Mobhunter: Anatomy of a Quest

Though in many different formats and many stages of success, quests have always been a cornerstone in massive online roleplaying games. From the earliest hidden quests in Everquest to the constant continuing stream of quests in World of Warcraft, we have seen quests evolve and grow. Today we will pick apart a variety of quest systems and attributes, studying them, poking them, and understanding what makes a good quest and what makes a bad one. Let us begin.

In the early days, there existed little to the quest system in Everquest. Possessed items tracked progress through quests. One talks to quest giver A to receive a bag. Hand the bag to quest fellow B and receive a note to give to quest fellow C for a new shining sword. Lose the bag or the note and you lose progress. This changed during the Planes of Power where character flags could keep track of a character's progress through quests. The quest system did little to help characters track their quests.

During Lost Dungeons of Norrath, Sony added a new system called the "adventure" system. Now a group of players could receive a single quest for the party, enter an instance designed around that quest, and complete the task to receive adventure points for new gear. Though limited to four quest types; collection, kill X, kill boss, or rescue; this system would evolve into the mission system contained in Dragons of Norrath, Depths of Darkhollow, and the recent release of The Buried Sea. The adventure / mission system would be a quest mechanic that continues to elude Blizzard in World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft completely changed how people thought about quests. From the first ten minutes of adventure, the quest system clearly becomes the game people actually play. A vast world of scorched earth, snowy peaks, and lush forests surrounds eight million players who stare at their quest log in a futile effort to get back to that first moment of pure bliss: an empty quest log.

The quest log for World of Warcraft BECAME the game people played. Quests went in, quest steps were followed, quests were completed, new quests came in. Quests moved players from city to city, showed them the lands around them, and showed them the variety of creatures to slay. Quests in World of Warcraft help level and equip characters from their first level to their last.

At the Austin Game Conference keynote, Rob Pardo of Blizzard explained how quests drove everything in World of Warcraft. They're used to show the player the variety of areas and encounters. They help new players fit right into the game and understand basic concepts that they'll hold throughout their career. World of Warcraft is a game driven by quests. The quests in World of Warcraft ensure that players always have a purpose and always have a goal.

What makes a good quest? A good quest should contain just enough story to motivate a character but not so much that the player simply skips it. Every quest takes attention away from every other quest. Players want to move forward, not spend time considering every plot shift in a detailed storyline that really comes down to "collect four glowing rocks".

Quests should clearly represent their scope. This is one where WoW fails. Players should clearly recognize the quests with long multi-step story arcs as something different from the one-time collection quests. While the first steps don't have to be the most exciting events in the game, it should be clear that those early steps will lead to a much greater reward. Currently in WoW, the only way to know that a quest is an arc is either to look it up on a website or learn about it from someone else.

Quests should bring players together, not set them apart. Everquest's mission system is currently the most advanced quest system for bringing players together, giving them all a single goal, and giving them the environment they need to accomplish it. Rewards from these group quests should be greater than anything they could achieve as an individual. If the intent is to strengthen the relationships between players in an MMO, soloing should not be more productive than grouping.

Consider the differences between World of Warcraft's instances and the mission system in Everquest. In World of Warcraft, players will decide on their own that it is probably within their interests to hunt in an instance. They might ask their friends along, ask nearby players, or use the "Looking for Group" systems to find other interested players. When they get together, they might share quests for that instance, although any player who has already accomplished a quest cannot repeat it nor can anyone share a quest from within a quest chain. Individuals may be at different parts in their quests. Player A might only need three more "silver ores" while Player B still needs seven. This drives a wedge between players. Instead of all players working on a common goal, each player is in it for himself or herself.

The Everquest mission system assigns a quest to every member in a group. If anyone in the group completes any of the steps, it is completed for the group. The group is treated as a single entity and this helps tie the group together. The goals of each member is the exact same as the goals for the group.

Quests should also empower a player, not drag them down. When players feel like their are doing menial chores, they feel like their only motivation to finish is the specific tangable reward. The term "grinding" becomes frequently attached to such quests. Collecting eight owl feathers at level 62 doesn't show a player how powerful they have become. It isn't worthy. If one offers such a quest, one better make it a quick one.

Quests should always reveal the reward and let the player decide if it is worthwhile. Both Everquest and World of Warcraft include this feature though neither does it well for quest arcs. If I am beginning a five-step quest arc, I should know what rewards I will receive for completing the whole arc.

While the high number of Warcraft quests helps players always walk through small tangible quests over their character's career, they do build in a frantic drive to get from Point A to Point B. It isn't easy to point out exactly why, but World of Warcraft is far from a relaxed game. The constant drive to find and finish quests takes away from the player's ability to find his or her own quest or path through the world. Though it is easy to say that the World of Warcraft system removed the desire to sit and camp in a single hunting spot simply to earn experience, some of the freedom of the game is lost in the process. No doubt the World of Warcraft system is an improvement, but there still remains room for further improvement.

Every two years we see a drastic improvement in how massive online games improve in gameplay. From the simple item-based retrieval quests in Everquest to the mission system, to the constant tracking and progress of quests in World of Warcraft, each generation seems to bring new and exciting ways to play in these online worlds. Who can tell us what the future holds.

Loral Ciriclight
19 February 2007