Quests Should Enable Players To Tell Their Own Stories

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Yesterday’s post about being given the freedom to do what we want in our MMORPGs sparked a good conversation. One of our readers asked:

“If “any story is too much”, as I now believe, then what of quests?” – Amiya

Quests are often the vehicle for story. In today’s modern MMOs we rarely, if ever, see dialogue or story outside of them. If you google “what is a quest” you’ll see a very simple definition from Google: “a long or arduous search for something.” Quests used to be long adventures where the player would have to truly seek out and, unless they used a guide, figure out riddles, locations, or go on an adventure and see the world to accomplish them.

The Journeyman’s Boots quest is a great example. Players were sent across the world and back in search of a shadowed rapier and a ring of the ancients. The shadowed rapier came from shadowed men and the only clue you had was, “Many lands do they walk. Invisible are they, but for the items they wield. Seek them out and return to me a shadowed rapier. Return it with haste before ‘poof’ goes the rapier!! No time to camp have you.'” For the ring your clue was, “Seek the plains, seek the island in tears and search the dunes for there is one who is last. His clan was blown from the sands.'”

EverQuest Seafury Cyclops Jboots Ring Quest
Not the Ancient Cyclops but I remember his ugly face from the Bard Epic and the fact that if you were a caster he would drain all your mana.

Shadowmen were fairly common across zones, but the Ancient Cyclops could only be found as a rare spawn in one of a few locations. The main location I camped him was on the Island of Tears where his spawn ranged from 24 hours to weeks at a time since he was a rare spawn shared across multiple zones. ‘Arduous’ is an understatement. When finally all of the pieces of the quest were obtained, and the money gathered, turning in the quest yielded a pair of boots that, when clicked, would grant a speed boost almost as good as Spirit of the Wolf — awesome!

This long, long QUEST — in every sense of the word — created a story. The fact that I remember this quest fifteen years later, and I could tell you easily 2-3 hours of stories about how I helped others complete it, is a testament to the powerful stories and adventures a true quest can tell without having to lead you anywhere.

Quests can be simpler. Much simpler. In my adventure hunting orcs as a young player I could collect belts from orcs and turn them in for a reward. This was a repeatable quest that allowed you to collect as many belts as you please. These belts yielded amazing faction (reputation) and decent rewards for low level players. The faction was huge for everyone, and since players wanted to kill the orcs anyway it was a great asset to the economy and interaction between higher and lower level players. While little story is being told from a lore perspective, the world is having life breathed into it through player interaction.

The moral of the story here is that quests can and should exist. They should be long, arduous, epic adventures where players end up creating memories they later share around the virtual campfire. Quests should be rewarding and momentous occasions, and truly rewarding without having to be something players must follow in order to ‘play the game’ or ‘consume’ content. Simpler quests, when woven into the game’s economy or assisting in giving a purpose for going out and slaying monsters, can be just as affective.

  • I agree quests need to be just that, quests and not tasks as they havd devolved to via WoW. I can still remember doing the JBoots quest in EQ as you do Keen. As well as doind the Atlan Weapon and Composite Bow quests in AC and my Epic quest in DAoC. I miss those quests. Interestingly vanilla WoW originally had two such quests: The Staff of the Ancients and Rhok’delar bow. Both of these came from Molten Core. I can still remember doing the bow quest and how insanely excited I was when I finished it.

    You forgot one other thing though. These big long quests need to have rewards that last. JBoots were such a valuable and needed item, Atlan weapons, Colposite Bow, Ancient Stagf and Rhok’delar bow were all the best items so you kept them forever.

    You have no idea how upset I was when BC came out and they provided no way to upgrade my Rhok’delar. To have spent so much time getting it then to have it just become nothing really sucked.

  • Your story is that you went to a place and camped a mob until he respawned on a timer.

    Riveting stuff.

  • @Damage: I completely agree with having rewards that last. They need to be AMAZING rewards to justify the often insurmountable odds of completion. Jboots, Cleric epic, etc., all amazing. Even the Stein of Moggok or that Tome quest you helped me with that one time in EQ were amazing because they could be handed down to our alts! Those are awesome.

