Monday, September 24, 2007

Writing for Quests

Attending Jess Lebow's panel at AGDC, I was reminded of just how difficult it is to write quests for MMOs.

Jess spoke of the differences in approach that designers and writers take to quest writing.

Typical designers often just want to get the instructions across to the player, like so:
"Take Spike's club to the Ulbroth foothills. Ask an attendant of the Great Gates where Ulbroth Graveyard is. Go to the Graveyard and search for Spike's gravestone, then right-click Spike's club to activate it at his gravestone."

Typical writers often just want to tell the player a story, like so:
"The great ogre, Spike, once wielded this very club. He smashed more giants than any other ogre at the battle of Ulbroth, where the ogres fought the giants for control over the Ulbroth foothills. This battle meant everything to both factions, for Ulbroth is a land rich in both iron ore and peasants waiting to be turned into slaves..." (writer hits text character limit)

My experience indicates that a third kind of quest writer exists - the 'hardcore' quest writer.

These 'hardcore' quest writers intentionally omit key details from their quests because they want players to figure out the quest for themselves, like so:
"All that is left of the great ogre, Spike, is this club. Some legends speak of him fighting giants."

And, I must admit, depending on the complexity of the game you're writing for, sometimes a puzzling quest is a welcome diversion.

So what's the ultimate goal? Ideally, quest writers must balance all three of these needs (instructions, story, and puzzle) within the context of the game they're working on. They have to give the player enough of a clue to figure out how to resolve the quest, tell enough of a story to keep up the player's emotional interest, and generate enough of a puzzle to keep the player's mind engaged... and do it all within the text character limit constraints of the game.

It's not easy.


Jeff Freeman said...

These 'hardcore' quest writers intentionally omit key details from their quests because they want players to figure out the quest for themselves

There's the old "law" of MUD dev, "If you do it one place, you have to do it everywhere".

The puzzler is a BUG in a game where every quest the player has seen up to that point told them exactly where to go, what to do, and what to expect when they got there.

They are REAL hard to get through QA (and if they are everywhere: feedback from on-high). The first quest that makes the CEO feel stupid is gonna be the last riddle you've got.

'Couple ways around that, though.

One would be to label that sort of quest specifically as that sort of quest. Just like you have [group] or [elite] or [epic], etc. Have a [riddle] category of quests.

So everyone knows that the quest info is lacking, and that it isn't a bug.

The other way would be to do it everywhere, but with riddles for most of them that are so easy, everyone can "solve" them and feel real smart - yet not be surprised when confronted with a real puzzler.

I think that's about nigh impossible.

Lisa Boleyn said...


MMOs aren't ARGs - so strictly puzzle-based stuff doesn't belong in them unless you can set the players' expectations appropriately. The only places I've seen puzzlers done well were in the Matrix Online live events, where players were given perplexing quests by GM-controlled NPCs.

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