New Grind, Just like the Old Grind: Quest Heavy Advancement
by: Michael Hartman
; edited by: Michele McDonough
; updated: 4/17/2012
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When it first appeared, quest heavy advancement was hailed as a relief from the "mob grind" prevalent in DIKU style MMORPGs. But different does not always mean better. The quest grind has turned out to be little different than a mob grind, and in some ways it is worse. And oh my, the walking...
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Bashing Quests? How Dare You! We Love the Quest Grind
A lot of MMO gamers are probably reading this and are already reaching for the pitchforks and torches. I implore you to read the entire article and look at the subject from a new perspective. This article was inspired by a post on my blog, Muckbeast. Reader response was so overwhelming, I knew the subject deserved a more detailed examination.
Questing was praised as the solution to the tedium of mob grinding. World of Warcraft, of course, is at the forefront of this movement. Every zone or town has one or more "hubs" with merchants and quest givers. The quests then cause you to move about the zone doing this or that task, killing X of Y mob, gathering A of B items, and the like. The idea was to give players a story and a reason behind all of their actions, rather than just running from place to place killing every mobbie they saw. In some ways this system has been a success, but in many others it has been an abject failure.
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Questing and Quest Grinding vs Mob Grinding? Which method is a faster way to level?
This question summarizes what quest heavy advancement has become. While researching for this article, something very similar to that phrase was the most ideal search phrase. Sad, isn't it? The point of quest based advancement was supposed to be a focus on story and a movement of the player away from single minded focus on reaching the level cap. So much for that idea.
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Where Did Quest Heavy Advancement Go Right? Quest Grinds That Are Ok.
Sorry to give away the ending, but this part of the article is far shorter than the parts that talk about where quest heavy gaming went wrong.
Many quests in games like WoW are actually very good. They have interesting story lines. They have characters you care about. You can find yourself moving forward to advance the story or to help out an NPC you feel an affinity towards. Those are all good things.
WoW-style quest design keeps players moving from zone to zone and avoids the "where do I go next?" problem. As you finish all the quests in a hub, the quest givers start asking you to visit NPCs in the next zone over. This pushes you along at approximately the right level to move along. This is a helpful and effective way to keep players progressing through a world's content.
Finally, quest heavy advancement does effectively create the illusion that you are not simply grinding mobs - for a time, at least. Eventually, it becomes obvious you are still grinding, you just do a lot of running back and forth after every 10 to 20 mobs you kill. Oh wait, this is supposed to be the good stuff.
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Where Did Quest Heavy Advancement Go Wrong?
The short answer is: in more ways than I can cover in a single section or even a single article. But I am sure going to try! WoW is a common example, but the same problems crop up in other similar MMOs: Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, and others that follow the same quest obsession.
I am going to start right off with the main reason quest heavy MMOs go wrong. Quest heavy advancement is actually a disincentive to grouping. Forced grouping is bad, but anti-grouping is even worse. If people would LIKE to group with people, but the game discourages it, that is an absolutely terrible condition. To whatever degree questing pretties up the grinding process to make it seem less tedium, passing the time chatting with actual people is a million times better.
How does quest heavy advancement discourage grouping? Because it is virtually impossible for people to stay synced up as far as quest progress. When I play MMOs with my wife, it is hard enough for us to keep two characters in sync. Imagine friends who don't live together. Imagine more than 2 people? Unless you all agree to never play certain characters except when everyone is together, you can't stay on track. This means some people always have to be caught up, others are way ahead, and there are always people redoing content and feeling like they are wasting time.
It is even worse for pick up groups, because the odds of being on the same step for more than 1 or 2 quests in a row are extremely slim. So if you happen to find someone who needs to do the same objective, you usually group up, beat that one quest, and then part ways. That usually follows from a brief discussion like this:
Player 1: Have you done Find the 12 Foozles yet?
Player 2: Yeah, already did that. Have you done Rescue Princess Esmerelda?
Player 1: I'm on step 8 of that.
Player 2: Oh, I'm only on step 2. Want to help me catch up?
Player 1: (unless he is extremely charitable) Well.... (uncomfortable), I really need to finish <something for some reason or other>.
Player 2: Ok. Take care then. Thanks for the group.
Player 1: See ya!
(Keep reading... there is much more!)
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Organic Grouping Cannot Happen
While I am not singing the praises of mob grinding as a game design model, I am going to use it for the sake of comparison here. When grinding mobs in older MMOs, you could head to a zone and start killing things solo. If you met up with people, you could start a group. Perhaps you started off in a duo. This allowed you to move to harder things. As you added more people, you could move to harder stuff or larger groups. If people had to leave, no big deal. You either replaced them with new people or just moved back to easier content. You could organically move from one thing to the next, everyone was always making equal progress, and it did not really matter how many people, or who specifically, were in your group.
In quest heavy advancement, you cannot do any of this. New people who show up are almost guaranteed to have totally different quests to do, and if your group shrinks below a certain threshold some quest chains will no longer be possible at all (so you will have to stop those chains before completing them for the big payoff at the end). This can be extremely frustrating and unfulfilling.
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Pretty Bad So Far? There's More!
Then there are quests of the "gather 12 rat tail" variety - the ones where each rat either drops 1 tail, or only has a slim chance to drop 1 tail. Grouping for quests like this is a huge disadvantage, because adding one person doubles the time it will take to finish. Some newer MMOs have done a good job of eliminating this problem, and making sure when a quest item is dropped for one person it is dropped for all, but this is not always the case.
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Will the Real Princess Who Just Got Saved Please Step Forward?
