Enough with the (solo) quest hubs
A Companion Piece to “Of Augury and Speculation”
Musing on Massively Multiplayer Games
In a recent post, I queried “what have we lost to solo play?” My premise in that article was that building our game worlds around solo-based quest hubs has trivialized the MMO worlds and led us to a series of parallel solo-play games. Feedback from the article has been quite strong, my thanks to everyone who read the article and an extra dose of thanks to those who commented (good and bad).
Detractors for the column assumed I wanted to see games return to camping, most likely due to my references to Everquest. That, though, is a mistaken assumption. I rarely camped in EQ (my group did nightly dungeon circuits, not sit in one room sessions) and I would rather not change one limited premise (quest hubs) for another (camping). The second mistaken assumption regarding my last post was that I didn’t want to see soloing in MMO’s.
That’s also an error, soloing is a necessary thing in the modern MMO. There is a place for soloing, sometimes we can’t find a group, sometimes we won’t be on long enough to participate in a group, and sometimes we just want some alone time. I get it. Soloing is important – but soloing should not be the dominant and encouraged playstyle in a multiplayer game. On top of that, soloing should not be the only path for advancement and no, being able to group up to steamroll trivial quests is not a reasonable alternative. Everquest II offers a good tale of the best and worst of game expansion design.
In Echoes of Faydwer, the players had solo quest hubs as an advancement path across the entire game world. There were also, though, solid dungeons that took you across the same level range. On top of that you had a number of raid quality targets as well. Whether you liked to solo, group, or multi-group, EoF had a path for you. Win-win-win. Then came Ruins of Kunark and a new direction. Now, you really needed to finish the solo story line to get the faction to take advantage of the game. Rather than three spheres, RoK was built on the more typical WoW model. First you solo to the end, then you find a group, then when you tap out grouping you go multi-group. Realistically, no one is happy in that model. Group players chafe at being forced to play through the solo grind. Soloists are left feeling like they only get to complete Act 1 of a three Act play because the good stuff starts when they end. Raiders simply find a way to bypass the content so they can get to the game they want to play. Lose, lose, lose.
There are things we can do to build better worlds for our MMO’s. Things which cultivate solo, group and multi-group game play equally. Some of these things are already out there, but are not yet MMO staples. As I work through this column, you will see references to great ideas already out there in MMO’s. Sometimes I will simply offer an existing feature, but oft times I will extend on an existing feature. In a few cases, I will offer ideas that I have yet to see placed in an MMO. I am also interested in what you think – I can’t possibly have run the gamut of all the ways to promote varied game play. Step up to the comments and place your ideas out there for us to all see and discuss.
My goal in this series is to offer game design ideas that promote social, emergent game play. In using the term emergent, I emphasize direction and narrative which arises as you play, not paths that are pre-ordained. Additionally, I reference the definition of emergent that refers to “arising casually or unexpectedly.” I recognize that players will create a golden path, or ideal set of steps, through the game world (I’m guilty of this myself). It’s fine to offer one, but you don’t want to go so far that your game world turns into a series of treadmills, with players running one mill until a meter fills and then hopping to the next mill.
Things we can do about solo quest hubs
In this section, I want to examine alternatives to solo-quest hubs as the dominant core to world design. To summarize my points from my last column, designing your world in this manner leads to watered down encounters and reinforces the static nature of the world. Playing repetitive content where your actions produce little or no discernible results is the primary ingredient to perception of grind.
Solo instances – I am not opposed to soloing, but I do believe we are building our worlds backwards. Our game worlds are sanitized and generally safe, with all the dangerous stuff tucked nicely behind instance walls or in fenced in lairs. I think that should be reversed. The game world should be deadly and dangerous (with the players having escape options) and the safer, solo stuff should be placed in instances. There are clearly things a hero can do alone – build content for that. This could be the mission builder idea of Anarchy Online, the story instances of Star Wars: the Old Republic, or player generated missions such as those found in Star Trek Online or the forthcoming Neverwinter (or all of the above). Put the player into solo instances as a regular option for game play. The content can be better tuned and the player can be given elements of choice and conclusion in the process.
Mercenaries – This idea made its first appearance in Guild Wars, but variants of it exist currently in Star Wars: the Old Republic, Final Fantasy XI, Everquest and Pirate 101. Similarly, Lord of the Rings Online does something a bit like this with Skirmishes which are instanced content. You should need a friend to play in the harsh world, but that friend could be sitting in your backpack. Build classes around roles, but for solo play offer complementary role NPC’s. Provide some scripting/macro type options similar to that used in Dragon Age: Origins. Build your outdoor world under the assumption that small groups are the norm, but use mercs as an option for the solo player to get some stuff done in that world while reinforcing development of their role skills.
Research or Concentration – One of the biggest reasons we started down the quest hub path is the fear of being left behind. “I couldn’t xp as often as my group,” or “I’m not always available when they play” quickly leads to “give me solo options.” Eve solves this problem handily with off-line leveling and that’s a mechanic that could make headway in an MMO. Provide a research/concentration path. Whenever your player is offline or engaged in non-adventuring adventuring (diplomacy for instance), a practice skill can be pressed forward. When that research objective is completed (time based), the player gets an XP reward to their adventuring experience.
