What’s This? QUEST has evolved!

So I was digging around the intertubes, and happened upon this old gem. It’s a good piece of animation, almost like Wildstar in style. But what stuck out to me was the end of the clip, that takes a lighthearted jab at collection quests.

Which got me thinking about how the notion of ‘quests’ as content has evolved over the last decade or so. I’m not quite veteran enough to claim experience in Everquest or UO, but I remember back to the days of yore with my very first ‘quests’ in the original Runescape. It didn’t have much to do with your overall progression, but they were a fun addition to do whenever you were bored, and had some nifty rewards.

And then came World of Warcraft. Streamlining the quest experience, and in fact making it the focal point of all experience gain. At the time, this was much appreciated. Instead of killing 100 rats for three hours, we simply killed 10 rats, and gained a boost of experience for bringing their tails to somebody.

Since then, Warhammer Online launched it’s prototype of ‘Public Quests’, RIFT introduced ‘rifts’, and Guild Wars 2 subsequently rubbed more polish on it’s fantastic ‘scalable dynamic events’. Needless to say, the questing experience is improving, not just in quality, but also in methods of participation.

But what is a quest really? When you boil it down, it’s merely an objective with a reward at the end. We’ve (thankfully) started to move on from getting and turning in all quests from NPC ‘quest hubs’. And as the definition of quest continues to blur, what other strange possibilities unlock before us? What kinds of ‘quests’ will we be doing in 10 years?

Because I really like the direction it’s headed…

Measurably,

Machination

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How I Ruined The Industry

Not singlehandedly, of course. But I, like many others set my expectations unreasonably high and chased the elusive “one MMO to rule them all”. No matter how much I denied it, I secretly hoped for a “WoW-Killer” to become a run-away success. I secretly cheered when MMO ripoffs and clones ingloriously bit the dust. I started demanding more and more from what “free” was supposed to get me. And that really wasn’t healthy.

It’s not ruined at all, I’d just ruined it for myself. I think the widespread disappointment with Star Wars: The Old Republic saw the end of MMO ‘puberty’ as it were. Persistent worlds were struggling to figure out what they are and what they should be, but now they’re starting to become young adults. We’re moving into the stage where they start unlocking real potential.

I still expect change, but now I expect it gradually. And I think the best is yet to come.

Mordantly,

Machination

[Shameless Plug]: Pen on Paper

Before we build ourselves the masterful cake known as SPIN, I’d like to focus on the fundamental ingredient — Interactive Narrative.

What is Interactive Narrative? It’s not a sandbox, simulation, or choose-your-own-adventure-book. It isn’t just experiencing a story someone else wrote, no matter how many alternate endings or moral choices there may be. It’s writing your own story into theirs in unexpected ways. It’s a collaboration between author and reader to publish something that is perpetually evolving and interesting. This is what games can accomplish that books and film cannot. This is how to make a truly “endless game” rather than an “endgame”.

*climbs down from soapbox*

Now before you grab your notebooks to brainstorm with me, take a moment to remember something. This concept is still somewhere in the upper stratosphere of “Theoryland” and it’ll be quite a while until it comes crashing down to earth with hard-coded implementations. Hopes crushed? Good, let’s crack on then. We’ve got work to do.

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[Get Critical]: The Themepark Part 2

Last week we summed up the critical flaw with themepark design: endgame. This “requirement” of modern themepark MMOs is the source of much player discontent. We can’t lay down themepark tracks faster than the car can move, so we make infinite loops that try to keep you occupied until the next expansion.

No ride lasts forever…

The Better Solution would be a Sandbox MMO, which revolves heavily (if not exclusively) around player-made content. Players drive the economy, the politics, and the ecology of the world. (Think EVE, Minecraft…). Players feel like they make a difference and enjoy a stronger community, and because devs don’t have to hand-craft every pixel of content, they enjoy shorter development time and low upkeep costs. It also has some disadvantages, but that’s for another topic.

So, Are Themeparks Unsalvageable? Despite the (many) inherent advantages of sandbox games, join me for a moment in a thought exercise — Can we save the static, hand-crafted themepark model without resorting to dynamic player-made content?

Themeparks revolve around two forms of progression to keep you engaged. (1) The ever-present level grind, and (2) the gear treadmill. You do quests to get experience, so that you can access better gear, to advance to the next area, quest, level, gear, new area, quest… all with the intent to reach ‘endgame’. Sometimes in your journey you’ll spot “old” instances along the way, but they are no longer relevant (only endgame is relevant).

