If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a quest

There was a time a few years back in which it felt as though everything in MMOs was a quest. Quests were the new hotness, back in an era where one of WoW’s major selling points on release was that you could level purely by questing.

The standard way to show players what they were expected to do in game was to have some NPC offer a quest. Quests were used for telling stories, as tutorials, filler quests, quests to make you explore the zone, hidden quests that rewarded you for exploring further afield, quests for sending you off to the next zone, quests for PvP, quests for raid bosses (occasionally). Then add in daily quests for xp/cash, daily instances, weekly battleground bonuses, quests to get you to use vehicles – quests were used to direct players towards all of these things. And of course, every time a quest is set up, there needs to be a reward attached.

Of course, not every game is WoW. LOTRO (for example) always had a clear set of grinding goals/ titles alongside the regular quests. There were titles and perks for exploring areas, using a class skill a set number of times, killing large amounts of various different mobs in different zones, and so on. EQ2 had its alternate advancement system. But even with all these extra possible goals, players still tend to rely on quests to show them where to go next and if they happen to miss the correct breadcrumb quest (maybe through just doing things in an unexpected order or being in the wrong zone) then they’re stuffed.

But these different sets of goals also made the games more complex and confusing for new players. Unless of course there were quests to introduce them (if nothing else, quests force players to go through set actions in a certain order which can make for a good UI tutorial.)  And – this is key – most games do not regularly adjust any such introduction quests to be accessible for newbies. There’s no quest in WoW to introduce newbies to the idea of glyphs, for example. There’s no quest to let newbies know which parts of TBC they can skip (isle of Quel’Danas, for example).

In A Tale in the Desert, you pretty much have to have a window open on the wiki while you play. In that game, nudging players to collaborate on huge problem solving tasks is a key part of the design and you are directed towards the wiki from inside the game. However, it’s very much a sandbox game (literally!) and although there are general goals for the player base, the more experienced players tend to leap on them quickly and instruct everyone else in what to do next for region progression. (So you might get your goals from other players as much as from the actual game.)

Another example is EVE. New players often complain of difficulty in setting goals because the game is so open ended and has so many possibilities. It’s easy to feel lost just because you don’t have a good idea about what your options and possibilities are when you begin.  Another way of putting this is that a new player would be at a significant disadvantage to an experienced one who was starting a new alt, because the experienced player would know the ins and outs of the game so well. They wouldn’t just know what they wanted to do, they’d also know what they needed to do to get there. One of the ways in which a player learns what they COULD do is by looking at what others are doing, which is actually quite tricky in EVE unless you read forums and blogs … or have joined a corps and have some experience with the game.

Encouraging players to ask each other for help is the traditional old school MMO way of managing this complexity. This often involved a lot of offline work with reading forums, bboards, and player written tutorials (large amounts of up to date information are not easy to transfer over a MMO in game interface.) But a lot of players don’t want to interact that much with others, and/ or they don’t want to make a commitment to a guild so they might not mix with the more experienced players who could answer those questions.

So quests do serve a really useful function. They’re great for directing players around in a way which doesn’t require them to talk to other players. They are potentially great tutorial devices, if players actually read the text. They also provide for a very specific and CRPG-friendly form of storytelling (if you break down your story into a series of steps).

We are seeing some innovations in questing at the moment (public quests, quests presented when you enter an area or pick up an item rather than always talking to the guy with the Q, better use of cut scenes and phasing and non-wall-of-text based storytelling) and also I don’t think that questing is still the “one size fits all” game mechanic of old.

  • Achievements and Titles in WoW have taken some of the pressure off raid and instance questlines. Players know that there will be an achievement for completing every instance – they also can look at the achievement list to find out a set of possible goals rather than needing a separate quest for each individual achievement.
  • Guild advancement is another type of non-quest based goal.
  • Increased use of social networking mechanics and shared scoreboards is another way to provide goals to players in MMOs.

None of these things are new, but to me the innovation is finding ways to introduce these things to new players in a way that isn’t complex, obscured and confusing. The innovation is in the UI.

When you complete an achievement in WoW, it zaps up on your screen with a zing and is also shared with both your guild and with anyone close by (as well as the Armoury). You know that someone has done /something/ and if you click the achievement on screen you will find out precisely what. Think of it as just another form of gold exclamation mark …

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3 thoughts on “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a quest

  1. Looked at from a certain angle, GW2′s dynamic event system is all about changing the UI presentation of public quests to a more ‘show, don’t tell’ format. Of course there’s more to it than that, but that is a significant innovation by itself.

    • Yes, very much so. (I’m quite curious to see this in action and whether they’ll try to ditch text completely …)

      The WAR public quests popped a list of PQ goals up on your screen when you were in the right area also.

      And from what I gather, some of the Cataclysm quests pop up when you enter the right area rather than requiring players to click on a quest giver also.

  2. Something that I’ve always wondered about regarding achievements and the like: Upon completing Loremaster in WoW, I found myself with almost zero desire to log back into the character I’d completed it on. Something about the post achievement let down or the “I’ve won WoW” sentiment that just seems to have sunk down deep in the guts of that toon.

    I agree that achievements are an excellent means of prodding folk through content they might not care to revisit (etc) – but they also seem to have the effect of driving you away when you don’t have a clear idea of what to do next.

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