Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

31 May, 2009

Complaints, actions, and reality
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 3:24 AM

There’s an old joke about how a person sees the same action in different perspectives. For example:

  • I borrow items without asking permission.
  • You take things that don’t belong to you.
  • He (or she) steals things from others.

The joke here is that I don’t do anything bad, you (the person I have to worry about the old “punch in the face” from) are a bit worse than I am, and the person we’re gossiping about is a horrible human being.

But, I think that this is an interesting way to think about game design.

  • Many players say they want one thing.
  • Most players do something different.
  • Reality dictates what actually can be done.

Let’s see how this relates to quests and “innovation”, shall we?

The insightful Sanya Weathers wrote an article in a series about the “MMO Underbelly” about quest realities. She points out that while you might read a lot of people asking for deep stories and meaningful quests, the reality is much different:

“It used to be assumed that people playing an MMORPG wanted story – as they did in their single player RPGs – but then the industry introduced metrics. The fact is, people skip walls of text.”

As she points out, this is based on measured responses from players. Most of them will skip the text, so why put it in there?

Well, there are a lot of people that still ask for the story. Read the comments to Sanya’s article and you’ll see a lot of people wanting text. One poster even went so far as to say:

“My hopes for a future MMO worth actually playing died a little more with every paragraph. I know it is the reality of the situation, but I usually get through my day without facing it.

Facing the reality that MMOs are being steered towards the ADD-rattled and lemming like masses makes me want to start building the bunker out back and writing a manifesto…”

Sanya isn’t alone here. One of the designers of the infallible WoW said a lot of the same things; quests are too wordy to the point of being books, any sort of mystery is bad, etc. It’s likely that Mr. Kaplan is pulling from a lot of metrics the WoW team has collected about player behavior. Even though designers want more characters in quest text to tell what they feel are better stories, players are blowing past the text and ignoring it anyway.

And, all this runs up against our old friend, the “content creation problem.” Writing quest text isn’t free, and it takes a lot of time to write text and put it into the game. The time a developer takes (or the money used to pay him) could be put to use in another area that might be more vital for the game. Sacrificing class balance for better quest text doesn’t necessarily seem like a good tradeoff if the players aren’t going to read the quest text. (You can be sure they’ll bitch about class imbalances, though!)

So, here we have our first example laid out for us:

  • Many players say they want an engaging story.
  • Most players skip the boring text anyway.
  • Reality dictates that quest text will be limited.

But, any choice you pick here will be sub-optimal. Put in crappy quest text and players who want interesting stories will complain. Remove quests and players will complain about having to grind monsters for xp. Put in quality quest text and you’ll be sacrificing some other aspect of the game. No matter what you do, someone will complain. So, what do you do? Depends on where your priorities are, of course, and which group’s complaints will do the less harm.

But, there are (at least) two sins being committed here. The first is many developers not understanding that what players say and what they do are two different things, as I point out. The forum warriors aren’t necessarily going to be representative of the people actually playing the game. Metrics are really interesting because they show the specific behavior of players. The danger here, however, is misinterpreting the metrics. Why are people skipping the quest text? It may be because they don’t care, but one common complaint about quest text in the comments to Sanya’s article above was that people felt that they had to skip quest text to keep up with their friends.

The second is treating players like a monolithic group that has all the same desires. The people saying they want story aren’t the same people skipping the quest text; or, if they are the same people, then they have some specific issues that need to be addressed. I find myself skipping quest text in LotRO even with a patient GF who does want to read quest text; I’ve been trained to skip all that blah-blah-blah and get to the rewards in WoW. On the bright side, LotRO keeps tracks of the quests you have done and lets you re-read the quest text at a later time, so it mitigates some of that.

Turning our eye away from the developers for a moment, we can see one more sin here: the sin of complacent players. Players may say they want something, but they need to show they want it as well, and not just through in-game actions. Tesh embedded a rant in a recent post:

“[Game companies] react to money, and only money. If you want something better than what is offered, stop paying for mediocre work. Stop riding the early adopter hype bandwagon, and wait[ing] for companies to offer something you feel is worth your money.”

His core argument here is sound: if you pay for something, this encourages other companies to create more of the same. Developers don’t clone WoW because they can’t think of any other types of games, but because this is what people know will sell. It’s easier to make a business case for cloning WoW because you can show that it works. It’s harder to make a business case for something unproven because you have to find data, and deviations from the known art make the data less meaningful. This is why indie game development is so important, because it’s vital to get the ability to test out different concepts with lower risk.

