If you've paid any attention to my twitters recently, you probably saw a few comments about "to-do lists." These were parts of a conversation I was having with another developer about how the quests in modern MMOs don't feel like "quests" at all, but rather as errands or chores -- literally glorified to-do lists. I've done a lot of thinking about this lately, focusing on how to fix it.
Like most gamers, my first thought was a fairly simple one, "Make them not suck. Duh!" -- The thing is, how do you do that? Most people say things like "stop doing the kill, collect, deliver thing!" and I get what they're saying... The more often you do the same task, the more it feels like going through the motions. You get desensitized to the fun those actions gave you initially, because you're no longer as engaged. You've lost, essentially, the spark that made those actions new and interesting... but look at most games honestly and you'll see that pretty much every RPG, 3rd person action game or story driven platformer use literally the exact same tools. Gamers don't complain about them, so what's the problem?
Lately, I've come to suspect that the problem isn't what you do, but how the goals and the quest are presented. In a single player game, you can focus entirely on the presentation. A lot of people are saying Dead Space is genius, but if you decathect the presentation from the tasks, you realize that the entire game is just a string of deliver, collect, kill and use quests (just like pretty much every story based game), just like any arc of quests in a modern MMO. So, bring the presentation back into it and you start to see that a lot of tricks that MMOs don't use come into play:
Single Player Games hide the objectives from players. Ok, there's a little hyperbole in that, but it's not all that far from the truth. What's a survival horror game puzzle, but a quest with obscured objectives? In MMOs, we do everything can not to hide the objectives of our quests from our players. We do this in the name of accessibility and ease of use, but have we ever stopped to ask ourselves if this is actually a good thing? Now, some of you are probably already pulling up links to graphs showing subscriber numbers that compare say, Everquest with World of Warcraft and are getting ready to shoot me down, but before you do, go take a quest in WoW with all of the UI defaults on. Notice how the quest text takes time to appear? You ever wonder why they do this? It encourages you to read the text, right? It's not just about smooth presentation; it's about putting you in a receptive mode, so that you can accept the premise of the quest as well as the actual list of game steps you have to take to complete it. This seems really smart to me -- in a world where we don't hide the objectives, the least we can do is ensure you get as much context as possible, so that you don't think of them as just checklists of things to do to get a reward.
Now, I'd bet money that a ton of you are thinking to yourself, "Yeah but that's lame. I turn that crap off the second I log in on a new install. I hate that crap." And you're right -- you do hate that crap... but have you ever stopped to ask yourself why you hate it? You want to cut through the bullshit and just get down to playing right? Remember that, because it's of part why I think it's your fault MMO quests suck. I'll get back to it in a second, but first I want to talk about another trick that single player games use:
Single Player Games do everything they can to tell the story first. In fact, this "trick" is why single player games try to hide the objectives from players (to integrate the objectives into the world, if you prefer). The story and the quests serve each other -- you feel like you're a part of the story by completing the quests. The two exist in an intricate weave of exposition, action and reward. In a good single player game, exposing more of the story is a reward (think of unlocking cutscenes in games from the 90s or collecting audio logs or diaries in games of today)... but in MMOs, we do everything we can to make sure the story takes a back seat -- again, to make the game more accessible to everyone.
As far as the industry decision makers are concerned, you don't want to know the story, you only want to play the game (and they don't believe the two are related in your minds). If my own conversations with fellow gamers are any indication, the decision makers of this industry aren't entirely wrong about this. How many of you even bother to read the quest text in an MMO, at all? More of you are saying you don't bother than do, I'd wager.
Isn't this part of the problem? If all you look at is the objectives, if you don't read the text, then aren't you left, literally, with nothing but a to-do list? No matter what that list tells you to do, it's still just a to-do list, right?
Consider this example:
Then consider the alternative:
Attack speed, throttles to full! We're almost at the bastards' front door now! Jump to the next sector and find your target, the battle station's power core. Once you've got it in your sights, destroy it with your fighter's guns. We have to stop them here pilots, or their main force will be orbiting Earth before we make it back! It's now or never!
Which sounds like more fun, to you? I'll take the space battle over the tutorial instructions, thank you very much. But then again, maybe that's why I don't think game writing is nearly as bad as we're lead to believe; I actually read it.
What I'm getting at here is something that, to me, seems pretty obvious: Whether you choose to see a quest you take in-game as a to-do list, or a window into the world you're adventuring through, is largely up to you, isn't it? There's a lot of great story in the MMOs out there right now, and a lot of that story makes those games a lot more fun to play. Isn't it your fault you don't experience that if you make the choice to actively ignore it?
