Sunday, June 21, 2009

Quests and the Bartle Explorer

Modern MMOs tend to be heavily quest-driven. Gameplay consists of locating a quest-giver (conveniently identified by a brightly-colored icon over his head) and following instructions. Some games, like Warhammer Online and LotRO, use map markers or quest arrows to show where to go. This structure gives players constant guidance and ensures they always have a sense of knowing what they're supposed to do next.

However, quest-driven gameplay can have a disastrous effect on the incentive to engage in undirected exploration of the world. This can be a problem for Bartle Explorer types, for whom open-ended exploration is a central component of the game. Let's take a look at a couple of examples.

Let's start out with a traditional MMO quest. An evil wizard has kidnapped the princess and is holding her captive in his tower. A quest, available from the king, asks the player to rescue the princess and escort her back to the castle. Galahad the Quester talks to the king, gets the quest, and travels to the tower. He proceeds fights his way through several tower levels worth of monsters, talks to the princess (helpfully indicated by a glowing exclamation mark over her head), and returns with her to the castle. Mission accomplished!

Meanwhile, Marco the Explorer has been exploring the world just for fun. He finds the tower and fights his way to the top to see what is there. Once at the top, he sees a beautiful damsel in distress apparently being held captive! However, he can't talk to the princess, attempt to rescue her, or interact with her in any way because he doesn't have the right quest. If he wants to rescue her, he has to go to the local castle, find the king, get the quest, return to the tower, and proceed to fight his way back up to the top (where the princess now has an exclamation mark over her head).

Another example: A tribe of orcs, based in a nearby encampment, has been plaguing the local village. A quest, available from the mayor, tasks the player with eliminating the orc menace. As proof that he's accomplished the deed, the player has to bring back 10 rusty orc axes. Galahad the Quester gets the quest and heads to the encampment, where he kills orcs and loots their axes until he has ten.

Meanwhile, Marco the Explorer has been exploring the world just for fun, and comes across the encampment. The orcs look pretty evil, so he decides to kill them to see what they drop. However, one thing they do not drop is rusty orc axes, because he doesn't have the right quest. A few minutes later, he arrives at the village, where the mayor asks him to go kill orcs at the encampment. If Marco wants to finish the quest, he has to return to the encampment and kill more orcs, which now are all mysteriously furnished with rusty axes.

There are two problems in both of these cases. First, Marco is being penalized for engaging in undirected exploration of the world. Sure, he can find things, but he can't interact with them. Second, the situations are immersion-breaking: Despite having found a damsel obvious in need of rescue, the explorer can't attempt to talk to her or rescue her. The problem here is that the world is interactive only when the player has a specific quest to interact with it.

Paul Barnett touched on this issue in his famous "Bears, Bears, Bears!" speech. The solution seems simple: Allow the player to accomplish quest-related tasks before obtaining the quest. And once the player gets a quest, allow him to complete it then and there if he's already done what's required. In the first example above, the princess was not flagged as "rescuable" until after the player talked to the king. A better approach would be initially flag the king as "quest available" and the princess as "rescuable." Then allow the player to accept the quest be talking either to the king or to the princess. This would allow the player who discovers the princess before the king to complete the quest in a natural way. In this case, the solution is simply a matter of setting flags differently.

In the second example, the solution would be to have the orcs initially flagged to drop an axe when killed. When the player has accumulated ten axes, the orcs would be flagged no longer to drop axes. The player could gather ten axes before talking to the mayor, and then complete the quest on the spot once he arrived at the village. Obviously this would result in the player accumulating apparently useless axes in his backpack, but they could be placed in a special "quest item" section of the inventory to hint that they can be turned in for a quest.

What do you think. Does the current questing model work well for Bartle explorer types? If not, could it be improved?

Making crafting fun, part 1

As a big fan of crafting in MMOs, I've tried out quite a few tradeskill systems. And they all share one thing in common: They don't feel nearly as fun as they could be. In particular, the "standard model" of crafting used in games like WoW and LotRO involves grinding out hundreds of useless goods to raise your level up the point where you can make the handful of items that other players actually want. Some recent games, like Warhammer Online, seem to have given up trying to make crafting a compelling part of the game, instead reducing it to a simple adjunct to adventuring.

So how, if at all, can crafting be made more fun? I hope to analyze this question in a series of posts examining the various aspects of crafting. As Brian Green has pointed out in an insightful post, tradeskills consist of several different activities. Typically, a crafter must acquire a recipe, harvest or otherwise accumulate raw materials, combine the materials into an item, and then sell the item. Different players often enjoy different aspects of the crafting process. Some get a kick out of locating harvesting nodes, while other like to run a store. So it's worth asking what makes each step of the process "fun," or if it isn't fun, how it could be made so.

