It's all in the rat

Yes, I’m still playing WoW — coming up to 3 months now — and yes, I’m still enjoying it, though cracks may be appearing in the facade. I have a feeling that in order to keep moving in the game, because WoW is just what it is, I’m going to end up having to do dungeons… and I’m not sure I want to, for reasons I’ve covered many times before but may yet cover again in a more up-to-date whine.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. Today, we’re going to talk about killing 10 rats and how not all rats are the same.

For the last few weeks I’ve been doing dailies in the Twilight Highlands, and not really because I need to. Sure, I still need to hit exalted with them, but other than that I’m pretty much done with anything I could buy from them. There’s not much there for hunters. But the dailies are a hoot, and I tend to do them with friends in the evenings because they’re just so appropriate for winding down.

The thing to know is that these quests are given by dwarves, and by dwarves who value the finer things in life — to whit, food and beer. So the first thing we do is the Beer Run, which involves protecting a bunch of dorfs with kegs as they go from A to B. It’s hardly difficult, but it is fun, especially when there are 6 different convoys going and everyone’s all bunched up on the road. That’s a lot of beer! PROTECT THE BEER!

The next thing we do is to find more beer — because, well, one can never have enough beer. Only this time, every time you pick some up you also have to drink some, so you end up completely smashed — and you also pick up food along the way because finding beer is hungry and thirsty work.

Okay, so you also kill shit and smash a boss’s face in and all that, but the BEER is what matters. As it should be.

Before you accuse me of being a lush — which may well fit but isn’t the point under discussion — I’m just saying that there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with killing 10 rats, or guzzling 10 beers. What’s bad is when 90% of what you do is literally going out and killing 10 foozles. Inject a little humour, make people’s screens go a bit squiffy for 10 minutes, and suddenly the 10 rats become a social occasion and not a chore.

As with so many other things in MMOs (and life, come to think of it), it’s all relative.

Begone, quests! Take 2: Ironman edition

(AKA: Putting my gaming money where my mouth is.)

(EDIT – server change. I’ll make this alt on Landroval where I have *cough* one char slot left. I’m also kicking around the idea of just taking an existing char and not questing for a week, but I’m not sure that would be legit. None of the chars are higher than 16 or so.)

Quite a few people are talking about quests at the moment, including the usual suspects (Spinks, Stargrace) and on a variety of slants. They’re all good posts and they — as good posts should — made me think.

More specifically, the hare-brained idea for this Monday morning was: “I wonder if I could play a game for a week without doing a single quest?”

Sounds easy, right? I suspect it won’t be.

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Quest Design – step by step, or all in one?

Some quests require you to do their steps in order: you can’t do B before A, and god forbid you should try to start with D before having done A, B, and then C. Other quests don’t care how you do what’s required, so long as you come back with whatever it was the quest-giver needed. Now, I like both models, and they both have their place — but what would be helpful sometimes would be some indication that a quest must be completed sequentially, especially when I decide to get clever and efficient and do things in an effective but non-sequential way, only to discover it was wasted effort.

EQ2 has a megagajillion quests, and therefore it has plenty of instances of both those types of quest design. Some NPCs just want their 10 foozle tails and don’t care how you got them; others would prefer you to start with baby foozles, and work your way up to elder foozles, and won’t give you credit for the elders till you’ve killed some of the younger ones.


Killed, bought, negotiated or crafted, I should say. EQ2 suddenly has a wealth of crafter content (more on which some other day), including a ton of quests for crafters and harvesters that involve making stuff for various people. I just wish I’d had a way to tell that I shouldn’t make all the items given to me in the strange, pustulating “Bert’s Big Book of Health” — instead, I need to wait until the quest tells me I need to make one, then I must make that item and only that item before proceeding. It’s actually quite well explained by the quest as you go along, and it’s an entertaining quest — Bert’s Book is to health as the Necronomicon is to SAN points — but there’s a point at which the clever, standard and normal thing to do appears to be to make the recipes it contains, when what you’re supposed to do is wait until one of the NPCs tells you to make one specific item, advance the quest through dialogue some more, make another specific item, advance the quest some more, and so on round.

I should fess up: names have been changed to protect the innocent. I did this quest some weeks ago, not long after I resubbed my old account back to EQ2; the particular incident I’m talking about today happened to the spousal unit, though I’ll admit I made the same mistake. Get quest, quest contains recipe book (that EQ2 crafters use to, you know, learn recipes), make recipes, go back to quest NPC. Oops.

