It’s The Story, Stupid!

Posted: November 27, 2007 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts, Rise of Kunark

Remember when you first became interested in the idea of high fantasy in the first place? Was it Lancelot and Merlin? Was it Robin Hood and his merry men? Was it Gandalf and Aragorn? What of Aslan and the White Witch? How about Tanis or Tasslehof?

At some point, you found yourself immersed in a story about a world filled with magic – mythical creatures and wizards, long lost cities and fantastical villians. As a child, I devoured these stories through books and movies alike. Within the early 80’s of my childhood, there was a surge of fantasy movies, games, and books.

As I took my first fumbling forays into dinner table RPG’s, I learned then (first as a player, and later as a gamemaster) that it was never the idea of combat itself that kept me on the edge of my seat, but the idea of advancing through a storyline.

All the rewards and saving throws were merely superfluous to a well spun yarn. Truly, the way I would describe RPG’s to friends and family for years was simply that within such games, you helped to participate in the writing of a story.

Have today’s MMO’s forgotten that lesson? In many ways, I think that this is the case today…

A while back, I wrote an article called “Kendricke Slays a Mighty Badger“. I was finding myself wondering why I was still killing rats over and over again at the highest levels of gameplay. I was trying to find out why the best possible way to increase the level of my guild was through “killing rats” style quests.

If I never saw another kill ten rats quest again in any game, I’d be thrilled. I want quests that create a storyline. I want quests that involve me in a plot. I want quests that feel like …well, like I’m questing.

It’s a old topic that never seems to go away, though. Right now, I think the idea is more relevant than it has been in some time. With the release of Rise of Kunark, SOE representatives are quick to announce at every time how this expansion has “more quests” than previous expansions. The problem is that most of these new quests seem to be very much more of the same.

Only now, instead of killing rats, bats, and bears, I’m now killing cocktrices, rhinos, and sabretooth cats. In fact, I’ve killed HUNDREDS of cocktrices, rhinos, and sabretooth cats. With painfully few exceptions, the vast majority of quests in the new expansion are either “kill X number of Y targets” or “go talk with NPC X”. Very few of the quests have any real plot, and virtually none seem to help me feel that my character is in any way heroic.

I’m one of the most powerful adventurers in the Shattered Lands. I’ve mastered dragons and other vile beasts with my guild. I’ve collected dozens of rare artifacts previously thought lost. I’ve delved into the deepest and darkest dungeons throughout the world.

But now, with these new lands available to us, I find myself feeling as if I’m simply a high level errand boy. When I find quest givers, I’ve given to such heroic tasks as “go kill 10 rhinos and bring me their hides” or “go kill sabretooth cats till you find superior hides and bring them to me” or “go collect <number><insert body part here> of <insert creature name here>”.

Hear that, Ma! I’m a real hero! Just look at all these hides!

It’s not as if there are just one or three of these quests, mind you. Every other quest seems to be part of a much larger line of quests, all somewhat related, but which require you to go back to some part of the world you just came from, to go kill something you may have just been killing (for the same questgiver, mind you), for some new purpose.

Elrond: “One of you must embark upon a quest. First, enter Mordor and slay 10 orcs and bring me their eyes. Then, go slay 15 orcs and bring me their teeth. Then, go slay an unspecified number of orcs till you collect 15 orc whips and bring those to me. Then, I need you to go back and free captured hobbits. Do this by killing 11 orc slavemasters…”

What makes it worse is that these quests have to be performed in order. So even if you want to share the quests you have with a friend or two who are around the same level, you can’t! That’s right – they’re of the right level to run the quest, and they have the faction to get the quest, but because they haven’t killed 10 rats already, they can’t get the quest you’re on because it’s the fourth quest in the rat killing series and they haven’t completed the first quest yet. So because they haven’t killed the first 10 rats (for their tails), they can’t help you kill 15 bats (for their wings). You can’t share the quest with them!

So the only way you get to help friends out on quests is if you all either run the same quests at the same time, or you go back to help them run the quests you’ve already completed just so they can get to the same quests you’re already on.

Does this make any sense? Really?

Because not only does the current lack of heroic quests heavily encourage soloing for levels, but if you do manage to find someone to run the quests with, the chances are heavily stacked against you that you’ll both be able to share the same quests if either of you have completed any quests already. This further encourages soloing.

So, even though SOE has built in more quests this time around, the quality of those quests and the general quest line design seems to be lacking. There’s little coherent plot (indeed, I have no idea what the point of being in Kunark actually is since there seems to be next to no actual overarching storyline so far).

Really, isn’t that the real complaint here? Have we glossed over the quality of each questline as a chance to tell a story because X number of quests were needed to fill in the needs of the game mechanics? Isn’t the real complaint about these types of quests the fact that they feel merely perfunctory?

Where’s the story? Where’s the chance to feel as if you’re part of the fabric of the world? Where’s the chance to slay the beast and save the girl? Why does it feel as though these quests are merely fragmentary instead of important…and why is my level 75-80 Ubermage bothering with quests that aren’t important in the first place.