Endgame is actually nothing more than running out of combat levels, and so you simply have the gear treadmill left. One form of progression. To improve replayability without opting for a dynamic sandbox, we simply need to (1) add additional forms of linear progression, or (2) introduce unlockable content that keeps old stuff relevant.


Quest Log:
Objective: Salvage 4 [Alternative Forms of Progression or Reuse] from the nearby [Themepark Crash Site] and return them to [Machination the Naive] at [Critical Hit]. Beware of trolls.
Reward: 1250 gold, and an item: [Armchair of the Hobbyist Designer]


Let’s begin shall we?

Salvaged 1/4: [Geographical Area Reuse] – Typically you start in the ‘Derpy Forest’ which is designed for level 1-10 characters, and move on to the ‘Forum Troll Mountains’ for 10-25, and so on… Even if there are multiple “chains” of areas, we still have the problem that there is no incentive to revisit old areas.

A possibility is to decouple physical location with your level progression. For example, Guild Wars 2 provides incentives by scaling your level down to match old areas (which I hope becomes standard). You might even create an entirely different exploration level that gates access to more restricted areas. Whatever we do, it should help keep old areas relevant (instead of wasting all those hand-made assets).

Salvaged 2/4: [Removal of Combat Level Gates] – Ok, I cheated. This is a deemphasis of an existing progression system, which in theory should make the game less engaging. But what we could do is stop ‘gating’ your other lines of progression (crafting, politics, lore, geography) with combat level checkpoints. This encourages people to access the full breadth of the game (if they so choose) in whatever order they choose. It actually might encourage frequent re-rolling to experience non-combat professions and progressions without having to do the combat level grind from scratch.

Salvaged 3/4: [Stronger Lore Progression] – Include lore finding as an actual system, instead of an intrinsic reward. Certain lore questgivers might give you hints as to where books, scrolls, ancient inscriptions, or key NPCs might be. You could progress dedicated ‘cryptography’ or ‘excavator’ skills to help find them. By scattering (and hiding) lore points all over the world, you provide incentive to revisit old areas and instances.

Help me finish this quest by suggesting your own replayability boosters. Thanks for bearing with me on this restrictive thought experiment. At the end of the day, we can rack our brains to reimagine themepark progression and replayability. But a sandbox does all of this for free by transforming all content into reusable content. By design, themeparks are restricted by the need to hand-create every pixel of content. Gating using combat levels could be decoupled, or even eliminated. So…

Can we diversity themepark progression? Yes, with some reinventing.
Can we make better sandboxes, “sandparks”, or something else entirely?

Bring it on!

Mildly,

-Machination

[Get Critical]: The Themepark Part 1

Chinese copyright violations aside, can we imagine what a themepark MMO would look like as an actual Theme Park? In today’s “Get Critical”, we’ll be looking at the philosophy that goes into crafting one, the fundamental flaw that breaks them, and the setup for a potential solution.

 

What? You didn’t know Arthas had a twin? And that they like to rock out?

The Background – So if you’re familiar with MMOs, you’ve probably discovered two vastly different parts of the genre. There’s “The Grind”, in which you experience about 90% of the game’s actual content in order to reach “The Endgame” (10% of all content). Each expansion adds more endgame, and the old endgame is tacked onto the tail end of the grind.

It’s just like a real themepark, where you do everything the park has to offer, go home, and come back each year when they add a new ride. Except you don’t come home. At closing time, the park administrator looks out of the window and sees the happy customers not leaving the park, and in fact, demanding more things to do! But there’s no way to produce enough content to last forever! Quick devs, think!

The Philosophy – And thus the Endgame is born. A ‘holding area’ as it were, to keep people entertained until the next expansion is built. In order to stay engaged, it has to drip the content out slowly, using a complex system of tokens, tickets, and the top prizes to make sure people always have a goal. This turns a normal game into an endless game (which would be awesome). But we’re not actually getting an endless game, are we? We’re getting pool of entertainment and achievement whilst waiting for meatier content to arrive. Not bad, but…

A Problem With Motivation – Your main goal as a player is to power through the lesser levels (majority of the content), so that you can reach the “good stuff” and finally play the game proper (the endgame – a fraction of the content). This becomes more apparent each time you start a new character, and burn through all the filler again. No matter how entertaining it was the first time, it just won’t be half as good the second, third, or x-teenth time. I could also discuss the motivations for powerleveling and account selling, but we’ll move on…

A Problem With Statistics – At launch, all players are in the grind. As the game matures more players reach the endgame pool. Each successive expansion, there’s a greater percent of players who are already at the endgame. 25%, 40%, 75%… and this proportion will never stop growing. Not even new players can mitigate it. After several years the game becomes heavily skewed towards endgame. And worse, by nature, each expansion makes the endgame represent an ever smaller percent of all the game’s content. The longer it runs, the more people experience less content (in terms of quantity).