I’m not entirely sure how one would mark a quest as being one type or the other, and it’s quite possible that doing so might somehow lessen one’s overall enjoyment, though I doubt it — that’s not exactly the type of mystery that needs to be preserved. What might be a problem would be presenting the information in a way that wouldn’t be totally intrusive or un-immersive. “Hello there brave crafter, yadda yadda quest text, but make sure you don’t make everything at once or the sky will fall!” … Naaaah.

Or, I could just stop jumping the gun and knuckle under, and only do what I’m told when I’m told to do it. If I’m told to buy a book and learn its contents, that’s what I’ll do. I won’t try to make the contents till I’m told to, and then I will make ONLY what I’m ordered to do. … Naaaaaah. I’ve never been good at taking orders, and trying to anticipate stuff is part of the fun of games. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don’t. Either way, if the quest is fun then one’s mistakes turn into amusing anecdotes. If the quest isn’t fun, then those same mistakes turn into gruelling boulders on the way to completion. Everything’s relative, as the physicist said.

Quest design – from the sublime to the ridiculous

Most of us say we’d like quests that are a little more complex than just “kill 10 rats” but, as I’ve just discovered in EQ2, there’s a point beyond which too much realism in a quest ends up just being insanely irritating.

Long story short, in order to gain access to a tower full of wise old monks I have to listen to a wise old martial arts teacher tell stories about the wise old monks who came before and founded his order. I have to do this, because one of the monks who guards the tower I want access to is going to quiz me on this Order’s history and if I get it wrong, I have to go back and study.


So far so good. The downside is, Wise Old Martial Arts master tells these stories (there are 4) when he damned well feels like it, on his own wise old schedule. He’ll tell one story, then stop and do some more training, so you have to wait around some more if you want to hear them all. If you decide to cheat (as I eventually did) and look up the text on a website, and still get the questions wrong (I know, what a dumbass), the officious bloody monk at the tower tells you you’re a dumbass and that you need to go study some more with WOMA master.

And then sundown comes, and WOMA master buggers off back to his house, leaving me standing in the training courtyard like a lemon until he deigns to come back out in the morning.


I'm not screaming, really
I'm not screaming, really

Assuming I hadn’t cheated in the first place, if I’d played this as it is meant to be I’d have cooled my heels in this courtyard for however long it takes the old geezer to decide to cycle through all his stories. I sure hope they’re not randomly told, or my heels could be positively frosty before I’ve officially heard them all.

Having to do things at certain times and in a certain order is all well and good. There comes a point, however, where it feels less like being part of a living world and more like waiting in line at the DMV to get your new licence while officious bureaucrats — or monks — laugh up their sleeves at you for being such a chump. (“No, not this counter, where you’ve waited for 45 minutes, but that counter over there. That’s a whole ‘nother line you’ll have to wait in.” … wait 30 mins … “Sorry, can’t see you now, it’s lunchtime”). It’s almost Kafkaesque.

Heroes? We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes!

badgesInspired by a section in Wolfshead’s (second) mauling of quest-based *cough* WoW *cough* MMOs. I’m so glad there are tons of other bloggers out there who remind me of stuff I keep meaning to write about but never get round to, mainly because I have the memory of a woman twice my age and don’t usually take the precaution of writing ideas down. (And even when I do I’m an avid scrap-of-paper user, which means they’re almost instantly lost in the morass that is my desk.)

So, yes, heroes. This may well sound heretical to many players, but I’ve never quite bought the idea that characters in MMOs are ALL heroes. For one thing, can any continent really support 13,473 heroes per square mile? For another, killing 10 rats is not, no matter what the used cart salesman quest giver says, heroic. And finally, call me old-fashioned lit. student and all, but where I studied, heroes aren’t the norm. They’re different, they’re special, and even in Ancient Greece you could (carefully) swing a cat and not hit one. (Though all bets are off regarding Gods.) The whole point of heroes is that they stand out from the crowd. Except maybe in Superhero MMOs, but that’s fairly evidently a whole ‘nother kettle of fish anyway.

