Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Quest Design for Character Verbs

What are the verbs required to complete a quest in Books or Movies, and how do those verbs inform the story?

In my previous articles I’ve examined how quests are set up in films and novels, how characters get them, what makes them interesting, etc. Then I examined what type of players are attracted to what types of quest. Now I’m going to combine the two a little and look at what type of characters go on these adventures, and how their personal skills and abilities inform that adventure.

As in the previous articles, let’s start with Lord of the Rings. Who is Frodo Baggins (the protagonist) and what abilities does Frodo Baggins have? He’s the star of one of the great adventures of all time, but he’s merely a hobbit. Hobbits are a race of people who relax in the hills, leading quiet lives. We think of great adventurers as being these amazing warriors, but Frodo doesn’t even know how to use a sword until after the adventure begins and Aragorn trains him a bit. Frodo also has no special abilities or magic power of his own, though he is, of course, carrying a cursed ring. In fact, his only viable option when confronted is to hide. The only verb his gameplay should have (aside from basic biped verbs like walk, jump, etc) is “Sneak”. That said, Frodo has two versions of that verb, one with the ring on and one without it. Being able to play as Frodo for the duration of a game would mean that the game can be completed entirely by avoiding combat situations. Technically, he does learn basic sword fighting combat, but he really only ever uses that to defend himself, because of his lack of prowess. 

If we look at a character like Aragorn, who is in every way the main character archetype, he also doesn’t have that many verbs. He knows how to use a sword, and he’s good at tracking. Aragorn’s personality is on display in how he uses those verbs, but most of his utility comes from knowing things, his only unique verbs are Use Sword and Track. 

For the sake of dialing things up to eleven, let’s look at Gandalf. Gandalf is the most robust character as far as player abilities are concerned. In the LotR stories, he summons eagles and fights off a fire demon, even turning the tide of several battles. So what are the abilities he uses to accomplish these incredible tasks? Well, he can summon light and create a shield to block attacks. He can push and pull things around with his magic. He has some power over fire, able to light and dissipate different flames. He also seems to be able to heal people and drive out evil. So to verb those, Gandalf has Heal, Push, Pull, Summon Light, Light Fire, Extinguish Fire, and Banish Evil. That’s basically it. Summoning eagles and turning the tides of battles are all things he does with nothing more than his wit. He’s a physically strong character, and skilled in combat, he may even be able to see the future to know when to use all this, but his active skills you can put onto your game’s UI is a relatively small list.

While considering this small list of abilities, I thought back to two things in my past. 

The first is a lesson I learned while in animation school, which is a lesson taught by Disney’s animators: Character comes from how a person reacts to something. 

The second is Magic The Gathering. Magic uses a relatively small pool of keywords that it gives to all its cards, and the way it uses those keywords (which are often literally verbs) does a phenomenal job of conveying character through a limited series of interactions. 

So to begin, I want to more closely examine how these things work. 

In animation, the way we choose to make a character react greatly impacts how that character reads to the audience. There’s a common example in a popular book that shows a character going from a standing position to a leaning forward position, as if peering over the edge of a cliff. In that example there are multiple ways to get from starting pose to end pose. Perhaps the character doesn’t want to lean, so they stay as far away from the edge as they can until the last moment. Perhaps the character reacts wildly to whatever they’re seeing, so we get a huge Tex Avery style take as the character jumps into the sky before settling into that forward lean. How you choose to get from A to B will completely change how the audience perceives the character. 

In Magic The Gathering, there’s a whole mechanic called the Stack, which organizes how actions happen. This organization means that if you play a creature, and I can respond to that action with a counterspell. If I cast a counterspell like that, you can respond by redirecting that counter to something else. I can then respond to your redirect, and so on and so forth. Each action I take, and each action you take, can be responded to by the other player(s) in the game. Because of this, cards will have abilities that change how they interact. Perhaps your creature has Flash, which means it can be played at any time. Perhaps your creature has Hexproof, meaning it can’t be targeted by enemy spells. Perhaps your creature has a non-keyworded ability, but even without a keyword, cards will have specific action verbs that convey their character. These verbs change the way a creature reacts and interacts with the other cards around it, and thus change the personality of that card. Magic uses these actions and reactions to convey different characters, or different aspects of the same character, all the time. Each card is designed to imply some story moment, or explore some personality.

A pirate, the queen of vampires, and a goblin who just won't go away!

So if personality can, indeed, be conveyed best through reaction, then it is those abilities in Magic which convey the story of whoever that card represents, since those abilities determine what reactions are possible. This tracks, there are a number of articles written by Magic’s designers to explain how they approach this process, so we know this is, indeed, true. So if that’s true, then in order to convey character in a game, we must use mechanics that can elicit a reaction, and we must then facilitate that reaction. In other words: If player A does something, player B should be able to respond to it. 

What does this look like? Well if Frodo has Stealth, his opponents need a way to pierce his stealth and reveal him. If Aragorn has Sword Attack, his enemies should have Shield Block. If Aragorn has Track Footprints, his enemies should have Conceal Tracks. And so on and so forth for each character relevant to our game design. 

