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Quest Pacing - The Long & Short of Quest Design

Andy Collins Posted:
Developer Journals 0

In which Ian and Andy discuss the long and short of quest design in Moonrise.

IAN: Welcome back. We intended to get this article up last week, but first my kid got sick, then I got sick, then my wife got sick. Andy has an excuse too, but it’s not nearly as compelling as “everyone in the house vomiting”, so we’ll probably skip it.

ANDY: My only excuse is that I could never write without you, Ian. How could anyone split up this team?


ANDY: I mean, except for when I wrote that dev journal entry with Brian about naming Solari. But it wasn’t the same, believe me.

IAN: In our recent article on building our Quest system, we intentionally left out a big, complicated chunk: pacing. We did this for two reasons. First, it’s really big, messy subject, and second, because we wanted to save it for the folks over here on MMORPG.com, so that you know you are forever precious in our hearts.

ANDY: Precious is one of those words that pop culture has kinda ruined. Until we have a generation that didn’t grow up hearing Gollum hiss through 27 hours of Peter Jackson movies, “precious” will remain a bit loaded. But let’s assume Ian meant the less-possessive version of this adjective and move on.


IAN: My first consideration when we start pacing out a chunk of quests is variety. I find a way to break up the work I’ll be doing into some logical block, and then I ask questions about how long we want this to take, and how we want that divided up, between very short, short, medium, and long quests.

ANDY: Note that we already have an idea of the major story beats we want before this happens, so this process is the story-writing equivalent of translating strategy into tactics. How can we tell the story we’ve planned in a manner that holds the player’s attention?

IAN: As I’m writing out the actual story, I have targets in mind, like 45% short, 45% medium, and 10% long. Instantly completed quests (tap on this building) get looked at less as for “total number” and more for “not too many in a row”.

ANDY: A typical short quest might be “Defeat the Lunari that’s loose in the Shop,” which requires a single successful fight against something that isn’t too tough. Easy to finish in a minute or two.

A medium quest involves a few more battles. Examples include defeating a specific commonly encountered Lunari or finishing a particular dungeon floor. Requiring you to win a fight that’s especially hard also fits, since you might lose the first encounter and have to repeat the battle after tweaking your Solari team.

A long quest is intended to take 10 minutes or more, so we use them sparingly. Searching for a particular rare Lunari to defeat, for example, would qualify as a long quest.

IAN: I’m also watching for how often you have each kind of quest, how many in a row, and so on.

ANDY: Variety is the spice of life, and also of quest pacing. Completing a string of quests that all feel the same gets repetitive very quickly. So we keep our eyes open for any stretch that might allow the player to fall into a routine, and we change up the details while keeping the overall thrust of the quest the same.


IAN: It’s not at all unusual to decide that a story quest that originally needed to you to defeat a single Magmawing now needs you to defeat three or four of them, just so the player has something a little more significant to do. Or vice-versa.

ANDY: A quest’s length tends to correlate with its importance in the story, since longer quests tend to feel more important to the player, the story usually weights the goals of those quests accordingly.

For example, in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker takes on the self-assigned quest “Face Darth Vader” when he leaves Dagobah and heads for Bespin. He flies all that way, searches through Cloud City, finds Vader, and has a huge extended battle scene before, y’know, failing utterly. It’s a long quest for that character, and a large segment of the story, as befits its importance to the overall narrative.


Like any rule, however, this one’s made to be broken.

IAN: In the right scenario, the important moment in the story might demand a short quest, in order to convey a sense of immediacy instead.

ANDY: Sometimes, the right pacing decision is exactly the one the player DOESN’T expect. Lull them into complacency with a string of medium-length goals, then BAM throw in a sudden quick battle with a tough enemy. Surprises like that keep the player intrigued.


IAN: We can establish a sense of “normal” pacing to make it so that when we say “everything is crazy and hectic and fast” for the story, you have a baseline, and it actually [i]feels[/i] crazy and hectic and fast.

ANDY: We can also accomplish this by appropriate use of dialogue text. Slower story moments can afford to include a bit more exposition or humor between the supporting cast, which translates to more time spent reading and tapping through dialogue. Faster moments call for fewer words and fewer taps to keep things moving.

IAN: There are also times where we just have to pace around the reality of the technology we’re dealing with. If we structure our quests so that you go to Gateway (map load) to be told to go to Kijang Village (map load) to have one fight (scene load) before being told you need to go back to Gateway (map load), well, that would kinda suck. Especially if you’re playing on the bus and you’ve just spent half your time loading.

(Note to our programmers: I know no one would ever, even in this horrible situation, actually spend half their time loading, but it sure can FEEL like that, and as a designer, I’m required to care more about how things feel than about your cold, heartless MATH.)

ANDY: Some games can afford this type of quest structure because time spent traveling is (or at least can be) interesting and/or rewarding. Maybe you stumble across a new instance on your way back to town, or even just run into a random encounter that drops some good loot. But Moonrise can’t really provide those experiences, so we don’t pretend that the act of tapping on a different part of the map screen is actually a thrilling story moment.

Heck, even the greatest adventure movie of all time didn’t hesitate to short-cut its travel scenes.


IAN: We also have to consider specific types of quests. Asking you to evolve a Solari as a long quest is an obvious win for us. It makes sure players who are on autopilot remember “oh yeah, that’s a thing you can do in this game!”

But even though evolving a Solari is a good long quest, asking the you to do this anywhere near as often as we ask you to do the vast majority of other long quests would be onerous and frustrating.

ANDY: If players expected frequent “Evolve this particular Solari” quests, they might stop evolving Solari at their own pace. Imagine how annoying it would be to spend the time and resources to evolve that Eggbert only to be told an hour later to do it again.

It’s a tricky line to walk, and a painful truth that too much for one person is not enough for another.

IAN: Pacing is one of those invisible arts, where when done well, you basically never notice it. Honestly, that’s the whole reason we wrote this. Andy and I just wanted some credit, because trying to pace things well is really hard.

ANDY: Speak for yourself. My reward...is that justice has been done.


IAN: If we’ve done the job correctly, you’ll just enjoy the game, and feel like you get to see a nice, wide variety of missions and mechanics, and you vary them often enough that things don’t get stale.

ANDY: The greatest trick any storyteller ever pulled was convincing the reader that no effort whatsoever went into crafting the tale.

IAN: That said, if you’re interested in doing creative work of your own, I strongly recommend doing this yourself. Play a game that you found interesting, and get a sense (maybe even take notes) of what kinds of missions you get, how long they take, when they’re delivered and so on. It’s also well worth your time in movies, comic books, TV shows, albums (that’s where you listen to all the songs in a row), novels and so forth. Good stories with bad pacing are actually harder for most people to get through than a boring story told [i]really[/i] well.

ANDY: Then come over to the Undead Labs Moonrise forum and share your thoughts on stories and story pacing. It’s a great way to pass the time until our next dev journal entry...which comes out in January because Ian doesn’t love you enough to work on a second article instead of being with his family for the holidays.

IAN: Way to throw a guy under the bus, Andy. See you guys in January!


Andy Collins