So, I’ll put the caveat on Tesh’s rant above and say: don’t fear to support someone who is developing something you really want to play, even if it seems “mediocre” in some way. The ideal game may not have AAA level graphics, or a slick marketing budget, or any of the other things you may expect from large companies. But, a successful smaller game means that it will be easier to pitch a similar game later.

So, what do you think? Are players really saying one thing and doing or meaning another? Or, is there some reasonable explanation? Or, are we just doomed to play mostly EQ/WoW clones for eternity?


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28 Comments »

  1. I agree with Tesh and your caveat on his comments, don’t pay for something you don’t really want to play. This is one of the main reasons right now that I am not subscribed to any MMO: none of them are right for me.

    One thing that catches most players are “my friends”. You might hate WoW and hate everything about its design, but if all your friends love it and are playing, then it is likely that you are playing too. I know entire guilds of people who moved from EQ to WoW because a few core members liked WoW better, and those social hub players are important to the guild community as a whole. I think lots of people do this, going where the people are, and are paying to play WoW even though they would probably enjoy some other game much more.

    As for quest text writing… I always hear the argument that it takes time or “writing quest text is hard”. No offense, but this is mostly true because game companies are paying coders and gamers to write text when they should hire writers. Its like hiring a plumber to cook you dinner. He might do a good job, but you’re better off hiring a chef to make your meals.

    Comment by Jason — 31 May, 2009 @ 4:42 AM

  2. This link is relevant to your interests and worth watching.

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html

    A reminder that not only do metrics exist outside of games but you also have to understand them to make use of them.

    The lesson being that building for the “single” average user is not the smartest of goals.

    Comment by Kriss — 31 May, 2009 @ 6:30 AM

  3. Why not deliver quest exposition during the gigantic slogs of pacing through the countryside? During battles? Why not integrate the plot into the bloody game like it’s supposed to?

    Comment by Zaratustra — 31 May, 2009 @ 9:45 AM

  4. You see this a lot with the ‘hardcore’ pvp crowd as well. They want things like permadeath, no-flagging, no banks, players policing themselves, etc. even when these things will clearly not work in the created environment. People on the forums just seem to have such a detached sense of reality, especially pre-release. I think what happens is people starting following a new MMO and build up this fantasy image of it in their head. In that fantasy things like perma-death work so they think it’s a good idea. They never take the time to understand it won’t work in the actual game mechanics.

    Also for quests, I skip a lot of quest text but you can’t use that as the only metric of engaging quests. I know in WoW there are a few quest chains where I’ll skip the text for the first few parts, start doing something interesting, then read the rest of the quest chain because it’s an engaging quest. Players probably also skip a lot of quest text because a good % of the quests are just a long winded way of saying, “Get me 10 X” without any lore or context. I think what you need to do is balance the quests so that ‘boring’ quests have short text but keep the full text for the quests that are actually engaging. Also, as seen in single player games, story is much better when it’s integrated into game play. If quests show you a story without the wall-o-text then it’s much more engaging.

    Comment by Logo — 31 May, 2009 @ 9:58 AM

  5. Do the metrics on reading text take into account whether this is the first time you have been presented with this particular text (on this account)? I know that playing through EQ2, I have carefully read the text the first time I went through a quest line, but when going through it with a different character, I know the lore, the story and the role that this quest plays in the line, so I am likely to click through quickly once I say, “Oh, yeah, I remember this part.” An exception may be when I go through it once as a good character and a second time as an evil character and the quest changes.

    I’m also far more likely to read the text in-game if the quest is more involved or relevant, as opposed to (as Logo says) “Get me 10 X” and their ilk.

    Comment by Brett — 31 May, 2009 @ 10:51 AM

  6. Like others here have stated, quests need to be worked seemlessly into the gameworld. There is nothing more immersive killing then entering a new town and seeing every other npc with a question mark above there head. Instead I want to walk into a store and hear a merchant npc and buyer npc talking about how little flour she has for sale due to thieves overtaking the nearby farms. If I have already killed a bunch of those thieves I want to hear them thanking me for the help I offered. You can weave tons of quests into the surroundings just like that and increase the immersion factor at the same time. Heck let certain npcs offer gifts if you have done right by them .

