Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Questing is Dead, Long Live the Quest

It wasn’t too long after the release of Guild Wars 2 that developers proudly announced the death of quests.  The traditional quest giver in a quest hub was a relic of the past.   The future was questless adventures that emerged organically from the environment, and Timeless Isle was going to show us a vision of that future.  However, recent comments from Blizzard suggest that the quest might not be dead after all.

As part of an effort to address decisions about flying, Bashiok made some comments that I found fairly illuminating about Blizzard’s design philosophy for Warlords of Draenor.  My own thoughts were sparked by a discussion on ALT:ernative Chat where Godmother was calming people away from the no-flight cliff, and pointing to this blue post.

Specifically, the philosophy says that rather than stepping away from quests, the designers want to “keep that questing experience available at max level.”  Far from being a stale and tired mechanic that needs a replacement, the questing experience was something worth preserving long past its traditional role in the leveling game.  

What's interesting about quests are the unexpected ways that they interact with other parts of the game.

Unintended Consequences

Quests in MMOs developed as a way to regulate simple grinding as a method for gaining XP.  Kill 10 plainstriders, then 10 prowlers, then zhevra for their hoofs, and in between we returned to Crossroads for brief lessons on life in the Barrens.  The character earned xp from killing the mobs, and then bonus xp when they turned in the quest, making this method extremely efficient for leveling.

At the same time, Blizzard used the quest experience as a mechanism for delivering the story.   Here was a chance for the game to interact with the character in something other than a passive way, an opportunity to communicate the story through short narrative passages, alternating with brief periods of action that re-enforced and illustrated the narrative.  Once players internalized the basic system – quest giver, task, reward – developers found that it mapped neatly to the tools they wanted to use: narrative storytelling, environmental storytelling, player participation.  This was so well received that quest text became the primary vehicle for communicating most of the story of the game. 

But something else happened at the same time.   Because quests were so effective in delivering xp, and packaging it in rewarding and bite-sized pieces, quests became closely tied to experience gain and leveling characters. 

Here is where the unintended consequences emerge.  Questing became one of the primary activities for leveling, so obviously when leveling is over, so are the need for quests:

Questing is a thing that you do when you’re leveling.  Now that you don’t need to level, questing doesn’t have nearly the same reward that it did when you were watching purple bars fill up at the bottom of your screen.  Those were visible re-inforcers of your progress in the game.  Now that the reward is gone, so also is the incentive to complete quests.

And this might be acceptable to a point except the unintended consequences carried even further.   Remember that quests are the major vehicle for storytelling in MMOs.  Sure, you have other activities (raiding, pvp) but those choices aren’t exactly story-rich.

So when questing stopped, the opportunity for storytelling was also greatly diminished.  You don’t have any motivation for talking to npcs; you don’t have a simple mechanism for reading a text box that tells you brief sections of the story; you no longer have proxy markers for phasing or other story progression.  When people are no longer motivated to complete quests, it is very difficult to reach them with story developments.

In the player’s minds are two fundamental assumptions about how MMORPGS work: First, If I’m not leveling, then I don’t need to be questing.  Second, if I’m not leveling, then I need to leave this leveling zone and go to where the “real game” begins at level cap.

The Inflection Point

This creates an inflection point in the game, an identifiable break in the continuity of the experience.  The result is a huge change in the experience of the player when they reach level cap.  Up until that point, the game has been about interacting with the player through text and dialogue.  After that point, the players are shunted to repetitive tasks: dailies, dungeons, raids.  Each of those can convey story elements, but primarily the first time through.  After that, other rewards predominate.

Concept art for the Spires of Arak.
This huge change in player interaction creates obvious problems for Blizzard as well as for the players.  Non-raiding players quickly lose interest in the game and are likely to wander away.  And even if there is more story content available, without the leveling incentive to motivate them, players are apt to ignore it entirely, meaning that Blizzard spends development on content that level-capping players never see.  And if they don't take the time, those players who do persevere to the end of the final zone are left with stories that often fade away into an inconclusive daily grind.  Further, leveling players who have developed a style and rhythm of playing the game suddenly cap, and then must stop the activity that has carried them for months and try to go integrate themselves into something far different.