 

Urm… I guess I’ll come back later?

The Wrong Solution – A noble and earnest effort to fix this problem has been to propel players to endgame by compressing the leveling curve, experience boosters, and squishing content. The trouble is, by design it’s only a temporary fix. The exact same problem will happen every single year. Whether or not ‘compressing’ the grind weakens the experience of the game is a topic for another day. The point is that the endgame concept is flawed. Raiders complain regularly, early content is made easier, and mid-game suffers in an eternal purgatory of no-one-cares.

A Better Solution – Here at Critical Hit, we like to offer constructive criticism. I’m not going complain about the industry’s pumpkin pie unless I have a new flavor of bovarian cream ready to throw at you. But a pie, like a blog post, is ephemeral. And so in a valiant (and inconsistent) effort to keep these under 600 words, I’m going to break this article into parts.

Is Machination just making stuff up now? What is his peculiar proposal to this puzzle? Tune in next time on “Get Critical” to find out…

Mysteriously,
-Machination

[Shameless Plug]: Introducing SPIN

So in my newest *recurring feature, Shameless Plug, I’ll be outlining my own little conceptual project. I call it Scalable, Persistent, Interactive Narrative (SPIN). These four letters might just give the MMO industry a little creative spark, so let’s dive right on in!

An adventurer wanders into the unknown…

Part I: Persistence – Done. All we need is a reliable server and boom! Persistence. The game world remains even when you log off. Only three letters left… this might be a short article! Or perhaps not…

Part II: Scalable Persistent Interaction – This one’s just a bit trickier. We want a ‘massive’ amount of concurrent players, all hammering on things and influencing the world in meaningful ways. But there aren’t enough game developers on earth to produce content faster than players can consume it. Ta da! Introducing the sandbox MMO! It has two possible routes: procedurally-generated (LOVE), or player-created content (Minecraft, EVE Online).

There’s a wealth of articles about sandbox MMO design, detailing how to make infinite worlds where you’ll never run out of content. However, we’re not stopping there. You see, players aren’t naturally skilled at entertaining themselves without some structure or purpose. There’s always stuff happening, but the events in a sandbox are more like news rather than cohesive stories.

Part III: Narrative – Piece of cake. Make a linear game bursting with cinematic cutscenes, and ‘experience’ a single story from start to finish from the hero’s point of view. Much like a book or film, where the story is completely in the hands of the writers. But if that’s the case, you might as well write a book. It doesn’t really take advantage of the full potential of interaction, does it? It seems we’ve taken two steps forward, one step back.

Part IV: Interactive Narrative – Good so far? Well here’s another curveball. The difficulty of this proposition just shot up faster than EVE’s learning curve. How do you make a cohesive story that can be altered by players and still have the quality of a book or film? The closest thing are branching storylines, which act like a choose-your-own-adventure book — pre-written stories split apart or merge back together. Despite adding replay value, it takes a tremendous amount of effort for the developers to author all that content. It’s a waste of the paths not taken.

Or you could let each player influence the story, and simply instance out that “timeline” into some other alternate branching reality… but then we’re back to a single player game. One step back.

Might I suggest another medium that has worked in the past? Pen and paper RPGs. Now we’ve got a “developer” who’s constantly watching over the story and pumping out hand-tailored content. The players impact the custom story, and it reacts to them. This model actually holds up well if the digital counterpart is complex enough. However it requires a creative (and hopefully benign) dungeon master at all times, and is limited to small groups

Part V: Scalable Persistent Interactive Narrative Ok, now we’re out of our league. Not only do I ask for a cohesive dynamic story, but I want those changes to be permanent, and introduce thousands of simultaneous agents of chaos (players) into the mix. A choose-your-own-adventure book is already insufficient for Part IV, now imagine 10,000 simultaneous readers of the same book. And for a pen and paper RPG, you’d need a proportional ratio (scalable) of dungeon masters to players, dedicated 24/7 (persistent). That’s just insane.

So once again, the avenues remaining are (1) AI dungeon masters (procedural), and/or (2) Players who are given limited dungeon master tools. Both have a long way to go before they become compelling.

So that was a very lengthy setup of the problem. In the coming posts, I’ll illustrate some ideas for fusing these two paths together to achieve SPIN. But don’t get comfortable, I still need your voice of reason! We’ll either create something beautiful, or an abomination that defies natural design. Tune in next time on “Shameless Plug” to find out!