    Comment by Coppertopper — 31 May, 2009 @ 12:08 PM

  7. To add a little more context (that’s unfortunately not all that clear in my original post), I’m mostly ranting about the guys who hold the pursestrings. I know devs that don’t want to clone WoW, but unfortunately, that’s where the proven money is, so that’s where the investors go. It’s herd investing, warping game design. Thanks for the link!

    And I agree with the caveat; definitely support devs who you agree with, even (and especially) if they aren’t in the mainstream. I’ve not played Wizard 101 as much as I’d like, and am largely burned out on MMOs, but I’m happy with the money I gave them, just as I’m happy with the money I sent to the Puzzle Pirates people, though I only play once a month or so over there.

    Comment by Tesh — 31 May, 2009 @ 12:38 PM

  8. The worse rants I have read on different games either came from players that actually kept playing long after their rants and from people not actually playing the game so you have no real ways to tell if they would play if X was different.

    Those who wish it was really different will probably just try it and then leave without a word if it doesn’t fit them and just look for something else (much like me, I didn’t like WoW but never felt the urge to make a point out of it).

    So the interesting feedback would be coming from this last type of players I guess? The trick is get them to share their thoughts though. I guess those surveys you sometimes see when you cancel an account might be a good way.

    A lot are under the impression that innovation is never tried and that all companies are there just to get your money. What they don’t realize is that to produce something of the same quality as any AAA title that it takes a lot of money and that having just a small niche of players just isn’t enough to keep the game alive. I remember Seed (http://www.runestone.dk/) which was looking really interesting for someone interested in actual roleplay. Unfortunately, it seems it never met enough interest to cover its fees so the game died.

    We hear a lot of rants that MMORPGs have lost the RPG part but when there’s one focusing on the RPG, players are just not there. So if I was to spend some millions, I’d probably go for something a bit much safer (clone) and add 1 or 2 new elements. If these new elements fail, the old recipe shouldn’t let you down too much (not saying it’s good or bad but I feel that how things are dealt with).

    One thing I’m wondering (to link with your point about the importance of indie development) is why these big companies are not opening some opportunities for indie developers (or maybe they are but I’m not aware of it?) by giving them minimal risk budgets to test new ways of doing things? Instead of putting millions in a risky project, they’d probably be amazed what an indie team could do with something like a $10 000 budget.

    If the indie project is a success (success meaning possibly interesting enough for the big company), it would just be up to them to clone it, slap AAA graphics on it and do a massive marketing campaign to get away with an interesting niche or market share that would have been too risky to care for in the first place.

    That would be like an R&D department. Some of it fail and some is successful and you don’t have to lose your shirt in the process. Without saying that it would be of great help to indie development (assuming the indie team is not just an extended department of the big studio).

    Is something like that actually exists? Is it just me or this seems like a valid idea? Any downsides I’m not seeing in this?

    Comment by Over00 — 31 May, 2009 @ 1:08 PM

  9. Jason wrote:
    You might hate WoW and hate everything about its design, but if all your friends love it and are playing, then it is likely that you are playing too.

    That’s the reason I played for so long. I had little interest in the expansion, but bought it anyway since my friends were playing. I became more interested in playing LotRO with my better half that I canceled my WoW subscription.

    I always hear the argument that it takes time or “writing quest text is hard”. No offense, but this is mostly true because game companies are paying coders and gamers to write text when they should hire writers.

    Blizzard most certainly didn’t draft programmers to write quest text. The info I heard was that they had about 100 people hired specifically to write text for and implement quests. The money spent on a writer could be used to hire more coders to ensure better stability, or more level designers to create more content, etc. Unless writers are agreeing to write for free, there are opportunity costs for creating quest text.

    (Plus, some of us mere coders can write. :P)

    Kriss wrote:
    A reminder that not only do metrics exist outside of games but you also have to understand them to make use of them.

    I’ve seen that talk before. It echoes a comment made on Sanya’s post talking about the creation of HBO; It wasn’t something that people were asking for, but it was something they obvious liked. The problem with these two examples is that something novel like this is more likely to fail that succeed. HBO could have been a flaming failure for a lot of reasons beyond what HBO did right, and that would have cost some people a significant amount of money. For spaghetti sauce, it’s easy enough to cook up a few batches and try crazy things to see what people like. It’s harder to code an MMO game just to “try things out”. You might argue that you could code a system, but without context you’re not sure how it will fit into an MMO in the larger context.

