Monday, April 23, 2012

My MMmanifesto - Quests

Quests drive single-player games. Players drive a virtual world. There is little or no room for quests in an MMO.

Here i should clarify a certain distinction. There is such a thing as cooperative PvE. This is what most people picture when they think of MMO gameplay. You gather a group of players, go inside an instance and play through various fights requiring you to use interdependencies built into your character classes in various scripted PvE encounters.
I'm willing to bet this sort of thing can be achieved without a monthly fee. Certainly it doesn't cost $15/month. We're talking about 5-man teams, or at most 40-man raids. Servers on this scale have been used for FPS games for well over a decade and they never required a subscription.
You could build a game around this easily. Create a series of maps or zones for players to fight through, linked by quests and cutscenes and whatever flavoring you want to invest in. Give players chat rooms to bullshit each other in with their avatars represented, a la Diablo 2. At no point does any of this require a persistent world, and it can be thoroughly enjoyable gameplay in itself. This sort of game is not my concern here.

Players drive a persistent world. Quests are counterproductive because they separate individuals or small groups. Get players interested in each others' stories, get them interested in what's happening across the landscape. Don't ever tell them "go over there and kill ten rats". The driving force of quests should be replaced by the demands players make on each other. An attack on one of your clan's holdings is a quest to defend it. An enemy clan claiming a metal ore mine is a quest to conquer it. A market order from another player for goblin eyeballs is a quest to hunt goblins and your empty quiver is a quest to travel to town and buy some arrows.
Put NPC town criers or datalink newsfeeds into the game to notify players of random events in the game world. Put articles and interviews up on your game's website about player activities, like EVE has been doing.

Never, and i mean never, put cutscenes into an MMO. That sort of theatricality is very useful in single player as a replacement for exactly the kind of varied player theatrics you should be encouraging online. Use the landscape and game mechanics to prompt players to create their own impressions instead. Arrange the terrain at the approach to a castle to make it impressively postcard-pretty. Let players build lookout towers with telescopes to watch the approach of an enemy army. Put in a little pause before various stages of a castle siege to give everyone a chance to shout 'yo momma !' at each other. Let defeated players haunt their killers a little while, whispering curses into their ears and distorting their game client's graphics.

There is a small role for traditional quests in a persistent world, but it's as small diversions or long-term, vague over-arching tasks. Drop a few NPCs into the game world, captured by other mobs, that can be rescued. Have an NPC ask for the blood of a dragon hatchling when nobody knows when and where a dragon will nest, having players just keep a lookout for the opportunity. Never make quests into specific, immediate tasks to save the thoughtless from realizing they're incapable of planning. Force players to figure out for themselves what they want to do at every moment.

Part of the role of quests could conceivably be filled by GMs, assuming we're not cutting costs by keeping as few of them on staff as possible. There are endless ways a GM could make players' lives more interesting, from spawning as a dragon or other gigantic monster and terrorizing the countryside or staging an assassination attempt against the leader of a powerful player clan to starting secret cabals in abandoned cellars in various player cities, instigating revolts and having players perform intricate, large-scale rituals, to taking the role of gods and bestowing blessings in return for sacrifices. There are a lot of thorny issues involved like costs and fairness or favoritism, but the potential is also so much higher than the eternal
"kill ten rats"

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