Challenging the Sacred Cash Cow of Quest Based MMOs

cash cowIt’s been a good 5 years since the release of World of Warcraft — the first MMO to focus on entirely on quests as the prime vehicle for it’s gameplay and storyline. As with any aging successful MMO, eventually long time subscribers start to ask existential questions about *why* things are they way they are. Thankfully the WoW community is starting to realize that maybe the Emperor has no clothes.  Could it be that players are finally realizing that this quest based MMO has been a mirage all along?

Lately I’ve started to notice that long time MMO gamers who were initially mesmerized by the allure of quests are growing weary of being led around like horses and chasing after NPCs with yellow exclamation marks.  There’s a feeling out there in the MMO community that quests are no longer special. Instead they have become very pedestrian and commonplace fare in MMOs. Even the meaning of the word “quest” has been lost and denigrated as any old task or job is labeled as such.

In August of 2008 I wrote an article that challenged the quest centric paradigm of current MMO design as popularized by Blizzard’s World of Warcraft.  Recently Muckbeast at Bright Hub’s MMO Channel and commenters on his personal blog have picked up the torch and have dared to challenge this sacred cow with some superb insight.

While I feel I adequately covered this subject and all of it’s ramifications it’s refreshing to see Muckbeast amplifying specific areas of concern that demonstrate the negative side effects of basing the entirety of an MMO on quests. So I’ve decided to revisit this topic with another look at this subject.

In the Beginning there were Quests

It’s helpful to understand what Blizzard’s objective has been from the start with WoW: a very accessible, easy to understand and play casual game. From the first moment a player steps into Azeroth they are facing an NPC with an irresistible yellow exclamation mark. There is no escape from the questgiver in WoW and according to a very revealing 2004 GameSpy interview with Blizzard VP Rob Pardo it’s all by design:

Rob Pardo: …the main message that we always try to talk about with World of Warcraft is how accessible we are trying to make it.

David Lawrence: Uh huh.

Rob Pardo: Its very quest driven so we try really hard from the moment someone plays the game that they don’t really need to be a veteran MMORG player. They don’t need to know the lingo; they don’t need to know how things work. We are going to teach them all of that.

The interview continues with many references to Blizzard’s intention on providing a WoW player with a “single-player” game experience:

Fargo: The interface looks very much like a single-player game. It’s really streamlined.

Rob Pardo: Yes, and when you first start playing it, you can play it like a single-player game. We try to make character creation pretty easy, to get you right into the game. And, when you get right into the game we lifted the Diablo motif with the exclamation points (!) over non-player character heads. And you start right next to somebody that has something to give you and something to say. And you are right into the game. You go and right click on him, which is another kind very subtle of innovation, but something that just seems like when you go into a lot of common MMORGs you have to pull out the reference card and figure out, okay — how do I move, how do I interact, what do I have to do like slash commands?

In World of Warcraft we really try to make it as intuitive as we can. When you go into the game, there is a guy next to you that’s got a little exclamation point above him so you go, “Hey what’s that?” You just right click on him and suddenly it pops up what he has to say and gives you buttons and says, “Hey do you want to accept this quest?” And, it will kinda tell you what to do and you are off and running. It feels very single-player like. And as you kinda go through the quest chains you start seeing all kinds of other players doing it and you are introduced to the whole concept of this massively multiplayer community. But we try to package it in such a way so that it’s really accessible and easy to get used to that.

It’s evident that WoW was designed to attract non-MMO gamers all along. Here are a few points that demonstrate this:

  • the simplicity of the interface (as noted by one of the interviewers)
  • the focus of quests for herding the player into new areas
  • the lack of challenge in the enemy encounters
  • the story revealed to players via the quests

In retrospect it’s almost as if WoW was designed to be one big tutorial for gamers new to MMOs. A MMO so easy and attractive that it’s greatest strength would always be in attracting new players (defined in industry parlance as “churn”).

Yet here we are 5 years later and all is not well. Eventually new MMO gamers become veteran gamers. Veteran gamers need to be placated which bring us to the next evolution of MMO quests: daily quests.

The Daily Grind

Part of the reason we are all feeling quest fatigue is the introduction of daily quests back in the Burning Crusade expansion.  For me this is when the whole notion of quests really jumped the shark in WoW.

Thanks to Blizzards snail-like development speed, daily quests were created to placate those players already at the level cap who had nothing to do and thanks to high repair and consumable costs were running into the arms of Chinese gold farmers.

Blizzard created a cure that was worse then the disease with daily quests. Encouraging players to repeat the same quests each day for gold was a shortsighted mistake that started the tedium nuclear clock ticking on their MMO. No matter what you call it players should never be forced to perform the same tasks each day.   Most of us do this already — it’s called work. Entertainment should never feel like work or remind us of work — ever.

the daily grind

Wrath of the Lich King Quests to the Rescue

Fast forward to the current expansion Wrath of the Lich King and Blizzard has made quests more interesting and complex. Most quests now involve some kind of interaction with a vehicle or an item that an NPC hands you which honestly I find frustrating at times. Many of the quests are so bizzare and complex that I often have resorted to researching them on Wowhead just to get them completed. These days figuring out how to do the quest is more challenging then actually doing the quest.

