Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests?

tabooA while ago I was in the middle of turning in a batch of quests in RIFT when one NPC’s quest completion text caught my eye and stopped my mindless task-turnins to really think about what was happening:

He had previously wanted me to kill this creature for some reason or another, although I am hard-pressed to remember why.  It’s one of many disposable, forgettable quests that flow around far more substantial ones.  But since MMOs these days are combat-centric and pretty much all quests require killing, we just have assumed that whatever justification the NPC gives for this mission is morally right.

Yet this quest giver wasn’t out for justice, but petty vengeance.  He wanted to play with the head afterward.  He’s obviously off his rocker and yet my character can’t really call him out on it.  I’ve caught a few other quests where NPCs have extremely flimsy pretexts for sending me on a killing spree, usually more for convenience sake than survival or retribution.

Anytime you get into a serious discussion of morality and ethics in MMO questing, you’ll immediately hit the wall of mass murder-by-gameplay. But if we chisel through that wall, we might see that there are issues beyond just this that developers have to consider when designing stories and quests for online games.

Modern MMOs require absolute scads of scenarios to fill up their questing logs. Most of these are fairly tame and play out against a black-and-white (or good-and-bad) moral setting. “My daughter was kidnapped by gnolls, please go rescue her.” “I need sixteen bulberries to create an antidote to giant spider poison.” “Go press the thingie to stop nuclear armageddon.” And so on.

However, once in a while a quest designer strays outside of the safe (and arguably boring) bounds of generally accepted reasons to go on these quests to dabble in the taboo. What about a quest in which the player is given instructions to torture an enemy soldier or exact vengeance on a tribe until they leave their homes and go off into the wilderness to die? I’ve seen these. In mature-rated games, such as Fallen Earth and The Secret World, dabbling in the taboo is more common, but it still happens even in the most benign titles.

You ever notice how most MMOs don’t feature children — or if they do, kid NPCs are invincible? There’s a rating reason behind that, because the ESRB and its associates crack down pretty hard on games that put kids in compromising situations (such as, say, an open-world FFA setting where all NPCs can be killed). Kids aren’t necessarily taboo, but MMO studios aren’t jumping to include them in most stories because they can complicate quests in ways not intended.

And there are other topics that are — if not forbidden, then generally avoided because they can be divisive, upsetting, or unable to be presented without pushing a certain viewpoint or agenda. Most players aren’t really eager to draw in real-world pain and arguments into their gaming space. That’s maybe why our fictional mass killings are so accepted — it’s pure fantasy and has no direct analogue to our real-world lives. But work in sexual or domestic violence, and then you have the very real possibility that you’re going to deeply upset or disturb some of your gamers.

So should MMOs keep some topics taboo? And if so, what? There’s probably no easy answer to that that applies across all games and all situations. I never like to come down on the side of censorship — a storyteller should have the freedom to tell whatever story he or she likes without restraints, after all. But there’s a measure of common sense, empathy, and wise thinking that needs to go into these quests too, since they’re involving a myriad of other people.

And going back to my original example, I think that quests with touchier topics should not be presented as an on-the-rails narrative. Give the player some agency in the story — whether it be a choice of action, a selection of dialogue, or a reaction how the quest is completed.

If an MMO story can make me think, can jar me out of complacency, or teach me, I generally applaud that. It doesn’t necessarily have to be shocking or controversial to do that, but it needn’t shy away from doing what it must if the situation (and world tone) calls for it.

What do you think? Are there topics too taboo for MMO quests? Have you ever experienced a quest that went too far in some way?

World of Warcraft: 11 years later


Has it really been eleven years since World of Warcraft came out? I mean, it is, but it’s still kind of amazing to me how much time has gone by and that WoW is firmly in the two-digit MMO club.

To indulge in a little nostalgia, on Saturday night I loaded up the game and spent a half-hour or so puttering around the Draenei newbie area. While much has certainly changed about the game as a whole, this little zone is more or less identical to how I first experienced it back in Burning Crusade. Same angry plants muttering and stomping around. Same shield that floats about four inches off of my forearm or back. The only thing different that I saw was the addition of a monk trainer and some better spellcasting effects for the Shaman’s lighting attack.

