27/05/2019

Good Quest, Bad Quest

I'm still playing Elder Scrolls Online on the side, though my enthusiasm for it has been waning as of late, and I think that I'll want to give it an extended break soon in order to come back to it at a later date. I'm at the point where I've completed about two thirds of the game's base content (personal story, Aldmeri Dominion and Daggerfall Covenant), so there is lots still to discover if I fancy it.

Since, like SWTOR, ESO has a reputation for offering a high-quality questing experience, I've found myself making a lot of direct comparisons between the two, as well as thinking about what makes for a good quest in general.

I think that MMO players are not the most discerning customers when it comes to quests. We'll say that we consider them good or boring, but rarely go into any detail about what exactly makes them so. I've been trying to split out different aspects of the quest experience to better come to grips with what I like or don't like about the way each game I've played handles them.

Presentation

I think this is something that matters a lot to people these days but is rarely openly stated as such. The old-school way of simply having a box of text tell you what's going on has very much fallen out of favour, and these days players expect to at the very least hear some voice-overs and see the occasional cut scene, but if you can make it even flashier then that's all the better. This is one area where SWTOR really shines, what with the little interactive cut scenes at the beginning and end of most missions, and to be honest I think that those are responsible for a good chunk of the praise that the game's questing has received.


Writing

A lot of different things can potentially fall under this umbrella, but since I want to give most of them their own sections, I'll only really consider actual skill with words here. And in that regard... most MMOs are honestly okay but not outstanding. SWTOR has some good lines here and there, but let's not pretend that most of it is particularly deep. The tone mostly stays true to the genre, which is fairly straightforward and sometimes clichéd. Secret World is the only MMO I've played that I can think of that stood out a bit from the rest here, even if the delivery was sometimes weird due to the endless monologuing characters liked to engage in.

Plot

Now this varies a lot depending on quest type. Your average side quest simply doesn't have much to say beyond "go over there and do a thing". Longer chains can try to weave in twists and surprises, like you find in some of SWTOR's class stories.

Something I found interesting in ESO is that it tries very hard to infuse even the shortest side quest with a slightly longer plot, presumably to keep things more engaging. In some ways I find this admirable, but it becomes a bit of a trope of its own after a while, to the point where you expect things to never be what they seem to be at first. The biggest surprise I remember feeling while doing the quests I've completed so far was when our characters were tasked with rescuing a certain elf lady and it turned out that this was indeed all we had to do. We kept joking about how a member of the search party was surely a traitor, or maybe she was secretly a werewolf or what have you - because that's how these things always go - but no, we just saved her and that was that. Who'd have thought it.


Characters

This is another thing that I'd like to single out because I think it's possible to have a good plot and solid writing but boring characters and vice versa (even if they are often connected). Are the people that give you quests and that you interact with during your adventures unique and memorable individuals? I'm not expecting to always remember their names, but something about them should make them memorable as characters.

I think most MMO non-player characters are pretty forgettable, but I think this is at least in part a numbers problem. If you stick to fewer characters and have them make repeat appearances, they'll be more memorable by default, as opposed to when someone new is introduced to relay every single mission. Again, I think this is something that SWTOR does pretty well, and ESO to some extent, though the latter stumbles a bit in my eyes due to the sheer amount of characters/quests it likes to throw at you in every zone (at least in the base game, not sure if it changes later). This is exacerbated by the same small handful of voice actors voicing a mind-boggling number of different NPCs, which causes a lot of them to meld into one giant mishmash after a while. (Also, as a SWTOR player it hasn't helped that they seem to have used a lot of the same voice actors as SWTOR. So every other quest I'd go: "Hey, it's the female Jedi knight / Kaliyo / Baron Deathmark / Theron Shan again!") In SWTOR this sort of repetition is mainly a problem when side quest givers speak Huttese and regurgitate the same handful of voice lines over and over.

Gameplay

Let's not forget that quests are ultimately always about doing something, so it matters what you are being asked to do. There's the classic "kill ten rats" here, as well as "collect five bear asses". Sometimes you also get to click on stuff on the ground or walls, or are simply asked to walk from A to B and talk to someone.

This is something that I've often seen criticised about SWTOR - that people feel drawn in by the high production values used in the presentation of each quest, and then they look at their log and it's basically just another instruction to kill ten rats. I guess I can sort of understand that, but at the same time I don't really mind. As far as basic gameplay is concerned, I'm happy to stick to what works and what everyone's familiar with. When games decide to do something completely different here, such as Secret World with its investigation missions, the result is usually something that a minority will absolutely love but that to most people feels like a bit of a chore since it's not what they signed up for. (I previously wrote a similar post talking about this problem in regards to SWTOR's - much simpler - puzzle quests.)

What was interesting about ESO here is that one of the lead designers clearly hated "kill ten rats" type quests with a passion, so you're never ever asked to kill x mobs. Collect quests have also been so rare that I think I can count the ones I was given on the fingers of one hand. Instead, the vast majority of quests in ESO ask you to either kill a named mob or to talk to someone. It's an interesting design choice in my eyes, though it does get a bit weird at times how you're constantly sent into areas that are crawling with zombies/ghosts/bandits or whatever but everyone's always extremely blasé about this (because if they acknowledged the mobs as a threat, they'd probably realistically ask you to take some out on the way, but the game's core design doc clearly forbids this kind of thing).


World Building

Finally, something that you can't really judge based on an individual quest but which I still considered relevant on the subject matter: whether the things featured in different missions come together to paint a picture of the virtual world as a coherent whole. This is something I actually found quite amazing about SWTOR's launch content because of how all the storylines on both Republic and Empire side sort of wove together to form a tapestry of the state of the galaxy. (Except Quesh. Quesh makes no sense.)

