Saturday, 12 November 2016

A Quest By Any Other Name : GW2, EQ2

There was a time when questing in MMORPGs had fallen very much out of fashion, both with developers and players. Five years ago, when GW2 was powering up, all the talk was about how Dynamic Events would sweep away the outmoded system of quest hubs and questlines for good and all.

Supposedly it all began with Warhammer Online and its "Public Quests". They weren't quests as we knew them. You didn't need to accept them, just be in the right place when they happened. Rift picked up that ball and ran with it but for all the mold-breaking, both those MMOs operated with a safety net of traditional quests hanging below the high-wire of their fresh, communal gameplay.

GW2 tried to go that extra mile, launching with nothing that could easily be identified as a "quest" or a "hub". Hearts had some similarities to both but ANet did succeed to a degree in diffusing the whole "go there, do that" paradigm into something less authoritarian. It was a conviction in the future of the genre that didn't survive contact with the players.

From the very earliest days you could routinely hear new players plaintively requesting directions in map chat. "I'm level 13 and I've done all my Hearts in Queensdale - where do I go next?" Or, frustrated, "I can't do any more of my Story. Where can I get more quests?"

Wait a moment...you realize this requires social capital?
It wasn't long before GW2 acquired a whole tangle of quasi-questlike activities. I think I first noticed mission creep around the time of the Great Karka Invasion, less than three months after launch. By the time the first Living Story arrived in early 2013 it was obvious ANet were searching for a way to coral players and move them through a narrative. It wasn't entirely working.

As the months and years rolled by the experiments continued. We had mysterious benefactors, unsolicited correspondence, personal, meta and hidden achievements, collections... You name it, ANet tried it.

Some of the systems worked better than others. Some barely worked at all. Syp condemns what he calls "the Jenga Tower of MMO gear complexity" but the same problem afflicts all systems. GW2's ersatz quest analogs form a thick palimpsest that hides meaning and access from the unenlightened. As MMOs age they thicken.

Perhaps we've outgrown all these tricks to draw us in and lead us on, anyway. Clearly some developers continue to hope so. Tyler F.M. Edwards fears Blizzard may have lost faith or interest in narrative and if WoW stops telling stories will anyone else bother? We've come a long way from the days when BioWare sought to re-make and dominate the genre with Story and The Fourth Pillar, that's for sure.

SW:TOR turned out not to be the future after all. Instead the huge, ongoing success and popularity of those online games that take some inspiration from MMOs but decline to bother with the complexities or the expense of creating coherent, continuing storylines, The MOBA and Survival genres, has begun to bleed across.  Following the money would seem to indicate that all players really require is a playground, some toys and a few basic rules.

Snail Games, the people behind the re-emergence of Dark and Light , seem to think so. The game everyone thought was dead, assuming anyone ever thought about it all, which seems unlikely, is back but not as anything we'd have recognized as an MMO when it first flamed and burned a decade ago. Fifty players to a server and the first concern keeping fed and warm is a far call from GW2's opening-day charge.

Of course the reward's an achievement. I had to do six quests to get it, didn't I?


And yet, the more things change the more they stay the same. For me, this last week has been all about the questing. In EQ2 I spent hours finishing up the basket of quests recommended for the Kunark Rising expansion arriving on Tuesday. When I'd finished that I began running repeatable Heroes Festival quests for statues, paintings and furniture.

Along the way my Inquisitor somehow managed to pick up the preparatory questline for the introduction of Channelers to the game - back in 2013. She finished that although I can't explain why, other than that I'd forgotten most of the story and it was fun doing it again. She also started the introductory questlines for two previous expansions because...well because someone with a feather over his or her head offered them to her, I guess.

You're not fooling anyone, ANet.
Even GW2 offered no safe haven. There may be no questing in Tyria officially but what would you call an "Achievement"
that comes in multiple stages with a checklist of activities to complete, each of which ticks off and counts down as you criss-cross the world, speaking to NPCs and collecting items? Ducks. Walking. Quacking.

My feeling is that Tyler shouldn't worry too much. The need humans have to find and follow a plot is too strong to be denied. There are countless forms of entertainment that don't require a story, but once you place a backdrop that contains characters then story is going occur, whatever you try to do to stop it.

Sandbox fans love to claim the player is the story but in reality the player is just a part of a much wider narrative. Not always the most important part. Even if they don't need to follow the plot it seems most people do at least need to know it's there.

In the end it's an MMO thing. Games can get by without narrative just fine but MMORPGs, despite the increasingly archaic acronym, aren't just games. If you want to have any kind of a virtual world you have to have story. You can tell it an infinite number of ways but you can't not tell it at all because without story all you have is a game.

Questing is a cliche, yes, but cliches are a form of shorthand that arises from the need to express quickly and plainly a concept so familiar it needs to be codified for convenience. There may be smarter, fancier, flashier ways to tell stories in MMORPGs but while there are stories to be told quests will be there to tell them.

Even if we call them something else.





12 comments:

  1. Ultima Online didn't have quests and it didn't need them.

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    1. Probably why I played it for a few hours the week I bought it and never again!