Lancelot, round up the knights. I have a quest for them. Inform them that they are to head toward Hines-upon-Stratham until they see a field with Merryroot. Merlin requires 18 Merryroots to sell at market tomorrow and we need your help to gather up enough…

For the love of all that is holy and sacred about gaming, where’s the story!? Why is my high level character now slaying fields of relatively peaceful rhinos and mushroom people who were just minding their own business. What’s so heroic about that!? Where’s the story?

Don’t get me wrong. Given the choice between mindless kill-grinding and completing “quests”, I’d much prefer the quests. Of course, that’s not exactly much of a choice, now is it? Imagine that “option” going over at one of your old dinner table RPG sessions:

GM: Ok, for tonight’s session, I’d like to try something different. You can decide between three hours of non-stop combat fights against the same three types of creatures or we can have your characters speak to townsfolk who tell them to go kill the same types of creatures for the next three hours.

Players: Isn’t that what you had us do last week?

GM: No, these are new creatures and a different set of townsfolk. It’s not the same at all…

Does anyone else remember when SOE would spend time building an expansion around a story? Remember the websites for Planes of Power and Legacy of Ykesha? Even Gates of Discord (as horrible an expansion as it was) had a storyline that went up on the pre-release website.

So what’s the storyline of Rise of Kunark?

I dare you to find a storyline at http://www.riseofkunark.com. Find the lore and send a link. I’d love to see it. I’d love to know what the point of the expansion is. Because right now, there would appear to be no real story. Oh sure, there’s a storyline once you get up to around level 76 or 78 and you start to hit the group content and the raids, but till then, how would you know that?

Where’s the story? Where’s the adventure? Is the game truly about the mechanics now and no longer about the who, where, and why?

Till you have an answer to those questions, you’ll have to excuse me. You see, I have to kill X more Y for the Z faction. I’d love to invite you to join me, but unfortunately you’re not on this quest line yet. Maybe when you hit 76 we can go to an instance together. Till then, good luck with your “questing”.

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Comments
  1. Xeavn says:

    I couldn’t agree more Kendricke. The worst thing I think is the factions. Factions could have been done in such a way that it might have been interesting, and meaningful. Instead we have faction choices in Rise of Kunark that mainly boil down to how can I help these opposing factions in such a way that I can do the quests for both of them, and get the rewards for both of them.

    At one point, I had to kill the Baron of Jinisk and take his head to the village leader who I had killed not twenty minutes ago for some other faction. (Which may have actually have been for Jinisk faction.) Did the guards care that I was killing citizens right and left? No, not in the least. In fact I still have enough faction left over that I can use the mender and the broker.

    Really, what was the point of the factions? Sure it allowed for some items to be purchased if you managed to get the correct amount of faction with a given area, and it also opened up use of the broker / mender in a couple of areas, other than that I can’t really see a point to having them.

    To be fair there was two or three pretty good quest lines that I have run spread out over the four overland zones. The best was probably the one where I had to capture a baby worm, which was then magically altered. Later I had to teleport into Varis, set it lose and teleport out. It was fun and inventive. It was also one of the few that actually gave me a bit of story, and let me feel like I was involved.

    This also tells me that Sony has poeple that know how to write a good quest line. Yet I get the feeling that in the rush to have X number of quest done by release date, which absolutely couldn’t be pushed back, a lot of simple, easy, storyless, thoughtless quests were added to merely raise the number in the expansion. At least Blizzard took the time to polish thier easy quest line, faction based solo content.

  2. Mitch says:

    It was probably the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon of all things. But it lead me into a wonderful world and escape that I still enjoy to this day.

    I’m an avid MMOer and have pretty much played and tested all of them (meaning the ones released in North America) from Meridian 59 and UO to the current crop. Played MUDs before that.

    I’m a little disappointed these days and not really finding anything that holds my attention for any significant length of time. The real focus of the games seems to be leveling up instead of immersing the player in the world and the story. I’m really not sure what I want to play next. There are so many games out there but the quests are all the same, and pretty much since WoW “perfected” the UI and mechanics there is little to differentiate different MMOs (it is just like WoW but with pirates/aliens/squad combat/Tolkien license/etc.).

    I enjoyed Neverwinter Nights 2 and the efforts to make you part of the story no matter what kind of character you made. Wish there were more MMOs like that. I just reinstalled Star Wars Galaxies actually and the new player tutorial is kind of fun, you get to meet some of the characters from the movies and have a little adventure with them. But after that, back to the same old quests and grinding. Ho hum.

    Are there any MMOs out there that are different or are they all based on the quest/grind mechanic? Besides Second Life which is a virtual world, not a game, of course… something in-between WoW and SL would be cool though. A world the players can influence but with more game mechanics…

  3. Ginsu says:

    I agree also with what you’ve observed Kendricke, but what I have also noticed in EQ2 (played since launch) and in other MMO’s is the huge disparity in the effort level between grinding/boring type quests and meaningful/story advancing quests. As soon as I want to do something significant it seems that I go from running errands and killing pests to 25 step, requires epic-X raid story arcs.

