Questing, persistence, WAR

Not a few people have remarked that the PvE content in WAR is less than stellar, or leaves them cold. But why is that? Is the PvE in WAR really craptastic? Or are we, the MMO players, ever more jaded and therefore ever more demanding?

It’s no longer enough to kill 10 foozles — no, we have to see a cut-scene first, it has to involve saving a buxom and grateful noble tart (who may or may not give us a sword), there has to be spoken dialogue and if it doesn’t get us at least 20% to the next level without too much running around, it’s a waste of time. Screw the foozles, just take me straight to maiden –> sword –> demure yet innuendo laden thanks dialogue.

I therefore spent the last couple of days actually reading quest text. I only read a few of them in detail in beta, telling myself I would read and savour them properly on release… and then I didn’t. I’m mildly disappointed at myself every time I do it, too. The quests in WAR are, in fact, extremely well-written. Almost all of them have some useful and/or interesting and/or amusing lore to pass on. Their purposes are coherent for the game world and its background, within the usual restrictions of killing 10 foozles and that never actually affecting the world in any significant sense.

Ah, there might be the rub. For one thing, most of us have done about 23,574 quests in the last 2-10 years. We have killed enough foozles to build a bridge to the moon. No matter how good the text is, no matter how brilliantly-conceived the tasks and journeys, it’s not new. And humans, like chimps, like new things.

To be blunt, I’m not sure there are a thousand ways in which to jazz up quests. It’s a standard narrative device and works even better in games than it does in books. Whether it’s something you read or something an NPC speaks at you or whatever, it’s still just a “go there, do this, go there, maybe come back to me to tell me about it later, and you will be better than you were!” The hero’s journey leads to enlightenment — questing leads to levels.

For my money the Warhammer Online quests are rather better than many I’ve seen lately, even though they are presented in those godawful beige chat-bubble UI monstrosities. (But we’re not going there. Not talking about UIs. Must… restrain… self.) At the end of the day, however, they’re still just quests to kill foozles. There aren’t a million ways in which you can jazz a basic mechanic up — although if I had to suggest just one, I would invent the Faerie-Walkietalkie, which would mean the VIOLENT DEATH of all those pillar-to-post quests. You know — speak to Fred, run 3 miles, inspect a wolf dropping, run 3 miles back to Fred, tell him about it, then Fred sends you back 3 miles to kill the wolf. Return to Fred, who tells you that unfortunately, the wolf has a pack, so you have to go back and kill 5 more! By the time you’ve done that, what you really want to kill is Fred.

If I could remove that particular mechanic, I would do it in a heartbeat. And quest designers could too, if they wanted. I very much doubt there are many MMO players out there who would raise a ruckus if the endless running back and forth so NPC Fred can scratch his butt at you were removed. Quests update with no NPCs nearby? Oh noes! Verisimilitude is one thing, but I guarantee you 95% of players will happily suspend their disbelief in this particular instance. Hell, it happens already — run 3 miles, find clicky corpse, clicky updates the quest.

(Oh yes an incidentally, if you’re going to have something pop up that takes 20% of *my* 28″ screen and god knows how much on smaller ones, do not have it happen for clickies in the middle of insta-respawn bad guy camps. Seriously. Or do not have the damned things CLOSE themselves as soon as I move, forcing me to clicky-interact all over again. That is bad, bad, bad design. Bad Mythic!)

So yes, back to the rub. For me, certainly, a deeper underlying issue with questing has been a deeper underlying issue with MMOs in general: they claim to be persistent, and in some respects they are… but mostly they’re not. The more “epic” a quest is, the bigger this disconnect. Kill Badass the Dragon, Eater of Worlds, and he’ll be right back in his spot tomorrow, ready for the next group.

That has been bothering me since at least as far back as 2000/2001, when I started following Atriarch, which may or may not be neverware but which had at least one really, really good idea, provided it can be implemented in any reasonable, cost-effective way.

What does persistent mean in Atriarch?

Persistence in Atriarch means that whatever is in the world stays in the world. For example, if you build a fortress, then it will be there whether or not you are logged into the game. Assuming it wasn’t captured, it will be there when log back on. Another example is if you kill a Native (npc), then that Native is gone for good. The effects your Character has on the world will remain.

The FAQ is months and years out of date and I haven’t followed Atriarch’s development lately so I don’t know if that’s still on the cards. But if I had one request to make for the next huge game, it would be that. I don’t think about it much, but I am really, really tired of what I do — what any of us does — having no effect on an MMO game world. (No, not even SWG — plopping houses down isn’t really what I mean.) Maybe that’s why so many players are turning back to single-player games and finding them ultimately more fulfilling. For one, they have a full story-arc. For another, what you do in them actually matters.