Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What's your (quest) line?

There are lots of bones people can pick with MMO design, but I have to say that the one I like gnawing on the most is quest text...or quest delivery, if you prefer. It's been common for a long time now to direct players in MMOs by way of quest givers, who usually have windows which pop up full of details about what they want you to do, why they want it done (maybe), and what you get out of agreeing to do it.

It wasn't always like this, of course! I'm a second generation MMORPGer (muh-mor-pee-gee-er, in the parlance of Yahtzee Crosshaw) who started in 2005 with the arrival of two very important elements to the process: a decent PC and a copy of World of Warcraft. WoW hooked me, being my first delve into the world of MMORPGs. I quickly got into Guild Wars, my first "day one" MMO experience and I also tried (and failed) to delve into Everquest 1 and 2. So most of my MMO experience started with games built from a premise of: "Wander landscape, look for guy with marker over his head, click on guy, read text (optional), accept, and go find ten orc spleens. Repeat until braindeath sets in."

And it's been this way for a long time now. The mythical pre-WoW era of which I knew little (having been a iMac user until late 2004, and not a very powerful iMac at that) sounded like a muddy place in which purpose and objectives in MMOs were left up to the players to define more often than not; the joy was in the novelty of playing with other humans online, and the idea that the game might provide meaningful organizational structure (in any form comparable to what we think of it now) was simply outside the scope of most MMOs back then. Or so it often seems. But the survivors of that Generation One era sure do have fond memories of it. My wife has a powerful necromancer in Everquest, which on rare occasion she goes back to visit for nostalgia purposes....but its never quite the same anymore, apparently.

Me? I tried the free-to-play Everquest recently and it was only slightly less traumatizing and annoying than my first effort in 2005 when entire waves of adventurers were killed by simple bats and skeletons for reasons unfathomable to me at the time.

Anyway, as I've been playing Rift I've been having a blast, and noticing that the game, while relying heavily on standardized WoW-like quest text boxes has managed to retain my interest, despite the fact that the incredibly bland, droll quest text info is just as physically painful to wade through as in any other MMO. This is ironic too, because I really like the world setting and story background in Rift....but just not delivered in tiny little quest text boxes devoid of character. Like I was saying yesterday, your character has no agency in quest text outside of "do this or not." You either accept or move on, simple as that. The wise ascended accepts, does the task, gets reward. The busy ascended moves on as his XP potions level him faster than local quests can account for. The smart ascended ignores them and attacks rifts, which are dlicious, juicy XP-filled planar fruit.

So how could quest text...the storyline, basically....be delivered in a coherent fashion that is engaging and not mind-numingly painful? How can this giant pink elephant get trusssed up in a pleasant dress so we at least find it palatable? Many people like myself really do play MMOs for the story, or wish they could. I barely had a clue what was going on in WoW until Northrend, for example...but not because I wasn't trying to figure it out! Here are some of the interesting ways different MMOs have tackled this issue that I felt are or were on the right track:

Age of Conan

Age of Conan had fully voiced cut scenes for the first 20ish levels of the game, and intermittend voiced cutscenes up to level 80 for the core storyline. It failed in that it stopped trying to offer the same (no doubt expensive) level of quality after the opening 20 levels, which was a shock for many people; it was almost like playing this awesomely interesting story driven game, and then suddenly it ends and dumps you into quasi-generic fantasy land, except with a Howard/Conan reskin.

Age of Conan failed mostly because it front-loaded the cool stuff. I wonder to this day why Funcom didn't try to spread out their voicing talent more evenly across the length of the game, or recognize that putting it all at the start was a bad idea. More likely they intended full voice acting all the way through, then deadlines and budgets ruined everything. Ah well.

The upside on this was it made for some extremely engaging storylines, and the idea of parallel group/public quest lines and the "night time" Tortage solo experience was a smart idea that they should have carried forward through the rest of the game. But this, of course, was one of many reasons AoC disappointed so many people.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

SWTOR did the fully-voiced cut scene thing, with the usual multiple choice range and even the light/dark side option, and unlike Funcom Bioware carried out through the length of the entire game. So if this was so innovative, then why did it fail? I mean, I've played SWTOR and personally gotten tired of it long before reaching level 20. I'm not entirely sure why, but playing this game actually made me narcoleptic. I tried...I really loved KOTOR 1 and 2, but the spirtual KOTOR 3 failed to grab me, despite having such a fantasic emphasis on storyline. So why?

