Back to the roots

(first part)

Its not a problem of quests, its a problem of the fundamental game mechanics that enforce the quest-types.

For example, mobs in WoW do not eat. They do not sleep. They don’t go to a job. They don’t talk. They don’t move to a different zone. They just stand around, walk around a bit for exercise, they attack a PC if he gets too close, die, and respawn a few minutes later.

WHOA… its shocking that complex quests can’t be built around the pathetic limitations of mob behavior!

The only (current) solution given the mundane and static world of todays VSOGs is quests that are about WoW players. But the problem, again, is gameplay limitation. What do WoW players want? Items, gold, experience, socialization. WoW players actually want much more, but WoW only gives them so much.

That’s a quote from a very old post on Q23, from Brian Koontz. I wasn’t expecting to use it but I found it on a text file just a minute ago and it may fit. This will be a follow-up to my summarized analysis about quest mechanics. This time focusing on the solutions and the answers to those questions that concluded the previous article.

Here is where I left:

In the quest I brought as an example above the text seems to get in the way of the game, not part of it. Again, you are rewarded if you read it (well-written text) but it’s still felt as an intrusion. Something that doesn’t seem to belong there. An ‘extra’ text (once again) that in that case is getting a tad too much “inflated”.

Now the point is, Mythic seems to have some good writers, and then some wonderful artists. These are precious *resources* and they seem good. Isn’t there a better way to use them? Would it be possible to move the text there (without changing it) to a different context to make it more meaningful and with a more appropriate “presentation”? Is there a way to valorize that text?

I don’t mean changing the font and making it more readable. I mean transforming it in a *subject* (and value) of the game instead of just an ‘extra’ that most of the players would (and will) rather skip (the outcome is the same, your “duty” is to click till the end till you “ding” the reward. Nothing could go wrong).

The “solutions” to these problems will be the subject of another article. But I’ll anticipate that these ideas I have will be about recovering that functional purpose that made the text in those old games I quoted so relevant and… fun.

The goals here are about:
1- Transform passive, ‘extra’ text as *subject* of the gameplay and not as just an inflated backdrop that the players would rather skip so they can go back at “playing the game”

2- Recover the interest and fun in “reading”, bringing back that special flavor from the old RPGs that seems now lost for good

3- Detach the “functional” purpose of the questing from being just an artificial excuse to add some bland variation to grindy treadmills and level-up mechanics

4- Reward those players that read and ‘explore’ actively the game this way

As I always say what is important is to set the goals. Once the goals are set we can consider the possible solutions, which could work or not. What is fundamental is to have a reference that is valid. Those four points are the reference I used to come up with my ideas.

Now there not much to invent. I always considered ‘game design’ as not something where the rabid creativity is terribly useful and I also don’t feel so talented when it comes to the pure creativity. What I consider more useful is the capability to observe, understand how things work, bring them back to the essential and figure out new, better ways to use what’s available. It’s about rediscovering and adjusting. Shaping things more than inventing them out of thin air. Working and researching more than being a genius doing everything perfect at the first try.

In this case the second point defines what I want to bring back. This isn’t abstract theory, this is about concrete ideas. What’s written in the first goal may appear as fancy but it already happened in those classic RPGs, like the Ultima series, System Shock and even Bioware games, like Baldur’s Gate or Torment. These were wonderful stories where the gameplay was more about the dialogues than combat. And that ‘text’ wasn’t felt as an intrusive extra. It was the spice of the game, what made it *fun*.

So what’s the difference between those games and the quests in the current mmorpgs? To my eyes it’s rather evident. In WoW the essential part of a quest is its objective. Similarly in DAoC you click through lenghty, optional text that is there as context. While you’ll have what’s actually relevant for the gameplay in your “journal”. In both these games the quest has two, nearly autonomous parts: the context, which is optional, and the objective, which is required. Autonomous because you can easily do without the first part (and the game somewhat pushes you that way) and because the two, nearly always, have nothing to share when it comes to the gameplay.

Basically, the optional text gives a context to the quest but serves no practical purpose. In nearly all the cases you can do without it if the quest objectives aren’t poorly written.

The first two goals I wrote up there can be joined together, the same it is possible with the last two. I believe that reading in the old RPGs had a special flavor and was “fun” because it was, in fact, the *subject* of the gameplay (first goal) and not an inflated backdrop. So one goal flows naturally in the second. The point here is that in those old games you didn’t have any “aid” to streamline your gameplay. See these three examples:

In System Shock you start basically stuck in a room. You cannot move out of it till you don’t find a log file and read it to find the key-code that will allow you to open the door. The same log file will tell you what is supposed to be your next step, but from that point onward the game loses the linearity and will become just a complex, hostile environment where you follow “bread crumbs” of informations. The first environment is that small so that you can get used to the mechanics of the game. You have to read the log files to understand your situation and place in the game. Learn the environment where you are put, collecting and putting together parts of the story till you are able to figure out the overall scheme. This game has its greatest quality in the freedom it leaves to the player. It isn’t directly linear and all the game is fragmented in those little pieces that you progressively bring together. It’s one of the most immersive games ever.

