't that revolutionary - in so many words, it would be Ultima Online.

UO launched as a free-form do-what-you-want virtual world, where whatever gameplay existed was 'emergent' gameplay that arose from players interacting with one another. There were very few tasks that could even be called approximations of quests - you could escort randomly generated NPCs from one city to another. At the game's launch, that was it. And there was no interface - you simply said "I will take thee" and every NPC near you assumed you were talking to them. Also, we had to climb uphill to school every morning, in the snow. While words like 'emergent gameplay' still to this day make a certain type of designer squeal like a giddy schoolgirl, most players felt somewhat lost without guidance of the "what do I do next" variety.

Contrast this with Everquest - the MMO with questing in its name. However, there still wasn't much in the way of support for questing, and initially, it was designed to approximate a text-based MUD (much like every game system in Everquest). You talked to NPCs via targeting them and typing in chat, and if you said the correct keyword, the NPC would ...do something. Perhaps tell you the next step of the quest! If you were lucky, words of interest to the NPC that would elicit more responses might even be [bracketed]. But if the designers were sneaky (or the quest was broken) there wouldn't even be that hint. Thus you have the a quest for the game's iconic weapon (the "Fiery Avenger") which wasn't functional at the game's release - but since the players had no way of knowing whether it was functional or not, they just assumed that it was a mystery that they had yet to unravel - well, until the fixed quest was added.

Then Dark Age of Camelot introduced the quest window. Quests in DAoC tended to be similar to those in Everquest, but with some improvements - specifically, moving the text the NPC would tell a player to its own window, allowing the players to click on the [bracketed] words to move the quest along. Also, just to be more helpful, those words were a brighter shade of white. So you could just click through each quest quickly without reading it - which many did. (It didn't help that the quality of quest writing in this, and every MMO varied wildly - something we'll come back to in a bit.)

And then there was World of Warcraft, which based its entire player progression around quests. The thought of just using quests to advance your character is seen as so routine now that it's resented in games like Aion where it's not possible - yet when World of Warcraft launched it was seen as unique. And because it was such a key feature of WoW, there was a great deal of support guiding players through the process of questing, leading to a simplification of the entire process. Generally, you would have a clear ! over the head of every NPC to talk to, talking to the NPC resulted usually in just one screen of text (no more clicking!) and the rewards were clearly shown beforehand. Players then introduced user interface mods which made this even easier, such as QuestHelper which literally leads you by the nose and says GO HERE TO DO THIS TO CLICK PELLET TO GET SHINY.

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Scott Jennings