I’m absolutely not denying that we all — no matter how prosaic — like our dose of heroism, some more than others. I know I do — but I also know my ego doesn’t require me to be Mange the Magnificent every second of the gaming day.*

Which leads to the important distinction, to my mind: heroism is what matters, not being a 24/7 hero. I loved 24/7 hero stories when I was younger, but even then I tended to prefer — in terms of fulfilment after reading/seeing — stories where mostly normal people were driven to be heroic, because of circumstance, necessity, whatever. (Can you say “The Hobbit”?) I’m much more impressed when normal people have to make choices and act in ways that are difficult and/or costly for them than when they’re 2D cardboard cutouts of hero goodness. Heroism has a *cost* — if nothing else, it’s bloody tiring and usually quite painful. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be heroism.

I’m obviously not alone in making this distinction — even superheroes have become more and more apt to question what they do and why they do it, whether they have a right to be doing it in the first place, or to be flawed and/or unwilling and/or anti-Heroes right from the start. Some authors, like Philip K Dick, spent most of their writing career exploring how Joe Average might, willingly or (usually) not, end up doing heroic things. Some movies and books have quite happily moved beyond the 2D Hero while still being attractive to the “masses;” the Dark Knight is an obvious example, even though I’ll grant you that it had to be written (or at least inspired by) someone much more talented than your average Hollywood hack.**

And yet our fantasy games, especially our MMOs, continue to want to spoon-feed us the illusion that we can ALL be marvellous, super-super-24/7 capital-H Heroes, even if all we’re doing is carrying out Foozle-extinction. The problem with that is that a constant diet of heroism ends up stale and rather meaningless. I’d rather do the occasional heroic thing — save a prince, slay a wyrm — and feel really special for having done so; in MMO terms, I guess this would be the occasional epic quest line, and by occasional, I mean at most once or twice a month. The rest of the time, I wouldn’t at all mind being Jane Q Average who helps the local grocer out with his rat problem, and who has a strange fetish for rat tails.

I’ve heard lots of arguments in favour of all-hero-all-the-time, such as:

— Heroism is essential to appeal to younger players, who aren’t so good at understanding moral nuances. Indeed not, but if we never teach them, they’ll never know what “nuance” means either. Let’s stop patronising kids and go back to throwing them in the deep end (metaphorically!); it works.

— Constant heroism appeals to the Everyman desire to be a hero all the time. I’m going to call BS on that one. Sure, lots of people like 24/7 heroism; lots of people like soap operas too, but that doesn’t mean they’re a) the ONLY people and b) incapable of enjoying something different in their diet.

Again, I think 24/7 heroism in MMOs is a weird legacy of pen-and-paper RPGs, whose books and boxes boldly proclaimed “YOU can be the hero of all your adventures!” I remember enough of those books, boxes and adventures, however, to remember that they didn’t actually promise we’d all be 24/7 heroes — all they said was, we’d have a chance to be heroic, slay lots of monsters, maybe save some royal asses, and probably make a ton of cash we couldn’t easily carry, encumbrance rules being what they were.

Log into any MMO and spend 10 minutes in the local social hub and you’ll see exactly why and how we’re not 24/7 heroes, no matter what games try to claim. We chat, we trade, we yell at each other, we emote at each other… we do NOT stand around flexing our muscles and thinking how heroic we all are, all the time. We don’t LIVE the 24/7 hero life in our MMOs; most of us don’t want to, or wouldn’t care one way or another as long as we get to add more tails to our collection.

What would happen if games started toning down the All Hero All The Time routine and, instead, added a few things that have been sorely lacking from MMOs forever, and rather lacking in many single-player games of late too? Things like:  Choices (beyond Yes/No I’ll do your quest). Consequences. Unexpected Outcomes (do everything right and STILL fail? — okay, maybe not, that would get the devs stoned, and not in a good way). Please, oh please, let’s start finding a way to make games with DECISIONS — and not just the decision of what talent point to put where, or whether the +12 MegaHero belt is better than the +16 SuperPow belt.

Once again I’m asking for the moon and, not being one of those stoned devs, I don’t even know how I’d make it happen. I do know, however, that we’re an extremely resourceful species and where there’s a will, in MMOs like anything else, there’s usually a way. Changing how we perceive MMOs and examining what we really want out of MMOs (now that we’ve been playing them for over a decade) is a first step. I may not be a developer, but I can certainly help define these things, which hopefully one day will make their jobs easier.


* Strange tangential link the route to which I shouldn’t really have to explain. Not relvant, just amusing.

** I’m not nearly as well-informed as many Batman and comic buffs, but I’ve always held that “The Dark Knight Returns” (and “Watchmen”) was seminal in re-visualising Batman — and subsequently other heroes — as much more human, fallible, and therefore truly heroic than they previously were.