Friday, August 8, 2014

Quest Mechanics and Story in Talaos City

Last week, I began a series that looked at the story of Makeb, the planet in Star Wars: The Old Republic's latest expansion.  As I commented back then, Makeb represented the best questing experience that Bioware, a company known for its storytelling games, could produce.   So here, I take a critical look at their quest design, with Bioware's reputation in mind.

I want to talk about the questing model Bioware uses here.  Think of quest storytelling as a series of islands separated by ocean.  The islands represent the narrative parts of the experience, the parts where the story is presented.  The ocean represents the game-like parts of the quest; the combat and clearing of mobs that happens  between the story bits. The size of the islands represents how much story the player is asked to absorb at one time and so larger islands have lots of story presented at the same time.  The distance these islands are from each other represents how much of the mechanical activities are required between story segments.

SWTOR storytelling conforms very closely to this Island/Ocean model, and Makeb has some very big islands.

Our Story so far...
Step One: Shalim Avesta has heard of a secret plan by the Hutts to be implemented in case anything goes wrong with the mining operation. Lemda suggests it might be a way to instantly stabilize the planet if the quakes get too bad.  It is called "Project Failsafe."

Since the quakes are reaching critical levels we need to find out what Project Failsafe is, and set it in motion.  To do that, Avesta suggest we break into the Hutt Embassy and poke around, hoping to find mention of Failsafe.

Step Two:  to get inside the Embassy we need to find a former head of security for the Hutts, a deserter from the Regulators, who probably knows a way in.  We fly to a hidden camp of Regulator refugees and find our man, and he does indeed know a way in, but it's not going to be easy.

Step Three: we need to take care of three levels of security around the Embassy: the turrets, the front door and the droids inside.

So far, we've spent around 15 minutes of dialogue across two different conversations and travel on top of that.  My head is stretching to try to keep the overarching story in front of me as it is.  I haven't taken on the secondary quests and I've yet to engage the enemy.  Obviously this is a huge island of content that the devs have presented all at once, covering a lot of story ground.

What do I have to do, again?
At this point, I've got five objectives highlighted on my map and my possible routes are crawling with mob groups and patrols.  A second quest from the Protectors gives me another objective up front with another 9 later.  And a little datapad I pick up on the way asks me to interact with another 6 terminals that I find scattered throughout the area.  That gives me 21 glowing blue terminals to click.

As a player, it's going to be a stretch to keep all of these objectives straight.  More likely, I'm just going to have to keep my head down and work my way through the crowds until I get near one of these glowing objective points, and then figure out what to do when I get there.  My best bet is to consult the map, look for the nearest glowing triangle and head out.  Is this blue keypad for the Protectors, or for the datapad I picked up? Does it access one of the Embassy locations, or does it even matter?  If it glows blue, click it. 

The reality is that the mechanics of the questing - the interaction with the 21 objectives, all of which involve simply clicking on a blue terminal, are making it hard to keep the overall story in mind. If I can't overtly tell the difference between the major story milestone and a minor side quest objective, it diminishes my engagement in that major story.  I'm forced to treat everything as if it were of equal importance.  The effect of this design choice is to distance the players from the story rather than engaging them.

Even worse, all the actual storytelling happens in the cut scenes where the player is limited to a relatively few choices.  By the time I reach full engagement as a player in control of my character, my involvement is limited to interacting with terminals.  Zone-level storytelling has all but stopped.

Instead, I have a very big ocean of purely game-like activity that I have to cross to get to the next infusion of story.  When the islands are large and very distant, the story suffers.

What could we be doing better?
Like we found with the Lemda rescue, the objectives need to actively contribute to the story rather than distracting from it.  Instead of using so many generic keypads, the interaction points should reference what is happening behind the scenes.  Make them door knobs or bells to ring.   The designers seem so taken with the fact that this is science fiction, that everything ends up being a computer keyboard.  If it is a rescue, shoot off a flare.  If it is prisoner information, pick up ID bracelets or manacles.  The point of interaction should always point back to the story.

Don't overuse a mechanic within the same region.  If the first quest asks the player to interact with keypads, don't make the two other quests also require the same thing.  All the quests will begin to run together in the players' minds. 

One thing I did like about the evacuation quests was that when you clicked on the alarm, you got immediate feedback in the form of refugees running out of the buildings.  When you completed one of the steps to access the embassy, you got a quick voice-over from the security man confirming it.  This kind of reinforcement of the quest story is exactly what's needed to help the player understand what they are accomplishing.

Another tool used well here was the following quests.  After we actually breached the Embassy and found the inside man, the style changed and we began to see the story progress again.  We learned more about project failsafe and found a way to escape from the Embassy in a way that tied our actions directly to the story again.  Here, the story islands were smaller, but much closer together.

When done correctly as in the latter half of the area, the narrative seems to be an organic part of the game.  Players don't have to think about it, "OK, here's more story.  Do I want to pay attention or not?"    Stacked at the beginning, bored players are driven to spacebar past the dialogue.  When it's integrated into the action, the players just absorb it along with everything else they are doing.

This is my eighth offering in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

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