Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Quest for the Perfect Quest

So Pete Smith of Dragonchasers was ruminating somewhat on the nature of MMO quests in the way they compare to the quests in Skyrim.  His basic assertion was that the Skyrim quests somehow feel more heroic, even though the mechanics for the most part play out the same.  But one thing you don't have to do in the Skyrim quests is keep a running tally in your head on how many you've killed.  And this led me to remembering a very similar thought I had myself the other day with respect to the typical MMO quest mechanics, that I'd been meaning to write up my thoughts on.  So thanks Pete!

There are actually quite a number of quest types in your typical MMO.  Even venerable old WoW has introduced some truly heroic feeling quests and some crazy mechanics with their improved used of phasing and of shaping the environment around you.  And games like The Old Republic are pushing the "quest" bar even further, turning the classic quest into a full blown cinematic story-like experience to rival the best of single player games.  But for a lot of people, games like The Old Republic have gone too far.  Most of my peers at Robot aren't even remotely interested in playing SWTOR because quite frankly they don't want a single player game in an MMO experience.  They really aren't all that interested in story, but they don't mind having a reason to kill things.  And especially with more and more people pushing back against the directed, amusement park experience, and longing for something a bit more open world and open ended, it's worth thinking about if there are things we can do with typical questing in MMO's that don't involve rebuilding the entire paradigm at one extreme, or ditching them altogether at the other.

So one thing I noticed about most of your classic MMO quests is that, while they may not all involve killing X number of something, they are almost all very specific.  And it is that very specific nature that instantly trivializes the quest itself.  Advisor Duskingdawn has quite the plight on her hands.  She wants you to save some of the nearby deer from their natural predators by empowering them with her wand!  Now, that's kind of interesting.  You're not just going out and slaughtering 10 deer, you're going to use a wand on them, watch them grow large, and then laugh as they turn the tables on the mountain cats!  But then you see the quest objective:  Save 10 Hill Fawns.  Boom.  Quest trivialized. 

Quest Ala Carte - Take as Much as you Like. Reward your Effort.
So the first thing I propose is to actually remove some of the specificity from these types of quests.  After all, why 10?  Is that enough?  Why not 9?  or 11?  Let's make the task seem more like the task the story intended, and less like a laundry list.  Allow the player to complete as many or as few of the objectives as they desire, and reward them appropriately.  So instead of "Save 10 Hill Fawns", the object was simply "Take this wand and do what you can to save some of the hill fawns.  I'd be ever so grateful!"
  
And that was it.  Already it feels a bit less like a laundry list and a bit more like an actually task, or favor, I'm doing for someone.  But now, how to measure the reward?  Well, obviously you now provide your reward over a range.  And in the case of discrete rewards, you break it up into categories.  You get this reward if you save only one, this slightly better reward if you save X, and this quite good reward if you save Z.  And of course, Advisor Duskdawn gives you an appropriate reply based on how much you decide to do for her.  Now, of course, in this day and time of every bit of information being instantly available in online databases, if the scale is a flat scale, people will quickly record how many you have to kill to get the highest reward, everyone will consider that to be the only acceptable solution, and you're right back to where you started - killing 10 rats (or saving 10 fawns).  And that's where part 2 of my quest revamp comes in.

Situational Awareness
It's a relatively trivial thing to track the average lifetime of mobs in an area.  MMO's do this all the time right now, and adjust the spawn rates to compensate, so in a heavily farmed area, mobs spawn more often.  So we hijack that exact same technology and give it to our NPC.  Instead of being blindly oblivious to the world around her, Advisor Duskdawn already actually knows how many fawns are in that area right now.  And she knows approximately how often they're being saved.  So when you go to "tell" her how many fawns you saved (recorded in your history that is), she doesn't reward you just based on a flat rate.  Instead, she rewards you based on an absurdly easy to determine metric of how many fawns you saved versus how many are actually available for saving.  So if you're playing on the first day of the expansion, the zone is overrun by players, and you're lucky to find any, when you go to turn in three saved fawns, she thanks you profusely, and says "I guess there weren't as many fawns as perhaps I thought there would be.  So thank you so much for saving those that you found!"  But if you're playing a year after the game has launched, and the woods are teaming with fawns to save, and you turn in those same three, she sniffs in disdain and tells you in the way that only blood elves can say, "I hope you didn't put yourself out too much."
  
By removing the specific nature of the quests, and by adding the situational awareness tech in, we've accomplished three really important goals.  First, as I mentioned before, suddenly it feels less like a laundry list, and more like an actual favor.  Two, it prevents the database bots from instantly trivializing the objectives, because the objectives vary based on the current condition of the game.  And three, it presents the illusion of an amazingly aware NPC that suddenly feels far more alive, because she knows what's going on around her, to a certain extent.  And all of this done using technology that's already in the game. 

So that's my idea. I have more refinements, and modifications I'd like to tinker with, but this post is already long enough, and gets the essential point across.  What do you think?  Would the less certainty and variable rewards make you feel more immersed?  Or would the uncertain of not always know exactly how many you had to kill (save) to get the absolute maximum award possible drive you crazy?  Please drop some comments here, or in the blog, and re-share on Google Plus if you think it's worth a read!