    Zaratustra wrote:
    Why not deliver quest exposition during the gigantic slogs of pacing through the countryside?

    I think that we can do more to present information in other ways. I was talking with a friend who said that Anarchy Online was great because a lot of the backstory was found in item descriptions. There was a wealth of information about companies that made the items, for example, and you could read those at any time. As I point out, one problem with quest text is that an impatient group might make someone skip quest text who might otherwise enjoy it.

    Thanks for the other comments. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 May, 2009 @ 2:39 PM

  10. I too have to wonder about metrics and how they are read and interpreted. Take my personal example (which I’m sure is not the only case of this type out there):

    When I first played WoW, I read every single quest text I came across. Much of my alt time when I rolled different races was spent doing this too. But fortunately/unfortunately I do have a bit of a memory for texts, and if it so happened that I rolled another alt of a race I had already played, I skipped the texts that time around because I had already read them once and I mostly remembered them all. Not line by line, but enough of it to get the idea; I remembered doing the quest, I knew where everything was, I remembered the gist of the quest text, and off I went. I didn’t need to read them.

    So I wonder how many of those text skippers are skipping because they don’t like those bricks of text period, or skipping because they have already read them a few times, no longer care about reading them and the texts don’t every change?

    I think it could be an interesting idea to inject some sort of “controlled randomness” here and there. Not in major things, but enough to keep players on their toes and keep them from getting self-mechanized in their actions a little bit longer. Maybe NPCs don’t have to say the exact same thing always. Maybe sometimes they could offer a different/additional quest depending on game conditions. Maybe they don’t always have to offer the same reward, but a comparable one.

    I do seriously wonder if a large portion of those text skippers aren’t simply reacting to a completely static world instead of the presence of text itself.

    Comment by Julian — 31 May, 2009 @ 7:44 PM

  11. Imagine if we every movie had the scrolling text from Star Wars, continuing for two hours unabated while random action sequences played in the background. Now if you then ran a survey and found out that the majority of viewers ignored the text and came for the action sequences, does this prove that movie goers do not want story lines in their movie?

    If that was the only way we knew to express story, then it would certainly seem to indicate that. However, it isn’t, and from our perspective that would simply be referred to as “bad movie making”. So why is it that when we have a game where we constantly break the action to give the player a wall of text to read that we come to the conclusion “players do not like story”. The popular success of books, movies, and music with lyrics would all stand against that conclusion, but people not liking to read quest text overthrows all of that evidence in favor of world view where everyone is a Ritalin popping ADD sufferer who could never determine that a book would give them a better textual experience all around?

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, people do want more engaging stories. However quest text as it stands does not deliver engaging story. No amount of additional text is suddenly going to make the text more engaging. So yes, people are telling us exactly what they want. The problem lies in us, because we don’t actually give them what they’re asking for, we’re giving them what we would have asked for, i.e. better/more quest text.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 31 May, 2009 @ 11:43 PM

  12. One thing to keep in mind about metrics, though: If I have 10 characters in WoW, I will read the quest text for any given quest I do at least once, since I’m one of the people that actually reads the quests. However, I will usually only read the quest text with the first character that I do the quest with. With the rest of my characters, chances are I already know the quest or remember the quest text and objectives, and simply click the ‘accept’ button, since I know what the NPC is going to tell me.

    I’m assuming quite a few WoW players have more than one character at the level cap, so that might influence the metrics somewhat. I have no way of knowing if this is the case, what numbers Blizzard is getting exactly, or how they are reading them, but the thought occurred to me that that might be a possibility.

    Comment by Destral — 1 June, 2009 @ 2:08 AM

  13. As the geeky saying goes, “the plural of anecdote isn’t data.” I’m not really all that surprised that people who read (and often write) blogs like mine like to read quest text. Keep in mind that this does not mean we’re in the majority just because we have a self-selecting sample here.

    I know there are people out there that don’t care for quest text. I was the slowpoke who wanted to read the quest text while my friends just wanted to get the quests done on our main characters back in the day. I read faster than most people, so I know I was the only one to read the text most of the time.

    Sara Pickell:
    “However quest text as it stands does not deliver engaging story.”