  • “Your story is that you went to a place and camped a mob until he respawned on a timer. Riveting stuff.”

    The experience is what you make of it. If you went there to camp the Cyclops either alone or with a silent group of strangers then you did not have fun at all. I can say for sure that isn’t what Keen’s experience was like. It certainly wasn’t my experience. I either grouped with friends or chatted and made friends. People dueled or were on the lookout for enemy players (on pvp servers anyway). While waiting for spawns I would buy scythes that dropped from spectres on a nearby island since they were heavy and no merchant was nearby to sell them to. The seafury Cyclops island was a huge source of gold which I paid people in platinum so they weren’t carrying nearly as much weight.

    I was a wizard so I could teleport easily and make money buying heavy scythes and gold with platinum, for a fee of course! Usually the small fee was well worth it rather than lugging everything to a merchant and then a bank to convert gold to platinum.

  • My experience was similar to Gringar. I actually did the Jboots quest all by myself for both my Necro and my Druid. On my Necro I would help others in the zone with corpse summons. On my Druid I would do what Gringar did and port people while waiting on the spawn, or TP to SRO to camp both SRO and Island of Tears at the same time. I camped that island a dozen times for friends and have these awesome memories of doing it. Yeah, boiled down to its bare bones it was camping a mob. The experience was so much more.

  • I don’t fundamentally disagree with your sentiments in this or the previous post. It’s worth considering, however, two of the main reasons often given to explain why WoW superseded EQ so quickly. Firstly, it was believed that WoW offered much better entertainment for players who wanted to solo and secondly you could progress your character effectively by doing quests that were clearly explained, easily available, didn’t take too long and gave rewards that were useful.

    All of these were things that Everquest players had been asking for, demanding in fact, for several years by that point and the EQ devs had been moving consistently towards meeting those demands well before WoW arrived and trumped them at their own game.

    A lot of my deep affection for EQ comes from the interaction of my characters with stories the game designers put into the game. It’s true that these stores were often less overtly explained and felt more mysterious and compelling to me because of it, but the pleasure there came from discovering there actually was a story and an interesting one at the back of the events that my characters happened upon.

    The period you tend to hark back to would seem to be very early indeed in the life of the game. It sounds to me like the first couple of years, 1999-2001 or thereabouts. DAOC came out in October 2001. Did you play much Everquest after that? I did and my memory of the degree to which both storytelling and directed questing were valued and important in EQ feels very different to what you describe.

  • @Keen:

    Another great article. Thanks for the boots memory! One of my favorite quests from WoW was the druid’s aquaform quest. It wasn’t a very hard quest, but it involved a serious amount of travel. There was even somewhat tricky bit getting past the orcs in a mountain pass, who were (if you were doing the quest as soon as it became available) just a bit too tough to handle alone … but if you timed it right, you might be able to run past them. That brought up fond memories of low-level solo runs from Freeport to Qeynos that I did now and then, not for any quest, but just for the hell of it, because it was fun.

    I wouldn’t agree that those short, repeatable faction quests are actually deserving of the name “quest”. They’re more like a chore, really. But you’re right, they do have a place in the game because they had such huge long-term effects. You could convince a whole bunch of people that hate you to think you’re actually okay; or vice-versa. I’ve played a few other games with faction systems, most of them didn’t have effects that were so pervasive and extreme.

  • I remember attempting to do the Jboot version on Vanguard. The “cyclop” is Ultra Rare spawn. keep revisiting the spot hoping to spot him ..but he’s in a long traveling path you have to search around.

    Yeah I remember EQ where you have to say the right keyword to move forward in conversation just to get the quest. Zork style I guess.

    in ArcheAge there’s HIdden quest that’s a bit more interesting that DOES NOT get on Quest Log. For Example, the Falcorth Plain quest to get the Clockwork Cat. Clues were left in a piece of paper that you have to find the guy who wrote it and then figure out how to get these things to Summon this one Wind creature at the altar to get the reward. There’s one in each zone. Reminds me of Old school questing path.

  • @bhagpuss:

    “Firstly, it was believed that WoW offered much better entertainment for players who wanted to solo and secondly you could progress your character effectively by doing quests that were clearly explained, easily available, didn’t take too long and gave rewards that were useful.”

