Repeating Quests

One of the many problems with MMORPG quest simulation is the fact that quests are repeatable forever, barring artificial constraints like a reward that one can only get once.  For some quests, this is appropriate (like the harvesting of a spell component, or bringing food to an area that needs it), but when you’ve gotten the Sword of Gulrag the Beheader for the 5th time, and had to stand on line to do it, suddenly the Sword of Gulrag the Beheader doesn’t seem quite as epic as it used to.  Eventually, it will be either listed on web sites as a "required" piece of equipment for a particular character type (if it is unreasonably good), or it will be relegated to the graveyard of quests nobody bothers to do (if it isn’t).  Unfortunately, the static repeatable quest is extremely easy to implement and maintain in an MMORPG with a low administrator:player ratio.  It’s a fire and forget sort of deal (until one of your static quests turns out to horribly unbalance the game).

One possible solution for the boredom associated with static quests is to simple make them non-static.  There are two ways to do this, and both of them involve extra work for the administrator:

  • The quest is a "superquest" and can only be completed once, then goes away.
  • The quest is designed to go away after it has been completed a certain number of times, or after a time limit has expired.

The superquest concept is not a bad one, and true to the spirit of mythical tales.  There was only one Excalibur, one Stormbringer (well okay there was Mournblade too), one hut of Baba Yaga, one Mjonlir, etc.  In this way, legendary artifacts and items can remain lgendary, and really be something to talk about when the guy wielding one happens to walk by.  Keep in mind that such devices must still fall under the zero sum balance concept, possibly with associated curses, geas, extreme tax value, and making the character a big target for an enemy faction.  Anyone who has read my rant about the Staff of the Weeping Witness knows how I feel about hyperpowered uniques in the hands of morons.

However, the unique superquest presents a problem that impacts many aspects of a mythically heroic game world:  everyone thinks they should be the hero.  When one person gets the Holy Lance of St. Augustin and ends the quest, that’s one person out of all your subscribers, and you can bet that the other subscribers are going to bitch about it.  This can be alleviated somewhat by making unique quest items balanced according to zero sum, so that the person with the Holy Lance of St. Augustin isn’t perceived as getting a twinky device that allows him to dominate all the content in the game from that point forward, including (presumably) other superquest items.  The superquest reward may be better on average than a standard weapon, but then again the guy with a saber from the local shop isn’t being haunted by daemons who eat his gold and try to kill him, or afflicted with rotting sores or whatever.

The quest that goes away eventually is appropriate to most static quests as people think of them now.  Examples might be bringing grain to a town gripped by famine, hunting an invading army of humanoids that have occupied a town, or recovering stolen diamonds for a well-to-do merchant.  After a while, the town is back on its feet, the humanoids have been driven away, and the diamonds are all back.  The quests end, and new ones take their places.

A quest of this sort that does not go away must be of low importance, or appropriate to lower power characters, like getting a type of ore out of a really dangerous mine for a master smith, who then uses the ore to make items, and thus requires more.  Another might be delivering the mail through a dangerous area.  This is the standard "Fedex" quest used in the only way that makes sense, and it is rightfully droll.  Characters who undertake this quest will be relatively poor and/or low-powered, and the rewards for carrying out these mundane tasks should be petty enough to stop interesting them once they become better established, leaving the quests for other newbies to perform as they go looking for the fluid quests, which change from patch to patch.

Both of these solutions pose the same fundamental problem for the development team, though.  Work is thrown away, and new material must be created.  Unfortunately there is no great solution to this, outside of a quest generation engine (which has never worked well), so new material has to be cooked up on a regular basis, even if much of the basic material is recycled in some form or another.  A dungeon for a unique or ending quest may be a big pain in the ass to design, and you don’t want to throw it away, so it may become a home for itinerant humanoids (or a new city!) once the boss bad guy is evicted.

The reward for all of this additional overhead is immersiveness.  Long term players will be keeping track of, and maintaining interest in, the lore of the land without having it thrust down their throats.  "Remember a few months ago when Gular and his band sieged Thistlewood?"  Players will be actively looking for current news and rumors to find out where things are happening.  Those that find this annoying can always go to the frontier and kill stuff until they get tired of it.  If content is dynamic, though, there will be something for them to check out once they do get bored of killing.

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