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New Quest: Get Me Ten Tiger Claws

Today I almost caved in and bought Tera. Before clicking on ‘add to basket’ in Origin I went to watch some more footage of the game on youtube. I came across this video review by Junglist (insta-subscribe by the way):

He makes many interesting points about the game, so if you have any interest whatsoever in Tera I suggest you go watch the video. Unless you are already, in which case you are not reading this. Onwards… The reviewer makes an interesting commentary, not just on the game but also on MMOs as a genre. Here is was struck me most:

@0:19: ‘It’s a stale unchanging genre full of exploitative game systems more concerned with keeping you in the game than enjoying it’

Most people enjoy MMOs exactly because they have the ability to absorb a lot of your time at any given point. They are a respite from reality. The systems which could be considered exploitative, such as World of Warcraft’s old PvP honour system, are fast becoming a thing of the past though you still find players lamenting their disappearance. And then:

@4:25: ‘Solo questing in Tera is so unimaginative, it’s like a caricature of the genre. We need you to kill all the boars here, you have to take out the enemy commander there, collect 10 of this, kill 10 of that. You walk from zone to zone killing, collecting, freeing prisoners and there’s always an escort quest that goes so freaking slow! Of course that’s to be expected in an MMO..’

That last sentence in particular struck me like a punch to the face (or a gentle slap rather). And my logical question to that was: Why? Why should we expect MMOs to have unimaginative, tedious and repetitive quests? Is it true that the genre hasn’t meaningly evolved in this regard?

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I got a quest or two for you

A bit of history is in order at this point. Back in the day MMOs where less ‘theme park’ and more ‘sandbox’. If these concepts are alien to you then go ahead and read this wonderful article (go ahead, I’ll wait). At launch Ultima Online, the grandaddy of modern MMOs, was purely ‘sandbox’ in nature and had no quests at all. Players were given a world and the tools to interact with said world and then they were set loose to do as they saw fit. Avatars made up their own quests and pursued their own goals. In short, players made their own fun. Through time MMOs very slowly shifted away from that philosophy and started introducing quests to guide players to new areas, ease players in on new concepts or just for funzies. 2004 came about, World of Warcraft happened and *gasp* you could almost reach max level through questing alone! How novel! It was a big game changer making it mandatory for subsequent MMOs to rely heavily on questing for progression. Compulsory grinding was frowned upon and a big nono from then on.

However, the absolute majority of these quests were unlike those found in single player RPGs. They were extremely simple and mostly consisted of kill quests (kill x number of y) and fetch quests (take a to z and back again). Three major reasons for these design decisions come to mind:

  1. Primarily it’s a question of money. World of Warcraft shipped with thousands of quests. Up till then a project of this magnitude was unheard of. Blizzard often quoted the number of quests that was in the game in their promotions and with good reason. One could spend weeks in Azeroth and still not finish all the quests available. Stands to reason that to create such a huge amount of quests (all with accompanying text , non player characters and quest items) was a gargantuan task which required lots of resources. Although still riding on the success of Warcraft III and its expansion Blizzard Entertainment had nowhere near the financial strength it has today and therefore only so much time and money could be funneled towards making quests particularly elaborate and captivating.
  1. Secondly I think these quests did not come about to encourage a particular behaviour, but rather because the developers wanted to make the established behaviour more meaningful and rewarding. Let me explain this a bit further. Even before questing players already engaged in kill quests and fetch quests. You need to make money, you go to an area where boars have a chance to drop this rare pelt, you grind for a few hours and then, when you have enough pelts you go town and sell the pelts to a player or vendor. Kill and fetch. With the quest you are doing the exact same thing, except you have some back story and get additional money and/or experience points for your efforts.
  1. Finally, one has to understand that to make a story meaningful and memorable it usually has to have deep ramifications and somehow affect the world around you. This hurdle stumped developers for quite sometime since in MMOs you are one of many heroes and whatever change your grand quest brings about affects not only you but everyone else. Killing tigers until I collect ten claws, on the other hand, carries with it none of these dilemmas. Developers have learnt to go around this problem nowadays with technologies like instancing and phasing. Yet not all quests can take place in an instance since it would ruin the MMO feel. Likewise, phasing tends to shatter the illusion that players are sharing one cohesive world, especially if used heavily.

When the concept of quests in MMOs was relatively new nobody complained about the lack of depth or the blatant repetition. The sole fact that these quests existed was to be commended.

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This looks like a very good spawn point

Here I must say that I do not totally agree with Junglist that the MMO genre is ‘stale and unchanging’. We have seen a quite few changes, as I have explained, and no one can deny that MMO quests nowadays are, on the whole, way more interesting than they were 5 years ago. Compare the quests found in vanilla WoW to those present in Cataclysm to get an idea of how far we’ve come. Star Wars: The Old Republic also comes to mind with its fully voiced quests, interesting stories and frequent moral choices. Just because the developers of Tera (which has been released 2 years ago in Korea lest we forget) have allegedly chosen to follow an older style of questing does not mean that this should be a reflection on all of the genre today. Plus grinding is popular with Koreans so it might just as well be a design decision.

Having said that, it is true that MMOs in general have evolved this aspect of gameplay relatively slowly. Why is this? Well, for starters point number one above still holds for most MMO developers. No one game has infinite resources and the developer has to create a balance between content that is there to help you level and content that is meant to enrich the experience. Compromises have to be made. Lord of the Rings Online is chock full of npcs sending you on the most daunting of tasks. ‘Got to my room, get me my mirror. Now bring it to my face so I can admire how beautiful I am’ This forms the bulk of your adventuring in Middle Earth. However if you go through the (appropriately named) Epic Questline you will find quests that are a cut above the rest in quality. You discover unique locations, fight memorable bosses and unfold an interesting storyline complete with scripted events and in-game cutscenes. Wouldn’t it be nice if all the quests for LotRO had this level of quality? Of course it would, but Turbine just cannot afford that and neither can any other developer. An MMO is many times bigger than any single player RPG.

Another issue that comes into play is the length of time it takes to develop an MMO. This usually ranges from 4-6 years. When a new MMO is released the engine it is running on is already relatively old and many times new trends in gaming have to be retrofitted. Let us keep WoW as our primary example. The game has been out for almost 8 years. Realistically the game engine was designed 10-12 years ago. Much has changed since then, not least the player’s expectation of what constitutes interesting quests. Truth is, the WoW engine is being pushed to its limits to handle things which it was not originally designed to. This is the reason why ArenaNet have decided to stop work on Guild Wars and start over in a sequel with a heavily modified  engine. Think of it like this: MMOs are like this huge ship which takes ages to turn. To change direction you have to start planning months in advance. To make matters worse the passengers frequently change their minds about their preferred destination. It’s a tough act to follow.

In concluding this particularly long post (by my standards at least) I will go back to what Junglist said: ‘…that’s to be expected in an MMO’. It is to be expected in an MMO, not because MMO developers are lazy or dumb but rather because of the inherent constraints of the genre. Time and time again game designers have shown us that they are very capable of doing extremely engaging quests within an MMO framework and are finding new ways to work around existing barriers. At the end of the day kill and fetch quests have become part of the genre and we would be missing out if they had to be shunned completely. In any MMO I play I do expect someone somewhere to send me on a quest to collect 10 tiger claws and I mean that in the most positive way possible.

Meanwhile I think I will buy Tera another day….

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