    There were certainly points where EQ didn’t do as well as it could have, and when I take of my rose-colored spectacles it’s easy enough to see them.

    It’s true that EQ’s solo options were limited. (At this point someone is bound to chime in with the hackneyed “If you want to play alone, don’t play an MMO” argument. To which I’ll merely say, “Don’t be inane. There are always times when you log in and your friends aren’t around.”) But this was the result of two important design decisions, both of which were crucial elements of EQ’s success.

    First, the world was designed to be a scary place for a lone adventurer to be out wandering around in. You needed friends to stay alive and get ahead. And second, each class had a well-defined role, which meant you had weaknesses to go along with your strengths. (Even hybrid classes had weaknesses, in that they weren’t as good at what they did as classes that specialized in those roles.) So if you wanted to make progress, you needed to get together with other folks who needed your strengths and could cover your weaknesses.

    WoW (and its many imitators) went a different route, in large part to make soloing easier. First, the world is designed from the outset to be more solo-friendly: if you stick to areas designed for your level, you can be pretty sure that you won’t run into a situation where you need friends to survive. And second, all the classes are designed to be more self-sufficient for normal leveling. (WoW didn’t go all the way to “everyone can do everything,” but they put us on a slippery slope that has led to that.)

    Together, these things create a game that one could more or less play solo. To counteract this, developers have to find ways to “incentivize” grouping. Mainly this means throwing in the occasional quest or dungeon that can’t be soloed. In other words, the game tells us what to do. “Want to see the end of this story? Okay, group up!” There’s a big difference between that and creating the sort of world where people want to group up as a matter of course.

    I would argue that WoW’s huge popularity (due in large part to those two design decisions) has helped to create a generation of gamers who don’t really understand the concept of grouping. I could go on forever about that, but this is already getting long.

    As for “quests that were clearly explained, easily available, didn’t take too long and gave rewards that were useful,” well, I’ve already expressed how I feel about easily available quests that don’t take too long and give good rewards. They aren’t quests, they’re just chores that pay well.

    But … “clearly explained”? Yeah, that was perhaps my biggest beef with EQ. It was clear that SOE didn’t seem to think they needed good writers on the staff. A lot of the quests didn’t give you the information you needed to complete them, and even when they did it was badly written and presented. Pretty shoddy, all around.

    That was another one of the reasons I was attracted to WoW. At least Blizzard understands that presentation is important. I may not like where they’ve taken MMOs, but I’ve never faulted them for their polish.

  • I love the concept of striking out and figuring what needs to be done as you go, which is the story progression of great books and movies, but is it possible to achieve a state of unknowing wonder in MMORPG adventuring today?

    When one takes pay to enter exposure starting from pre-alpha, and then includes the megaguilds devouring and publishing near complete content guides and maps prior to launch, can anything seem mysterious anymore?

    Even if one staunchly refuses to view any of these resources, more than likely one’s guild mates will, and moreover it will be difficult to ignore the stream of players heading directly to the quest resolution sites, like travelers on a group package tour.

    I think there needs to be more unpredictability and/or perhaps uniquely defined individual player objectives in quest and loot drop locations in order to undermine the mindset the preferred playstyle is one that most efficiently yields the highest reward/hour.

    If there isn’t an obviously “best” way to achieve quest goals then maybe people would focus again on community-oriented activities knowing that eventually, perhaps even fortuitously, they will unearth information and drops that lead them to their next quest goal as part of the natural course of just playing the game and not the metagame as detailed in rapid leveling guides.

    Another advantage from this old-school players POV would be the attrition of casual players that feel disoriented when not presented with NPC’s having golden question marks over their heads, but of course this is somewhat of an elitist perspective and certainly not the approach a developer is likely to take if they want to have the highest player base accessibility possible.

  • You bring up a very good point, Gankatron. I’ve often found myself wondering if modern MMORPGs can support the sort of spontaneity we used to see in those older games. It seems as if both game design and the player base have grown away from that sort of thing.