    This makes it exceptionally difficult for people who don’t have access to a good guild or a guild with a good raid alliance to experience this content without a good deal of frustration and time spent on trying to gather groups and keep them together long enough to advance meaningfully in a reasonable amount of time. I’m sort of stuck in the catch-22 of “we want experienced people for the raid” vs getting on the raids in order to get experience at the moment.

    Given my RL commitments I will never be able to be a hard-core full time raider, and that’s OK with me. It just would be more pleasant to be able to do some of the more immersive story elements without having to resort to the raid mechanic being forced onto me (Mark of the Awakened, SOD, etc.)

    It would be great if there were a better way to decouple how immersive and story rich the quests are a bit more from their time and difficulty levels without making them too easy and thus meaningless?

  4. Kendricke says:

    To be fair, you mentioned Sword of Destiny, which I thought was a model for breaking away from the required raid model.

  5. Ginsu says:

    You are right of course, SoD does not have a raid requirement.

  6. Illuminator says:

    I truly hope that this and WoW are the last MMO’s to feature raiding. All the nonsense it causes seems to trickle down to the rest of the game, especially the priority of items over storylines. Older RPG games and fantasy novels had me rushing home from work to see what happens next in the story, not rushing home because the raid schedule said to do so.

  7. Aspendawn says:

    I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing and you got it right. There is no story here. Except for the various factions all bickering among each other. But by the time I reach the last zone I have no sympathy for any of them.

    EQ2 had always been set apart from some of the other games by not having excessive kill animal quests and focusing more on the bad guys. But I was having LOTRO flashbacks with these quests. And yeah those quest chains are a real nuisance when trying to find people to group with.

  8. Kendricke says:

    Illuminator,

    I don’t think raiding is, in itself, the problem. I think the problem is that the specific way raiding is built within Everquest, Everquest II, and World of Warcraft is the real issue. I think that raid guilds are the issue (at least if you feel you’re compelled to show up for a raid schedule).

    It’s not SOE’s fault if a guild requires its members to log in and play from X o’clock till Y o’clock. That’s a social response from players which isn’t necessarily something you can hold developers accountable for.

    What you can hold them accountable for is the design of the game itself. If raiding is the only place to hear certain storylines (not versions, but any part of the story), that’s a fundamental design flaw, in my opinion. If itemization is built in such a way that the only really good items for soloing drop from group or raid content, that’s also a problem, in my opinion.

    I don’t see the concept of raiding as the problem. I see the concept of a lack of compelling story within the rest of the content as the issue.

  9. Gintoki says:

    HOLY ! Finally someone who understands. I am sick of those “kill x of creature” quests. So many bloody mmo’s are doing it. I am trying all sorts of mmos looking for something with either a story, or an proper economy (Not an economy where there is only 1 job. Hunting monsters for loots). It would be great if i could find some mmo’s that have both.

  10. Felipe Budinich says:

    I don’t think it is a “plot” issue, what is it a plot anyway?

    A very simplistic description of a plot is;

    the events that ocurred during a book/movie/game/whatever storytelling media.

    so what is the plot of the LoTR?

    -Hairy feet dude gets the ring
    -The fellowship of dudes heads to mordor
    -Shit happens/…
    -Hairy feet dude destroys the ring.
    -The end.

    If you boil down storytelling to “plot”, what you get is porn:

    -Hairy feet dude takes down his pants.
    -Hairy feet lady takes off her shirt.
    -Hairy feet people get down to it.
    -The end.

    what makes a good story, besides the plot (it is after all important, more about this later), is the Characters. The character development is what turns “Hairy feet dude” into the Frodo we all know and love, it is what makes the relationship between Gimli and Legolas so special.

    The plot has a lot to do with these, because it gives us a background on “why” these characters got togheter, why this story is LoTR and not “Friends” with different characters (in the other hand i would love to watch a sit com about Gimli and Legolas).

    The problem is not the quests (from a mechanic wise point of view), quests are only plot hooks, story enablers, just an excuse to move the story foward.

    You could have the best quest writer in the world and YET fail to feel heroic, because what you lack, is a way to develop your character in any meaningful way, besides your combat mechanics.

    I don’t play WoW or EQ, but i guess it is the same for every MMO out there, you just don’t have people roleplaying;

    -Because theres no incentive
    -Because there are no mechanics that allow to properly do it.
    -Because you are not even allowed to create content!!

    I play a minor game (Dofus), but I feel heroic when I play, not because of the quests i’ve accomplished (heck i’ve done like 3, and they were zone-enabling quests), but because players, not npcs or whatever quest giver, know who I am, salute me as I wander around the cities, and because i know that my guildies and I have accomplished some deeds against all odds too many times to count.

    And i’m not even in the end game.

    But that’s because i’m all in for roleplaying my character, despite the fact that 90% of the server does not.

    If someone ever designs a game where I have rewarding mechanisms for roleplaying (not number crunching), a world that is truly persistent (oposed to the permanent worlds we have now), and that allows player created content. I tell you right now, my money is yours sir/lady.

    /end rant

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