Yet, what is all this trying to accomplish? Depends on who you are.
- The powergamer uses quests as a tool to advance their character as efficiently as possible. If a quest is the most time-efficient path to gaining experience or loot, then that quest is seen as useful. If a quest forces you to travel around the world to complete it, that quest is jettisoned (or enterprising players write detailed walkthroughs in how to stack those quests as efficiently as possible).
- The storyteller wants to learn the lore of the game world. Well written stories and intricately plotted events are seen as more important than raw efficiency of advancement.
Of course, few are pure powergamers or storytellers - even the most avid roleplayer would like to see their character advance sometime, and the most hardened powergamer enjoys distractions from the endless grind to prove that everything that makes them a person has been worn away.
The unfortunate reality, though, is that developing interesting quests takes time and creativity. Both of these, by definition, are a finite resource in any game - how finite ranges on production schedules and simple talent amongst the game designers. A schedule that demands that each quest designer come up with five quests a day for a month is going to ensure that most of those are going to be fairly mundane. A rushed project that has little support for tools to develop quests with will cause the productivity of those designers to drop, and thus the quality of their work as well.
There's also the fact that quests, much like fiction, only have a few narrative 'verbs'.
- KILL - find new and exciting creatures and squash them
- FIND - collect the whatsit to check it off your list
- GET - cool! someone did something for you. Most likely it involves you obtaining shiny things.
- GIVE - someone desperately needs a whoosit and only you can help
- EXPLORE - something happens the first time you arrive at a given X/Y/Z coordinate
- CLICK - yay! you successfully moved your mouse over a pixel and pressed the button
- TALK - "I Will Take Thee"
- WATCH - stuff is happening on screen that you may or may not have had anything to do with.
Think of your favorite quest in an MMO. Every intricate element in that quest is composed of those verbs. Take one of the keystone quests of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion in WoW, the Battle for the Undercity quest where you accompany the leader of your realm in a dramatic skirmish to take back the Undercity from a traitorous faction. Yet it is composed of a string of the above triggered verbs:
- You TALK to Thrall to start the event in motion
- You WATCH as Thrall motivates his troops with a fierce speech
- You GET a buff from Thrall that makes you effectively invulnerable
- You KILL various opponents leading into the Undercity
- You EXPLORE the conquered city until you trigger a fight where...
- You KILL the leader of the opposition, and his various minions
- You WATCH as Thrall and Varian meet and fight before Jaina stops the battle
- You GET experience and magic pants.
Take another quest design, the archetypical "kill ten rats" quest that no one really likes because they've done it so many times in so many variations in so many games:
- You TALK to a quest giver.
- You KILL ten rats.
- You return to TALK to the quest giver again.
- You GET experience and magic pants.
Effective quest design, then, is the art of combining simple verbs and crafting an experience to ensure your magic pants delivery. Quests that aren't as compelling are the ones where the curtain is frayed, and the raw verbs that fuel the motors become visible. And crafting an experience requires time and creativity. Solutions which try to randomly combine quest verbs so that players have "endless quests available", for example, tend to be unpopular since the underlying quest verbs are VERY visible. Machines don't write fiction well.
One option I hear often when I describe quest development in this matter is "well, why not come up with new verbs?" And if a game does come up with a new verb - an entirely new way of interacting with the game world - that's a killer feature. Vanguard's Diplomacy, for example, which integrated a collectible card game as, essentially, a new verb. Other possibilities for advancing the craft involve getting players to interact with the same verbs in new ways - such as Warhammer Online's public quests, which allow players to just wander into an area and start doing verbs in concert.
But ironically, the games I see most often cited as advancing the field and breaking the usual kill ten rats paradigm are games such as Eve and Star Wars Galaxies, which essentially, as virtual worlds, jettisoned quests entirely.
Returning to the glory days of Ultima Online, when we EXPLORE uphill. In the snow.