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?