Friday, June 27, 2008

Making quests less anti-social

If we look at the behavior of players in MMORPGs, for example World of Warcraft, we find that their behavior is likely to change when the incentives and reward system changes. This was especially visible in WoW with the PvP system, whose popularity over time changed significantly in response to changes in the PvP reward system. But also other changes, like the introduction of daily quests, changed player behavior a lot. It appears as if the main fun of a MMORPG comes from the rewards given out for an activity, not from the activity itself. The catch is that there *is* a difference in fun of various activities, and if the best rewards are given out for activities that are less fun, players are steered in the wrong direction. They do what gives the best rewards, but end up ultimately unsatisfied, and complaining about "the grind".

Recognizing that, game developers have changed MMORPGs from a system in which you advanced by killing random monsters to a system in which you advance by doing quests. That solved many problems. While a player of Everquest might log on, find a group, and then keep killing the same camp of monsters all day long, the quest system broke up that static gameplay and encouraged him to move all over the zone hunting various monsters for different quests. If done well, that can be a lot more fun than grinding. Badly designed, players start complaining about having to run around unnecessarily too much, but that is simply a question of placing quests and quest givers well.

But in the long run the quest system showed one important flaw: In the current form it is anti-social. Most quests in World of Warcraft not only *can* be done alone, they *must* be done alone if the players want to maximize rewards. Two players of the same level in the same zone often end up having only a small percentage of quests in common, unless they played together from the start. One player went east first, the other went west first, so each one has mostly quests the other already did. Then there are quest chains, where players rarely are on the same step. And even if two players have the same quest, or it can be shared, it isn't necessarily an advantage to quest in a group. If the quest is "kill 10 foozles", then killing them in a group might be faster. But if the quest is "collect 10 foozle ears", two players need to kill twice as many foozles as one player, and in many cases they end up not getting enough foozle ears from killing all the foozles around and end up having to wait for respawns. And because the xp for each kill are divided by two and only a very small group bonus added, the experience points per hour gained by questing in group are lower than if they had soloed.

When was the last time you grouped up for a quest that wasn't marked "group" or "dungeon"? And as there are enough quests around to skip those group quests, many players simply solo all the way up to the level cap. Not because soloing is inherently more fun than playing together, but because the reward system steers you that way. Even very social players who would prefer to play with others, even if that cost them some efficiency, end up playing solo, because they simply can't find anyone interested. What is the point of playing a massively multiplayer game alone?

The goal would not be to abandon the quest system completely, as it has been shown to be better than a pure grinding system. The goal would be to improve the quest system to encourage playing together, not to discourage it. Besides simple fixes of improving group rewards, one also would have to look into quest organization, so that it becomes more likely that several people want to do the same thing. Would walk-in quests, like the public quests of Warhammer Online be a solution? What else can we think of? Is social questing possible at all? Tell us what you think!

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