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The quest for meaning


Quests are a commonly-used device in RPGs, MMO or otherwise. They are used to guide the player through the story and world in small, discrete steps. After playing just a few RPGs it is noticeable that there are a limited number of quest types.  Depending on how the lines are drawn, quests can easily be broken up into 3-7 categories. Looking specifically at the quests in World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, I was able to easily categorize the quests into 7 distinct types.

1. Kill X number of specified enemies (where X is a number greater than or equal to 1).

2. Kill enemies until X number of specified items drop (where X is a number greater than or equal to 1).

3. Collect a specific item in a region.

4. Deliver an item to someone specific.

5. Talk to someone specific.

6. Escort someone specific to a specified destination.

7. Use a specific ability.

World of Warcraft now has over 8000 quests, with players often completing well over 1000 quests on their way to level 80.  These 7 types of quests are able to describe over 90% of the quests available, so these players will have encountered the same quest tropes hundreds of times.

Given the limited palette, I wanted to think up new quest types to work towards a more expressive style of RPG.  While brainstorming for new quest ideas, I thought I would step back and instead of looking at the quests currently available, I would instead focus on the goal of the quest designer.  I quickly came up with this meta-list which (I think) does a decent job encapsulating quest raison d’être:

1. Teach players how to play the game.

2. Encourage exploration of the game world.

3. Introduce nuggets of story or lore.

4. Move the players to a particular location.

5. Give the players directed reasons to gain XP and items.

Perhaps looking at quests from this new light can lead to new, more expressive types of quests?  It seems that if we alter the goals, it will lead to new quests, but perhaps the current goals are all that is necessary.  What do you all think?

About the author:  Anne Sullivan is a PhD student researching player-driven quest-generation in RPGs. She wants to grow up to be the crazy cat lady. Read more from this author

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  1. Posted June 5, 2009 at 1:13 AM | Permalink

    I think you’re definitely looking at it in the right way with quest goals, and I see your argument as recipes. Your aim is to create the “goal” dish, the ingredients being “quests”. But you still need to know what those ingredients are, although you now can choose whichever ingredient makes for a tasty goal.

    The question I have for you now is: Now that you have these goals, what can you come up with as ways of achieving them if we try and ignore the 7 quests we know of? Is that even possible? The quests descriptions are so broad (eg. collect an item, kill a character) that they could describe most actions in any game. Maybe the secret is in stringing quests together in exciting ways.

    For a tasty goal.

    I like this food metaphor!

    Now I’m hungry.

  2. Posted June 5, 2009 at 4:18 PM | Permalink

    It would be nice if somehow a quest could be designed such that you, as the player, somehow grow as a person from doing the quest. So, maybe learning some piece of (real-world) knowledge, or gaining some element of self-awareness could be a quest goal. That is, can the goal be something other than materialistic?

  3. Posted June 5, 2009 at 11:34 PM | Permalink

    This is interesting, I like abstracting it out into quest goals. Some questions:

    1. It may be interesting to look at the <10% of quests that aren't covered by those 7 tropes you mention. Do they support the same or different goals? Are they done frequently, or seen as boring or weird because they are so different from the "normal" quests? Are they at all similar to the new quest types that you want to create?

    2. These goals seem sufficient to me, but I think that's because they are extremely general. Do you think it would be helpful to break these down into more specific subgoals? e.g. "learn about the game" -> “learn about the combat system”, “learn about trading”, etc.?

    3. Do all MMOs have quests? If not, what takes their place, and what goals do they achieve?

  4. Posted June 10, 2009 at 5:20 PM | Permalink

    Upon thinking about this more, looking at meta goals can be really useful when thinking about quest generation. Instead of picking from a bag of specific styles of quests at random, we can use author goals to drive the choice between these quest types.

    Chris: Tasty! It seems that most work using author-driven generation could be thought of as recipes and ingredients. Yummmm!

    Jim: That’s a great point! In the current state of RPGs, they generally (always?) focus on the needs of the character instead of the needs of the player. Of course, having seen enough educational games, you’d have to wonder if players would find it enjoyable.

    Gillian: 1. I actually estimated the number of quests not being covered. It may be higher or lower. I haven’t gone through all 8000+ quests to check. :( So I don’t have an example handy to address this point.

    2. If it gets more specific, does that just lead back to task-based quests? If your goal is very focused, then it may not leave room for multiple interpretations. It may lead to something useful though, I’ll definitely think about it.

    3. I will have to assume that are some MMOs available without quests. However, the majority of them do. Of course, depending on the genre, they may be called something else. For instance, in non-fantasy genres, they are generally referred to as “missions”, but they are the same thing. If there aren’t quests, does it just revert to a big grind fest? That’s something worth looking into.