    Technology could provide some solutions. We’re at the point where truly dynamic content is a real possibility. The “rare spawn” mobs of EQ were a primitive step in that direction. What if not just mobs but entire quests appeared and disappeared at random (or better yet, were only available under certain conditions)? That would involve a lot of work, since you’d have to create a lot of quests or people would start complaining about the lack of things to do. But it would make the world less predictable.

    Better mob AI could also be made to work in this direction. For example: an orc facing a lone opponent will attack, but if there are three or more people nearby, he runs away. Unless there are other orcs nearby, in which case he calls them over. And a group of three or more orcs have a special attack that they will only use if there’s a bard in the group of players they’re fighting. And so on. The more conditionals you add, the more room there is for emergent behaviors to crop up and gobsmack the players.

  • Amiya your last paragraph describes perfectly the kind of game ideas I would like to see. There would be no true quests, no public quests. Those follow scripts. There would be AI that determines how mobs interact with players and each other. A long list of random hidden stats would affect how mobs interact. Using the orc example again, one lone orc that spots three players may attack if his strength and bravery stats are high while intelligence is low. A different orc may gather friends.

    I would like to see some limited visual clues though. An orc with a high strength roll would be bigger. A creature with high bravery would stride with purpose. One with low bravery would stop frequently and creep about.

  • Something else I just thought of. EQ had a system for a VERY short period of time where you could play as a monster. (Anyone remember that?) THAT needs to make a comeback in some game somewhere. You spawned as a relevant NPC in whatever zone it randomly chose for you. There was a level cap on monsters it could spawn you as but remove that garbage. You could level up your monster to some degree. Let players level a monster above max player level, at which point they’d be a boss mob with better loot. Take it a step further and let players gain soul xp as well which would make any monster they spawn as slightly stronger, with better loot of course.

  • I tried summarizing all your posts:
    Part 1: How much story is too much?

    Answer? If I have to read it, it’s too much.

    Supporting points:
    1) The story emerges from my experiences
    2) I’m an insignificant speck in a bigger world, not a super hero
    3) I do not have a prefrabricated destiny; I am my own choices
    4) If I’m not empowered to go out on my own, I won’t keep playing

    Part 2: Don’t tell me what to do!

    Supporting points:
    1) Story, loosely woven or not, is not why I kill orcs (or other monsters)
    2) I kill monsters because they’re a great source of experience and loot
    3) No one told me to kill things, I sought them out and vetted them myself
    4) Opportunity and means are huge in MMORPGs
    5) Quests usually move us from place to place, but what if we want to stay put?
    6) Breaking free from the quest chain worked in EQ in 1999
    7) Build me a world where I’ll go kill whatever I want
    8) Don’t build me a world where I have to be told what to do

    Part 3: Quests should enable players to tell their own stories

    Supporting points:
    1) Quests are the defacto method to drive story in most games
    2) Story is rarely seen outside quests
    3) A quest is “a long or arduous search for something.”
    4) The Journeyman’s Boots quests is a great example of what a quest is
    5) To describe the Journeyman’s quest, ‘Arduous’ is an understatement
    6) Quests don’t have to lead you to tell stories because you make them
    7) The world has life breathed into it through player interaction, not just story
    8) Quests should exist, but they shouldn’t be required to play the game
    9) Simple repeateable quests can be just as affective as any other quest
    10) Simple quests should be woven into the economy and/or assist the will of the player

  • Ok so, going on what I just posted above, I’ll briefly state what I think the writer is about:
    1) The story emerges from my own experiences with the world and its players
    2) I must be empowered to blaze my own trail – the game must keep to a minimum telling me where or what or how or when (or why?)
    3) As long as questing and storylines assist in the above 2 points, I’m happy

    Read right to anyone viewing this?

    My own feeling on these things is EQ had many flaws, but in most ways, I find myself agreeing with Keen.

    And yet there’re a few other things going on. How do you know your thoughts here, deriving from EQ and UO and SWG and DAOC, are not connected to other variables or forces unbenownst to yourself? What if the reason you enjoyed those games, or at least kept playing them, is not tied to them only loosely directing your activities in them? For example, perhaps in some intangible way you enjoyed EQ because of corpse runs, and you simply are unaware ofi t?