Unintended Consequences of Quest Directed MMO’s

Holy GrailLately there have been some good discussions in the blogosphere lamenting the erosion of one of the key facets of MMO’s: grouping. I made a few comments on some of those sites where I called into question the role that quest directed gameplay has played in the decline of grouping. I’d like take the opportunity to amplify some of my remarks and with a deeper investigation into this recent MMO phenomenon.

Once hailed as a revolutionary new feature, quest directed gameplay seems to have become the dominant form of gameplay with today’s offering of fantasy MMO’s. Five years ago when Blizzard started doing promotional interviews for their then upcoming World of Warcraft it was very apparent that one of the main talking points was the introduction of quests which would direct the player and replace the much hated “grind” of MMO’s like EverQuest. Not only did quests in WoW give you good loot and good experience, they also allowed Blizzard to reveal more of their popular Warcraft storyline to players.

One of the key design considerations for Blizzard was giving the player the feeling that they could accomplish something significant in only a few minutes that it took the player to gather 10 axes from orcs in Redridge Mountains. A player could play for 20 minutes and feel like a hero. That was seen as a major departure for MMO’s. Contrast that with EverQuest which required the player engage in the ordeal of “camping”. Back then, camping a specific location for hours (sometimes days on end) and hoping that rare NPC’s would spawn and drop rare items was the only way to advance your character’s gear. So with the introduction of WoW onto the MMO scene, camping as the premiere mechanic for loot acquisition was all but dead.

Origins of the MMO Quest

Despite having “quest” in it’s name, the early EverQuest had a serious shortage of meaningful quests that revealed major storylines, provided good gear and that provided any semblance of experience reward. The Coldain Shawl and the Coldain Ring War were rare exceptions to the rule as they provided players with interesting storylines, epic encounters and great gear. One interesting thing I used to notice about people who did the Coldain Shaw quest, they seemed detached from their guild mates and friends. They would submerge themselves so deeply in those long quests that it seemed that they were absent from guild groups and raids for weeks on end. Most of them were so intensely focused on these special quests that they stopped speaking in guildchat altogether. It was like they were on a sabbatical from the guild.

At the time I made a mental note of my observations. I started wondering if those kinds of quests were more doing more harm then good due to the fact that they made the player start focusing on himself rather then his guild mates. Paradoxically, although those two quests were 90% soloable, the final 10% required the assistance of many members of the guild which would end up in an epic interaction with the god Brell Serillis or in the case of the Ring War — a massive battle between the Coldain Dwarves and the Frost Giants. Little did I know at the time that a behemoth MMO would arrive that would base it’s entire world on those types of quests.

Lessons Learned Early on in WoW

As soon as WoW went live, I formed a new guild with a number of my old EverQuest guild mates. After a few weeks I started noticing a trend that troubled me. People who normally wanted to group up in EverQuest suddenly were very comfortable experiencing solo quest content on their own; it seemed as if they actually preferred this new found freedom. About the only time we as a guild would organize groups was for instances like the Scarlet Monastery and Uldaman.

I also noticed that participation in guildchat seemed to dwindle. Since grouping was pretty much unnecessary in WoW, the importance of guildchat as a vehicle for social bonding and communication also waned.  People that had previously been social and desired to play in groups were now quiet and even anti-social.  Suddenly it seemed as if this wondrous new world of Azeroth wasn’t so wonderful after all. So what had changed from EQ to WoW that had changed the behavior of my friends? Clearly two things had changed from previous MMO’s:

  1. Ease of soloing – soloing became an effective way to level up your character
  2. Quest Directed Gameplay – questing became an effective way to level up your character as well as rewarding the player access to gear and money

Not only were these two design philosophies responsible for changing how MMO’s are played, they were also responsible for the tremendous popularity of WoW — the first truly mass market, casual friendly MMO. This article will attempt to bring to light the unintended consequences of those decisions with a particular focus on quest directed gameplay. I believe that MMO’s like WoW have lost something vital and important. But first we need to look at the root of the problem.

