From quests to achievements

18th January 2010 – 5.47 pm

Over at Killed in a Smiling Accident, Melmoth muses on the proclivity of players to skim quest text. I think it's fair to say that most players try to get only the gist of the quest, normally the number and type of mob to kill given conveniently at the bottom of the text, before hurtling off in the general direction of action. Clicking past quest text, using a quest tracker, and using meta information on the map is more of an indication to me that we want to get in to the world to be the hero, and not be bogged down in the mundanities that we deal with in the real world. And Melmoth is right that voice acting can be more of a hindrance to gaming than a factor for immersion, slowing down interactions when we would rather face orcs and elves in vast numbers. Adding voices to the mobs in battle tends to be more engaging than having quest NPCs talk to me.

I quite like the idea of an 'NPC' class, though, as it could feed a more complex crafting system. Players set objectives, needing items to be brought back to them, from which they can craft items as rewards. The crafters can remain in settlements, setting up and maintaining the processes needed to create superior equipment, whilst adventurer PCs have a way of turning their triumphs in to tangible rewards. The prestige for a crafter would be found in their ability to craft the most complex items in the game, with adventurers seeking them out for their equipment. But I digress.

A better evolution to skipping quest text may be to move away from the rigid questing system, where quests are picked up, objectives met, and the quests handed back in. Even though the game may never promise we're the main hero of the world, being shepherded around by the whims of NPCs rather lessens our pretence at heroism. A real hero takes the initiative, goes beyond the normal endeavour to analyse situations and put the world to rights. We need to make independent decisions about our surrounding environment and act on those decisions. Currently, if you are tasked with discouraging a group of ogres from setting up camp and you see an ogre that looks like the boss, when you kill the boss, hoping that this will shake the ogres' morale, you should be able to return and announce this victoriously. Yet inevitably all that happens is you are given a second quest to kill the boss, who has respawned now thanks to the MMORPG demands on the environment. This lack of intelligence in questing has been commented on enough times that it is surpising to see it still cropping up.

The idea of heroic adventures needs to be refined. The world can be presented as it is now, quests can be offered for those requiring structure or guidance, but there should also be the possibility for adventuring, heading out in to the world to make your mark. A hero can wander the land, defeating hostile forces, fighting plagues, routing raiders, and when he visits a settlement his victories can be sung by bards. This can perhaps be achieved by having each mob drop a token of some kind to show for the kill, and it be a guaranteed drop. The tokens can be used when a settlement is reached to show what deeds have been done, rewards then offered based on how the deeds affect the population. It is questing without needing the quest, but with the opportunity of also having quests to guide those who prefer a narrative. But maybe the idea could be taken further.

Where two or more opposing factions are in the game, give each one differing ideals. Defeating certain mobs, or doing certain tasks, will gain rewards with one faction but make another more hostile. It may be good for the farmers to kill the creatures eating the harvest, but the owners of the creatures who sent them out to forage may not appreciate it as much as having the farmers intimidated in to submission. There is scope to create a world no more complex than those already created, yet allow for more fluid adventuring in a grander sense. Quests can be removed from NPCs and made more universal. It seems to me that part of the initial reason for quest NPCs was to drag players backwards and forwards between settlements, taking up monthly subscription time. But there have been many moves away from wasting players' time, offering better modes of transport and reducing dead time between adventures. Removing the need for players to go back-and-forth between quest NPCs now seems like a natural progression of MMORPG gameplay.

In some sense, awarded achievements are the first step torwards universal quests. Achievements are built-in quest-like objectives that offer rewards. There is no limit to the number of achievements you can be eligible for at once, as they are pre-existing, every achievement available to read and gain from character creation, which also means you don't need to collect them from an NPC. The achievements offer some straightforwad goals to complete, as well as some more complex or aggregated challenges. The rewards for achievements amount to little more than a pat on the back for the most part, but this is only because the underlying power of achievements has yet to be realised. Even so, the mini-ding an achievement receives is not far removed from the feeling of satisfaction of gaining a level.

It may seem overwhelming if the player has access to a single interface containing thousands of quests in the form of minor achievements, but I see that as a relatively simple problem to overcome. The achievement system in World of Warcraft already has hundreds of achievements, yet individual ones are relatively easy to find. The achievement browser has sensible groupings and a minimal tree structure, allowing quick locating of individual achievements without having to delve deeply in to nested windows each time. With a more mature browser, abstracting the data in a way the player needs to see, achievements can easily be structured according to level and location, and automatic tracking can highlight begun objectives. Once an achievement has been awarded, it would only take a trip to an appropriate settlement to gain additional XP or material rewards in the same way a completed quest would.

Players choose to skip quest text to get to the adventure, and pursue achievements that offer mostly meta-rewards. Maybe what players need is the choice of how to explore the world, either guided by quests that offer a narrative or taking a more active approach by creating your own story. Exploring the possibilities of a more flexible and progressive achievement system would certainly be an interesting development.

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