Meditatively,

-Machination

[Design Spotlight]: Journey

A few months ago, I was wandering the internets and happened upon a nifty beta video for Journey, a minimalistic adventure built by thatgamecompany. I made a mental note to check it out later, but promptly forgot about the title, and so when it released I was none the wiser.

If you’re not planning on picking this one up (PS3), and you’re not averse to spoilers, there’s a stunning walkthrough you could check out (just under 3 hours total). For those without heaps of free time, a brief summary instead: Journey gives you the barest three controls: running, jumping, and a single “ping” of music to signal other players and interact with the world. We’re going to learn something about design from it.


Natural Storytelling through Good Design – There is no user interface, no meters, maps, or log to mark your objective in any way. No words, no text, no dialogue. Periodically, the lore and backstory of this ruined world is revealed through murals and glyphs. All goals are given visually. When you’re unsure of what to do, there is always the mountain looming on the horizon, beckoning you. Nobody told you, but the goal is clear — you must reach the mountain. And so the game becomes quite literally about the journey.

Journey uses a clever blend of environmental effects and dynamic musical cues to tell the story. The eye is naturally drawn to the next point of interest (a ruined building, a flock of kite-dragons), and building upon natural human curiosity, a chain of goals is made. Inclining angles and subtle increases in wind resistance (beautifully animated) keep the player going generally in the right direction.

Emotional Storytelling through Good Pacing – Though Journey may look tranquil at first, the setting of each segment creates a pacing that draws upon your emotions. From quiet curiosity, to scenes of vivid danger, to complete awestruck wonder as you skim across a liquid gold sea of sand. I won’t spoil the ending, but it was by far the most emotional moment I’ve ever experienced in a game (even just watching). The ebb and flow of action/tranquility makes for some well-paced scenes that tug at your heart.


Interactive Storytelling through Good Multiplayer – Another creative feature is the subtle multiplayer, when another player will join you on your journey (seemingly at random, as directed by the game engine). Though you’re free to leave your newfound friend at any time, there is an overwhelming sense of comradery, and people tend to stick together as long as possible. You can’t communicate with them, other than your simple musical “ping”.

One scene involves battling the raging winds, fighting off the freezing cold gale as you ascend the mountain. Your cloak is encrusted with ice. The cold saps your energy, and you must stay together to keep warm. In the playthroughs I watched, people will more often than not go back to rescue a companion who was blown back into the snowdrifts. It’s powerful.

Applications – Why Does This Matter?

We could probably go a lot deeper with this and discuss whole different paradigms of interactive storytelling, but instead I’d like to focus on modern MMO quests. I’m also going to keep this as brief as possible.

[Application 1 – Natural Storytelling] – Design the terrain and visual line-of-interest such that you don’t actually need obvious sparkles and glaring “Click me! I’m a quest objective!” signs. Well designed objectives should be readily apparent. For example, instead of a questgiver standing around moaning about how his wife was captured by bandits, you see the wife get taken, and you automatically know what to do (if you so choose to help). You give those bandits what for! Instead of quests being “tasks” to complete, each quest then becomes a story. Not all stories can be simplified to this point, but many should.

[Application 2 – Emotional Storytelling] – Questing has long been noted for its certain mindlessness and reward-driven nature. Without changing too much, we can still add more emotional value to them! Something as simple as climbing a mountain becomes emotionally powerful when the wind and snow is trying to drive you back. Sometimes simply pacing action and non-action better may yield emotion. Some examples:

Determination – give the player some natural opposition, they will become more determined to achieve the goal. Like the wind, it’s not necessarily making the goal harder, but rather giving some tactile challenge that you want to overcome.

Fear, Shock – a surprise enemy, or an enemy that is ‘hunting’ you can really bring out suspense. A scout that passes you while you lie concealed in a bush, a massive beast that you hope doesn’t see you…

[Application 3 – Interactive Storytelling] – And finally, get out of the notion that quests must be either solo or raid content. Forced teamwork is usually obnoxious, but when you design it well, people will naturally want to work together. Obnoxious teamwork is a boost in statistics that must be turned on in order to optimize each other’s damage. Beautiful teamwork is that which requires no external incentives to participate. You can promote beautiful teamwork by putting people in a dangerous situation together, where simply the fact that another player is nearby is comforting.

Journey teaches us some great principles of storytelling. Do we need complex quest systems to tell a story? It seems not. By integrating some basic human nature into the design, perhaps we can get people to care more about the quests they pursue in MMOs. This spotlight’s already too long, so I’ll leave the rest of the discussion up you, the visitor. And if you get a chance, give Journey a look.

Movingly,

-Machination