There are a lot of reasons SWTOR didn't work for many people. My wife and her guild are not one of them (although apparently Bioware's breaking the game in patches as it preps for F2P, and that there might send her and her guildies away), so I really can only speak for myself, but it boils down to this: SWTOR's got the theatrics right, and I even really liked how each of my characters had distinct storylines. I actually really, really want to play SWTOR again to see some of these storylines come to fruitition. But! SWTOR is supposed to be Star Wars, and one thing I don't remember from Star Wars was that episode where Han Solo talks to some guy on some planet about how he needs to collect twenty mynock snouts before he can get to talk to this other guy who will then demand he collects 15 rancor copralites so he can get a part to fix a speeder bike so he can cut down the inerminable amount of time it takes to run everywhere.

Put another way: SWTOR did the quest-delivery right, but failed to make quest lines that delivered the Star Wars experience. That might change when you get high enough level, but tasking me with suffering through 30-60 hours of running around Coruscant wanting to blow myself up and end it all is bad. I remember my years on campus at the University of Arizona, glad that I had a bike to get from one class to the next as each class was all the way the hell across campus from the other, day in an day out. But hey, at least I had a bicycle to get around on back then. By level 18ish my republic trooper didn't even have a bike to traverse the city planet. Yeesh.

Plus, unfortunately, no matter how much makeup you put on a pig its still a pig. And call them mynocks or jawas or whatever: collecting rat tails and orc spleens by any other name is still just a lot of wasted voice acting for the same old retarded MMO quest lines.

Everquest 2

One thing I liked about Everquest 2 was how you had to talk and respond to quest givers and all NPCs in little cartoon bubbles. It was a nice touch, and while only some NPCs had voice acting, it led to a sense of engagement. I imagine if you'd played EQ2 to death then the conversational text got tedious to click through....but it was definitely a step in the right direction (until the quest turns out to be "collect 30 rat spleens," of course).

The Secret World

I haven't played this since launch, but I really liked TSW, which had far and away the most engaging quest-presentation with FMV and full voice acting I'd seen yet, and still provided a very dynamic environment in which all sorts of spontaneous stuff could happen. The fact that many quests felt more like something out of a point-and-click adventure was an added bonus. I need to get back into this game, and resolve Funcom's issue with Paypal (or the other way around). Hopefully it doesn't stop providing such a level of detail after X period of time in the game...I'll have to ask my wife, who is hopelessly addicted to this game as well.

Guild Wars 2

The 800 pound guerrilla for 2012, Guild Wars 2 is the one to trump all the rest, right? It has: highly unorthodox quest hubs, everything is public and shared, quests are more diverse than just fetch quests, fully voiced cutscenes and interactions, and an environment that actively discourages the need for elaborate quest text fetishistically there for its own sake. So does it work?

In part I love how GW2 does everything, because it really did go for a fresh take on things. I am surprised it doesn't have actual cut scenes, instead relying on two talking figures. I like that, as with the original GW your character has a voice. I like the custom storylines and the fact that many quests are much more elaborate than the typical MMO fare. It's really pretty innovative overall, although I think the "sharing" component of the game, built in from the get-go, is probably the actual innovation at work. It's actually kind of weird to play an MMO where you don't have to feel like you're in direct competition with others for resources and targets, and in fact the opposite is true. That said, there's still something to be said for a defined quest log with obvious goals, and so its the reason I've been enjoying Rift.


Rift doesn't do quest text differently. Like I said earlier, it's quest text, despite being full of the game background I really want, is so painfully bland I wish it really was delivered in a manner similar to one of the above-mentioned games. It does, however, do something unique with its rift events, world invasions and other public quest activities (instant adventures), and that is make the game world feel dynamic instead of static. I can actually log on to Rift and play for an hour, stopping invasions, closing rifts and maybe doing an occasional quest along the way, and feel like I was part of "something happening." It's a way of delivering content that generates spontaneous quests without ever calling it that, and it's why I've decided to focus so heavily on this game (and GW2, which does something similar).

In the end there's no answer to be had, as I am not a MMO developer and I don't play these games enough to qualify as a hardcore elite MMO specialist. I've never raided (and lived). I've never grouped an instance more than a handful of times, nor have I cared to grind for reputation points or gear. For me the entire point of playing an MMO is not the end game but the journey there, so for me how the questing works and how it engages me is what matters the most. If the game manages to make its world feel alive, I think it can call itself a success. Right now I think Rift and GW2 do that. SWTOR didn't do it (for me) but it does provide the necessary playground for my wife and her guild to have fun.

I think the future of MMOs will depend heavily on developers designing more dynamic environments, worlds which feel alive and spontaneous; if they pull that off, we'll never need another static baloon of quest text again.

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