Disassembling Good Quest Design

As I’ve gotten more involved with LotRO again, I’ve started to think more about what makes a good or bad quest. As I mentioned in a previous post, when I first came back I was deep within the reaches of Angmar, what was at one time considered LotRO’s end game. I couldn’t stand the zone – I tried and burnt out on it twice – so I decided to pull up stakes and head to Forochel. The difference in design becomes apparent right away; it’s akin to going from Vanilla WoW to Outland. The layout of everything from quest hubs, to horse trails, to the intricate overlay of quest objectives seems to shout “this is what we’ve learned, this is the revamp.” Also like Outland, it highlights good quest design. The similarity isn’t surprising since both pieces of content were added after the initial zones had time to settle and the companies recognized what their game’s needed most. Rather than focus on singular quests, I’d like to look at what I believe makes a good questing experience.

A good quest experience is never majority “kill ten rats” or “gather ten herbs.” The monotony of repeating content, differing mobs aside, makes for a boring experience unless you enjoy grinding. In Angmar, and several regions before it, players are handed numerous excuses to slay wildlife in rapid succession. While there may be fun to that at times, it’s also uninspired. Quests for the last decade have followed that same formula, predating graphics, and it’s a tired, if somewhat necessary trope. The collect/goto variety is usually interspersed within and follows the same principal.

But it’s not these objectives that make a quest fun or not, it’s how they’re all connected. Throughout a decent chunk of LotRO, you’re asked to kill wolves in the east side of the zone, travel to the west for flowers, and then run across the world to deliver a message to some arbitrary NPC. In Forochel, however, quests are in much closer proximity to one another and usually not far off from the quest giver. There’s little running and you’re often able to go from task to task to task only stopping to eat or regen. Essentially, for all the beautiful world Turbine has built, it’s simply more fun to stay in a small circle and get things done.

When I’m questing in Forochel, I feel like each piece of banner collected or each polar bear slain is a little bag of XP. I greedily collect them, like Scrooge McDuck does gold coins, and look ahead to the next quest only a short run away. In Angmar, North Downs, Esteldin, and the Troll Shaws, I feel like a courier doing my rounds, like a UPS man stopping between towns and delivering little brown packages to Rangers and Hobbits.

Then there’s the challenge. Good questing isn’t hard, but it’s not pushover easy either. It’s really about roadblocks. Take for example a quest I had last night. I was asked to collect pieces of a broken banner and rebuild it as a beacon upon a snowy hilltop. Easy enough. When I arrived, I found the pieces in an open field, close together but surrounded be three varieties of mob. The mobs were so close as to fight for each of the 15 pieces I needed but so that I couldn’t avoid it and hope to succeed. The variety was good enough to keep me on my toes; some tank and spank, some benefiting from advanced movement and positioning.

I appreciate challenging mobs, as I do simple ones on routine errands. The problem is that quest design often challenges us to kill many of the same creature in a row. What is once challenging becomes annoying, and the repetition of progress outlines that bad quest in our minds. Variety is the key, I think, and the most fun quests always offer a good mix of challenge and speed, be that through multiple enemy types or simply multiple skills on each mob.

Then, finally, there’s travel time. No need to beat a dead rat here. It should be short. Multizone runs are no fun, a drudge, and only work if done rarely and for good reason. Ouests should overlap. Travel is downtime by another name and nobody likes that when they’d rather by leveling.

Conversely, the design of intuitive quests is probably why no one bothers to read them anymore. Everyone expects to follow a waypoint or quest marker. I caught myself wanting to click through last night because I knew enough what to expect. When designed with progress in mind, it removes the need for context and reasoning tends to fall by the wayside. Thankfully, games like LotRO and Guild Wars give us good reason to read quests, like a hidden treat for players willing to invest a little bit more of themselves. It’s a shame that WoW doesn’t offer more in their quest text, as it has some of the best questing in the genre; then again, each expansion has offered little gems of quest lines, great and interesting pieces of lore and self-enclosed story, that only few players ever really appreciate. Such is the fate of elevating reward above reason, but at least the “getting there” is quite fun.

Is Moria anything like Forochel; did they apply these same lessons there? I was honestly a little worried about going forward, fearing I didn’t have another 500 old-world quests in me. If it keeps up this way, however, it may just be that the game doesn’t last long enough.

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