ESO and Secret World do a good job at this too, and to some extent Vanilla WoW. (People like to say that Vanilla WoW's questing was bad, but if you looked at the big picture assembled by the quests I always thought it was quite interesting.)

Unfortunately, the trend towards linear personal stories is pretty much in direct opposition to this. So KotFE and KotET had some really interesting characters for example, but they left you mostly in the dark about what's been going on in the galaxy at large. Likewise ESO's "personal story" has very little connection to the vibrant world portrayed in the rest of the game, aside from featuring the same common foe.

In Conclusion

I think for overall quest presentation, SWTOR is still best in class on the market. More and more games also include things like high-quality cut scenes, but not to the same extent or as consistently. I also really love how vibrant and interesting the galaxy far, far away is built up to be during the time period of the base game, and the many interesting and memorable characters featured in the stories. The quality of the plot varies, and the gameplay is run-off-the-mill, but I'm fine with that because it's a style I enjoy.

10 comments :

  1. Off topic, but I feel like this is an area where Rift really shoots itself in the foot. An overall great game with some of the least memorable and generic quests I've ever encountered.

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    1. I've never played Rift myself, but from what I've read, even those who love(d) it have very rarely had anything good to say about its quests. About the only instances I remember are Redbeard liking the base game's lore (I guess that would fall under world building in my categories up above) and Syp liking some of the quests from the Starfall... I mean Prophecy of Ahnket expansion for their writing/plot. But the point is I remember those specific posts because they were so unusual!

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  2. Interestingly, I just re-installed ESO this weekend after a 3 year break. Aaaand, now I can't stop playing it. I've really fallen out of SWTOR the past few days. Maybe I'll get burned out after a while, but I'd like to try to play both if possible. I've never successfully played two MMOs at once though. The housing in ESO is ridiculous with the level of control you have over all the decorations.

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    1. I used to think that I couldn't play more than one MMO at a time, but I've since settled quite comfortably into playing two at once, with SWTOR being one and the second one changing over time. (Three is pushing it though.) I think the important thing is to allow yourself to treat one as secondary/more casual and not expect yourself to give 100% in both games at all times.

      ESO's housing does seem great for housing enthusiasts... for me as a more casual user, I instantly hated how fiddly the UI is as I'm terrible at placing things pixel-perfect, so I've been avoiding that part of the game ever since.

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  3. Great post. I've been wanting to do a post on the relative quality of questing in MMORPGs forever. In fact, when I was thinking about starting a blog many years ago, one of my ideas was to specialize in quest reviews in the way a music or film site would review albums or movies.

    Fortunately I realized how badly that would work before I got started. I still think there's plenty of room in the blogosphere (and indeed the professional websites) for some more detailed and stringent analysis of questing, given it takes up such a substantial amount of all our game time.

    The problem is, there are a LOT of quests. It would be very hard to cover evena tiny fraction of them and they vary wildly. If I could make one change across the genre it would be to make it mandatory to include full creative credits on all narrative content. That way we could work out whose quests are actually worth seeking out.

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    1. I was definitely thinking of you and your love for the quest format when writing this. :) And while I agree that there'd be no point in writing about every quest in every MMO ever, there's definitely more room to talk about their pros and cons.

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  4. I like the way ESO quests are structured. If you want to blast through them quickly you can ignore the dialogue just kill/click your way through the objectives. But if you take your time to listen to the dialogue, read the notes, the letters and related lorebooks you find along the way then there is usually a well written interesting story being told.

    Even when the quest is over and rewards have been received you can usually talk to one or more of the involved characters for a short epilogue.

    There was even one quest chain in Morrowind when a couple of weeks after completing one of the sidequests I passed by a couple of the featured characters in another town. Out of curiosity I stopped and clicked on one which initiated some dialogue about their future plans. Little details like this add a lot to the questing experience for me, it shows that the developers are putting in that extra effort to make the world seem lived in.

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    1. Well, I wouldn't know about blasting through quests quickly, as I've never done that in any game. If I'm not interested in the quests, I'll just do something else. In ESO in particular, it seems like dungeons and PvP are more efficient anyway if all you want is some quick XP.

      And I've noticed the thing with characters re-appearing with more dialogue too. That's where it becomes a problem though that so many of them are not very memorable: It means that odds are about fifty-fifty that I'll just go "who's that again, I guess he must be from an earlier quest".

      I think I'm inclined to agree with Tyler, who described ESO's questing as "always competent, but [..] rarely exciting".

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  5. Overall, I agree with you on your post.

    (Okay, that sounded like a spam post, but I really do.)

    That being said, I think it very interesting that ESO went in the direction it did. If you look closely, ESO does have a lot of Kill Ten Rats variety of quests, but they're cleverly concealed in "you have to go find enough XXX to do YYY". Just how much isn't revealed, but the drops are spaced out enough that you frequently end up in Kill Ten Rats territory before you have enough of XXX to finish the quest. Guild Wars 2 does this as well, but puts a bar up on the screen so you still have a meter of sorts to keep track of your efforts.

    I think ESO --and to a lesser extent GW2-- are the exceptions to the MMO quest environment in that they really try hard to subvert the traditional Kill Ten Rats system. Other MMOs out there, such as TERA or ArcheAge or Rift, all utilize Kill Ten Rats to the hilt. And don't get me started on ArcheAge, where they spend a lot of time to convert the game to English but about half of the voiceovers are still in Korean. And I'm not entirely convinced that the ArcheAge devs didn't just run the quest text through a translator program and perform spot cleanup where necessary.

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    1. Maybe that's in the newer zones? Because as I said in the post, in the content I played through, the number of collection quests was so minuscule that I could have counted them on one hand.

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