Quests can Ruin Exploration
The traditional (by now) questing model in MMOs doesn’t leave a lot of room for exploration and surprises. Things get even worse when players (like me) decide not to read quest text and blindly follow the pointers of some built-in quest helper system. The other day, LotRO surprised me when I encountered a line of watching stones in Angmar. Modeled upon the two watching stones Sam encountered at Cirith Ungol in “The Return of the King”, these stones blocked access to the eastern parts of Angmar completely (by killing me when I got near.)
After the initial shock of being killed and having to cross a part of the zone again to my quest objective, I was intrigued. Why did they kill me? How could I get past them? Is there a secret passage somewhere? Wasn’t something like this in the books as well?
The simple feature of a line of statues that killed me when I got near was enough to immerse me into the world I had previously been blindly questing through. Then I found the corresponding quest that had me investigate the secret of the stones and eventually lead to me finding a way around it. Oddly enough, I couldn’t care less for that quest. It was your usual lame can’t-be-bothered-to-read quest text. I’m quite happy that I strayed into that region before the quest lead me there because I wouldn’t have enjoyed this piece of story at all in quest form.
“They seemed to be carved out of huge blocks of stone, immovable, and yet they were aware: some dreadful spirit of evil vigilance abode in them. They knew an enemy. Visible or invisible, none could pass unheeded.” – The Lord of the Rings Vol. 3: Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien
What can we learn from this? For one, simple game mechanics can often tell a story much better than quests can. Finding such a curious object and thinking about its meaning is interesting and fun, being told about it in neat little quest-sized chunks is not. I miss the days in which encountering such an obstacle would lead to a new conversation option at certain NPCs with which I could try to find out more about the stones and how to handle them. Optimally, there would be more than one solution, at least one of which could be found by exploring or experimenting.
Even making the solution rather obvious would be fine, but please don’t make me jump through the stupid hoops of modern questing when you have something this awesome in your game. Hell, it would even be fun to stumble upon such a stone if it had no other in-game functionality whatsoever. Just put it there and have players wonder what it is, not everything needs to be streamlined into your themepark experience.