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It's All About the Quests

By Carolyn Koh on June 17, 2006 | Editorials | Comments

It's All About the Quests

Jon Wood and Carolyn Koh debate questing in MMORPGs

Editor's Introduction: Every Saturday, we feature a debate between two writers here. If you have any ideas for future debates, please do not hesitate to post them in the comment thread linked at the end.

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Carolyn Koh: MMORPGs have their roots well entombed in the role-playing genre. The very first MUDS (Multi-user Dungeons) were based on table-top RPGs (Role Playing Games), and what were they based on? Quests!

It’s not an MMORPG without quests. Even if most of the game-play is about killing things, gearing up your character and gaining xp, an MMORPG would not be as immersive without the story-line and the quests. Or as I am debating… It’s all about the Quests!


Jon Wood: I wouldn’t go that far. While quests do currently play a role in most MMORPGs, they are not the be-all and end-all of a game. I think that there are other, more organic means of progressing through a game.

Why not allow characters to advance through combat and exploration, unscripted. Allow the players to decide for themselves what it is that they want their characters to do. It’s not always fun to run through a game, knowing that all of the people around you are doing the same things as you are, completing the same quests and advancing in exactly the same way.


Carolyn Koh: Why not? Because in an RPG, you are playing a role. A character in a story world. The immersiveness (if there is such a word) in that story world is enhanced by quests which further the story line. An NPC could as you to go to the nearby camp of Booglings.

“Kill Booglings until a bead, an earring and a finger-bone drops. Bring them to me and I’ll give you faction, xp and gold.”

Or the NPC could be a crippled old man, the chief of the small settlement of Humans asking you to bring him back proof of his granddaughter’s demise.

“I think she wandered into the Boogling camp and was killed, but I will never rest until I know for sure. Would you, young adventurer, search the camp? The last I saw her, she was wearing a pink dress, a red bead necklace and carrying her favorite doll.”

Then you, young adventurer, could kill Booglings and search crates until you found a scrap of pink fabric, a red bead necklace and a child’s doll.


Jon Wood: That’s a valid point, and one that I will concede. However, that being said, I want to point out that while quests that are used to advance story are great on paper. There are severe problems with that in practice.

Basically, what ends up happening is that even if the quests are very dynamic and well-written (which often, they aren’t), players are still left feeling like they are doing exactly the same thing as all of the other players out there. How many times does that farmer’s daughter need to be rescued?

If someone could make an MMORPG where my character’s actions were unique through quests, I’d be fine with it. As it stands though, quests are used as either a) an experience grind or b) time killers.

All I’m asking for is some level of diversity. I know that games can not offer single quests for single players, that would be a MASSIVE time commitment, but there are other techniques that can be used to tell a story. Dropped loot, for example, could lead players to various clues and divulge story just as well as reading large blocks of text in conversation with an NPC.


Carolyn Koh: That farmer’s daughter will need to be rescued as many times as there are players that will encounter that farmer and wish to do the quest. Why shouldn’t you feel like you are doing exactly the same thing as all of the other players out there who bought a game whether it were a single player game or an MMOG? That is a point I fail to understand. How different is rescuing Princess Peach from rescuing that farmer’s daughter besides the medium in which it is accomplished?

I guess, the other question is how “unique” can “unique” be in an MMORPG? Even with Quests that branch and each choice you make takes you down a different path. When there are tens of thousands of players in the game, there must be several hundred which will take the same path as you do.

On your final point, there currently are quests in various MMOGs that provide clues in dropped loot and dropped loot that actually start quests. For example, in EverQuest2, you can move a rock and find a scroll which starts a quest. I still remember the day I did that. I didn’t find the information on a web-site which gave me coordinates… I was running around harvesting and found a rock that moved.


Jon Wood: I’m not saying that the experience has to be 100% one-of-a-kind unique. What I am saying is that we should at least have the illusion that our characters play an important and unique role in the game world, and I think that generic quests are a hindrance to that.

When I first learned about MMORPGs, my mind was filled with ideas of vast sandbox worlds where my character could do whatever he wanted to develop and become unique. I wanted to have an online experience that captured the feeling and freedom of pen and paper games. The last thing that I imagined was that these online games would exist under the same rules and conventions as their single player counterparts.

I honestly believe that many games have become too reliant on the quest as a basic foundation tool of an MMORPG. Sure, it’s tried and tested, but I’d like to see something new, something that sets our genre apart from the others. Getting rid of quests, or at least removing them from the foundation of MMORPG game design, could give developers the chance to use the genre to its full potential and create an atmosphere that promotes both a social and personally unique experience.


Carolyn Koh: Jon, I think you’re seeking that new concept that will revolutionize the genre. Idealistic, young man. ;) I’m going to be old-granny-stick-in-the-mud here and pop your pink balloon. Ferget it. Ain’t happening. It will require a major breakthrough in hardware before the possibilities in software will be dreamed about.

Don’t forget that Quests are also useful in a “tutorial” sense, immerses new players of the game quickly into the storyline and provides new players of the genre the first sense of accomplishment, of things to come.

Quests are inevitable in an MMORPG. It is the medium in which new content is delivered, and more, when world changing events occur what do players want to do? Participate. It’s all fine and dandy watching a GM controlled event or cinematic trailer, but you are a player in this world, and you want to participate as well. I think getting rid of quests would make the lush MMORPG landscape arid and dry.


Jon Wood: I may be idealistic, I may even be slightly mad, but this industry is currently suffering from a lack of innovation. The problem is that the quest systems work well. Too well. So well in fact, that they have become so expected and so ingrained, and no one wants to really take the leap and find something new.

The problem with idealists like me is that we can ask for this until we’re blue in the face. The fact of the matter is that the tried and true method is a money-maker. I’d need a business model to show that it would be profitable to change course. Sure, I could point to a game like Second Life, that exists as the most interesting sandbox that I’ve ever played in. Sure, I could theorize that what works in that game would transfer over to a more conventional story-driven game, but until someone in charge decides to take a big risk and try it, it’s not going to happen.

Maybe you’re right, maybe an advance in hardware is what is needed before something like this is tried. I submit though, that this advance in hardware isn’t needed physically, but maybe it’s needed mentally. Maybe a change in hardware will open new possibilities for someone and help a company to take a leap of faith and challenge the conventions that are threatening to stagnate our industry and our games.


You can comment on this debate here.

Carolyn Koh / Carolyn has been writing for MMORPG.com since 2004 and about the MMO genre since 1999. These days she plays mobile RTS games more, but MMOs will always remain near and dear to her heart.