Quest design has been a bit of a theme lately among bloggers, as has been storytelling. I keep meaning to dig into storytelling more, but for now, I wanted to take a quick look at the rather mercenary nature of questing.
“Kill Ten Rats” quests are the running joke of the genre. There really isn’t much that writers can do to make these interesting, since they are really just a veneer of respectability with an extra reward for the aged practice of killing anything that moves in order to make your character incrementally “better”. Most players just do these quests because the rewards per unit of time spent playing tends to be better than simple wildlife massacre.
See, in the Privateer game, you were, well, a privateer. A mercenary merchant, you explored the galaxy, jumping between stars, doing odd jobs to make your way in the game world or finding resource supply and demand routes among the various planets and stations. There was a storyline, but the bulk of your gameplay was doing jobs for the Merchant’s Guild (shipping stuff or hunting pirates), the Mercenaries’ Guild (sometimes singular bounties, sometimes just “kill ten pirates”), or random missions from the community board, which could include any of the above. These missions were randomly generated, but since there really wasn’t much story to them, that was fine. (And the story missions weren’t much more than that mechanically, but they had story and “chains” of progressive missions that built a better sense of progress.) You’d just pop in, grab some odd jobs, and then go do them, maybe selling some stuff on the side, or picking up some tangential missions on the way.
Of course, the only “progress” you saw in Privateer was the advancement of the story, getting more money or getting more gear. (The storyline offered two unique bits of gear that were well worth getting, even if one of them created a bloodthirsty nemesis.) It was very much a “sandbox” game, where players could do pretty much whatever they felt like for as long as they liked. Even after finishing the storyline, you could keep playing, taking odd jobs or just building your own mercantile dynasty by shipping stuff along supply/demand lines. The reward was largely having fun by playing and by accumulating stuff and cash (score). The quests didn’t get in the way of playing, they just facilitated it by offering some more direction if you wanted it. You could “finish” the game by just doing the story missions, or you could play forever without doing any missions, and have fun doing it.
So here was a great game where you could just putter around, but if you wanted more direction, there were “quests” in the form of missions. These were optional, but often offered better rewards than just prowling the spacelanes as a merchant or pirate. (Though I did find routes that made merchanting very lucrative with a big enough cargo bay.) It was a very soft sell, and players could find questgivers at nearly any port, there for the employment or to be ignored.
Now, in something like WoW or LOTRO, we play characters who apparently have more heroic ambitions than just slumming around the world, killing anything that moves, making money and buying gear for the fun of it. No, we want to be thanked by Mankrik, receive praise from Aragorn, parade ourselves down the streets of Stormwind with Onyxia’s head, or help the Fellowship at a crucial moment. There’s nothing wrong with that, but even that Kaplan fellow seems to think that there’s place for more pedestrian questing to fill those level grinding hours. (Especially since it’s cheaper to produce that sort of cheap, repetitive Contract quest than fancy questlines.) The terrible truth that we’re really just glorified mercenaries doesn’t settle in as long as there’s sufficient bling and ample rewards, with the promise of raiding down the line. We like cheese.
What would an MMO be like if it used the Privateer quest model? Acknowledge that we’re really just bloodlusty mercenaries, and give us odd jobs to satisfy that murderous intent, complete with blingy rewards and pretty coins, as well as some incedental XP to push us along to the next town? Mechanically, that might play out as a Contract Board in every town, with bounties offered for killing critters, rewards for schlepping stuff across the plains (FedEx quests), or finding the Widget of UberDoom and bringing it to Fizzwhump Gearnose. (Who doesn’t care how you got it, whether by killing stuff or buying it off the market, he just wants it, the sooner, the bigger the reward.) There already are a few of those in WoW, and I don’t often hear those complaining about quests bring them up.
These wouldn’t have to be big, heroic deeds. The Privateer missions pretty much just told you what to do and where to do it, promising a reward upon completion. They were rarely more than 50 words, and conveniently had the important bits in a different color (since the rest was typical legalese stuff, like which Guild was offering the mission). You could shuffle through the stack and pick missions out based on those few bits of data, then get on with playing the game.
Players know that these quests are just odd jobs, something they do so they can buy more gear and go somewhere else. A bit of honesty in the presentation might go down nicely. (These Contract Boards don’t need to replace the NPC Kill Ten Rats quests, either, for those who love them. They are just another way to flesh out the world and offer more alternate ways to play.)
This also leaves the door open for player requests. If Fizzwhump can request things, why not players? Someone who doesn’t want to grind for hours looking for Light Feathers or whatever can post a request, and anyone who is interested can take out the contract. You’d have to include some sort of exclusivity mechanics, and maybe timers to keep abuses down, but it could be a great way for players to feel more a part of the world.
Of course, Purchase Orders on the Auction House would serve much the same purpose in WoW, and would probably be easier to implement, but the core mechanic of making requests to be filled is solid, methinketh.
Also, this isn’t quite the same thing as the Mission Architect from City of Heroes, since players are just requesting various critter bits, rather than building encounters, and offering monetary/gear rewards but no chunks of XP. It’s sort of “MA-Lite”, as it were, driven by the economy of stuff and money rather than XP (which sunk the Mission Architect). Player-requested Contract Jobs would be simple exchanges of stuff for money (or other stuff), taking place completely within the world as it exists. The biggest avenue for abuse is the same as in the Auction House; scammers misrepresenting the costs in exchanges. An open market usually sorts that sort of thing out pretty handily.
Maybe there’s a thematic element of this that just won’t work in your standard fantasy world MMO design (though sellsword mercenaries are pretty common in the fictional genre). Still, if we can make these sort of low level “job” quests into a leaner, meaner mechanism with job-like Contracts, we can dodge the whole “storytelling” bit of what are ultimately pretty brainless tasks, and leave the storytelling to the really interesting quests with unique mechanics. This also works nicely with what Larisa calls a pretty amoral universe that we usually settle for in MMO design. It’s a fairly subtle change, really, mostly window dressing, but I do think that it could be a step in the right direction, both for form and for function. We’re already playing heartless butchers, content to fill orders and do odd jobs for coin and XP, we may as well role play the part.
Tangentially, I think it would be neat to offer more mercantile opportunities to fantasy MMO players, like the trade route potential in Privateer, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.