Human Nature

My experiences with my guild’s transition from EverQuest to WoW made me question human nature as it applies to gaming. The sense of community that I had fallen in love with in EverQuest had all but evaporated in WoW. I then learned an important lesson that economist Adam Smith wrote about in “The Wealth of Nations” regarding the nature of humanity: people do things out of self-interest.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.

The principle of self-interest also applies to the desire of people to control their leisure time. Despite the benefits of social interaction and camaraderie that one can obtain from playing a MMO like EverQuest, in most cases players will seek the path of least resistance via soloing if it is available to them. It’s worth noting that most video gamers grow up with single-player games that focus on the individual player, so this tendency is to be expected. Players who solo in WoW do so because that is how the game was intended to be played.

If MMO developers fail to create an environment where group interdependency is required and then they provide an easy path where players can solo and group then it’s almost certain they they will avail themselves of those opportunities. Combine that reality with the individualistic nature of people and add a never ending series of quests and it results in providing a sense of legitimacy to a solo-friendly game like WoW.

The Loss of Community

As someone who’s experienced MMO’s before the release of WoW, there has been a cost resulting from the advent of quest directed gameplay. In my opinion this new type of gameplay has devalued the prime reason that people originally started playing MMO’s in the first place: interacting, co-existing and teaming up with other players and which results in feeling of part of a virtual community. The tragic thing is that many of the so-called 10 million players who subscribe to WoW have been purposely cheated out of this experience because of the solo nature of the quests that they have been spoon fed. For many of them, they have no experience with grouping as WoW is their first MMO.

In the rare case that a quest comes along that requires multiple group members, more often then not the group dissolves after the quest is done with each member going their separate ways. It’s very hard to get to know people and bond with players when groups are not needed or rarely required. By the time the player has experienced all 70 levels (soon to be 80) it’s entirely possible that they may have soloed to the level cap without ever having grouped with another player. Not only is grouping discouraged, it’s frowned upon by the new breed of archetypal player with cries of:

“What’s wrong with you? That quest is EASILY soloable!!!”

When players no longer need players then you have every man for himself. Social skills are not needed nor are they cultivated until the player transitions into grouping at the level cap or raiding at the level cap. Combine this with the anonymity of the Internet and you have the worst behaved community in the MMO world: the WoW community. As far as I’m concerned, a MMO is only as good as it’s community.

The Great To Do List

Players now log on to their WoW characters and use their quest logs like a virtual “to do list”. Completing their quests has become their main concern. Once one quest is done, then it’s time to move on to the next quest.

The spirit of adventure has been replaced by the predictability of a travel guide. Instead of players being intrepid explorers we are just self-absorbed tourists moving from one point of interest to the next. We run from quest to quest, unconcerned about those players around us because of the power of the great “to do” list. Why bother then to stop to wave or greet a fellow player when there is no advantage to do so?

The Quest Self-Help Industry

Not only can players cheat by looking up the solutions to quests on various sites on the Internet, doing quests has become so easy that there are now mods you can install that tell you exactly where to go and when. In fact this kind of philosophy is a major selling point of the official WoW strategy guides and unofficial guides. Every step you take has been optimized to maximize your return and minimize the time you spend.

When The Quests Run Out

Probably the most horrifying thing for a player today in WoW is when the quests run out. When this happens suddenly the player is aimless and lost with no AAA Trip Tik to guide her. It is in this rare moment that a player comes to terms with the shallowness of a quest directed life. As long as there is something to do all is well. Blizzard keeps players perpetually distracted to prevent them from seeing the flaws in their MMO which are partly the result of the very same quests. To ensure this rarely happens Blizzard is only too happy to provide a glut of quests. Because of this, it’s not uncommon to have a full book of quests in one’s quest book. For me the overabundance of quests cheapens the notion of a quest and makes them seem rather pedestrian.

Quest Fatigue

A common theme in many complaint about WoW is the feeling that replaying WoW with an alt is very boring and tedious. One of the reasons for this is that players are going through the very same quests all over again. It’s much like watching reruns on TV — it’s never quite the same the second time around as the quest loses it’s impact due to fact that the suspense is gone. You already know the ending.

