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On Sidequests

Syp over at Biobreak recently suggested a bold move: killing the MMO sidequest.

While I can certainly defend main story quests — such as zone/planet-wide chains or a personal story arc that goes through most of the game — side missions lack positive qualities that make them desirable. Let’s call them for what they really are: busy work. Side quests are small tasks that offer no real story, no significant reward, and only serve to pad out your quest log and allow dev teams to be able to boast ridiculously high quest tallies for patches and expansions (“200 new quests! Of which only 15 are memorable in any way!”).

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Let’s think about it. If your favorite MMO one day yanked all of its side quests, leaving only factional, zone, dungeon, and overarching story arcs intact, would it really suffer for it? Would you bemoan their loss? Players are forever asking to be able to just play through the main storylines without all of these diversions down rabbit trails, so why not give it to them? Just increase XP for the main quests and work on providing other forms of much more meaningful content that can serve as a focus for players’ time.

Following the post, there were a dozen or so commenters who were in favor of the proposal. Which got me thinking… are they on to something?

Not really.

Sidequests are vitally important to any MMO, or single-player RPG for that matter. Or, at least, they should be. See, one of the primary purposes of sidequests is pacing. Which is absolutely different from filler. Filler is the pointless busywork that a designer adds to pad the game’s playtime. I am all for the death of filler, which is bad pretty much by definition.

Pacing, meanwhile, is all about enhancing the main story. How do you enhance a story? By fleshing it out. Giving context to its development. Allowing breathing room in which to digest the latest narrative bombshell. Bringing the world in which the story exists to life.

For example, Lord of the Rings is a 1178-page story about [spoiler alert] destroying a magic ring. Frodo’s travails towards and around Mount Doom are the Main Story Quest (MSQ). Hell, I’ll even concede that all that business with Aragorn and Helm’s Deep and the throne of Gondor and all of those pitched battles are a part of that same MSQ, despite them being a literal distraction so that Frodo could complete the only quest that actually mattered.

Having said that, the reason why we care about Frodo destroying the ring in the first place is because of the rest of it. We care about the supporting characters, we care about the Shire, we care about the world in which these people inhabit. MSQs are good at driving action forward, but they are terrible at world-building. That is sort of by design: there is an expectation that details included in a MSQ will be relevant to the future of the MSQ, Chekhov Gun-style. You cannot have the MSQ examine the life of an average farmer toiling under the weight of an oppressive regime without expecting said farmer eventually being executed/liberated in a later chapter.

Sidequests are the mechanism by which imaginary worlds are built. Bad, filler sidequests do not tell you anything about the world other than its inability to kill ten rats. Good sidequests create minor characters and story hooks and introduce you to the world which you are trying to save… even if you are still killing ten rats to do so. The MSQ asks you to save the world, and sidequests tell you why.

Then there are the mechanical, game design aspects of sidequests. In an MMO, there is often considerably more physical world built than strictly necessary to drive the MSQ forward. Indeed, a MSQ that somehow forced you to explore every inch of every zone in sequence would feel forced and arbitrary (see: FF14). Sidequests, meanwhile, provide optional incentives to explore all four corners of the map, to face different enemy types in different areas, and so on. Well, “optional” unless the XP from sidequests are required in order to level up enough to fight in the next zone. However, again, that would be an example of bad sidequests.

About two months ago, I was less bullish on sidequests than this post. At the time, I was playing FF14, which is exceptionally bad in the boring, vapid sidequest department. In fact, FF14 is exceptionally bad in the MSQ department, with nearly everyone stating that the story really starts getting good… once you reach the original endgame. In the meantime, I suppose I’m just expected to endure these pointless, trivial tasks like flying around to the various capitals and deliver letters?

On the other hand, I have also been playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. While not as good as the original trilogy, Andromeda absolutely has engaged me in even the most repetitive of sidequests. Why? Because I like it there. I like the world Bioware has created, I like the characters and the amusing banter they get involved in. I could listen to Peebee and Drack talk about shit all day. In fact, I have, inbetween sidequests to scan minerals and other “busy work.” Work that required me to explore every corner of each planet and have an “excuse” to engage in one of the best iterations of a Mass Effect combat system yet.

If you do not care about the game world, or do not care for the combat system, then yes, there isn’t much distinguishing legit sidequests from filler. But in a well-crafted game, the sidequests shouldn’t be mandatory to begin with. In which case, there isn’t a reason to kill them; just ignore them and move on with the story.

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Sidequestless

My early-level experience in FF14 has not been as painful as it felt previously. There are all manner of reasons why this might be the case – psychological, emotional, a more fun class, etc – but I suspect that a large part of it has to do with the increase in Main Story Quest (MSQ) XP. Which is weird, because I’m pretty sure that was already active the first time I played.

The difference is that I’m actually taking advantage of it.

I’m sure this will change down the road, but essentially I am skipping everything but the MSQ quests and still hitting the necessary milestones to continue adventuring. It feels a bit off to stroll into a new town filled with exclamation marks and roll out with just one quest on the log, but it also feels… liberating? “Oh, you want me to kill 6 whatevers on the ass end of the Earth? No thanks.” At my level (which has jumped up to 15 now), those sidequests reward around 1100 XP whereas the MSQ will dump 6500 XP on your head for walking 10 feet and talking with another NPC. Plus, the story feels a lot more coherent without all the narrative breaks.

The downside is… well, not experiencing any sidequests. Which I am both happy and sad about.

Sidequests are an interesting game design mechanic. Pretty much every RPG has them, and they are almost entirely used as pacing. Filler, in other words. Of course, if you actually find the combat/exploration/etc in the RPG engaging, then sidequests are actual, legit content. Plus, if the designers go the extra mile, sidequests might become more interesting than the actual storyline. A good example of that would be the Mass Effect or Witcher series, wherein the supporting characters and their interaction with the main character is most of the appeal.

In MMOs, sidequests are almost always chores to be completed. “Kill 10 whatevers.” “Talk to these NPCs.” “Go here and click on the shiny thing.” Some are more memorable than others, some engage in world-building, others sew the seeds of interaction with new story characters. But the vast majority are pointless busywork. And that’s the rub, right? Skipping the busywork means skipping the few gems out there.

Of the FF14 sidequests I did before focusing exclusively on the MSQ, 99% of them were filler. At the same time, I would have been sad to miss the ole “cold as a dead whore’s crotch” exchange:

The above is why I typically complete all the sidequests in MMOs: for those brief slices of amusement, in the middle of so much bland white bread.

Alas, I no longer have eight hours of uninterrupted gaming time a day, so decisions have to be made. And that decision is to largely skip sidequests. I have long heard that SW:TOR has made a similar move regarding deprecating sidequests to streamline their “fourth pillar,” and I wonder if there has been a similar loss in incidental storytelling. It is not even as though they can keep the “good ones,” because sometimes it’s the weird throwaway sidequests that end up being the best.

I’m not sure there is a real solution here. I suppose FF14 deserves some credit for at least having the possibility of people clearing these sidequests later, via leveling up other classes (which changes your level back to 1). Although with all the XP bonuses and such you get now, I’m not sure if that’s enough.