The Quest Journal made me do it!

MMOCritic today posted a good piece on how Quest Journals interfere with fun, immersion, and difficulty. Wicked, naughty Quest Journals! Now that I look at my Quest Journal, though, I wonder…

What a bad Quest Journal!
No games were seriously injured during the doctoring of this image, although three suffered bruised egos.

I share frustration at many of the shortcomings of contemporary MMOs, just as they’re listed in this article. It’s a good read, so don’t take my following post as an attack — it’s just discussion! But I’m not sure about these conclusions regarding my trusty Quest Journal. So what I’m wondering now is… Are the following problems caused by a robust Quest Journal system, or are they symptoms of a deeper underlying design pattern that is beginning to wear thin? I am granting the evil Journal a stay of execution while examining each point…

? means never having to say “I’m sorry (I can’t find a questgiver)”

MMOCritic: Today when I pick up a game, we have people with special icons over their heads to let you know they have a quest for you (thanks World of Easycraft)

I hate NPCs whose sole purpose in life is to hand out quests. Really, I do. No, seriously, I’ve already posted about questing shortcomings I’d like to address. I’m going to reverse myself just a little; I have no problem with static, easily-locatable dispensers of “crap, I only have 30 minutes, I need something to do” typical contemporary quests. But this mechanic has very little to do with the nefarious Quest Journal — the Journal merely tracks progress. So I say, great point, but wrong villain! (And someone, please, bring us the SWG-style Old Man again! Let the content find the players!)

Words, words, words

MMOCritic: While playing in the original incarnation of EverQuest, I actually felt more apart of the world (not to mention the first person view) as I had to wade through keywords to progress the quest dialog, also having to remember what was being asked of me.

More interactive NPC conversations: awesome, can I borrow that idea? Of course, that’s about quest mechanics, and not the Journal.

Remembering stuff: Crap, that’s not so much for me. Overall, I hate having to jump outside of a game system. Keeping notes, checking guides or documents, or anything like that frustrates me. I think this is a matter of personal taste, though. Still, I’ll use a maxim that I’ve dredged up before. “If you don’t WANT insert feature here, don’t use it!” So this time, I think we do have a finger pointed at the Quest Journal, but I’ll agree to disagree here.

MMOCritic: On a vast majority of these quests you don’t even have to read the dialog that goes along with them, as the UI display and the yellow text is what your mission will be.

Here’s a problem I’ve encountered with a few games. The videogame medium isn’t wonderful for lots of reading. Sure, Oblivion had books, letters, notes, manifestos, journals, fashion magazines, newspapers, technical manuals, coloring books, religious propaganda, cookbooks, scrapbooks, textbooks, phonebooks, romance novels, sci-fi anthologies, dramatic scripts, and who knows what else to read? I know these fleshed out a massively well-documented world, but this medium just isn’t right for lots of intensive reading, with a few clues to detect here and there. Players want to play, especially in big groups in MMOs. Dialog is good, but good dialog is great — and, typically, concise! Reading large amounts of text should not be an obstacle to a player continuing to progress through the game.

But there’s even another reason that I don’t hold this against the vicious Journal. My own play habits have changed; I’ve gone from a 6-or-more-hours-per-day-every-day schedule to more of a 2-to-4-hours-every-couple-of-days plan. If I take 2 or 3 days off (or, heaven forbid, a week or more), I do have a marked tendency to forget the exact details of what I was doing. So please, keep some of that flavor and detail for me, computer — you’re much better at this kind of thing than I am.

The more games change, the more they stay the same.

MMOCritic: Kill x of this, collect y of that, or talk to so-and-so.

I can’t agree more; games need to consist of more than just these FedEx quest blocks. Kill, collect, find, deliver, lather, rinse, repeat. But we’ve already discussed that (if you missed my self-reference to quest design discussion above, here it is again). So again, I’m going to let the Journal off with a warning. I don’t think you did it, but pick your friends more carefully!

It’s not the systems, it’s the people.