There are many things in MMOs that require suspension of disbelief. Spells, dragons, faster than light travel, teleportation, and other genre related features are things players have no trouble accepting. But it is incredibly jarring and immersion breaking to complete an epic, 20 step quest chain by returning a Princess to her father, just to see 2 more copies of the same Princess running along behind other players also finishing the same quest. In games where quests are an optional part of the game, or not the primary focus, at least you don't often have people solving the same quests at the same time. So by the time someone else shows up you are long gone. In quest heavy advancement games, you watch hundreds of other players solving the exact same problems for the exact same NPCs right along side you.
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Those Stories We Talked About? Oh yeah, forgot about those...
Remember how one of the main benefits of quest heavy systems was providing interesting stories to make people feel like their actions had meaning? Yeah... about those... after you clear out your first quest hub or two, they start to blend together. You start skimming the text to see what kind of rat tails you need to gather (whether its orc hearts or dragon scales, in the end they are all rat tails).
No MMO can realistically create thousands of interesting quest lines and stories. They simply do not have the staff to put into that enormous amount of high quality, creative content. Most MMOs have a handful of truly interesting and engaging quest lines, and they are certainly "don't miss" aspects of game content. But the overwhelming majority of quests are repetitive and uninteresting from a story perspective. And once you start ignoring the quest text to just skip to the objectives, you run the risk of missing out on the ones that are actually good. You develop a habit of skipping the story, so the 1 out of 100 that you would have liked get lost in the shuffle.
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The Joy and Wonder of Exploration is Destroyed
Wolfshead, author of Wolfshead Online and a regular readers of Muckbeast, summed this concept up succinctly:
"They will never experience the autonomy of being able to explore a world without a questgiver telling them what they must do."
In quest heavy worlds, the game teaches you that you shouldn't go somewhere unless you have already loaded up on the quests for it. Also, since quest NPCs are not always at the entrance of a zone, you generally have to do research on fan sites to make sure you have all the quests before you even go to a new location. Otherwise, you will find yourself backtracking to visit locations you already fully explored simply to complete or continue a quest chain.
Eventually, quests teach players not to explore for the sheer joy of it, but to follow the path mapped out by the developers through their quest chains. Some WoW Add-Ons even put a giant yellow arrow in the middle of the screen that constantly points you to your next objective. People end up just watching and following the arrow and barely even see the scenery.
Exploring for its own sake was one of the original joys of MMOs. Exploring for a quest or a reward would be far more enjoyable if it was secondary to the exploration itself.
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This Is No Longer a Game, This is a Job... a To-Do List
Building off that WoW Add-On I mentioned in the previous section, what has happened in quest heavy MMOs is they are less about having fun and more about following a to-do list. You run around to the NPCs with yellow exclamation points, get your list of tasks, follow them in an efficient manner (with add-ons to actually calculate the most efficient path for you), then run around to NPCs with yellow question marks so you can turn them in.
The joy and wonder of playing a game in a rich, virtual world has gone by the way side. Instead, you are a low level bureaucrat filling out order requests and filing them at the appropriate NPC overseer.
When WoW implemented daily quests, I realized the industry was really going in the wrong direction. Daily quests are hardly different than a list of chores for some kids living on a farm. You login, you load up on your "dailies", and you grind them out for money and reputation. People do these exact same quests hundreds of days in a row. To make things worse, the culture of the game has devolved such that people averse to grinding out their dailies are called lazy. This is a game we are talking about, and people who are not interested in mindless, uninteresting, repetitive daily chores are chastised for their lack of work ethic. Sounds like a workaday, time punching job to me.
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So What to Do About Quests Then?
Quests are not a flawed concept. They can be an extremely interesting, fun, and engaging way for designers to tell stories and connect players with the game world. They can be used to create relationships between players and NPCs that actually seem meaningful. They can create the illusion of personality in major game NPCs. There is a lot of potential.
But when quests are overdone, or when quests are used as the main form of advancement, the system breaks down. All the flaws listed throughout this post become exposed. Eventually, players suffer the same frustration and tedium they complained about in pure grind games.
It is important to make players feel like their actions are meaningful in a game context. That is what tends to make such actions interesting on their own, rather than interesting only because of the loot or xp they give. If people care about what their character is doing, they will enjoy it regardless of the reward. This goal has to be approached from multiple directions. There is no single, absolute way to make content engaging. Quests are one way, but only when used in moderation.
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UPATE: Has the MMO Industry Learned Its Lesson?
It has been over two years since this article was originally written and there is hope that perhaps the industry has learned that quest grinding is its own type of problem, and evidence that it has not.
MMOs like Champions Online launched in a way that was totally quest dependent. As a result, if any level range had a shortage of quests people could get stuck.
Star Wars: The Old Republic promises interesting, engaging quests, but what if you just want to grind?
On the flip side, MMO variants like League of Legends and other MOBAs are providing more action oriented gameplay with zero quests.
World of Warcraft usage has plummetted much faster post-Cataclysm than for any previous expansion. There is serious evidence that quest driven and raid obsessed gameplay are not the end all of MMO design.
More casual MMOs like Rift, Guild Wars, and Threshold RPG have seen a huge boost in this culture where people are becoming fed up with having to follow a quest to-do list like some experimental rat in a maze.
Only time will tell if future MMOs will continue to make questing the only path to advancement or if they will let people grind who prefer that type of experience.
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We Want Your Opinions!
Please tell us what you think in the comments section!
Do you like quests? If so, to what extent.
Do you linke grinding? If not, why not. If so, to what extent?
Do you like to do both? In what ratios?
What is your perfect quest design setup for an MMO? What about grinding?
It is my belief that there is a really good spread of interest in quests, grinding, and everything in between. MMO designers would do well to be aware of this and make sure they cater to both kinds of gameplay styles. Only promoting one style of advancement is a sure way to alienate half of your potential customer base.