I used to think there was something grand and noble about the idea of a quest, that is until MMORPG developers got their slimy hands on them. Quests have become so pedestrian and cliched that they no longer have any real meaning within a MMORPG context.
Many years ago I naively convinced myself that MMOs needed more quests. At the time I believed that they were a possible solution to solving the problem of what MMOs had become: an ever increasingly complex raiding game. Well, now that I’ve seen what quests have done to MMOs I freely admit I was wrong about quests.
2004: The Year the Quest Machine Was Invented
Since the introduction of World of Warcraft back in 2004, quest directed game play has become the dominant form of MMORPG. The addition of quests — often termed “on rails” game play because of their similarity to the rigidity of amusement park rides — has radically and inextricably changed the how MMORPGs are designed and played.
During the first few months of WoW’s release, despite the euphoria of finally having actual tasks to do, I sensed there was something wrong. Former EverQuest guildmates that had migrated over to WoW with me who used to be group-minded and friendly were now self-absorbed and oblivious to my requests to form a group.
Intoxicated with their new-found independence and power, most players naturally felt no need to group up. It was like they were in a trance. Who can blame them, they were playing WoW the way it was designed. It then dawned on me that the core design of WoW with solo-friendly quests and easy leveling was the culprit.
In the Beginning…
Before the advent of quest-centric game play, MMORPGs like EverQuest and Ultima Online were largely designed around opened-ended game play where character progression via leveling and itemization was the main focus of players. Other important activities such as socialization, cooperation, and exploration were all all required for the player to survive, succeed and advance in a harsh and unforgiving world. These conditions created a fairly cohesive and memorable MMO experience and more importantly it created a real sense of community and social order in the player base.
Then MMO fast food arrived on the scene: World of Warcraft.
From the outset WoW was always designed to be a MMORPG that was designed to be more accessible (read: more profitable) and seen as a welcome antidote to some of the excesses perpetrated by the SOE EverQuest design team. You see EverQuest had rapidly transformed from a grouping MMO to a raiding MMO that required long hours of time to realize individual progress via gear acquisition. At the time WoW seemed like a breath of fresh air as it appealed to time-starved, casual gamers that had grown up and now had jobs and families of their own.
Most people may not realize that quest-centric MMOs are a bit of an accident. A couple of years ago, Blizzard developer Jeff Kaplan admitted as much in a GDC presentation. During the WoW Friends and Family Alpha test in 2003-2004 many testers complained when the quests ran out. Blizzard was puzzled by this but then decided to put quests in all of the zones. So the truth is that questing was never fully thought out; it was implemented because alpha testers asked for it. This was a big mistake.
Almost 7 years after the release of WoW, quest-directed MMOs have created more problems than they were designed to solve. I believe it is now time to get rid of quests altogether from MMORPGs.
First let me briefly state what I think a MMORPG should be at its very core…
The Ultimate Quest: Survival
Back before the introduction of the quest-centric MMO, there was only one quest: it was called survival. In those golden days of MMORPGs, the only way you could survive to experience harsh and unknown environments was to self-actualize your character. People who play MMOs today need to be made aware that back then players willfully placed themselves in an unforgiving world fraught with peril and extreme difficulty. The MMOs today are in no way shape or form resemble what players had to endure. Comparing the challenges faced by players in EverQuest to WoW is like comparing Navy Seal training to a yoga class.
There was little talk of experiencing “fun” back then, instead we were rewarded with a feeling of pulse-pounding exhilaration and unrelenting wonder. We were excited, awestruck and frankly privileged just to be part of an online virtual fantasy world.
In those days, we experienced deeper game design that existed harmoniously with other elements. Players would seek to advance their characters by doing the following:
- Gaining more skills and abilities via leveling up by exploring and grouping
- Getting better armor and weapons by defeating monsters by exploring, grouping, bartering and crafting
- Becoming a better player by learning from experience, experimentation and by doing all the above
Each one of these design elements created synergy and cohesion with other game mechanics such class interdependency and the need to socialize. Creating cohesive mechanics that require that players master their skills to overcome adequate challenges is the foundation of good game design.
During that golden age, developing the ability to survive meant you could pay the price of admission for each progressively harder zone that you would encounter on your travels. Hard won character advancement was required in order to explore and experience exotic and dangerous lands. Those conditions came with a price that we willingly paid to have the privilege of being part of an amazing virtual fantasy world.
So here are my main reasons why I feel it’s time to get rid of MMO quests as we know them, once and for all:
Reason 1: Quests Erode Player Autonomy and Freedom
Do you like being told what to do in your spare time? I certainly don’t but that is exactly what is happening when MMO quests have become the focus of today’s MMORPGs.