MMOCritic: We all know that developers cannot create content for these games faster than players will chew it up, and one of those reasons I strongly feel is the invention of the quest journal. We need to start finding a way at slowing down this rate of player consumption of content and I would start with the quest journals.

I think game developers make the mistake of underestimating player tenacity all the time. One of my favorite examples is the Star Wars Galaxies update that unlocked Player City creation. Astonishingly, all of the limited slots available for Player Cities were taken within minutes of the servers returning from patch time; certainly in under an hour. Astonishing, that is, to the developers, who failed to recognize that guilds large and small had been planning for this event. Even our relatively small, casual guild was prepared with all of the necessary materials and people, strategically logged-out in the exact places they had to be to begin executing the construction of a town. And this is the case, over and over. I don’t blame improved tracking tools for helping players burn through content; the awful, ugly, naked truth is that players who love the game, love to PLAY the game. And they will. Pathologically. No amount of content that can be written will keep them satisfied… The path for growth is to let the world adapt to the players, with dynamically-generated stories finding those who need prompting, and creative tools allowing players with their own ideas to shape the world’s stories on their own. Again, the Journal is caught in a content quagmire not of its own making.

I’ve really done enough verbatim quoting by now, don’t you think?

To summarize some other points I wanted to look at briefly, MMOCritic went on to suggest:

  • Remove journals entirely, or limit them to one quest at a time. I have to outright disagree here. I need my memory crutch, and I’m strongly opposed to forcing players to make decisions that constrict gameplay excessively. LotRO, as an example, has relatively long series of quests arranged in story arcs. While this is good for exposition, it makes forming a group of friends very difficult if there is any variation between players’ play schedules, as it’s easy to get out-of-sync with your friends. So while I think keeping the journals very much alive and fully-featured is the better approach, I’ll go one further: Make participation in quests a fun action that players want to do, rather than just the optimum path for advancement. Remove the obstacles to entertaining and immersive quest-oriented play, and see if people enjoy playing in a storied world more than they enjoy ticking off checkboxes in a list.
  • Quests should be longer and more story-like. No argument here, although I’m going to switch terminology to make sure that I’m clear. I’m fine with relatively short, digestible, discrete “quests” that consist of accomplishing a single action. “Find Person X and rescue him from his captors.” “Fetch me a Foozle.” These are fine. Make it easy to assemble a group of friends, acquaintances, strangers, or to daringly try it alone. Make sure everyone who participates enjoys it and gets rewarded. But more importantly, make sure it’s part of a longer, focused “story arc.” Why am I fetching a Foozle? Oh yes, you need it to fortify my home city’s defenses against the impending invasion. Damn, I’d better get right on that! Again, the quality and length of story arcs in a game is less a function of having a detailed Journal and more a function of overall quest system design.
  • Quests need prerequisites. I like this a lot, too. Of course, if you have a reputation as a cowardly bastard, you’re not very likely to be approached to rescue someone’s captive infant. But you just might find leads about a fat merchant whose purse is in need of a little lightening… At risk of sounding like a broken record, I again find this to be a great idea, but one that is not directly related to the Journal.

Am I done yet?

I could say more, but I think it’s time to wrap this post up. In summary, I think that computers are better at tracking details and remembering things than people are, and having a good Quest Journal system is an important convenience that will help keep players focused on playing the game, and hopefully less so on taking detailed notes as they do. On the other hand, nearly every game system problem this article brought up was one that I also find frustrating; therefore, once the real culprit behind these problems is properly identified, I know who I’ll want to group up with to venture to his castle and raid him. I just hope the lewts are phat when we do.

Postscript: MMOCritic’s article was even better than I had hoped. It was a great post (I read it several times). And it helped chip through the blogging writer’s block I’d been having for the last couple of weeks. Insert Tigger-style bouncing about and shouting of “woohoo” here.

About Tachevert

A cofounder of and full-time geek, Tachevert writes about whatever strikes his fancy. Despite the inherent contradiction, he can often be found videogaming or attempting to run.
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