Questing and Interactivity

I was all prepared to talk about questing and how I think MMO designers are doing it wrong… and then I discovered Jeff Kaplan pretty much said everything back in 2009.

“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.”

That line is a part of a larger commentary on what Kaplan calls Medium Envy – the tendency for game designers to turn their game into a book or movie at the expense of the one quality that sets games apart: their interactivity. The industry has wild oscillations on this subject, with brilliant examples of the Right Way (Half Life series with zero cutscenes) and the Wrong Way (Metal Gear Solid series). Of course, I say “Right Way” but obviously feel that cutscenes and cinematics have a place in expanding the narrative in ways that perhaps interactivity could not (at least without gimmicks).

I definitely recommend checking out the presentation through the summary at the above link, the Wow Insider writeup, or even listen to the whole hour-long presentation via Vimeo (audio only, but it does have photos of the slides). Assuming, of course, you did not already read this two years ago.

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Posted on September 13, 2011, in Commentary and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Jeff Kaplan may have said it all regarding what designers shouldn’t do, but he said very little on what they should do. Roughly summarizing his points, he said:

    Don’t have too many quests at once.
    Don’t write too much.
    Don’t write too much.
    Don’t make it difficult for the player to figure out what to do.
    Don’t have quest chains that span a lot of content.
    Don’t have gimmicky quests.
    Don’t make the quest flow chart for an area overly complicated
    Don’t make a quest that uses up a significant portion of the player’s inventory
    Don’t make collections quests where the collectable makes no sense.

    So then, he seems to be saying that one should only design simple flow charts of quests that span minimal content and have minimal and transparent explanation as to what is required while avoiding gimmicks, excessive inventory management, and unreasonable requests.

    It all sounds very cater-to-the-least-common-denominator-esque. Unfortunately, I don’t necessarily disagree with any of his points, it just feels like a comprehensive discussion of questing should include a few “dos” rather than consisting entirely of a list of “don’ts”.

    Not that I have any great ideas at the moment …

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    • While you can certainly argue that it boils down to Don’ts, I think that anything can be boiled down to its opposite depending on how charitable you want to be. For example, “Love thy neighbor” = “Don’t hate thy neighbor.” Obviously one lacks more nuance than the other (love is more than absence of hate), and I think your (mis)characterization is doing the same thing.

      Indeed, if you listen to the presentation, he spends a lot of time talking about what worked with WoW: questing, but more importantly, Directed Gameplay. So in essence, show players a good time instead of telling players they are having a good time, are a part of an epic story, etc.

      Looking back over the summary I linked… it actually doesn’t mention the Directed Gameplay segment at all, even though the panel itself is called Directed Gameplay Panel. I highly recommend listening to at least the first 10 minutes of the presentation in the Vimeo link, should you have time.

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  2. As John Andrew above me said, it sounds like Tigole is saying to boil down quests to the lowest common denominator. Which, in large part, I agree with. I played WoW since closed Vanilla beta, all the way up to 4.2, and I remember the awful design and mechanics of a lot of quests back in the day. But if you make everything come down to that most basic level, and there’s not even an interesting story there… you’re losing a lot of the meaning of doing quests. No story, no challenge, no thought, you’re losing an awful lot there, and have extracted anything interesting about the questing process. At that point, all you’re left with is gameplay – and I think we all know that WoW’s gameplay, at least in terms of the normal PvE-questing type (the type in which you would be questing anyways) is not very good at all. If you kill the questing experience, and your gameplay is pretty boring as well, then what do you have left?

    And while I agree with a lot of what Tigole has to say there, I think a lot of it applies only specifically to WoW, in that it already is what it is, it’s not something new, it’s not attracting a new playerbase. I think you could build a rich gaming experience around other types of quest structures too, and even doing better versions of the ideas that Blizz originally had for WoW. Rather than bombarding players with quests, what if the player only had a couple (or one!) quests at a time, but they were of exceptional quality, feeling more like truly large, involved, epic experiences? I think that model could work. I don’t know that it works for the current playerbase of WoW, but I think its something you could build a game around. Notably, I think the opposite (tons of lower quality quests) doesn’t work well, because when you’re inundated with quests, they become essentially worthless, and are in the way. Then, again, all you’re left with is gameplay.

    It all comes back to making some sort of engaging gameplay.