In Ultima 8 you start on a isle and there’s basically no interface helping you. No quest journal to speak of. You are basically trapped in the first small town till you don’t figure out who to speak with and where to go next. You won’t have a waypoint on a map, you won’t see big exclamation marks hovering NPCs heads, telling you that a quest is available. You’ll have to figure out all that by yourself. By speaking with people, exploring the place, asking the right questions, progressively learning about the world around you. Two seconds in the game you’ll meed Devon, a fisherman. If you ask the right questions he will tell you a lot of the place where you are. If you ask the wrong questions those informations are lost and you’ll have to gather them from other sources. Devon will still give you two basic hints: go see what’s happening on the dock (an execution) and go speak with Bentic, a librarian that you can find in the eastern part of the town. Again you have to figure out these basic informations from the dialogues, since the game doesn’t point you artificially in those directions.

In Ultima 7 you gate directly into Trinsic. Even here you are stuck in the town and cannot leave it till you don’t accept to investigate a crime and obtain the permission to leave. Even here you have to explore the game world, talk to the people inhabiting it, learning about their stories, figuring out their relationships and finally playing a role in how things develop. There isn’t one defined path shining brightly and when you finally solve the first “quest” and are able to leave Trinsic you aren’t rewarded with a “ding” and some experience points. Your character basically remains the same throughout the whole game at the exclusion of some story items you’ll have to acquire.

All these three examples are WONDERFUL VIRTUAL WORLDS. They still are better than anything we have online right now. There’s no other game with the same depth and immersive experience. To deliver all that these games have characters that “live” in those worlds. They aren’t functional buttons you press to get a quest or buy stuff. Are those characters to give life to the world. You start with no knowledge and you move your first steps talking to those NPCs so that you can slowly learn about the game world, slowly becoming part of it, taking an active role. But that world and those stories existed before you stepped in. You are an explorer. You wander around, find places, get to know those NPCs. Live with them.

Ding! Grats? There’s none. Noone cares about skills or stats. In the Ultima series the combat and the micromanagment of your character are close to NULL. Still they are wonderful games. Some of the best (if not the best) ever created. Still today.

It should be clear that the difference is that the text was used in those games as part of the *exploration*. It wasn’t an optional backdrop. Without going around, exploring, asking questions to the various NPCs, taking notes and learning the history and culture of that world, you wouldn’t be able to do ANYTHING in the game. There wasn’t a total focus on the combat, or kill ten foozles, or gain ‘x’ levels. It was about the world, the stories, living an immersive experience in as many aspects as possible. In Ultima 7 the NPCs had schedules and it felt already so incredible watching the guards patrolling and turning off the lights in Britain at night. It was pure atmosphere in a self-consistent virtual world.

Two are the patterns that I isolated in those old games and that we completely lost today:

– The first (first and second goal) is that the text was an active part of that research I explained. You had to figure out the objectives by yourself, dialoguing with the NPCs and progressively acquiring the informations you were looking for (this is gameplay). Engaging the logic of the game world (and your own). The dialogues were just that: dialogues. They didn’t need to be anything else.

– The second pattern is about the *function* of the quests:

In my idea (that mimics that magic that made me love so much those early games and that the modern ones have lost) a quest is a mean for the story. A quest can be a way to get access to a different zone, discover a new spell, convince an NPC to do something for you, and so on. If an NPC asks you to obtains some reagents (kill10rats) it’s because once you have accomplished that simple quest, something will happen after. And then something else. You wouldn’t chase strictly your character progress. You would chase a story and discover, step after step, a world. A world with its own depth and identity before you put your foot in it. Learning from it and not inflicting ‘punishment’ on everything that budges. If you don’t deliver those reagents that were requested, or if you don’t find an alternate way to pass that point, you wouldn’t be able to continue with the (your) story. Because the story is the *function*, not the pretext.

This means that there could be “kill10rats” quests. But they would be part of a world and a story that goes on, cohesively. And not a redundant action without a purpose.

