Along the same lines as the concept of a limited set of basic tools is the often muttered MMO adage that there are less than a dozen quest objective types. I actually think it's a lot less than 12. In fact, most of the folks I know who are making MMOs think there are only 7, just like my basic tools:
You could probably argue that some of those object types are really just embellishments of others as well, so maybe it's more like 5:
In either case, that's a pretty restrictive collection of things a player can do, right? There are only so many combinations of those objectives you can string together before a player has essentially done every quest you can imagine, mechanically. In other words, if you've played an MMO with questing, there's a good chance you've already played every type of quest you could possibly think of. Even on a small game, this is true: there were thousands of quests in Auto Assault across the three factions, but all of them used objective types listed above and pretty much nothing else. So how does a designer use these simple quest types to make interesting content?
The answer is context.
What makes questing interesting aren't just the objectives, it's also the reasons behind them. It's not just the how, but also the why. Of course, that's also a problem, isn't it? When people are playing games, they really don't like to read. Ok, to be fair I have no statistical evidence, but anecdotally, I see it all the time: people who are otherwise avid readers would rather just skip right through the quest text and get to the playing. I think they do so to their own detriment, but I can't blame them. Reading is fundamentally passive and games, at least in prevailing thought, shouldn't be. The two activities can definitely seem at odds.
So how do you get the context across if you don't have any other tools beyond some text and those basic objective types above? That's where quest structure comes in. It's very easy to forget, both as a player and as a designer, that the way quests are presented to us makes a difference in how we play our games. One of the fundamental differences between a game like WoW and a game like Fallout, for example, is the open nature of the world. In WoW, the game is made based on the assumption that I will follow a linear path of quests from level 1 to cap. There is some variation of course, but by and large WoW isn't an open game - if I try to go to a zone ahead of the quests, I'm not going to have access to a lot of the content, either by virtue of being below level or not meeting the prereqs of the quests. Auto Assault was the same way - in fact it was more linear, I'd wager. Fallout, on the other hand, is a game predicated on non-linear play. If you follow only the main story thread of the game, you'll be done in an afternoon of play. Instead the game expects you find the other content whenever you find it and to complete it at your own pace. You can even take it or leave it - many of the quest arcs in that game do not require that you have completed previous quests before they become available.
Both WoW and Fallout 3 use the same quest objective types, but the games feel very differently and this has a lot to do with the questing structure. The wow structure is largely linear, while the fallout 3 quest structure is laid out in a parallel. The games are very different for good reasons; I don't mean to suggest that one structure is better than other. Instead, I mention it to point out how questing structure can make a difference.
Going back to MMOs specifically, consider the two structures:
Both structures offer the same number of quests for any given game experience, but they produce entirely different feelings, right? The top structure is, essentially, Auto Assault - Players select from one of 4 classes, which determines which of the 4 "main lines" they are a part of. They have no way to access the other main lines, though those main lines are equivalent in length, difficulty and reward. This is, in many ways, a very traditional RPG game structure.
The second structure represents games like Everquest, or WAR, or even WoW, where the player picks a side or a nation which determines their "newbie" quest line. When this quest line is completed, it unlocks the quest arcs available in the zones your chosen side or nation has access to (in most games this further gated by level).
Both of these structures are pretty simple and I'm sure you can think of individual examples in the same games I've mentioned that go beyond this, but I often wonder why you don't see a lot more use from quest structure in games, to make the content and the player experience more interesting.
To use quest structure to elicit new game play you primarily need to work with quest prerequisites. Prereqs control flow and that's what quest structure is all about. The point of playing with quest structure is to give the player new ways to experience the same old content tools -- to make each experience feel different despite the core loop of the game. The ideal outcome is to make taking a quest a choice that is interesting and rewarding in and of itself.
For example, let's talk about branching storylines - something the upcoming Bioware MMO seems to want to take advantage of. Considering how little it's done in our industry, you might expect that branching storylines are hard to implement, but that's really not true. The problem isn't its difficulty but rather the amount of content you have to produce: the "n-squared problem" where the amount of content you have to produce increases logarithmically in order to accommodate each branch point. There are actually plenty of ways to deal with that problem, but let's stick to the technology behind branching for now.
You really don't need anything to support branching except quest prerequisites. In fairness, you need both positive prerequisites ("The player must have completed or received quest 1 to access quest 2") and negative prereqs ("The player must not have completed or received quest 2 in order to access quest 3"), but those are the only tools you need. A branch is simply a list of quests with specific prereqs:
That's really all there is to it, that quest structure branches with a player choice after the 2nd quest in the arc. Of course, as I said before - the more times it's done, the more content has to be produced. None the less, it's hard to argue that the idea of presenting the player a choice to make, especially one that differentiates one player's experience from another, isn't worth considering.
In fact, the idea that one player might experience content that another player wouldn't is the core concept behind manipulating quest structure, isn't it? It's what makes the choice of quests interesting and potentially rewarding regardless of their game-mechanic content, right? It's what makes the game something personal to each player - each player has the potential to have a different experience and talking about the differences between experiences is a reward in and of itself. You see it happen a lot when two gamers talk about Fallout 3 or the Grand Theft Auto games, in fact. Some games, EVE comes to mind, build their entire questing mechanic on the idea the player dictates her course through the game's quests (you choose what agents and corps to work with) - sadly, the vast majority of RPGs and MMOs really don't do this.
Manipulating quest structure and branching go hand in hand. It's because you can do so much more than simple "A to B or C" style branching. Want to build a story where the player plays both sides against the middle? Set up three initial quest arcs that run in parallel, each one representing a side, and then manipulate quest prereqs so that eventually the player has to make choices that put them working firmly for one side or another:
In fact, it can be argued that how subtle, intricate, or sophisticated your game's story can be depends entirely on quest structure in a questing game like an MMO or an RPG. After all, if your structure is flat so is your story, right? Branching - more specifically multi-dimensional quest structure - might not be the right choice for every quest arc, but it's certainly worth using as a tool in a designer's arsenal, is it not? Don't just take my word for it though, analyze the quest structure in your favorite mmo - I bet even the flat ones aren't nearly as 1-dimensional as they appear to be.
If you look at your own MMO, and you see a flat quest structure, maybe it's time for a little French design to make your game more interesting. Try making your quest structure multi-dimensional; I'm sure you'll find the effort rewarding.