    You’re committing the sin of believing all players want the same thing. Some people do want engaging stories, and some find quest text to be engaging enough. There are quite a few fervent defenders of quest text here and in the comments to Sanya’s article. I remember how a lot of people raved about how wonderful WoW’s quests were when they first launched, so there were definitely some enthusiasts for quest text as providing an engaging story. But, I don’t think we can say that most people do (or don’t) want stories, etc., without going into the realm of opinion. There’s no hard data for what players really do want.

    But, as I said in my previous comment, I think we can do a better job in delivering story than 511 characters of text when getting a quest and everyone wants to just get going and get the reward. Having other ways to experience the story in other ways would be nice.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 June, 2009 @ 4:10 AM

  14. Sara’s comment is dead on. And the problem is that while to solution to her movie example is “remove the text and tell the story in the movie” MMOs so far are ill designed to support that. Given the way NPCs, the world and quests work in most games, where one NPC stands still and players crowd around the NPC (who in most games interacts only through text and UI windows, not even turning to face the player and make emotes), its a lot harder to replace the text with something else, so the result is just ditching text (or at least trimming it to the point that story is lost in favor of conveying the “important” details). It would be nice, in my opinion, to see blocks of text replaced by scripted interactions, cut scenes, etc. But that’s even more expensive than quest text, in both time and money, plus you’d have to fundamentally alter the way the game works in order to properly tell that story to the player.

    Free Realms has an interesting element in their quest system. Yes, they still use blocks of text, but when you talk to an NPC, you switch from 3rd person play view to a 1st person face-to-face view and the game doesn’t render your character to yourself. To see this completely, you need two characters. One to just stand back and watch, while the other stands behind the NPC and then initiates the conversation. The second player will switch to first person, he’ll see all the other characters moving around, but his own character will not be standing behind the NPC. The first player will see no change at all, to him the second player will still be standing behind the NPC. Also, the NPC animations for the quest text only play on the second player’s PC, the first player just sees the standard NPC-waiting-around animation. The next step would be replacing the text with voice work (with subtitles option for people who don’t want to hear voice acting), then make the animation more than just the NPC doing a few canned shrugs and waves, and lastly you could replace the user interaction with voice commands so instead of clicking the “I will help you” button you actually say “I will help you” into your microphone (with the option to enable the buttons for people who don’t want to talk). But Free Realms has already proven that you can encapsulate NPC interaction on just one player’s PC and not break the world.

    The one thing you can’t (or rather shouldn’t because you always can) do is have the NPC enter into “movie mode” for the entire world when you talk to him. Even now, when certain NPCs do animations after a quest turn in and prevent other players from doing turn ins, its very annoying.

    Comment by Jason — 1 June, 2009 @ 4:18 AM

  15. Forget about quest content, the real problem with quests is that the majority of players are racing to max level and will do whatever it takes to get there the fastest, lore be damned. Until you can break that cycle, quests cannot be fixed.

    Quest trackers/journals/logs only compound the issue by giving you the root needs of the quest without needing to read anything making the ideal method of gathering quests to just quickly click through the windblown reason why an NPC wants you to kill ten rats to get to the accept button and go.

    Comment by Fumbles — 1 June, 2009 @ 6:04 AM

  16. Blizzard most certainly didn’t draft programmers to write quest text. The info I heard was that they had about 100 people hired specifically to write text for and implement quests.

    I’m curious as to where that number comes from? From a recent interview (http://eu.blizzard.com/blizzcast/archive/episode7.xml):

    Jeffrey Kaplan: Yeah well the quest and lore group did an amazing job. Obviously the vision is spearheaded by Chris Metzen, who’s our VP of Creative Development here and the Creative Director on the project. Then you have Alex Afrasiabi, who’s our Lead World Designer, really pushing the design group forward that’s responsible for the story and lore. We have a group of 5 quest designers who are absolutely amazing. They all worked on Burning Crusade so they all, you know, really know what they are doing at this point or worked on the original game. Then we’ve also, in our Creative Development group, have writers there as well who help us further flesh out the lore. So all told it’s a group of less than 10 people who are driving that story line, but they’re just so good at it they’ve been doing it for so long and they work well with each other so I think that’s why it all kind of came together.

    Of course that’s for an expansion – although a sizeable one.