Enough time has passed now so that there have been more years that I haven’t been seriously playing WoW than when I was (the scale tipped over the past year). It’s a game and culture that I’ve been following as an outsider and former player, having mostly moved on and yet recognizing that WoW left a deep imprint on me at the same time. I was talking with my fellow Battle Bards the other day about how the art and music of this game have such appeal, a warm comfy blanket of feels that can almost cover the jarring changes and constant shifts of design.

Lately I’ve been pondering why Blizzard disturbs me with its design approach to WoW. I don’t have a direct dog in that fight, but I still do care on some level. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t that the studio keeps changing its systems and design philosophy — after all, change is a core tenant of MMOs — but that it’s frequently so drastic that it gives me the impression that Blizzard has no confidence in its design or decisions. It keeps wildly course correcting from expansion to expansion, sometimes making things better and many times making them worse. For me, it created an atmosphere of uncertainty, knowing that the studio might well abandon a hot new feature the second a new expansion arose or that the class I enjoyed today might well be really different tomorrow with yet another one of the class revamps.

Change isn’t bad. But you’d think after 11 years World of Warcraft would be settled into a comfortable and profitable groove, knowing what works best for the game and its community. Instead, it still seems like the design team is trying to figure it out.

I do regret having jumped off the train back in 2008 or so. The more years that pass, the harder it is to ever get back into a game, especially one that’s been reinventing itself and adding more top-heavy content. I don’t quite blame either the studio or players for taking that fast-pass to level 100 to avoid having to deal with what’s come before.

For me, the best parts of WoW were always the small details. That familiar music, making a zone seem bigger or more personal than it actually was. The clever little animations on enemy NPCs (I liked the treants dying by being sliced in half and looking surprised at it). The gong/crash sound of accepting and turning in quests. The touches that made a zone’s ecosystem seem less generic and more fantastical.

I appreciate WoW having the option to explore 20 levels as a newbie or vet without needing to sub up. For those like me who need to satisfy a nostalgic craving now and then, it’s perfect and easier on the pocketbook (disclaimer: I cannot remember the last time I had a pocketbook or what a pocketbook actually is). I apologize to the mutated plants and angry owlkin that I slaughtered; I can only say that I was acting under orders.

Congrats to WoW for 11 years. Hope the decade ahead of it treats the game and its community well and that Blizzard does find a groove that works well for everyone.

Retro Gaming: Master of Magic part 8


(This is part of my journey going checking out Master of Magic. You can follow the entire series on the Retro Gaming page.)

Hey guys, guess who’s severely neglected his navy and is now paying for it with the most one-sided battle of all-time?

And now we return your regularly scheduled retro game playthrough.

At this point, exploring the world is getting old and I’m losing my desire to expand my lands. I have three continents under my finger, why can’t I be content with that? And so I shall be.


Syp: Making friends and bridging cultures since… never, I guess. At least I get to make a cheesy Star Trek II: The Wrath of Rjak joke here.

As an aside, those little gargoyles holding up the magic mirror need their own game or TV show or something. They’re adorable.


Freya thinks she can let some of her troops wander around my land without worry. She was wrong. I sic a newly summoned basalisk on her soldiers’ butts, and they die screaming in pixelated agony. I guess the basalisk is like the fantasy equivalent of a tank? Except that it poops?


Since the enemy navies are taking out my few ships, I’m losing my “bridge” between continents to ferry my armies. Since I’m lazy, instead of building more ships I move my summoning circle to FilthyCasual to see if I can help out the second continent boost up its defenses.


Well this ain’t good. According to the power graph, I’m third out of four factions — and Rjak is far outstripping me. (I’m blue, he’s purple.) The only thing I’m winning at is research.


Anything I should be doing for this? Quarantine? Oh… just sit and bear it? I’m good at that.