      More seriously, though, the older I get,the less interested I am in "making my own entertainment". It's like getting work done on the house - twenty years ago I would have done a lot of it myself but now I'd far rather get a professional in and save myself a lot of time and trouble, not to mention have it done properly instead of half-assed and unfinished.

      At the moment I even prefer to do quests when everything cons grey so that all I need to do is run through the stages, ticking all the boxes. Its a lot easier to follow the story that way. The mechanics becomes much closer to something like doing a jigsaw but it's a superior pastime to jigsaws in my opinion, because when you complete a jigsaw you don't get a reward to dress your dolls or decorate your dollhouse with, but you generally do when you finish a quest.

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    2. "Probably why I played it for a few hours the week I bought it and never again!"

      Heh, that was me, but because I found the game unplayable. Instead of story the area I was in was all about the ganking. Coming home from work and not having a group to join meant that I was ganked the minute I stepped out of town and tried to play the game as something other than group PvP.

      Evidently others experienced similar frustrations due to the popularity of the Trammel consensual PVP option.

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    3. Trammel was already up when I played. I wouldn't have tried it all otherwise - horror stories from UO was why I went with EQ as my first nervous step into online gaming. The positive thing I saw in UO was some of the best roleplaying I've seen in an MMO but outside of that it just seemed a bit...dull. And very fiddly.

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  2. I love quests, and one of the things I like about Everquest 2 is the quest writing. I'd like to play more if only for the quests.
    I still can't get attached to the GW2 world, but I haven't done any of the living stories yet. It really still feels as if you just fill in hearts and find scenic views and points of interest then move on. Nice for when you just feel like wandering and exploring, but not engaging enough to spend time there when there is so much elsewhere.
    I've been playing a lot of Rift lately, and it is packed with quests that enliven the area you're in and the larger world storyline.
    Some of the best quest writing in the business is in LOTRO, but I find it so frustrating that in every area at least half and sometimes more than half the quests are fellowship group only and you just can't do them.
    I have been playing the Galaxies emu again, a world in which there are no quests at all, but the world is constructed so wonderfully that you always feel part of a story, your own and the epic story of Star Wars universe.

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    1. I have mentioned before that one of my original ideas for this blog was a critical review of MMO quests that would treat them like any other art-form. I still would love to do that but it would be an insane amount of work if it was going to be anything more than a random sampling or a calling-out of favorites.

      MMO quests have their own genres and sub-genres and individual MMOs have their own house styles, which also sometimes varies by time period or expansion in a long-running game. I do wish the quest text was credited - that would make it much easier to work out what was a house style and what the work of a particular author.

      EQ2 has a very distinctive house style that has been so consistent for so long now I assume there must be some kind of style-book all writers have to work to. Surely the same people can't still be writing the quests after twelve years? I love it now although it took me a long while to get used to it.

      WoW, on the other hand, has quest text that I always feel is a little stiff and stilted. Part of that, though, turned out to be the awful font they use and the horrible sepia/yellow color palette. Once I swapped to the GW2 UI mod that got rid of all the faux-Victorian trappings I found the actual text a lot livelier and less formal.

      Hmm. I really should at least start a feature where I review quests from a literary and aesthetic perspective, even if I can't manage a whole blog dedicated to it. I wonder if anyone would want to read it though?

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    2. Some games seem to have given a great deal of thought to how the quests enliven their worlds, and others expect that most players won't even read the quests so they are just brief scripts.

      I usually don't read WOW quests but I have been in Legion. The Rogue quests in particular are just great, and please the Mystery reader in me.

      EQ2 seems to me to strive for a High Fantasy tone, which is very appealing.

      I'd love to see you talking about the quests in the games you play, it would be very interesting to see what games have to offer in the way of excellent quests, or to know that they're just using some Random Quest Generator.

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  3. While I'm waxing poetical on quest writing, how could I not mention Elder Scrolls Onlines immersive quests? The back and forth dialogue helps you live the quest lines, not just scan for the quest objective and run off to complete it, turn it in, rinse, repeat.

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  4. I completely agree, and this may be my shift in gaming in general. I haven't played any Mobas, survivals, or arena shooters because, though they have characters, those characters don't *do* anything. They're just there. The gameplay itself may be deep, but for me that's not enough. So, I've been eschewing these games and heading back to single player. And as long as the MMOs I play still have story, that's where I'll be.

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    1. I generally don't play many non-MMOs so I haven't bothered with any MOBAs or Survival games so far. I do plan on playing Heroes of Skyrealm, which is some kind of "unlock 30 Heroes" thing. It's by the people who did City of Steam, which had a very good storyline and HoS also features a single-player, story-driven campaign. Without that I don't think "30 Heroes to collect" would have got me through the door regardless of prior work by the developers.

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  5. Having just finished a narrative-based game that completely shattered me (in a good way), I'm not interested in playing anything without a good story. If quests are the vehicle of delivery in MMOs, then so be it. When I write, that's my sandbox; if I'm in someone else's domain, I'm not interested in shoveling sand into a bucket. Show me something I never would have imagined.

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    1. It did occur to me while I was replying to Murf above that it was a bit rich to claim I have no interest in making my own entertainment when I write this thing almost every other day. I think you express it very well - this is my "sandbox" which is probably why I tend to lose interest in sandbox MMOs quite quickly - I'm already well-served in that area.

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