Of course, we MMO makers sure do make it easy for you, don't we? On Auto Assault, we literally color coded the objective information in the text and made the default font color sort of dark, while the color coded text was fairly bright. The quest text almost seemed to fade into the background, leaving you nothing with brightly colored text that said, in as few words as possible, exactly what you had to do, like some hidden message you decoded with your secret agent ring. In case that was still too inaccessible for you, we provided a large floating arrow at the top center of your game screen that always pointed to your next target or destination, the way a compass always points north. WAR is no better, with the important "what you have to do" text printed in bold and the "there is pretty much never any useful information here, so this is just fluff" text beneath it, printed in a regular font.
We seem to be convinced that anything but the to-do list isn't important and we pass that information on to you as data encoded into the game's UI, so you know how to treat it without actually reading it.
In case you haven't noticed, this bothers me. If I blame you, the gamers, for not bothering to read the text and thus failing to become immersed in the game world, I have to also blame me, the game designer, for not only telling you that's exactly what you should do, but in many cases not even giving you the choice to do anything else. After all, a big part of my job is to teach you the player what matters and what doesn't in my world and I'm doing that all the time, even if I don't mean to.
Let me explain that by way of example: In what I assume was an attempt to make UI on Magic the gathering cards more accessible, they began to give certain abilities and effects of the game keywords (e.g. haste or vigilance). This way, instead of having to fill the card with a ton of text explaining that the creature could attack on the first turn it came into play or that it doesn't tap to attack, they could simply print the keyword and players who had learned what they mean would know. It's actually a great idea, right? Every time they add a new keyword, that run's cards all explain the effect in detail, so players are slowly introduced to the keywords before they're fully used. This helped the cards to look clean, and maybe less intimidating to new players, but it also created an unintended problem -- player expectations might deviate from their intent.
In this case, they added an effect called "Exalted." I won't go into details, but exalted is "cumulative" - if you have cards that have this ability, the effect for each is counted, instead of the effects of just one. This is where the problem starts - most of the previous keywords represented things that were not cumulative, making it very easy for a player not in the know to assume that this effect only applied once. This was compounded by the rather terse and deliberately short description of what the effect does on the card, which leaves it open to interpretation. A player used to the older "non-stacking" effects would assume exalted works one way, while the design intent was that the game would work another. Designers had taught players to expect something different from what they provided.
...I think we've done the same thing: I think we've taught you not to read the text, when it is the text that bridges the gap between world and gameplay, in an MMO. Good gameplay clearly isn't enough -- there are far too many MMOs with great gameplay that fail for lack of content (Neocron, I'm looking at you!) for me to believe that good gameplay is all you need. You also need a good story and to do a good story, you need good text. Good text in a good story makes any related to-do list better, it's really that simple.
You might disagree, especially since single player games often don't use text at all, but that has more to do with how you look for the story. In a single player game, we have complete control over the experience, right? You don't share it with anyone, so we can make it all about you, focus on you and even make sure that you're never exposed to anything that we don't want you to see... like the game is a ride at Disneyland or something. MMOs are worlds, not rides, aren't they? The MMO is the theme park, not the ride in it. What makes Disneyland magical is more than the rides. Oh sure, you go to the park for the rides and they're the part everyone talks about, but Disneyland would just be Six Flags if all it had was rides, right? Disneyland is magical because it offers a complete experience. MMOs have to be the same and we have to do it for thousands of people, all at once. We can't use a lot of techniques you could use in a single player game for two reasons, the cost of doing so on that scale and the effect that multiple people playing together has on the game world and how it presents it story.
Text is the most economical channel we have to expose our world to you. It takes less time to produce so we can make content faster and it doesn't interfere with the gameplay itself (the rides, in that Disneyland metaphor). We can use the text to set up the premise for a piece of gameplay or to explain the places where we change the rules of that gameplay to make things fresh and interesting. Or can we?
If you don't read the text, the best we can do is tell you how to succeed - to make the objectives easy to see and simple enough to understand without lengthy explanation that you'll read them even though you won't read anything else. I don't know about you, but as a gamer, I don't want simple objectives. I want deep, complex, sophisticated objectives that leave me a lot of room to decide how I'm going to complete them. I want to discover for myself what I need to do to succeed and I want to be rewarded for being clever, when I do. I want to win not because I followed your instructions, but because I was awesome enough to win on my own terms.
As a designer, I want to provide nothing less, but with each passing year I'm reminded -- by your own complaints and conversations -- that you don't want that. You want the game to be easy to play and you want quests to be easy to figure out. You seem to actually want to-do lists.
At least, that's what I'm told. Maybe people are speaking for you who shouldn't be. Not every designer, nor every producer or industry visionary, is correct. In fact, any of us that are remotely honest have to admit we're likely wrong more often than we're right... but this opinion -- that game players by the large don't want to read text and want objectives to be easy -- is pretty damned prevalent in this industry and across the forums of myriad MMOs.
Aren't you robbing yourself of the very thing you say you want when you don't read the text?
The one cheap channel we have to make your gameplay interesting is our quest text, but if you don't want to read that, what can we do to fix the problem?