For kicks, I take my basalisk army over to a death knight tower to see how I’ll fare. Actually, it’s not too bad — I do lose one of my basalisks, but that’s it, and we emerge with a new spell, more gold, and a magic sword. Excalibur! Or whatever!

Fallout 4: Finding the humor in the apocalypse


Won’t you take a bio break in the wasteland? No flushing water, but you can’t beat that scenery!

One of the criticisms I’ve seen levied at Bethesda for its Fallout titles is that this studio is a lot less… jocular when it comes to the setting. Interplay definitely had an impish spirit about the first two Fallout titles, utilizing black and surreal humor to great effect. It’s definitely something I’ve been looking for in Fallout 4 — and, to Bethesda’s credit, finding from time to time. I’m not sure how well the jokes (quality/quantity) compare so far, but at least I’ve been amused from time to time.


I’m still not that far in — I’m really taking my time and being thorough — so I’m relatively close to the start. That said, the most bizarre thing I’ve seen thus far is a little hippie commune that was apparently established to free robots from their human masters. Before the bombs dropped, the commune managed to reprogram all of one bot (Professor Goodfeels, or somesuch), who is now the sole non-enemy resident of the camp. He just goes around spouting off groovy nonsense while his former saviors have been turned into feral ghouls. Don’t worry, I rescued them all with my big pipe wrench.

I’ll say that nervous Travis’ patter is the real reason I stay tuned to Diamond City Radio in the game. At this point I know pretty much all 20 or so songs by heart (“crawl OUT through the fallOUT!” “urANIUM fever!”), but hearing that weird guy talk to me through the radio provides a humorous touch to my explorations, especially when he gets all literal-like.


Here’s a tip: When you see a cymbal monkey like this with glowing red eyes, don’t be like me trying to get a good screenshot. Run. Run for your life. Trust me.

SWTOR: Kneeling for power


Between Fallout and the baby, I’ve fallen away from SWTOR a bit (and by that I mean “haven’t touched it at all for almost two weeks). So instead of getting back into chapter 9 hoovering-companions-up-everywhere activities, I decided to return to my Smuggler and try to get her through the story as well.

I’ve allowed my subscription to lapse for a couple of months, since there’s no real reason for me to spend the money right now until the next chapter of Knights of the Fallen Empire comes out. I planned for it by spending most of my credits on cartel packs to get under the 350K limit, and when I logged in all was well other than a slight nagging screen courtesy of BioWare. Yes, BioWare, I’m a big boy, I know what I’m doing. I will absorb the consequences.

I have missed my Smuggler. She’s quite similar to the operative, to be sure, but I like her battle rotation more. Plus, gunslinging two pistols is somehow cooler than wielding a single blaster rifle.



One of the advantages of going back through this story is being able to explore the choices you didn’t the first time around. Since my Smuggler was always in the morally grey territory, she decided to embrace the dark side and kneel before the Emperor to get his power. Why not? Most powerful Smuggler in the galaxy. I like the sound of that.

I blitzed through chapter 1 and got part of the way through 2 before sleep demanded my audience. I was cheering to see Corso Riggs depart for good (oh, you think I’m going to pick him back up? Think again.) and less happy to see him take my precious ship away. I will miss Guss until our reunion in the future, but I’ll be happy to see HK-55 once more — even if just for the limited time we have together.

What’s everyone playing these days?


Yesterday I was chatting with Belghast about the general mystery surrounding the gaming habits of the larger MMO blogging population. I had expected World of Warcraft talk to shoot through the roof following BlizzCon, but I’ve only seen a very mild bump.

