Should quests exist in today's MMORPG landscape? If so, then how many are too many? This is the question I saw on the Pantheon Twitter today. These questions always strike up a good discussion, so let's jump in.
The question itself simply cannot be answered with a number. We're looking more toward what type of role quests play in the overall design of the game -- what are they a vehicle for, and do they dominate or support gameplay?
Here's my take on the subject.
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 from EverQuest 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."
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 18 or so 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, 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 effective.
So to answer the original question of how many quests are too many, I'd say as soon as you lose the spirit of adventure you've gone too far. When quests become something you simply 'do to progress' or must complete before moving to the next area, you've lost the true spirit of what I believe to be a quest.
P.S. Bonus points if you know what my character in LotRO back from 2007 is doing in the image at the top. Clue: It may look like an adventure, but is by no means an epic quest.