In those old games questing was a mean for the story. Acquiring more power, if it was possible, was to move the story onward (Raph described exactly the same things on his analysis of the D&D, here). Not the opposite. The narrative was the purpose of the game, not an intrusive ‘extra’ getting in the way of mob-bashing. The purpose was the story, the world, your active role in that world. Learning it, discovering it. You were discovering something BESIDE you. Not your e-peen growing indefinitely. You cannot tell me that a growing e-peen is more satisfactory than the immersive experience of those virtual worlds. Because, if this is true, it’s YOU to be broken beyond repair, not these games.

Everything I’m writing here closely resembles to what I was shouting during Wish beta. There are two faces of the medal similar to what I said defining the dichotomies of instancing. It’s in the PvP that the world should be focused on the PLAYERS. Make them the pivot of the game. Giving them control, letting them cooperate. And then there’s the PvE, with its antithetic needs. Where the focus should be on the *world* itself. Offering stories, learning its culture, exploring it. If this world doesn’t “breath” on its own, if it doesn’t has secrets to discover, if it doesn’t frighten, well, it wouldn’t have any value. It wouldn’t offer anything worthwhile.

The PvP is about a game where the players make experience of each other and relate to each other. It’s the social layer. The players are brought together, the collective effort. Something bigger is being built. It’s the starting point for emergent content.

The PvE is about a game where the players make experience of the world and what it has to offer. Where you narrate a story to them and to that story they will belong. It’s the journey toward something you do not expect, the exploration. It’s about the surprise, the discovery, the fear. This is the roleplay where you impersonate the character and live a story with him.

I want real dialogues and “living” NPCs as it happened in the Ultima series. Where you don’t skip the quest text to get a strict summary of the objectives, but where, instead, you have to RESEARCH and EXPLORE. Talk with different NPCs, taking notes, figuring out the stories. Where you can ask about different topics and not just click, click, click and click again till you reached the end of a one-way text and finally got the quest. Where these NPCs are interconnected and where the dialogues are more rich. So that the world comes to life as something cohesive and not a bunch of quests glued together without any tie between one or the other if not a vague reference. A world where EVERY item is interconnected.

Dialogues that aren’t simply functional to get or finish a quest, or flagged clearly that way. The NPCs would tell things to you, recommend who to speak to, where to search what you are looking for, give informations about the world where you live, explain how to open that portal. But without strictly functional quests that trigger at some point. Without the game recognizing between “this is the text for a quest” and “this is extra text”. Without a “you got a quest!”. Without functional mechanics “you gained 300xp!”.

If you are trapped in a dungeon, your duty would be to escape alive. Not to get experience points because you killed the monsters. If you are working to open a portal to another world your duty would be to research and collect the items and knowledge you need to do open it, and not other unexcused rewards. If you are researching a new spell, your duty would be about studying it, learn where you can acquire it, train it. But not magically “dinging” and the spell appearing in your hotbar because you “gained a level”.

Then, maybe, reading will regain its function instead of remaining “optional” extra text without a purpose.

Concretely? Here is the plan:

BACK TO THE ROOTS, a list of “no more”

– No more advancement through quests, all the player’s skills should increase through a natural use and new skills and powers should be learned through realistic means such as: discovery, exploration, training etc… Everything happening “in” the game, meaning not directly directly spawned by a non-immersive element, like the UI itself, a “ding. grats!” or another abstract game mechanic.

– Quests or “journeys” (a “journey” is a chain of quests) to learn new spells, acquire new powers, discover other zones, find your way through the world, learn about it.

– No more logbooks or journals, no objectives, no exclamation marks hovering NPC heads, no coordinates or waypoints. No abstract mechanics such as “quest levels” to deliver content.

– Dialogues with NPCs made through branching trees and multiple choices. No more one-way text. No optional, “filler” text.

– Different NPCs all talking and offering more informations about the same quest paths. No more isolated quests and unconnected, oblivious NPCs. No NPCs standing one next to the other and knowing nothing about each other.

– No more NPCs sitting in one place and waiting to be clicked-on like cheese dispenser. Every NPC should have and follow a simple schedule. The NPCs should go sleep at their homes during the night and their existence in the world should be always “motivated”. No more just a “service” for the player or for a strictly artificial purpose. The NPCs should be there for their own life and motivations, not just for you. You are there to learn about them, discover their world, not just to use everything as your own tool. The world is the pivot, not you.

– The PvE areas and instances should have no maps (possibly with the exclusion of in-game drawings manipulable by the character). No more radars, or on-screen compass. If you have a compass or a map, it’s an item in the game, used by your character.

– More quests should have the purpose to grant access to new areas and develop the story. So questing should be mandatory to progress in PvE. All the areas and the instances should exist with the only purpose of enacting stories and immerse the player.

Problems to sort out:
– NPCs sleeping when you need them
– Replayability

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