On the subject of the new and improved WotLK quests, Tobold who commented on Muckbeasts article last week contends the following:

One major thing Muckbeast completely misses is the type of quest more and more used in Wrath of the Lich King, but already present in some corners of The Burning Crusade: Quests with vehicles or other unusual game mechanics. In TBC that was just bombing runs, but in WotLK there are giants to ride, abominations to explode, sea cows to mate, dragons to harpoon, landmines to lay, and a hundred other things that wouldn’t be possible without quests.

While Blizzard has added more admittedly fun bells and whistles into its quests all of the problems and unintended consequences inherent with quest driven gameplay still remain. For me the number one problem is that the current quest mechanic works at cross purposes to the idea that MMOs are about players playing together and enjoying the rewards of social interaction.

Phasing: Gimmick or Innovation?

Tobold also goes on to comment about phasing — another WotLK “innovation”:

Another big quest-related feature of Wrath of the Lich King is phasing, the technology in which you finally get to change the world. Okay, you only change it for yourself, but that was necessary to not have the first player to reach that content spoil it for everyone else. Without quests this phasing change of the world would be much harder, if not impossible to realize.

I’m not entirely convinced that phasing is the salvation of quests in MMO but I think it does have some potential perhaps as a way to address the passage of time in virtual worlds. Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online was the first MMO company to use phasing in it’s newbie areas to create the illusion of the passage of time and I feel that they managed to pull this off fairly adequately.

Phasing does have a bad downside — it is problematic in that it can potentially erode the sense of immersion. Here’s Muckbeast’s illuminating reply to Tobold on the subject:

Honestly, I think phasing is a horrible concept. I think it makes MMOs even LESS like the virtual worlds they should be, and more like weird pseudo-single player games with IM built in. The idea of standing somewhere with a buddy, and I can see an NPC but he cannot, is massively immersion breaking. I think phasing is a really poor attempt to lessen the whole “will the real princess step forward” syndrome of tons of people questing in the same area.

Phasing is used by Blizzard to create dramatic impact (see the Death Knight starting areas and Northrend for examples of this). For some reason Blizzard always seems to choose the single player game sense of spectacle a la God of War over virtual world immersion. The reason for this is mainly due to the well established video game technique philosophy of making you the gamer to be the *hero*.

I’m No Hero and Neither Are You

Hans and Franz

Heroism comes cheap these days. I thought a lot about the concept of video game heroism last year when I penned a series of articles on WoW’s first hero class: the Death Knight.

Blizzard’s strength as a video game company from the outset has been to make polished games with engaging stories that put the player in the role of the hero. So it comes as no surprise that the Blizzard approach to WoW is any different.

With the success of those single player games, the notion of making a player into a hero has become the dominant game design philosophy in the past 10 years. WoW success and triumph is largely because it *is* the first single player MMO. WoW has always been about minimizing the multiplayer and community aspects of virtual worlds in favor of the safety and control of heavily polished and scripted single player games.

The existence of anti-immersive instancing technology in WoW is more evidence of this philosophy where you and your friends can become instant heroes with your own personalized gaming experience. The problem is that while you are saving the world from the bad guys so too are hundreds of other players saving the world from the very same bad guy in parallel instances. Hero shmero.

Given current technology and design limitations the single player can never truly be the hero in a virtual world. Heroism is a zero sum game; when everyone is a hero nobody is a hero.

Most of the quests in the new Wrath of the Lich King expansion praise the player as a hero. I find this kind of undeserved flattery and praise absurd and childish. I’m not a hero because I managed to figure out which buttons to press to kill 20 Foozles and neither are you.

Questing Disincentivizes Social Interaction

Probably the most important downside about questing in MMOs is that it disincentivizes social interaction so much that grouping with other players becomes unnecessary. If adventuring alongside other players is not the point of MMORPGs like WoW then what exactly is the point?

Muckbeast in his article does a brilliant job of demonstrating the Achilles Heel of current MMO design:

When grinding mobs in older MMOs, you could head to a zone and start killing things solo. If you met up with people, you could start a group. Perhaps you started off in a duo. This allowed you to move to harder things. As you added more people, you could move to harder stuff or larger groups. If people had to leave, no big deal. You either replaced them with new people or just moved back to easier content.

You could organically move from one thing to the next, everyone was always making equal progress, and it did not really matter how many people, or who specifically, were in your group.

In quest heavy advancement, you cannot do any of this. New people who show up are almost guaranteed to have totally different quests to do, and if your group shrinks below a certain threshold some quest chains will no longer be possible at all (so you will have to stop those chains before completing them for the big payoff at the end). This can be extremely frustrating and unfulfilling.