    Comment by Masaq — 1 June, 2009 @ 7:23 AM

  17. Psychochild:
    “You’re committing the sin of believing all players want the same thing.”

    Not quite. I would be if I had nothing to back me up. However, this article begins with the assumption that there are metrics proving that people are by and large skipping quest text. Engaging is a two way process, and while I can’t give you a perfect way to measure that, the number of people that do not stop to accept what you are giving are people that are definitely not engaged. So assuming that we are dealing with real metrics, you’ve begun with the assumption that the vast majority of your quest content is not engaging in the majority of instances.

    Also to say that something is engaging usually connotates that it is above average in that area, which is how I used it. To me, if you say that a story is engaging, it needs to be so to a majority of it’s intended audience. So if that wasn’t accurately conveyed, then I’m sorry.

    Comment by Sara Pickell — 1 June, 2009 @ 9:30 AM

  18. @Psychochild:

    “”However quest text as it stands does not deliver engaging story.”

    You’re committing the sin of believing all players want the same thing.”

    While accurate, your choice of sentence to quote there makes it look like a total non sequitur.

    Even so, I agree with Sara. Text, delivered once, by a single source, generally not involved in the rest of the quest/story, is poor method of delivery for storytelling. Putting more text in the same place won’t help at all. The simplest way to put it is the old mantra, “show, don’t tell.” Tell your story, if possible, through the quest itself and its components (NPCs you have to kill/save), and through the other quests, and the area in which the quest is in.

    I don’t know what the etiquette is for trackbacking, but I linked this in my own offering on the subject, not that I’d imagine you’ll get much traffic from it!

    Comment by Bethryn — 1 June, 2009 @ 9:30 AM

  19. There are so many different factors that could cause players to skip quest text, unfortunately there was not really much information about what factors where considered when deciding that is was “proven” that people either did not want walls of text or they did not want story. Two very different results in itself and I am not 100% sure which one of them it was considered proven that players did not want for the most part, since I thought the article mixed those a bit in the conclusions.

    But regardless of which it would be there are also a number of other factors weighting in, for example:

    * Team or solo? The quest-text-from-NPC mechanic is generally neither well supported nor working well for team play in many MMOs. In many cases a team player either has to be the owner of the current quest and/or the team leader to actually see the quest text and updates. Which essentially means all players in a team have to be at the same stage to actually experience the story. Stopping up a team experience for everyone to read through a lot of text does not work out well either.
    In many MMOs I prefer to solo if I really want to follow the story, because they are generally pretty bad to convey a story to a team. There are of course some scripted encounters in some instanced areas or similar which work well, but for most of the everyday questing it is fairly bad.

    * Too many quests. If I drink a few glasses of wine per week some reports say it can be good for the health. If I would drink a bottle of wine per day I would have some trouble. When MMOs boosts about many 100s or 1000s of quests it really has gone a bit too far I think. MMOs need repeatable content to keep players interested, but the quest text mechanic does not really work that well for repeatable story content. And there is of course a limit to the extent stories regardless of presentation may be repeatable.
    But quests have now been used to create “repeatable” content, but rather duplication- or copy&paste-based repetition.

    I would like to see quest usage with more moderation; fewer quests, but those that are there should have more effort put into them to be delivered properly. And find other means and motivations for players to progress, to complement the existing options. And allow players to set the progression goals for themselves. Perhaps not right away from start, but after an initial learning phase has been completed na dsome of the game basics have been mastered.
    With many different options but still some big tangible goals ahead of them (e.g. max level in a game) I believe a lot of players would strill try to take the most efficient path regardless of whether that woulf be the most “fun” or not.

    Comment by Sente — 1 June, 2009 @ 3:26 PM

  20. Great comments and discussion here. I really enjoy these types of comments!

    Fumbles wrote:
    [T]he real problem with quests is that the majority of players are racing to max level and will do whatever it takes to get there the fastest, lore be damned.

    Yes. So, to put the question posed in my post another way: Should we give players what they say they want, what they’ve shown they want, or should we give them what we think they want? Most games have done the latter; the designer comes up with a master design and hopes that players find it agreeable. This has some benefits in that we can offer players what they might not know they want (see comment #2 above), and provides a strong, central vision. But, there are often accusations that we “don’t listen to the players” by giving them what (they say) they want. My goal here is to get some discussion going so that we can make intelligent decisions about what we should offer players between these three options.

    Masaq wrote:
    I’m curious as to where that number comes from?