One thing you might immediately call me out on is that “Conceal Tracks” makes “Track” useless, and other variations of this (Stealth isn’t useful if your enemies can pierce it). The way that Magic handles this is simple; Only certain abilities can be used fast enough to respond at instant speed, and there’s a cost associated with those abilities. Conceal Tracks takes a heck of a lot longer to do than Track. If you spend all your time concealing your tracks, you’ll never escape the person tracking you. Piercing stealth isn’t easy, especially when the person has magical stealth, like Frodo. Maybe you can pierce the veil, but only once per day and only for 5 seconds at a time, so you have to be PRETTY DANG SURE before you activate that ability. Blocking a sword attack isn’t very costly, but the longer you keep your shield forward in a defensive stance, the more open you are to attacks from other directions. Each skill you use can only be responded to by certain abilities. Each response should have a definite cost, and should be balanced. This is difficult, of course, but this is standard game design work. 

Everquest did tracking 20 years ago, and it's almost never seen since!

The other side of this coin is how do you design a quest to capitalize on the verbs of the characters participating in it?

In other words: how could you ever possibly predict who’s going to go on your quest, and cater that quest specifically to that person in a way that makes it feel compelling?

I want you to look at the mechanics of the quest design we’ve been looking at in this article series. Quests in movies and novels usually come as a consequence of actions the protagonist took for other reasons, and they usually maintain interest throughout the quest by expanding on the initial setup. In my romantic comedy example, the “quest” comes as a result of a choice the protagonist makes, and the film spends the whole story making increasingly ridiculous extrapolations on that choice. Olive feels invisible and decides to lie about her sex life, so she ends up branded a sex addict and gains a horrible sort of notoriety that makes her long for the invisibility she took for granted. To put that another way: Her verb is what accepts the quest. Olive, in Easy A, has one critical verb: Lie. Each time she uses Lie, her reputation gets worse, and the quest ends when she decides she can’t handle it anymore, so she begins using her other verb: Truth. Frodo Baggins has two verbs: Sneak, and Ring Sneak. Sneak gets him out of a number of situations, but he’s not up against normal adversaries, he’s up against the forces of evil. Some of those evil beings can see through Sneak, and so he must use Ring Sneak. Using Ring Sneak is what summons the Nazgul, the ultimate form of the enemy’s evil powers. In film, novels, and every other form of story throughout history, the character gets themself into a situation by using their verb, and out of that situation by learning a new way to use that same verb. If we want to improve quest design in open world games, we must learn to do the same. 

So let’s return to that question: How could you ever predict who will go on your quest, in order to cater the quest specifically to them? 

Lock your quest behind a verb. 

A new verb, fresh from the oven!

This is the crux of Metroidvania game design. This isn’t a new concept at all, it’s just something we don’t tend to use in open world titles. As players explore your open world, they get abilities and powers that allow them to enter specific spaces, and getting into those spaces is a quest in itself. If your enchanted ring can only be found by people who are small enough to fit into a tight space, then we know that anyone with the enchanted ring can reasonably be assumed to be small, and thus the enchanted ring can be what starts the quest that requires going into a tiny, hidden door. 

The verbs you choose will also matter. The current design paradigm for MMORPGs is that each verb is fragmented into hundreds of individual inputs. Your verb may be Sword Slash, but what you’ll end up with is a tree of 15 different attributes of Sword Slash that each changes your sword stat and then 28 skills that are affected by that tree, primarily including things like Sword Slash 1, Sword Slash 2, Poison Slash, Strong Slash, etc. This way of designing skills makes it utterly impossible to design a good quest based on them, because every character has an impossible to predict combination of these fragmented skills. The worst part is all of them effectively do the exact same thing just with different numbers anyway, so it’s really not any more engaging. Don’t get me wrong, I love MMOs and this way of fragmenting skills has never once bothered me, but it’s not simple. In my experience, simplicity is always the key to good design. 

In order to find that good design, I suggest we all simplify our open world games down to a key list of simple verbs. If you need suggestions of what verbs are the simple ones, I suggest looking at Magic The Gathering for inspiration. They’ve been doing this for 30 years at this point, and there’s all manner of articles, podcasts, blog posts, etc. from people on the design team discussing what techniques they use to decide if a verb is worthy of being turned into a keyword. I recommend this article and a podcast linked at the bottom of it, which I'll link directly here where Mark Rosewater discusses what motivates this decision for the game. 

For those in a hurry, the podcast mentions three key points to consider

The first reason you choose to keyword something: How much of the job is it going to do to set expectations? To draw the eye? To be splashy?

The second reason is: Does it need to be keyworded to make the set (game) work? 

The third reason is: Can it be conveyed through a non-keyword means? Does it need to exist?

I believe the same thoughts can be used to arrive at suitable verbs for an open world game’s mechanics, in particular an MMO where you really need to get mileage out of everything you code. 

And with that, I’ll leave you to it. 

Thanks for reading this continuation of my series of blog posts on quest design in games, as seen through the lens of non-games. The next article in this series will be the last, as I examine quest structure, linearity v nonlinearity, and how to wrap all of these other blog posts into a neat package to present to your manager who will tell you the game has been restructured for a more casual audience, and is now a match 3. 

Thanks for reading!

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