Recently, Blizzard has been trying to challenge and even change this paradigm, and according to Bashiok they intend to make an even greater effort in Warlords.  And that brings us back to Blizzard’s design philosophy for Warlords.  Blizzard doesn’t want quests to end.  They are contemplating ways to keep that quest-type interaction alive well into endgame.  To “keep that questing experience available at max level” as Bashiok puts it.

Obviously, the developers have been experimenting with daily quests, and with ways to make them more interesting and entertaining.  But dailies are fundamentally iterative, not progressive.  They are designed to provide activities, not advance story.

Paradigm Shift

So let’s take a wild flight of fancy, for a minute.  Bashiok says,
Even at level 100 there will be no small portions of the game world intended to provide relevant content even to max-level players. These zones may even unlock over the course of the expansion, or the content in them will progress in story and scope throughout content patches.”
So imagine an entire zone of quest-delivered storyline that is intended for level capped players.  Not just a few dailies at a single quest hub like Klaxxi’Vess (“something more robust than daily quests”) but a full, Kun-Lai Summit scale zone with multiple locations and plot threads that carry throughout the zone.

What would we need for such a paradigm shift to be successful?
  • Less incentive to immediately stop questing to go do something else.  This means fewer max-level unlocks - "Now that you're 90, you can start grinding Tiller reputation"; "Now that you're 90, Chromie wants to talk to you."  Instead, we should be working with these groups throughout the leveling experience, and max level merely expands on that story, rather than closing it out.  
  • Rewards keep pace with the expansion.  That means that rewards for continuing the storyline are just as good as the rewards for leaving the zone.  We've already had rep-gated gear, mounts and pets.  Merely make them keep pace with Timeless Isle-type loot baskets.
  • Story elements continue to be engaging, unlike the Klaxxi, where a fascinating premise was left unresolved, to be dealt with in another venue.
  • A story that progresses throughout the expansion.  Bashiok has already given possibilities here, with unlocking zones and stories continuing with each patch.  Not just a race to exalted with the Order of the Cloud Serpent in order to get the mount, then no further contact with them for the rest of the expansion.

Basiok: "In summary: It’s important to us that we integrate max-level questing into the expansion more thoroughly than designated daily locations on mountain tops, or only have the option of releasing new max level content in magically appearing islands where flight has different rules because reasons."

I love the implications of this design philosophy.  It was revealed in defense of flight rules, but I think this statement this has re-kindled my excitement for where Warlords is going.  


  1. What is going to motivate hard-core raiders or other players who boast about burning through the regular content of the game 24 hours after the release date in order to reach max level with the best rewards? For players who rush through the game in order to get to the endgame, the idea that there is no end to the regular content of the game, that max level does not deliver the player into the doubtful Elysium of various types of ganking, griefing and grinding must be distasteful or even frightening. I'm happy about it, gotta admit. I only visit raids/dungeons/instances in a not-being-left-out spirit. But for people who live to rule the game, to hang around central hubs of quest or story in high-level gear attracting the admiration of the lower level players before jetting off to kill some mega-boss for the nth time, what reward could possibly be enough?

    1. I think you've put your finger on one of the great myths of the game. Hardcore raiders, however much they are the darlings of the developers, really only make up a tiny fraction of an MORPGs playerbase; by many estimates 5-15%. So the simple answer may be that we're just not going to be as concerned about keeping the 5% motivated as we once were. Sure, we're still going to create raids for them to do, but we're no longer going to structure our entire expansion around the release of raid tiers.

      We need to start thinking about expanded story quests as viable long-term alternatives to raiding, rather than stepping stones to it.