When a MMO developer creates a world full of quests the player purposely feels compelled to complete them all. This completion compulsion is mandatory and it is how most video game players are taught to play video games. In fact most video games have linear quest lines that must be completed or in the words of the film version of Gandalf: “You shall not pass!”
This compunction to walk down the blissful golden path is hard to resist as it is precisely the way the MMO developers intend you to experience their creation. They use quest mechanics and their rewards as a way to unlock and reveal plots, story lines and treasure. Not your stories and unique experiences mind you, but theirs.
When players had the freedom to do as they pleased we didn’t need any stories and quests handed to us. Instead we created our own. Each player was autonomous and we had ownership of our own destinies. Each server evolved into its own distinct personality and character. We chose to either awake or ignore villains like the Sleeper.
For the most part, there were no NPCs telling us what we had to do and where we had to go. We defined our own enjoyment and we experienced adventure on our own terms. Each day introduced its own unique set of circumstances. One day you might group with different players in a particular area; the next day you might choose not to group and sell items by a bank or in a tunnel or role-play in a tavern.
Today most MMOs players are willing prisoners of a totalitarian mindset that claims to know what you want and what is best for you. Players are shackled to the whims and imaginations of game developers who fancy themselves great writers, poets and artists.
Thanks to the inclusion of quests, your virtual fate is predetermined as every stage of a player’s progression and location is mapped out well ahead of time on some game designers blackboard. When you get on the train to Hogwarts Academy don’t be surprised that it always ends up at the same destination.
Reason 2: Quests Weaken Socialization and Community
Quests have turned MMOs into single-player games where players don’t really need other players to progress.
Once upon a time, MMORPGs used to pride themselves on being massively multi-player role-playing experiences. Back then, being part of a good community was a great source of pride for this new and developing genre; socializing with other players was one of the joys of being part of a virtual world. Contrast that with today where players are more apt to behave like mindless robots and slobbering zombies as they run back and forth from one quest-giver to another and avoiding all contact with their fellow players in the process.
MMOs have transformed into quest delivery machines instead of communal experiences they used to be.
All that matters now is finding an NPC with an exclamation mark as players run around like frenzied contestants in the Amazing Race. Why bother to explore when your only objective is to find the next NPC with a big yellow exclamation point hovering over their head like a neon sign in Times Square.
Questing creates a selfish and mercenary mindset within the player. Quests have forced us to turn our gaze inward instead of outward. When people don’t need each other, the result is the horrid and fractured community that you see in most major MMOs.
Solo quests now typically occupy the majority of the introductory to middle to level cap content. This is unfortunate because this type of content sets the tone and essentially molds and creates the character of the player base. By the time players are expected to start socializing and cooperating with other players in groups and raids it’s far too late.
We only have to look at the sorry state of the WoW community — at least what’s left of it — for evidence of this.
Reason 3: Quests Have Become Routine and Trivialized the MMO Experience
As Michael Hartman noted in his great article, today’s MMO quests have replaced one form of grind with another. Quests have become mundane and are no longer considered special due to the fact that every MMO has been bombarded and overwhelmed with them. And most of them aren’t even true quests, rather they are simple tasks.
Many people admit they do not even read the quest text anymore. Besides how immersive is it when the same NPC wants you and every other player to recuse the same princess over and over again?
These so-called quests have reduced MMOs to transactions: complete the quest and you get money and perhaps an item. So where’s my next piece of cheese?
To make matters worse, more monotony and drudgery were added with the contrivance called “daily quests”. Each day the player repeats the same mindless kill 10 rats type of quest. MMOs are not supposed to feel like a job yet now they do when the “content” runs out.
The problem is that quest content is finite leaving the player confused and wondering what to do next. By then the player has been weaned with the expectation that there will always be another NPC on the horizon with yet another quest. Not only is quest content finite it is also extremely expensive to create.
No longer a rare occasion, quests have become so prevalent that they are now the de facto MMO experience to the exclusion of pretty much all else. Quests have monopolized most of the development time that should be going into new features. This singular focus is imbalanced, unhealthy and is a big contributing factor to the current malaise of boredom and tedium out there in the MMO community.
More purple items can not cure this disease.
Reason 4: Questing Makes Players Lazy and Stupid
Questing has created arguably the worst players in MMO history; they have become lazy and stupid and it’s really not their fault. MMO players are the victims of low expectations fueled by shareholder demands to make them accessible. Developers have created MMOs where players don’t have to think for themselves as they blindly follow the orders given them by the quest giver NPC.
Quests are a slacker’s dream as they rarely ever require any semblance of effort, intellect, bravery or courage to commence and complete. You don’t even have to convince an NPC to give you a quest, as every quest giver NPC is open 24 hours a day like a convenience store and has vast resources of gold and items to bestow upon every player that interacts with him.