Also, when you associate a scripted quest with a particular task to retrieve items or kill a certain amount of monsters you end up associating those items and monsters to the quest NPC. The items and monsters become a means to an end — completing a quest or task. So instead of quests feeling immediate and pressing, quests take on more of a transactional feel.

Green Feeding

There are so many quests now in WoW that I’ve noticed that I would be continually “green feeding” my way through the bottom of my quest list. I would always complete the green ones first which were usually very easy by the time they turn green. Why? I was afraid that they would go grey and I end up losing experience. With a constant supply of green quests a player never feels like they are even remotely challenged. Of course I could have skipped them but the compulsion to do them all was very strong in WoW.

The Erosion of Immersion

Naturally there is a certain level of suspension of disbelief that the player must engage in for virtual worlds to succeed. The problem with the quests in WoW is that they detract from the immersion because with the exception of a few class specific quests everyone can do them. How immersive is it when every time a player turns in Van Cleef’s head in Westfall, they are for a brief shining moment proclaimed “the hero of Westfall” that is until Paladindude running up behind you turns in Van Cleef’s head too? How fortunate is Van Cleef that he has a seemingly endless supply of heads available!

At least in a single-player game quests are only performed once by the player. That kind of gaming experience is custom tailored to you the player which helps build immersion. The glaring weakness of a quest driven MMO is that the story and quests are never tailored to you as a player. You line up and are served a quest much like a hamburger at McDonalds.

The Monetization of Quests

Another interesting trend in WoW is that quests have become a prime source of income for players in the form of “daily quests”. Daily quests have become like virtual jobs for players as they can be performed for a fixed amount of gold each day. These quests keep pumping in more gold into the WoW economy creating inflation. As the level of gold increases so does the buying power of that gold. Therefore many players including myself feel compelled to do these quests for fear of falling behind economically.

So instead of grouping with players we end up doing daily quests first. After all we must farm money to pay for our fun (potions and flasks for raiding). Life in WoW is reduced to a routine where we do our “work” then enjoy our “leisure” time. Daily quests become a kind of self-imposed virtual servitude to the questgiver that threatens the independence of the player. In WoW there is a quest for almost every type of activity. If it’s not involved in a quest then it’s not worth doing. The power of the virtual carrot to influence the actions of players knows no bounds.

Players Don’t Experience their Own Stories

Probably the most egregious problem that has arisen due to quest driven MMO’s is the fact that we as players have turned over our freedom for the security of scripted quests. We don’t create our own stories anymore. Instead we are actors playing a part that the Blizzard writers have created.

Where is the nobility in going through the motions and playing the hero in one of Chris Metzen’s grand storylines? Are we actors or are we adventurers? While it would be possible to experience the content of WoW without doing any quests you would be hard pressed to find anyone that would not think you are mad for deviating from the golden path so artfully laid by the Blizzard developers.

To me this is an issue of ownership of one’s own experiences. In WoW, you never truly own the experience you get from completing a quest. Back in EQ, my most cherished memory was finally acquiring a holy sword known as Ghoulbane. I spent long hours camping a named froglok in a dark damp dungeon where one wrong step would have you swarmed with angry frogloks or even worse fighting for your life while drowning in a deep pool of water. Memories like that are special because they are my own and I shared them with my friends that helped me. We had no timetable other then our own. We fought like brothers side by side. We had no guarantees. We weren’t pizza delivery guys doing the bidding of a NPC quest giver. We were daring adventurers seeking out rare treasure marching to our own drummer. More importantly the real treasure we came back with was that we created our own story and history.

WoW: The First True Single-Player MMO

Notwithstanding the PVP and PVE raid content, one thing can surely be said of WoW: it’s probably the first single-player MMO ever intentionally created. It definitely feels and plays like a single-player RPG with it’s carefully scripted quests. You feel like you are on an elaborate amusement park ride when you play WoW — and that’s not necessarily bad if that’s the kind of casual participatory entertainment that you seek. The problem is that kind of MMO gets old very fast. With Wrath of the Lich King providing players with more of the same it’s only a matter before the public tires of it completely.