It’s hard to believe that Blizzard did not know that producing a quest based MMO would diminish the need for social interaction among players. I wager that this is the trade off that their designers knowingly made in order to be able to create the real WoW MMO which is essentially a grouping game held within instances.

WoW is two (three if you count PVP but that’s another story) different products under one umbrella: game one is an easy to play single player game full of quests and game two is more of a traditional fantasy RPG MMO where players must actually band together into a socially cohesive group in order to overcome shared challenges.

As I see it the problem has always been that both types of games are so different from each other that players have a difficult time transitioning between each.  This is not the fault of the player, rather it is the fault of Blizzard for creating a MMO that has such disharmonious and disconnected component parts.

Are You the Captain of Your Ship?

Probably the worst thing about a quest based MMO is that you as a player are no longer in control of the destiny of your avatar. Now you may rightfully protest and say “of course I’m in control!” but are you really? The majority of players are not. Instead, they are following the dictates of a predetermined script and immediately go about doing the bidding of the questgiver NPC. To quote my comments posted on Muckbeast’s blog:

The unfortunate thing is that the current crop of WoW players will never know what it’s like not to be spoon fed quests and content. They will never experience the autonomy of being able to explore a world without a “questgiver” tell them what they must do.

The player may as well be on a tour bus complete with a tour guide as he progresses through Azeroth. There can be no deviation from the well trodden “golden path” previously determined by the puppet masters (game designers) behind the scenes. Everyone that plays WoW must do the quests or find themselves at a disadvantage with fewer opportunities such as less experience, less loot and gold.

For me the price we pay as players for this polished “on rails” MMO experience is far too great. Although we are given the choice to complete quests or not, it’s an illusion — we are not in control. It is no wonder that the WoW community goes through withdrawal when the content dries up and players are left with just themselves.

ship wheel

Whose Story is This Anways?

Virtual worlds should let players make up and experience their own stories — not just the stories made up by the quest designers. For me this is the unforgivable sin of WoW. MMO devs need to create the game mechanics, landscapes, and conflicts that provide a backdrop for players to make their own memories as they travel through the world in search of adventure. Players should be active participants in their own destinys and not just passive spectators grinding through hundreds if not thousands of quests.

Solutions

While I think it’s too late for WoW as Blizzard has etched in stone their cash cow MMO quest formula, there is hope for future MMOs.

Do I think there is a place for quests in MMOs? Certainly. Here are a few solutions of my own and some from the discussion at Muckbeasts blog that I think would help:

  • Quests should be much less common — less is more. How about questgivers that only appear once a week or randomly?
  • To keep players on their toes quests should be dynamically generated and reflect the conditions and needs of the townsfolk and conflicts around them.
  • Quests need to be more epic then they currently are. When I think of a quest I think of the quest for the Holy Grail not collecting 10 boar ears.
  • Most quests offer far too much experience and loot. The reward should be the feeling of doing the deed not the greed. MMO developers need to stop being so  insecure and start withholding the candy of the “reward reward reward” design mentality.
  • Quest mechanics should be intelligently designed so that they do not erode the social interaction and sense of community which is the entire point of online games and virtual worlds.
  • Developers also need to stop using the word “quest” when a more appropriate term like “task” or “job” or “contract” would do better.
  • Quests also need to give players some actual choices instead of accept or decline.
  • Let’s put some risk and tension when players deal with questgivers. If you just declined to help the King rescue his daughter, should you really expect to walk away without being arrested or facing some consequence?
  • We need more quests with a sense of urgency like timed quests that actually expire if not completed.
  • Quests need to impact the world around the player in some way even if ever so small.

Conclusion

In an effort to build up the self-esteem of players by making them into instant heroes MMO designers have given us the sideshow of quests — a novelty and a distraction that have taken virtual worlds one step forward and two steps backward. They are the MMO equivalent of fast food — engineered to delight your taste buds but laden with empty calories and harmful preservatives. Meanwhile social interaction — the true nutrition of MMOs and why we came here in the first place — stays untouched and uneaten in the back of the refrigerator.

Of course WoW was always designed to be an insidiously accessible MMO for the masses. We can’t fault Blizzard for this. No matter how much we may want things to be different, we may just have to deal with the reality that Rob Pardo’s creation will forever be a juvenile entry level MMO.

The problem is that WoW has gotten so dominant and profitable that it’s impact on the design of future MMOs will be felt for years leaving few alternatives for a more mature audience. Regrettably every MMO must now cater to the lowest common denominator and sadly every MMO will end up being like WoW. What happens if players finally get sick of WoW and it falls out of favor with the game buying public? Will a MMO industry that wasted all of its capital developing a parade of WoW clones have any viable MMO alternatives for players if this happens? What then?

-Wolfshead

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