Monday, June 2, 2008

[video games] The whole MMORPG quest paradigm is kind of broken

quest NPC from Age of ConanRight, so Age of Conan has sucked me back into playing a more-pig again, and while there's definitely a lot of cool stuff going on with it, elements of the usual MMORPG formula that it improves or fixes, it's also doing a lot to remind me just how wrongheaded a lot of that formula really is. I've got a whole list of complaints with MMORPGs, but the biggest one is probably this: Developers are still creating quests and quest systems as if they were for single player games.

I'd assume that everybody knows what I mean by this, but there is compelling evidence that I'm the only one who actually cares, so I'll spell it out for those who don't let stuff like this bug them: Questgiver NPC Guy stands out in the middle of the town square, staying in exactly the same spot throughout all the years of the game's life cycle, endlessly telling any player characters of a certain level range about how he lost his lucky hat in the haunted forest, and would they go get it back for him? Questgiver Guy remains in that spot, collecting the lucky hats which are delivered, night and day, by an endless stream of PCs, giving each of them a fairly item (or a choice of a few items) which he has no particular reason to possess. And still he stands there, eternally hatless, eternally begging for aid from the hordes of appropriately-leveled PCs.

So, naturally, if any two player characters of similar level were to share stories of their past adventures, they'd usually find their pasts to be remarkably similar, differing only in the exact order in which they did their favors for various Questgiver Guys. Worse, in a lot of games, this means often that a player won't be able to find the goblin who stole the lucky hat because some other player has already killed it. Instead, they have to wait for the goblin (and the hat) to respawn in order to kill it all over again.

I think the tremendous popularity of these games is compelling evidence that other people don't really let implied absurdities like this bother them, but seriously, they drive me fuckin nuts.

So what kind of alternative am I looking for? Yeah, that's a tougher question. Personally, I don't think I'm so enamored of cute banter and deep dialog trees that I'd mind randomly-generated NPCs giving out randomly-generated quests along these lines:

I'm [FIRSTNAME] [LASTNAME], the [OCCUPATION] here in [TOWN]. I was attacked by [MONSTER]s over in [LOCATION], and they took my [ADJECTIVE] [OBJECT]. Could you get it back for me? I'd go after it myself, but [WEAKEXCUSE].

Hell yes I would prefer that Mad Libs shit to doing the same damn quests that every other player has already done. And, to be honest, I really think that with a flexible enough modular quest/NPC system, a big list of basic quest forms (fetch, escort, scavenger hunt, etc.), and enough attention paid to creating generators that are limited to somewhat logical results, I think this could actually be really great. And the best part might be that it would be extremely easy to add new component pieces--new OCCUPATIONs, new OBJECTs, new WEAKEXCUSEs,etc.--whenever the developers can write them up. Hell, they could even include screened submissions from the players. With enough care, I honestly think that random quest system doesn't have to result in bland and nonsensical quests.

I could keep going on about this, but I think I've played backseat game designer for enough paragraphs, already.


Chris Lowrance said...

I've never actually played a more-pig, but I've heard people complain about this before. As much as I fucking love Elder Scrolls, I don't see how that question system works with thousands of people playing. Oh, wait, it doesn't really.

I like your idea of random Mad Libs quests. Even better in my mind would be NPCs that were actually played by paid employees of the game company, who could essentially gather up parties of PCs for custom events. That's probably way out of the real of possibility, but it sounds cool.

Matt Sheridan said...

Oh, yeah, paid GMs or whatever to run NPCs would be awesome. Especially if you couldn't immediately tell them from all the random, AI-powered NPCs, so you'd always have this incentive to actually read quest text in case it turns out to be something unique, realtime, and possibly important.

I know some MMORPGs have gone the human GM route before, but I don't think I've ever actually played any of those. Can't really say how well it's worked in the past, but I dig the idea.

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