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    • I might expand on my feelings on Cataclysm questing later, but fundamentally Blizzard already tried the “one epic questline” in Cataclysm and I think it failed. Not failed in the sense that quest was not epic, but failed because they designed RPG quests in an MMORPG.

      Questing in Hyjal and Vashj’ir was great… the first time. However when I sent my second toon through those zones, it felt restricted, it felt on rails, it felt terrible. I hate Cataclysm zones more than any other expansion zones, and I have sent 5-6 alts through them all. So the real struggle that MMO designers have to engage in is crafting quests for them medium, e.g. epic quests that remain epic the Nth time you do them.

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      • I didn’t feel the quests through most of the Cata content felt very “epic” except for Deepholm, which was far and away my favorite zone in the expansion. They mostly felt like a lot of smaller stories pushed together, and less about one giant epic story. But your issue is one that’s more an issue of the way content is gated, I think. The way I’m imagining it, you could have a few gigantic, epic quests, but they would maybe be on a level above the normal zone questing experience. These sorts of quests would be considerably larger quests, moving around the entire world, sort of like the old Fallen Hero of the Horde quest back in Vanilla. Or even the Scepter of the Shifting Sands questline. The length and depth of these precludes them from being full of loot at the end, but you could still make it worth the player’s while to put something cosmetic at the end (especially with transmogrification coming up), or even put gear of the dungeon-level tier at the end of it, so its useful if you’re not raiding yet, but its not a situation where anyone feels forced to go get it. That way, if you wanted to do it because you think the story/questing is fun, you do it and get a little treasure on the way, and the loot rewards are handy or pretty, but not necessary from a competitive standpoint.

        While I totally understand the idea of crafting for the medium, I think you’re wrong to explain that as “a quest that feels epic the nth time you do it”. There’s not much out there that’s fun to do 5 times over, and I think its pretty much impossible to design a quest that will work that way. Gameplay is essentially the same (“kill 10 raptors”), the enemies are the same and don’t learn, nothing changes or surprises you in the experience. I think the way to go is to try to give each of your characters a somewhat different experience – that makes it new, different, and engaging when you reroll a new character. The only way to really do this is to have class-specific quests.

        Obviously, class-specific questing wouldn’t work as well with the current WoW model (thousands of quests, times 10 classes, makes for a ridiculous quest creation team), but you could refine it a bit. Make fewer quests, but each quest is bigger, or longer, and worth more XP. Or set up the aforementioned Epic Quests as a class-specific thing, running parallel to the “main” questing flow, to give you SOMETHING different, while completing Mount Hyjal for the 7th time.

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  3. Also, as another idea that occurred to me – while Tigole mentions that “mystery” quests suck, I think that’s only true because of poor design. Some mystery quests have gone the route of being almost like King’s Quest (something is wrong in Elwyyn forest! Go wander around and click on EVERYTHING until something happens!). I tried playing Machinarium the other day, and I hated it because it wasn’t so much challenging or intellectually stimulating, as it was tedious – I spent most of my time walking around, waving my cursor around different objects to find out if I could interact with them. Those sorts of designs are outdated and generally speaking, un-fun. However, once you realize that, if you build a mystery setup in a way that specifically avoids being intentionally obtuse or tedious, you could make a truly interesting and fun quest.

    As an example, I always was disappointed with the Shady Rest Inn questline in Dustwallow Marsh, pre-Cata. The Inn was burned down, you find a bunch of clues, take them to a guy, and nothing happens. Now, the abrupt end of it was always poor design, for sure. But I don’t think its that big of a stretch of the imagination to envision a way in which the entire line could’ve been turned into an interesting mystery. Extend it, have players look for more clues or investigate other suspicious happenings, introduce several suspects. In the end, let the character make a decision about who committed the crime. Hell, you could even turn it into a more involved version of “Clue”. If a player wants to “cheat” and look it up on WoWhead, then they can, but in order to keep the experience from feeling punishing to the player, keep the rewards relatively cosmetic or economic. If you accuse the correct NPC, you get a monocle and some gold. If you accuse the wrong NPC, you don’t get a reward, maybe the bad guy steals the treasure and takes off (and even kills you on his way out!). Either way, its a more interesting and involved quest experience – as long as it’s done well. And of course, that’s just operating under the traditional WoW architecture. As I said, I don’t think it takes any sort of incredible imagination to come up with more interesting ways of creating a murder mystery type questing experience.

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