Choose Your Own Adventure: The MMO

supercomputer_cyoa_largeSomething Wolfshead said in a recent post sparked a huge brainspark for me:

The problem here is not that there is too much text to read, it’s the fact that a typical MMO interaction with NPCs is a very boring and uninteresting one way conversation. Think about it. You aren’t allowed to speak or reply. You have no input. All you can do is press either accept or decline. NPCs have the emotional depth of a vending machine.

Boring quests and the limitation of quest storytelling to chunks of text at the beginning and end (with little but a chore “in between”) have long been a bone of contention with me. Wolfhead nails a great point — we simply aren’t given a choice when faced with a quest. I’ve often wondered why quests can’t have branching points in MMOs, where you make a choice during a quest that effects the outcome. Once in a rare while, you see this, but it’s obviously too time-intensive — like making two quests in one, and that’s one less quest number to quote on the back of the box statistics.

You might even remember a month or two back when Richard Bartle took WoW to task for not giving him a choice during a torture quest — a discussion that unfortunately got derailed over the subject of whether torture was a good plot device or not. It missed what I considered his biggest point: that quest was prime for a choice in the middle, a branching path, and instead the designers treated it like any other mandatory chore list and forced players down a specific path to completion. It’s a real shame that the community ganged up on Bartle instead of saying, “Hey, YEAH. We want CHOICES in our quests!” and put the pressure on game devs.

But I never thought about choice at the beginning of your quest, and the more I mull over it, the more it strikes me as a wonderful idea. What if your discussion with the quest-giver NPC wasn’t just an “accept or decline” ordeal, but an interactive conversation that would serve as a way to design your mission — if you feel that rescuing innocents is more important, then maybe that will be a new mission objective; if you feel that retrieving an item that could potentially help many more people but you’d leave the innocents to their doom, then the mission would change to reflect that. Maybe you’d want to be more stealthy, or fight many small mobs vs. a few big ones, whatever. Your choices would craft the mission to your liking, all through a conversation.

In a way, this is sort of how Anarchy Online once touted its mission editor, which was a barebones “choose your own adventure” that stocked an instance according to your desires. That didn’t work out so hot in the end — it was pretty generic because it had to be so modular — but maybe it could work in a more subtle fashion.

…Okay, maybe it’s a dumb idea, but I’m thinking here, people! And that’s a lot more than I can say for a majority of current quest designers in MMOs.

In any case, what I want most in quests are: great stories, great choices and great rewards. I’ll lend my voice to the growing crowd of folks who say, if that means fewer quests in MMOs — but the ones that are in there are of superior quality (and perhaps repeatable) — then go for it.

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8 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Adventure: The MMO

  1. spinks March 31, 2009 / 9:47 am

    I love the idea of more choice in MMO quests, it’d be nice to feel that it was your story rather than everyone else’s too,

    Just one of the problems that I see is that if you can make a choice in a quest that will have a big game changing effect on your character, how easy might it be to keep grouping/playing with people who’d made different choices?

    It’s like … if something changes for my character, everyone else should be able to see and react to that change also. Or else it’s just a short term ‘valid until the next quest’ kind of change.

    Don’t think I am saying this well tbh. Just if I decide via a quest that my character IS willing to torture people for the greater good, I don’t think that’s something that NPCs and PCs further down the line should be ignoring. Makes me wonder whether alignment would be an interesting way to go, actually.

  2. Green Armadillo March 31, 2009 / 10:36 am

    EQ2 offers dialog trees that are often quite amusing and well-worth the read. The only catch is that there’s generally only one path that actually leads to the questgiver giving you the quest, but at least you have some room for personality…. if you don’t just click through and look for the accept quest button anyway. 🙂

  3. Werit March 31, 2009 / 11:36 am

    I’m not sure we will see real choice come about in a big name MMO. There is just too much risk involved, so maybe a small developer will actually do it.

    Consequences are necessary and might not be something the MMO playerbase at-large is ready for.

  4. Rog March 31, 2009 / 12:41 pm

    Forked quest paths, consequences, even just having more quests than necessary so some quests can be skipped– all of these require some extra effort on behalf of the developers.

    I often feel that too much of MMORPG design is dictated by “what’s the least we can possibly make”.

    I realize there’s an almost overwhelming amount of effort that goes into these games, but I also notice that while tools develop to reduce the overhead, we (as players / content-consumers) don’t seem to ever reap the benefits.

    Doors should be opening up right about now for content like this. I’m tired of seeing MMO devs take the easiest routes.

  5. Sharon March 31, 2009 / 1:05 pm

    This is one of the things I miss about MUDding. In the MUDs I played, there were quests where you had a choice and the choice changed some element of your character. PC games have struggled with how to give people meaningful choices…most of the time it’s pretty much a choice between good and evil (KOTOR, Bioshock, etc.)

    I’d love to see more depth added to questing in MMOs, maybe using the concept of alignment, where your choices can change your alignment which changes the abilities and skills you have access to.

  6. koljarn March 31, 2009 / 1:26 pm

    Amusingly enough, this is what made Ultima IV a great game way back in the day when EGA was high-tech. You actually had to talk to the NPCs and type what you wanted to say. Eventually, we’ll see a MMO which embraces this sort of questing and interaction, but it will probably have to be PvE based by necessity.

  7. tarisai April 1, 2009 / 8:25 am

    i would assume the new KOTOR MMO would have this mechanic, though perhaps a “lite” version.

    the character/NPC dialogue is a huge part of the other 2 SP games: so i’m sure this idea would not have been easily dismissed…

  8. Wolfshead April 18, 2009 / 12:22 am

    Thanks for the the plug Syp! I think you and the commenters done a good job in amplifying some of my concerns regarding the limitations of quests.

    I think there is a tremendous potential for more advanced and challenging interactions with NPCs for future MMOs. 🙂

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