Players should have to work in order to get information from a NPC that would lead to an assignment, task or quest. There should be some form of effort involved whether it be from intimidation, bribery, having a reputation or just being friendly. Nothing of the sort is asked of today’s MMO player as developers want players to skip all that “boring” stuff and get them killing monsters immediately.
Quests have made players unwilling to think and act for themselves as they chase the next piece of quest cheese. Players have been given a sense of entitlement and are largely reliant upon the MMO for their nightly entertainment via quests.
Like welfare in the real world, questing has instituted a sense of dependency and expectation within the average MMO player. Instead of players looking to each other to create their MMO experiences, they look to the developer like a small child looks to their parents for sustenance. This is extremely unhealthy and has created a demographic of spectators waiting to be entertained.
So who cares if many MMO players have become lazy and stupid? If you still play and care about MMOs you should.
Often the most important and least scrutinized facets of a MMO are the players themselves. With such a deplorably low caliber of players these days, it has the effect of eroding the enjoyment of the remaining MMO players. Without actual “good” players there wouldn’t be much of a MMO. I submit that most of the good players have already left the genre and the tipping point has been reached which again is related to the obvious erosion of socialization and community which is given mere lip service by MMO developers.
Reason 5: Quest Rewards are Too Generous
Quests offer far too many rewards that have the side effect of lessening the importance of other aspects of MMORPGs such as gear that drops from mobs and gear that is crafted by players. Quests are so generous that players never really have to worry about getting better gear. In fact Jeff Kaplan admitted in that same interview that quests are now considered the preferred way to progress in WoW.
Want to find out if players *really* like your quests Mr. Game Designer? Remove all the experience, gold and items as reward and see if players still love your quests. Let’s be honest, without the ridiculously inflated rewards most people would not even bother to do quests. So if quests are not really fun for players without artificial incentives what is the point?
(The unfortunate fact that people have become brainwashed by reward based game design and are unwilling to do anything that does not yield some kind of personal gain or benefit is a discussion for another day).
I challenge any major MMO company that still insists on having quest-centric design to remove all incentives from quests to put their money where their mouth is.
Imagine a MMO with No Quests
Just imagine for a moment what your current MMO world would be like without quests? What would you do? Where would you go? Most typical MMO players today would probably feel disoriented at the prospect because they’ve been playing so many years without any autonomy or freedom; they are used to mommy and daddy holding their hands every step of the way.
Is this how you really want to experience your favorite virtual fantasy world?
If nothing else, the removal of quests would show players how weak and shallow MMOs are these days. Players would see MMOs for what they actually are: simplistic treasure hunts that take place in child proofed playgrounds with little substance and no real impact on the world.
Another thing to consider is that the introduction of quests has pretty much stopped innovation and growth in other more important facets of virtual world design. Quests are a distraction and sleight of hand that prevents players from noticing that the emperor has no clothes.
No one can deny that the continued reliance on quest-centric game play has perpetuated a creative stagnation in the MMO industry as most companies have resorted to making yet another variant of WoW. I often wonder how long the player community is going to keep falling for this ruse. I suppose as long as new players continue to replace the ranks of disenchanted players companies like Blizzard will continue to milk the same tired formula and calls for change will go ignored.
Will quests ever be completely removed from MMORPGs? Not likely because for it to have a realistic chance of success the level of difficulty of the MMO across the board would have to be increased significantly to compensate.
But the days of typical Blizzard style quests may be coming to an end as other developers are starting to re-think how the current quest orthodoxy has negatively impacted how players experience MMORPGs and the communities that play them. It seems one such forward thinking developer Arenanet with their upcoming Guild Wars 2 has already started this process of re-examination. Perhaps someone has finally realized that MMOs have the potential to be far bigger than thousands of quests that comprise a massive virtual “to do” list.
As far as the WoW juggernaut, a few years ago Richard Bartle made a bold claim that got him into trouble from 11 million screaming WoW fans but it bears repeating for its wisdom:
I’d take over World of Warcraft and I’d close it. I just want better virtual worlds. Sacrificing one of the best so its players have to seek out alternatives would be a sure-fire way to ensure that unknown gems got the chance they deserved, and that new games were developed to push back the boundaries.
I’d like to expand on his statement and take it a step further. The best thing that could ever happen to the MMO genre would be for WoW to fail. If that were ever to happen it would be the only way other companies will finally stop imitating and start innovating. Nothing is forever. Just ask Activision who cancelled the once popular Guitar Hero franchise. Today’s hero is tomorrow’s zero.
As a long time MMORPG veteran I feel that not only do we need real innovation, we also need to resist the temptation of empty distractions like quests and return the genre back the founding principles that once made this genre great: challenge, community and respect for player autonomy within the virtual world. These are the indeed the values that made massively multi-player role-playing games great in the first place. We don’t need to reinvent a wheel that has a flat tire.