Last week, we talked about how quest could be used to encourage exploration and curiosity, rather than to simply push the player through an MMO treadmill. Today, we’ll dive deeper into the concept, and talk more about how to get players think through all the aspects of your game, rather than perceiving it as a series of unending combat encounters. So first, let me tell you about a quest in “The Secret World“.
I apologize if this is a minor spoiler for anyone. This story will spoil one quest in the game, but I think it’s useful to demonstrate how broadly you can get the players to think about you MMO through quest system. The quest begins at a church, a priest tells you that there’s an ancient secret hidden in this town. He tells you that there’s a secret path that would guide you on your way, and gives you a number of hints regarding Illuminati sigla. Then, he points you to the sewer cap outside. Emblazoned on all of the sewer caps in the town, is the Illuminati Pyramid, and if you follow where they point, moving always in the direction of the eye, you’ll find the next part of the puzzle.
Now, this first moment, already has many of the hallmarks of quality quest design. Because it not only gets the player to look more closely at the world, and to care about what’s actually there, but it also gives the player a moment of wonder. Something they took for granted, these sewer cap textures that they run over a hundred times, are suddenly imbued with meaning, and are part of the lore of the world. The world isn’t just the wrapper for the grind, it’s a magical living place.
That’s a great feeling in a game. OK, so, after they followed that path, they get to a placard that reads: “In the seat of power, the navigator immortalized, illuminating the path to the sleeping priest and fletcher. In memory of Frans Hals, who perished in light.”
1580-1666 Now there’s a puzzle! First, the player has to figure out that the seat of power means the town hall. This causes them to start looking at the map, and thinking about the places in the world as actual places, rather than simply reference points for spawn locations or quest givers.
Next, they have to find the painting of a navigator in the town hall. To throw in some tangential learning, Frans Hals, the person quoted on the plaque, was a famous Dutch painter. If the player thinks to look that up while trying to figure out this puzzle, that should clue them in that they’re looking for a painting. Sadly, the painting you find in the game isn’t actually one of his, but, well, anyways.
When you find the painting, the bottom of it says: “Time is the province of Kings and Gods. The hands of time point to truths written by kings in the words of God. The path is open to the enlightened.” Here’s where it gets bonkers. Player next has to realize that the hands of time mean the hands of the clock in the town hall, which points to 10:10.
No problem so far. But after that, they have to realize that the truth written by the kings in the words of God, means they have to go crack out a Bible, and open it to Kings 10:10, which reads: “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.” Which tells you the code to the vault you’re trying to get into: 120 And while the difficulty on that last part ramps up far, far faster than it should, and, in truth, the difficulty between steps and Secret World missions often fluctuate too much, you can see how The Secret World designers have gotten the player to buy into their world of weird mystic paranoia by the end of this. They’ve let the reality of the game bleed into the reality of the player’s world, and made every texture, every part of the environment hold the promise of meaning.
And they did it all while presenting a set of challenges that exist outside the realm of combat or traversal. Uh…yes, the player has to fight and run their way through the town while on this quest, But the quest wasn’t to kill X-numbers of enemies, or to get to Y-place. In fact, the mission can be completed entirely without fighting if the player’s adept enough, and this sort of alternate challenges doesn’t cost the developer any more to create, either. I mean, those sewer caps have got to be textured either way. Having their texture also be a surprising part of the design doesn’t cost any more money.
It just takes a little forethought. Missions can either be boring and routine, or a magic entry point for your world. Having them be the latter just involves a little bit of shift in how we think about design. And, in fact, The Secret World goes even farther than this. They really made sure to utilize all the elements of the game.
There are times where you have to use emotes to pray or applaud in the right place at the right time in order to complete a quest. There are also a number of stealth missions which while clunky at times from a design perspective, simply involve placing incredibly hard enemies that will kill the player if they aggro them, and placing them in such a way that the player is able to move around them without pulling aggro if they think it through. It requires no new assets to develop it, nor does it require the implementation of new systems, and yet, it still delivers a new experience simply by moving the design mindeset away from seeing quest design simply as a method for guiding the player through the combat grind. And that brings us to a few other points: First, if you want quests to feel organic, they can’t just be one of two dozen things that the player accrues every time they rush through town. By bombarding the player with the quest, you overwhelm them with text, and essentially create a scenario where the players incapable of really caring about the quest individually. The player’s thoughts just boiled down to: “Alright, which one of these is closer on my mini-map?”
The Secret World limit you to one main story-line quest, one big quest, and three minor quests, so you can only ever have five at a time. That’s a manageable number, and it allows the player to think a little bit more about each quest, and invest a bit more in each one. This also lets you get rid of the ridiculous town hub that many MMO players know so well. That safe part of the zone that the player blazes through trying to find the 12 guys who have exclamation point over their heads.
Instead, constraining the player to a small number of active quests, allows for environmental quests. You find an overturned car? That could be a quest giver.
You find a note on the ground? That’s a quest giver. Find a corpse in the woods? That’s a quest giver. Environmental quests make the world feel much more holistic and alive.
By having quest tied to small scenes or moments within the world. Environmental quests also create a much better flow to the game. Wherever you are when you finish a quest, there’s something else interesting to do. And if you really run out of quests, just explore the world and you’re sure to find a quest that pushes you to explore even more. That’s way better than the flow-breaking return trip to town to drop off quests or get new ones. Lastly, most of what we call “quest” these days, I think should be reduced to what I call “tasks”.
The idea of tasks is a system used heavily in “The Lord of the Rings Online”. In that game, basically everything has a task associated with it that functions sort of like an achievement. So, kill 20 rats?
Task complete. You find all the major landmarks of this zone? Task complete.
You kill 20 corrupted denizens of the lower abyss? Yep, task complete. But what made these tasks interesting, is that they all, in the loosest of senses, conferred a small permanent bonus to your character if you did them.
Not enough to actually make you feel like you have to do all of them, but, enough for you to feel like it’s really worth doing the ones you felt like doing. And this is the key: They created tasks for everything. I mean, seriously, there was a task associated with almost every monster in the game, and this is essential, because, what do these tasks do? They encourage the player to play how they want.
Maybe today I want to grind neekerbreeker. Maybe tomorrow I want to explore all of Weathertop. Maybe the next day I want to see how many barrow wights I can take down, because those are super hard for me to fight at this level.
Well, in “Lord of the Rings Online”, you can do all of that, and the game encourages you to. It lets you track your progress, and reward you for playing however you want to play. This is a powerful thing. You can augment your quest system by putting in these types of tasks, and essentially letting the player choose when they want to create difference in kind for themselves.
Oh, and in “Lord of the Rings Online”, they did throw in one really manipulative task that I just loved. All it provided the player with was a title, but it changed the whole experience. Say, James gets to level 5 without dying once. That would earn him the title: “James The Wary” If he got to level 10 without dying, he’d be: “James The Undefeated” …and so on. Now, I’m not saying that this is a good way to go, But it really makes you feel like your character’s life has meaning, which helps you to really sink into the world of Middle-Earth. And there’s plenty more on quest design that we could talk about, and maybe we will eventually.
But one last thing before we go: “World of Warcraft” has evolved a lot over the years, and Blizzard is clearly tried to branch and build more than the treadmill/FedEX quest and kill quests that “WoW” launched with. But many of WoW’s clones and the free-to-play games of today seem not to have learned this lesson, which is tragic, because especially in the free-to-play age, just because a game is a MMO, does not mean that it has to feel like a grind. See you next week!