Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adventurer For Hire. Will Quest For Food

Does anyone really like quests? I only ask because I'm starting to get the feeling MMO developers don't much anymore. We may just be on a supertanker turn back to where we began.

My first MMO was the ironically-named Everquest. I found some quests there, eventually. Hours passed happily as I wandered round Qeynos /hailing every idling armor salesman and strolling guard on the off-chance a small package might need delivering to a guy standing ten yards away or I might get offered a few silver to murder someone in cold blood.

Wolf? Kill? Pelt? Just tell me!
Back then there was often no way of telling who might have a quest, what you'd have to do once you found one, how long it would take, where you'd have to go or what you'd get when you'd done it. Not until you discovered Allakhazam, anyway.

Everquest's key-word matching was probably familiar to everyone playing back in 1999. It was largely the same system text adventures had been using for a decade and more. There are MMOs using it still, but as the genre struggled towards the mainstream many of the traits inherited from its primitive ancestors began to breed out.

Calm down! I saw the feather!
I can't recall when or where glowing question marks first appeared over the heads of NPCs as a sign they were hiring. I do recall being taken aback when Anarchy Online, which launched with a resounding clang in the late summer of 2001, used Mission Terminals to dispense information about what to do and where to do it. It seemed almost like cheating, it was so easy.

Innovations came thick and fast. Tasks, Missions, Journals, Breadcrumb Trails, Counters, Map Markers... Questing ceased to be about wandering a world, meeting people, getting drawn into their intrigues, troubles and dramas. Instead it came more and more to feel like being the intern whose job it is to go round the office asking everyone what sandwiches they want for lunch then going out and getting them.

Eventually we hit a point where the entire questing process seemed to have been subcontracted out. There are MMOs where all you have to do to quest is hit a marker on your map to autorun to the guy who wants something then another to run to what he wants. Not that that isn't fun in its own way, but where's the mystery? Where's the romance?

It looks as though that trend may just have stretched about as far as it can. The elastic's starting to snap back. Poster child for New Generation questing is Guild Wars 2, of course. Public events that fire on a proximity fuse and spin off who knows where, Hearts that fill whether you knew you were filling them or not, NPCs who don't wait for you to notice them but run up to you waving their arms and yelling "Haaaalp" like Penelope Pitstop. GW2 is determined you'll have plenty to do without needing to ask.

The Secret World has a more traditional delivery system but Funcom look to be out to break both the quest hub and text-skipping. No clicking through a clutch of question marks and loading up. Your journal has room for only a handful of Missions. Try to take a new one and an old one drops out. You have to focus, talk to people and listen to what they tell you. I know. Unheard of.

How's he keeping that thing up there?
What started me on this train of thought wasn't either of those. It was a recent comment by Scott Hartsman (which annoyingly I now can't find) relating to Rift's upcoming Storm Legion expansion. The gist was "show don't tell", which is pretty much the way Rift's Instant Adventures work as you tear around Telara in a schoolyard gang with quest objectives autopopulating your journal almost too fast to follow.

TMI - strictly roots
Which brings me to WildStar and Twitterquesting. If you can't tell me in 140 characters don't tell me at all. Possibly not the strongest new card in the pack but they may be onto something.

There's no clear agreement about the solution but there appears to be some consensus around the problem: NPCs that deliver lengthy instructions in text or voiceover that we passively receive, record and carry out like obedient droids have had their day. We're back out in the open world, getting caught up in stuff as it happens because we were poking our noses in without asking first.

Where does that leave highly directed fourth-pillar storygaming? Washed up and wiped out or just surfing a different wave? Time will tell. There's probably room for both. I'm just glad to see an orthodoxy that was ossifying begin to crumble.


  1. I ebb and flow on how I feel about questing.

    Part of me likes some structure, a push in new directions, some short term goals, and a sense of story unfolding in the world.

    Then I hit a quest hub with a dozen "kill 10/collect 10" quests that just seem to be filler and I groan.

    I'd like to see more quests like some of the revamped ones in LOTRO, where you get a "go do this thing" that involves getting through hostile territory, but not necessarily involving taking ears or counting kills.

    Also, I would like to see something akin to some of the EQII heritage quests that send you out with a weeks worth of work and no need to return to the quest giver at every step.

  2. Me too. It depends an awful lot on what mood I'm in and how tired I am. When I'm low on mental energy favorite questing of all is the simplest there is: collecting drops that someone wants in unlimited supply. Nothing better than filling your pack with gnoll teeth, orc pawn scalps, bone chips, centurion belts and rabid bear pelts and turning them in for a charge of xp and a rusty halberd. It seems to me that GW2's Heart quests and Dynamic Events are an updated version of that always-on concept, and I found they were working in the same laid-back, not really paying attention kind of way.

    When I have a bit more energy to get involved I like any type of quest, however it's delivered, so long as it's written with wit and skill. One of the good things about the otherwise often arduous questing in EQ2 is writing, which is often laugh-out-loud funny. It was the quality of the writing, both in quests and cut scenes, that did most to sell both Mrs Bhagpuss and me on The Secret World.

    The only thing that worries me a little is the "show don't tell" trend. I have a feeling that I'll miss a lot more than I see if that takes hold, especially if the breakneck pace of Rift's Instant Adventures is an example of where we're headed.


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