So what is everyone playing? Thanks to my baby, I’ve been accumulating an unread backlog of to-read blog posts, so I decided that I’d burn through 180 of them in a go and track what games the authors said they were playing (and, of course, blogging about). Here are the results of a very informal survey of this reading marathon:

  • World of Warcraft (17)
  • Fallout 4 (13)
  • Final Fantasy XIV (10)
  • Guild Wars 2 (6)
  • SWTOR (6)
  • RIFT (3)
  • EverQuest 2 (3)
  • WildStar (3)
  • The Secret World (2)
  • Hearthstone (2)
  • Wizard101 (1)
  • Life is Strange (1)
  • The Park (1)
  • DDO (1)
  • Diablo 3 (1)
  • Devilian (1)
  • Final Fantasy XIII (1)
  • EVE Online (1)
  • Elder Scrolls Online (1)
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (1)
  • Pokemon (1)
  • Star Wars Battlefront (1)
  • Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void (1)
  • Neverwinter (1)
  • Fallout New Vegas (1)
  • ArcheAge (1)
  • Wurm Online (1)
  • LOTRO (1)
  • Dota 2 (1)
  • Black Ops 3 (1)
  • World of Warships (1)

Nice smattering of a wide range of games with no big surprises in the top five. It did make me think how, just a few years ago, LOTRO was a huge blogging topic, and before that games like WAR and so on. I just wanted to get a finger on the pulse of what was happening right now (admittedly with a very narrow window).

For kicks, I tossed out the same question to all of my Twitter followers: What are you playing? And boy did I get deluged with responses (because my followers are shining stars among humanity). Here’s that list, tallied up, with many people nominating more than one title:

  • Guild Wars 2 (25)
  • Fallout 4 (24)
  • WildStar (20)
  • SWTOR (19)
  • World of Warcraft (14)
  • Final Fantasy XIV (12)
  • Hearthstone (11)
  • Destiny (9)
  • Heroes of the Storm (8)
  • Marvel Heroes (8)
  • Star Trek Online (7)
  • The Secret World (7)
  • Star Wars Battlefront (6)
  • Starcraft 2 (5)
  • LOTRO (5)
  • Diablo 3 (4)
  • Overwatch (4)
  • Elder Scrolls Online (4)
  • League of Legends (3)
  • The Witcher 3 (3)
  • EVE Online (3)

A very interesting list indeed. I’m personally gratified to see WildStar doing pretty well up there, and surprised to see Star Trek Online up there (although maybe the recent patch plus TV series announcement helped?).

And for the rest of them, here are the two- and one-vote games sent my way!

Two Pointers:

ArcheAge, Dragon Age Inquisition, Minecraft, Black Ops 3, Fallout: New Vegas, EverQuest 2, Shadow of Mordor, Torchlight, Fallout 3, RIFT

One Pointers: 

The Evil Within, Disgaea 5, Tomb Raider, Landmark, Child of Light, Undertale, Battlefront Hardline, Paladins, Life is Strange, Fortnite, Order and Chaos 2, Awesomenauts, Disney Infinity, Final Fantasy Rune Keeper, Dirty Bomb, Pokemon Shuffle, Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy XIII, Broken Age, Halo 5, Terra Battle, Motorstorm Apocalypse, Uncharted 3, Blade and Soul, Crimson Shroud, Smash Brothers 3DS, Brain Age 2, Puzzle Quest Galactrix, Stronghold Kingdoms, Sword Coast Legends, Dark Souls, Star Wars Uprising, Monster Hunter 4, Saint’s Row 3, Game of Thrones Ascent, World of Warships, Wurm Online, Warcraft 3, Fallout Shelter, Civ: Beyond Earth: Rising Tide, Tri-Force Heroes, Contest of Champs, Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival, Testament of Sherlock Holmes, Child of Light, AC Syndicate, Crimzon Clover, Serious Sam 3, Audiosurf 2, Talos Principle, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Marvel Puzzle Quest, Phantom Pain, Forza Horizon 2, Civilization 5, Skyrim, Elite: Dangerous, Path of Exile, Divinity: Original Sin, The Park, Shadowrun Returns, Hateful Boyfriend, Van Helsing: Final Cut, Tropico 5, Prison Architect, Rimworld, Clash of Clans, Halo Master Chef remastered, Vainglory, Crossy Road, Neverwinter