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?|
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.|
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.