Good Bye Static Quest Hub World, Hello Believable World
Here’s a dirty little secret, a static world isn’t a horrible thing. I live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States, but I was born and grew up in a very small town. In that town, jobs are performed by the same people for decades. When they retire or die, those jobs are assumed by their children or relatives. If it is true that small towns recycle people in an advanced economy it is likely even more true in a pre-industrial fantasy world or even a rural sci-fi outer rim environment. There is a reason for the timeless French saying, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose,” (the more things change the more they stay the same).
One problem with our current quest design is that too many quests are built around the things that should change, not the things that should not. When we complete a world-changing event and nothing changes, it reinforces the artificial nature of that world. Similarly when we complete a non-changing event and the world then changes in that we can’t repeat what is logically repeatable; it also reinforces our perception of the artificial. My point here is embrace the static – if something in a world is logically relatively static, let it be. If something is not, don’t turn it into a treadmill event.
A related problem is the isolated nature of our game worlds. In our real world, very few people live in isolation. Most are involved and interdependent on others. Humans are social animals and not just because we clump together in villages and towns. Interaction between world elements is a good way to make the game world feel more realistic and it opens the door to types of tasks and activities naturally suited to solo play.
Logical static quests with dynamic solo moments - That trapper out in the woods who needs five bear hides, what’s he going to do with them? Bundle them up, haul them to a trade hub and exchange them. After that? He’s going to do it all over again. That’s a good static, repeatable quest. Actually there are two static, repeatable quests if you also haul off the goods. Three if the merchant who takes the delivery has a return package. Having the same trapper only take five and then never talk to you again? That’s artificial. Don’t make that a one-off quest, make it an emergent event. Help him out on whatever step as often as you wish. Invoke some diminishing returns if it is repeated too often in a set time window. Heck, if you really want to have fun with this, tie in the diminishing returns to how often this quest has been completed in total (not just by the player).
Stop with the sociopathic design elements – So, we were playing Wizard 101 with our little girl. We ran into a fairly typical quest: rescue five fairies. After a few minutes, she came to understand what to look for to identify a trapped fairy. We rescued our five fairies, turned in the quest and got the rewards. Sounds familiar, right? After turning in our rewards, our daughter promptly went to save the next trapped fairy she saw. When she could no longer save the fairies, it confused the heck out of her. And it should – that’s totally illogical and just a wee bit sociopathic to abandon those in need of help simply because a check-list event has been completed.
Look, if the local villains are routinely imprisoning the local town-folk, saving those town folk should be an always on quest. On top of that, we shouldn’t need to find a quest starter to begin helping. The very first one you find (and save) should trigger the event/quest. It should be available as long as the tension between those two NPC factions exists (e.g. forever in a typical MMO).
Social Lore– Vanguard: Saga of Heroes gave us Diplomacy, which needs to make an recurring appearance in the MMO. Diplomacy, for those unfamiliar, is a collectible card game characters play with NPC’s. Rewards range from treasure, to new quest lines, to a conceptually interesting levers and switches meta game within each city hub (pitting one faction of a town against another). Beyond being a good single player game, Social Lore opens the door to better quest writing. Only in MMO world do people simply dump a few paragraphs of lore into general conversations and requests. If that information was hidden behind a Diplomacy wall, quest text could get shorter and to the point (and make use of action oriented writing) while lore hounds could pry the secrets out of NPC’s via Diplomacy. On a related note, multi-player or PVP Diplomacy, please?
Archeology Lore – The more common experience with lore has been the application of “search and click” or “jump puzzle” exploration objectives. I’m not a big GW2 fan, but I will observe that it’s impossible to log off if I see a Vista. I must get to the top of that Vista, I must get the tome unlock. I also really enjoyed the Datacrons in Star Wars: the Old Republic. By the way, wouldn’t there logically be some people who would like you to return evidence of your discovery, in-world? Wouldn’t it be likely that others might not want you to? Couldn’t you build dynamic events (including solo instances) based on the things that happen after you found that hidden tome, text or lore object?
Incentivize good play – Right now our games focus on rewarding play time, not play quality. Occasionally you hit a quest where a specific skill or gear requirement are in place, but usually there is no consideration of how well you play. That’s a shame because the “time spent” progression model reinforces the feeling of grind while a “well-played” model reinforces learning to do better. You do see a bit of reward based play in open participation events like those in Warhammer, RIFT and Guild Wars 2, but those scores are frequently based on one mechanic (DPS). This is reasonably easily fixed if you simply stop using one scoreboard. Have a heal rating, a tank rating, a dps rating and a support rating for these types of game events. At the end of the event you get a grade on all four cards and you pull rewards from your highest card. The point here is that during solo and emergent play, players are learning to play roles – and being rewarded for playing roles well.
So Is That It?
In this column, I addressed some of the solo game elements that should be present. I have also argued for replacing the solo quest hub world with a networked, interdependent world. Guild Wars 2 makes some good steps in this direction, but there is more that can be done. Borrowing ideas like Diplomacy from Vanguard and zone control from Final Fantasy XI, there are ways to tie in solo gaming with the overarching world meta-game. There are also a lot of things that can and should be done to make group and multi group game play more interesting and accessible. I don’t mean dumbing down the content, I mean reinforcing and enabling the ability to get groups and identify preferable groups. In the next post I’ll talk about an overhaul to group based dynamics.