The quest system in MMORPGs has always bugged me. NPCs offer quests assuming you are the hero and savior of the world. It’s something that’s hard to believe, considering that they’re begging thousands of others for help. The thing is, when everyone’s a hero, no one’s a hero.
The MMO quest system has its roots in single-player RPGs where, outside of a few unique titles, you as the player do in fact play the hero of the story. If you don’t suck it up and save that family of farmers from the orc Invasion then they’re going to die. You are the one who makes everything tick. The game world essentially doesn’t exist without you. There is a clear motivation to help the downtrodden because without your help, they simply won’t survive. It’s easy to buy into undertaking heroic roles when there is a clear impact on the game world for doing so. That’s not how MMORPGs work.
If you go off on a quest to save a family from an orc invasion that dozens of others have already completed, you tend to lose your altruistic motivation. Really the only reason to complete these quests is because the family will magically impart some experience points upon you. Or maybe they have a cool family heirloom they’re willing to reward you with (one they can somehow replicate for every hero who finishes their quest). This happens over and over. Soon, instead of accepting quests because of noble ideals, you’re now doing so for selfish, personal gain. The more this happens, the more you fall from your heroic ways. It’s not like the world would be any different without you.
Heroes are made, not born. To provide the proper experience of a heroic life, the generic MMO questing system needs to change. It doesn’t make sense to write single player quests in massively multiplayer games. Quests need to have a dynamic element that not everyone gets to access at all times. Here’s a list of five ideas to facilitate such a quest system:
1) When you accept a quest you get 10 minutes to solve it. No one else can accept the quest during those 10 minutes. If you fail the quest then it becomes available for everyone else but you (until someone claims it). It then resets every few hours after a successful completion, the time frame depending on what makes sense.
2) Public quests with real ramifications for success and defeat. The idea of public quest aren’t new to MMORPGs, but resources could be diverted from single-player quests into bigger and better public quests. Greater effects on the game world means you can actually feel your involvement making a difference.
3) A quest can be accepted by a set number of groups. Once that number of groups has been met then the quest actually begins. These groups will compete against each other to complete the quest first. Whoever does so will receive the quest’s top tier rewards. To further enhance the competitive aspect, a tally of the opposing groups’ progress will be clearly displayed on the screen.
4) First, make quests player-driven. Then incentivize players to give quest that resemble those of a single player RPG. Maybe players get parcels of land and they need to have orcs killed. Otherwise, left unattended, the orcs negatively impacts their workers’ performance. The landowning player might be strong enough to do it themselves, but maybe moving around the map is time consuming or the attacks come when the player is offline.
5) Create a dual, antagonistic quest system. By that I mean each quest actually has two sides to it. Sticking with my “Orc Vs. Family” example, give the player the option of supporting the orcs or supporting the family. The family quest can be to kill orcs and reduce the threat. The orc quest can be to raid the family’s crops and kill NPC guards. When one side gets too far ahead, their quest shuts off until the other side makes some gains. A reputation system that increases AND decreases the appropriate sides makes for meaningful decisions. Of course this system also requires some players to take on villainous roles, but villains are the best way to make heroes.
None of these ideas are mutually exclusive. They really could all work together. The biggest downside is that complex quest systems create more development work to ensure everyone can progress at a reasonable rate. But developers are smart people. I have faith that they can make us earn our hero status with believable quests that respect our impact on the world.