Many MMO commentators are feeling the fatigue and burnout. Rob at MMOCrunch decries the current state of MMO design:

I’ve long held the belief that MMORPGs are increasingly heading in the wrong direction. They are trying to be single-player games with lots of people logged in at the same time. This is such an absurd way to design a MMO game world. Why? Because the nature of the world offers itself to being an environment where people can actually exist – Second Life, style – and should be able to do what they please.

Rob makes a very good point here. The nature of a MMO lends itself more toward creating a virtual world with all of it’s potential but that is not where Blizzard has taken WoW despite the fact that it’s clearly stated on their 10 Day Free Trial page:

IT’S NOT A GAME, IT’S A WORLD

If WoW were just another choice in a sea of viable alternatives then it would not be an issue for concern. The problem is that the dominance of WoW in the MMO market assures that it’s design philosophy will surely influence a generation of MMO’s to come. That will have the effect of taking away scarce investment dollars which could be funding alternative MMO’s that promote *radical* concepts like grouping and community. As Shalkis commented in one of my previous blog articles, MMO’s face “the danger of monoculture”.


WoW Success Formula

The Great MMO Transition: From Group to Solo

I can’t close this article without bringing up the important issue of solo vs. grouping in MMO’s. It’s very clear now that due to the success of WoW, for the most part MMO’s have transitioned from being a group form of participatory entertainment to a single player form of entertainment. To use an analogy, many people love to participate in team sports because of the social interaction and group dynamics. Yet many people enjoy competing in single person sports because of the benefits of relying solely upon yourself. While Blizzard wants WoW to be an MMO that appeals to everyone I think that ultimately both styles are incompatible and work at cross purposes to each other in the grand scheme of things.

Blizzard’s remaking of the MMO into a popular single player experience via quest directed gameplay will only further hasten the demise of grouping as a viable MMO playstyle.

Conclusion

I can’t help but feel that although Blizzard has taken a major step forward with WoW in terms of polish, that in the process we’ve taken a few steps backward. Once you’ve experienced the story that WoW has to offer via the quests, it’s replayability and immersion greatly diminishes. We become like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, condemned to repeat the same story over and over again. Except there is no deliverance from that insanity until the next expansion is released and then it starts all over again. Without the friendships and bonds that we make with other players, a MMO that puts all it’s eggs in quest centric gameplay quickly loses its luster.

There’s a certain loss of autonomy that comes with playing such a decidedly quest directed MMO like WoW that troubles me. Personally I’m tired of following the predictably bland carrots dangled by stiff questgivers. I really wonder what today’s players would do if confronted with a world with no NPC bestowed quests. Could they even fathom a day of freedom and independence from the oppressive yoke of the questgiver? Is it even possible now considering the success of WoW and the inevitable imitators that will surely follow?

Morninglark makes a great observation about how players are told what to do and where to go at all times:

We have seen the worlds become more linear. You are born here. You do X number of newbie quests, then are ‘encouraged by NPC’s’ to go to the next area that is level appropriate for you. In this way, the designers are herding us like cattle through the gaming environment.

She’s absolutely right. Somehow developers have decided for us that was as players aren’t interested in freedom or making choices, what we really want is the security of being put on the rails of an amusement park ride. I have news for Blizzard — there is a growing chorus of gamers that are tired of being led around on a leash like Stepford Wives. We want more freedom, independence and consequences in our virtual worlds.

While it’s doubtful that in the near future we’ll see a return to open-ended sandbox games like EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies, there has to be a way to put the power back in the hand of the players and give them control over how they experience the game world. New mechanics can and need to be created that inject a healthy dose of dynamism and immediacy back into virtual worlds. Players need to wrestle control over their avatar’s destiny from the clutches of micromanaging developers. Regrettably that will never happen until MMO companies find the courage to go beyond the WoW success formula. They need to start trusting their players with more freedom and tempered by mechanics that ensure in game accountability. We need to get beyond incentivized gameplay and move to a system that allows its participants to be more then just trained monkeys and let them take an active role in the virtual worlds they inhabit.

-Wolfshead

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