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?


  1. It should be noted that Richard Bartle has on occasion pointed out that what he means by exploration isn't strictly limited to the idea of wandering the land. He has said that the Explorer player type is the kind of player that would love to play a game which was heavily quest driven, simply to figure out the game mechanics involved in quest driven game play.

    Bartle the Explorer would be the type that talks to all the NPCs in a village, and investigates just what it means when they have a shiny golden icon hanging over their head, and then also investigate the mechanics of collecting 10 rusty orc axes (do they 100% drop per kill, or is there a ratio of kills per drop, and is that ratio fixed or does it sweeten up after a number of kills).

    Bartle the Explorer is the type of player that grabs a quest, accomplishes everything necessary to complete it, and then abandons the quest to do it again to explore some variation of completion.

    Bartle the Explorer will also try out every possible talent/skill and weapon available just to see what they do. The information he discovers then gets used by the min/maxers to formulate optimal specs and strats.

    Of course, Bartle the Explorer might also wander about the land, encountering odd things here and there, just like Marco the Explorer does. But not necessarily.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I haven't been updating this blog regularly, but I hope to now that I have a bit more spare time.

    I know that Bartle's explorers like to explore the game's systems as well as the geography. The problem with the quest system is that the quest mechanics usually aren't deep enough to lend themselves to much exploration. For example, in many games NPCs have almost nothing to say unless they have a quest for you, so even wandering around talking to random NPCs isn't that much fun.

    I agree though that even in a quest based game explorers can still experiment with things like the character build and combat systems. For example, in Rift I've been enjoying playing around with the soul system and trying out different builds. That's great explorer-style play.