    Industry scuttlebutt that was floating around conferences back in the day. Could be horribly wrong, but my point remains: Blizzard didn’t just grab random programmers to type out quest dialog. Blizzard is known for having quality storytellers on staff; I was gently smacking Jason’s hand with a ruler for bringing up that tired old chestnut at this point. Also, I’ll note in your quote that it says there are 10 people driving the storyline, that doesn’t mean those are the only people working on it. Plus, once you have a system in place for producing content, it should be easier to create more content using that system; so it’s entirely possible they shrank the quest group to 10% of its original size for the expansion.

    Sara Pickell wrote:
    Also to say that something is engaging usually connotates that it is above average in that area, which is how I used it. To me, if you say that a story is engaging, it needs to be so to a majority of it’s intended audience.

    I didn’t infer that, so thanks for the clarification. I think part of the problem in this context is trying to use non-interactive storytelling techniques in an interactive environment. The wall of text doesn’t work because it’s not interactive. I think even voice overs wouldn’t work. I think leaving more subtle clues in the environment, such as Anarchy Online‘s item descriptions as I mention in a previous comment may be more appropriate because it requires the player to go looking without shoving it in his or her face. This is assuming that a large enough number of players actually want story in the first place. I don’t think quest text skipping automatically means that players hate story, but it should be a wakeup call for us to question some of our assumptions about story in MMOs.

    Bethryn wrote:
    I don’t know what the etiquette is for trackbacking

    Feel free to do it! My blog holds most trackbacks in the moderation queue, but I approve them if they aren’t obviously spammy. Thanks for the link to your article, more discussion is always good. :)

    @Sente: I agree completely. Perhaps I should write an article about re-thinking quests in more depth, like I did with replacing levels in MMOs?

    Anyway, great discussion. Lots of thought-provoking points of view to consider.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 June, 2009 @ 7:39 PM

  21. Modern quests handhold you through the entire quest. There is no reason to read the story.

    Most of the quests are menial tasks anyhow. “Farmer George’s farm has been infested with Weevel’s” “Will you help Farmer George by killing 10 Weevels?” Then take it one step further, you kill the 10 weevels, but that really did nothing for Farmer George’s Weevel problem because in the time it took you to run back to Farmer George, 10 have replaced the 10 you killed because of static NPC design and the need for those Weevels to be there when the next player hails Farmer George to help with his Weevel problem. Or hey there’s even a quest line involving Farmer George, but guess what all he needs you to do is kill more Weevels. So now you’ve helped poor George by killing 20 Weevels. Do enough of these and you start skipping text. You get used to skipping text because all your low level quests are like Farmer George’s and you are now conditioned to skip text in all quests.

    Comment by Fumbles — 2 June, 2009 @ 6:18 AM

  22. I just wrote about this here.

    The reason players ignore quest text is because it (along with most story in MMOs) is completely irrelevant to the actual game. The game here is advancing your character. Gaining skills, experience, items. After all, those are the only things that are actually PERSISTENT about these worlds. (Raph just blogged about this)

    The fact that your quest even has a story is completely beside the point.

    So, you can go Bioware and dump tons of (imo futile) money into the problem. Or you can recognize that story isn’t the best way to engage players in an MMO.

    Comment by Anthony Umfer — 2 June, 2009 @ 7:58 AM

  23. Very interesting discussion.

    I have to confess that in MMOs I usually don’t read the quest text carefully. The interesting thing is, I play the opposite way in a single player game. In games like Mass Effect, NWN2, and Fallout 3, I read all of the quest text and go out of my way to interact with every NPC. To expand on what others have said, here are a few possible reasons:

    (1) The “keeping up with the Joneses” effect. In MMOs, people like to keep up with their friends and guildmates. If other people are skipping the text, there’s pressure on you to do the same. I’m a notoriously slow leveler and often have trouble keeping up with my guild as it is.

    (2) Lack of choice. Quests in MMOs typically don’t involve any real thought or choice. Since you can’t affect the outcome of the quest, the quest text is really just flavoring. Quests in single player games often involve choice, so it’s important to know what you’re doing and why. For example, in Mass Effect and NWN2, your dialogue choices can affect your relationships with NPCs, giving players an incentive to read them. (It will be interesting to see whether this makes a difference in SWTOR).

