Procrastination Amplification: Punditry on MMOs and games in general.

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.


  • /agree so so much! =)
    I wish “the world” in general would do a lot more random and unexpected things – some related to a quest or lore, some for no reason at all. Is everything in the real world put there for a specific reason? No. it’s authentic to be surrounded by things with no specific purpose or functionality – it creates room for speculation and wonder. in the real world this effect occurs naturally, but in MMOs a developer needs to “implement the random/hidden or even purposeless on purpose”….and I think they only just realize this. obviously it didn’t have first prio in the past, but I’m a sucker for exploration and atmosphere, so bring it! ^^

    I hope we see more dynamic and natural environments in the future. as for quests, the dynamic questing in GW2 sounds like a step in the right direction.
    and I always felt that questing got instantly more interesting without using the map/minimap and other means of help. if you must send me from A to B, at least force me to look at and learn the environment?
    Syl´s last blog post ..A new age of players for a new age of games

  • I wonder how much of the problem is that we always expect a quest. Anything remotely interesting must have a quest attached. If it does not, we may find ourselves ignoring it. Or if we do think about it, we try to figure out where the quest would be and how we can start it.

    On the other hand, as I’m playing through Dragon Age, I find myself glad that just about everything has a quest attached. It helps me keep track of what is going on. Maybe more importantly, it allows me to know that I’m not just banging my head against a wall trying to do something. That’s the problem with scripted worlds, what is possible is only what the devs have made possible. Until we have a world with physics and NPC personality, we’re going to need a lot of scripting and a lot of quests.

  • I agree with this also, finding the statues was a really atmospheric event. I also felt a great sense of achievement having managed to move past them.

    It is a shame that MMOs generally lack any room for ingenuity – as Kleps states that’s scripted worlds for you. I think having a variety of solutions to bring to a problem is good though. I liked that in WoW rogues (class skill), engineers (crafted explosive charge) and blacksmiths (crafted skeleton key) could all open locks for instance – even if that was very underused in the later game…

  • I love weird stuff in games like that. Then again, when I’m trying to fast-track level gaining because of *stupid* level gates, I prefer questing as it’s most efficient. When I want to explore, and I often do, I just… do. I just go explore. I love finding places that exist just because an artist thought they should, not because there’s a quest tied to it. (Like those little caves that show up everywhere, say on the flight path between Thunder Bluff and Orgrimmar.)

    …that said, there’s also a real production cost to these things, too. In modeling, every vertex needs a reason to exist. Every pixel in a texture should be useful. It’s simple economics and even runtime consideration; you can’t have a lot of wasted assets. The real world is full of incidentals… digital worlds, where you have to construct *everything*, don’t have the same luxury. (Believe me, I could wax long and ponderous on this one, working as a game artist who nevertheless loves intricate game worlds.)
    Tesh´s last blog post ..Without Words

  • I wonder if those especially $driven MMOs are not bothering to appeal to Explorer player behaviour anymore because building for Achiever and Socializer behaviours covers the majority of player needs & as Tesh mentions, more content costs $$.

    Something RIFT implemented which piqued my Explorer nodes was the desire to find those damned ‘shinys’ which they would place in the most outlandish places. While I quickly got bored of shiny-hunting, during my exploration I discovered they also placed the odd cache of Rare items in several places off the beaten track & outside of any quest route. Nice touch.

  • @Comptess: Yeah I loved that about Rift as well. And while I understand that assets cost money, but a lot can be done with a little recycling. Not DA 2 style, but I wouldn’t know if the same statues that killed me in Angmar showed up as decorations in Moria or whatever. As long as you don’t overdo it, identical models with different functionality can go a long way.
    scrusi´s last blog post ..Quests can Ruin Exploration

  • @scrusi: Oh, yes, any artist worth their salt will reuse as much as possible. The trick is making it look like you’re not reusing. I think I had an article on that a while back… or meant to write one… or something. Anyway, even when you’re reusing, it still takes time to place those duplicates in the world and make them look like they are unique with lighting, coloring or surrounding tricks. It’s always a time sink to create anything in a digital world, and naturally, at some point, there’s a cost/benefit threshold that exerts its influence. I’d argue that fleshing out a world is crucial to selling it, but some of those numbers guys in the corner offices don’t see it the same way.

    Ah, there’s my article:
    Tesh´s last blog post ..Without Words