In this post I'd like to look at the process of gathering raw materials. Typically, crafting materials can be acquired in one of three ways: (1) by looting them from monsters, (2) by harvesting them from resource nodes, (3) by buying them on the open market, and (4) by buying them from NPCs.

The first way to acquire resources is as loot drops. It's worth asking why a designer would want crafting materials to be looted rather than harvested. After all, killing and looting monsters is generally considered an adventuring activity rather than a tradeskilling activity. Does including crafting-related loot drops make a game more fun? There are two possible ways in which it might. First, it creates a reciprocal relationship between adventurers and crafters: Adventurers can sell loot drops to crafters, and crafters can use them to create items for adventurers. Second, it can help keep loot drops realistic, which can enhance the game's immersion and lore-consistency. It's always disconcerting when a rat drops a suit of plate mail.

Resources can also be obtained by harvesting resource nodes scattered throughout the world. In some games, harvesting is an integral and time-consuming part of the game. For example, some corporations in EVE focus entirely on mining ore in asteroid belts. Harvesting often appeals to the Bartle explorer type. Spreading resource nodes throughout the world gives people an incentive to get off of the beaten track and hunt for them. In modern quest-driven games, locating harvesting nodes is often one of the few motivations for undirected exploration of the world.

Third, resources normally can be bought and sold on the open market, often an auction house of some sort. In many games, trade in resources forms the backbone of the economy. It can also create interesting arbitrage opportunities, especially if markets are decntralized (as in EVE or Pirates of the Burning Sea). I'll discuss marketing in more detail in part 3 of this series.

Finally, crafting materials can sometimes be purchased from NPCs. This is not particularly exciting in a gameplay sense, but it may serve other design goals (like removing gold from the economy).

So is accumulating resources "fun" in today's MMOs? The standard model uses a combination of all of these techniques, and I think it mostly works well. Finding harvesting nodes is a central component of explorer gameplay, and trade in resources keeps the economy vibrant.

What do you think: Is traditional resource harvesting fun? If not, is there a way it could be made more so?

MMOs and storytelling

I've decided to start my blog with a topic close to my heart: storytelling in MMOs. I've always been a fan of story-driven games. I grew up playing old-school Lucas Arts adventures, and more recently have enjoyed role-playing games by the likes of BioWare and Obsidian. But when BioWare announced that the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic will be an entirely story-driven MMO, I confess I was skeptical.

Fundamentally, I'm not convinced that traditional single-player storytelling methods work well in an MMO. The protagonist of a single player game is usually a special person with a unique destiny--the Bhaalspawn/Revan/Nerevarine who single-handedly saves the world from destruction. Good role-playing games also allow the hero to make choices that affect the plot. For example, in Fallout 3 the player can literally decide whether to blow a town off of the map with a nuclear bomb. An MMO has thousands of players, and they can't all be a lone hero who makes world-changing choices. Trying to give them that experience can end up hurting the social aspect of the game.

Lets take a look at how this might play out in SWTOR. BioWare recently revealed that the game will include story-based instances that culminate with some sort of game-affecting moral choice. In the E3 demo, a Sith-aligned team fought its way through a ship and then made a collective choice about whether to kill or spare the captain. Let's assume I play through the quest and choose to kill the captain. Typical BioWare-style gameplay, right?

But wait... we're in an MMO. So what happens when a guildie logs in five minutes later and asks me if I can help him with the quest I just did? On the one hand, the game might allow me to play through the instance again with my guildmate. This ruins the story. The captain that I just "killed" is now back on the spaceship, ready to be confronted again. The emotionally-wrenching moral choice I made turns out in retrospect to be meaningless. In fact, presumably our group could choose to spare the captain the second time around, resulting in me bizarrely both killing and sparing the same person.

On the other hand, the game could prohibit me from playing through the instance again. This ruins the social aspect of the game, because it means I can play with my friends only if we're at exactly the same part in the storyline. Even worse, BioWare has hinted that some choices may actually cause the story to branch, so I may be prohibited from playing with other people unless we've made exactly the same choices in the earlier part of the story. For example, suppose that sparing the captain causes him to appear in some instance later in the game. If I killed him and my friend spared him, what happens when we group up for the instance in which he has the potential to reappear? He can't be both dead and alive at the same time, right?

Personally, I'm worried that BioWare is going the second route, and that friends and guildmates will have a hard time playing together unless they synch their progress through the story. That's a horrible sacrifice to make in the service of storytelling. And even then, the story still won't be as convincing as it would be in a single player game, because, at the back of their minds, players will know that thousands of other people are doing exactly the same quests they are.

What do you think. Can traditional storytelling methods work in an MMO?