    (3) Lack of effect on the world. As other people have mentioned, the stories in MMOs feel fake. When you rescue the kidnapped princess, you know she’s going to respawn a minute later for the next player. If nothing you do makes a bit of difference, why read about it? Some games have tried to address this using phasing or instancing, but to me that feels like smoke and mirrors. Players know that everyone else is doing exactly the same quests and that they’re only changing their view of the world, rather than the world itself.

    (4) Roleplay. Reading quest text can *hurt* roleplay if players are required to do something completely out of character. Typically, everyone in an MMO is expected to do the same quests. The nature-loving druid is expected to slaughter random wildlife. The evil rogue is expected to help starving orphans. The noble paladin is expected to torture prisoners for information. As someone who likes to roleplay, I often prefer not to really think about what I’m doing and why; I just grit my teeth and follow the instructions to get the reward.

    I think many players would normally enjoy reading quest text, but the structure of MMOs doesn’t give them much incentive to. Issues 2 and 4 could probably be addressed by giving players more choice, but 1 and 3 seem endemic to the genre.

    Comment by Scott — 3 June, 2009 @ 2:01 AM

  24. @ Julian: “I do seriously wonder if a large portion of those text skippers aren’t simply reacting to a completely static world instead of the presence of text itself.”

    I think that’s absolutely part of it. The fact that the world is static and lacks persistence means that the quests in and of themselves are meaningless; they won’t result in any changes to the world, so why should we as players care what the quest text says?

    @ Fumbles: “Modern quests handhold you through the entire quest. There is no reason to read the story.”

    This, too, is true. There’s rarely the possibility of failure in modern quests (indeed, in modern games in general) and every step is made clear to the player without the necessary involvement of the quest text. If I know the quest will be easy and that reading the quest text won’t help me complete the quest, what’s my motivation?

    Comment by foolsage — 3 June, 2009 @ 9:29 AM

  25. The main reason that quest text is irrelevant in modern MMOs is the Quest Tracker. In WoW, whether you read the quest or not, when you hit accept your quest tracker now says:
    Supplies for the Front!
    * Collect Tiger Skins [0/10]
    * Collect Bear Skins [0/10]

    About the only thing you need from the quest text is where to go to find the tigers and bears, and in most games the quest giver is a stone’s throw away from them, so often you don’t even need to bother with it since you can either see the tigers and bears or you had to fight through them to get to the quest giver.

    Comment by Jason — 3 June, 2009 @ 10:24 AM

  26. “Or you can recognize that story isn’t the best way to engage players in an MMO.”

    I think that’s overstepping the conclusion. Player driver stories are still very engaging for an MMO as well as stories told through context. The Summoning of Rangaros in Molten Core and Crafting an ogre suit in Dire Maul are two examples that come to mind. Ragnaros has no actual quest text (just NPCS talking) but I found it to be quite engaging. Without trying you end up learning the story of Molten Core and are pulled in and engaged. Sure you repeat the action again and again but it still has a draw. Who doesn’t remember the line, “Too Soon! You have awakened me too soon Executus…”? And of course EvE Online is the shining example of player driven story.

    As for quest based advancement I also found EvE Online refreshing. The quests are immersive. They make sense given the context of the world and are randomized enough to feel like you aren’t getting the same 10 pelts for the same guy over and over again. Clearly they lack the engagement of a hand crafted quest but they also avoid the pitfalls mentioned in this article.

    I think it’s important to consider if you want engaging or immersive quests, as they are often goals at odds. Handcrafted quest Line that you see performed again and again can still be engaging but are generally not very immersive. Quests that are more generic/random aren’t engaging at all but do provide a level of immersion as you don’t get the feeling that 10 people are out performing the same task as you. It makes perfect sense that 100 different adventures all might be tasked to capture different criminals but it doesn’t make sense for farmer Joe to ask 100 people to clear his farm of weevils over and over again.

    Comment by Logo — 4 June, 2009 @ 2:08 PM

  27. The diabolical plan: design goals for Stormsea Rising

    [...] delivering yet another fetch quest, interacting with them will be more interesting. (I think that Psychochild, for example, is barking up the wrong tree: quest quality isn’t simply a function of how [...]

    Pingback by Solid Stage on Games — 16 July, 2009 @ 7:53 PM

  28. Text and Story in Solaro

    [...] Our goal instead is to use small amounts of text and to shape the world around the quests instead. Psychochild summarizes the problem nicely in his blog post: [...]

    Pingback by Howling Moon Software — 11 August, 2010 @ 7:41 AM

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