In my last article I asked the question: “What is the quest design in Lord of the Rings?”
That led me to look at how quests get assigned, what keeps those quests interesting while you’re pursuing them, and what the rewards look like?
This time I’m expanding from that premise to ask a new question:
Who is your quest for? What type of person goes on that quest?
In Lord of the Rings, Frodo's motivation is largely altruism. He goes on the quest to destroy the ring because he's a good person who sees a need that he can fill, so he does. He never wants to be on this quest, he simply does it because he feels like he must.
In the October Daye series of books, an urban fantasy adventure series, the title character largely accepts her quests because she is forced to do so by the rules of the world she lives in. She chooses to accept a quest mostly because not doing so would disrupt her desired daily life, so she sets off with a set of tasks to complete and returns once it’s done.
In Every Heart a Doorway, a novel about children who disappear into magical worlds via magical doorways (think Alice in Wonderland), the children are motivated to begin their adventures due to something lacking in their lives. They feel like they need to get away from their life, and when a doorway opens, they walk through it in search of something more.
In The Golden Compass, a fantasy series about a girl who uncovers a religious conspiracy, the main character begins her quest based on her own curiosity. She wishes to explore and understand everything she can, and this curiosity leads her into a situation where she is in danger. This situation spirals out of control rapidly, leading to ever-greater dangers and she is merely trying to survive the ride.
This is just a sample of novels that I enjoy, but as I'm sure you can imagine there are myriad different possible motivations for why a character in a novel might accept a quest.
Quantic Foundry posits that you can boil these motivations down to six key factors.
People who like Excitement want to be involved in high-intensity combat situations, or otherwise amazing adventures. How many times have you read a character from a small town longing for a more adventurous life? Quests for these people will be your cliche “kill 10 dire wolves” quests, where the goal is simply to go into a dangerous situation and make it back out alive.
People who like Competition want to test their skill against other players. Stories about these characters usually involve a rivalry that incites the events. Quests for this player type will focus on leaderboards of various kinds. They want to be part of the first team that slayed the giant dragon of legend, or to be known as the #1 fastest person to ever get from one side of the zone to the other.
People who like Challenge are all about doing difficult tasks. Maybe there’s a giant monster you have to beat, or maybe there’s just a difficult crafting recipe that takes a lot of skill to master. Another part of this aspect is strategy, where players specifically want a mental challenge, rather than (or in addition to) a physical one. These characters in novels are often people like Hercules, accepting fierce trials in order to test if they're good enough to complete them. Quests for these players would be to defeat the giant boss or invade the enemy base, trials they must eventually overcome.
People who like Completion want to do everything the game has to offer. They want a list of tasks to complete, they want to find every mission and collectable available. These characters are the ones going about their daily lives when suddenly something else that must be resolved will appear. Quests for them would be “Find all 50 feathers hidden in the forest”, and any sort of linear quest chain that unravels as you complete more of it.
People who like Discovery are the ones who want to see the far reaches of the world. They want to enjoy the process of exploring new spaces and ideas. These are characters whose curiosity gets the best of them. Quests for this player type would be “visit every zone in the game” or “find all the scenic vistas”. They could also be quests that feature using skills in innovative ways, “exploring” in the context of game mechanics (perhaps combining random items to discover crafting recipes, for example).
People who like Fantasy enjoy the story world you’ve built, and may even want to role play. They want to participate in the narrative you’ve built into your world, possibly even wanting to read all the lore books you could write and stuff into the miscellaneous bookshelves you can manage. Characters of this kind want something new from their life, they want to be part of a story world different from their own. Quests for these players can be any of the above quest types, as long as it expands on the story of the world in some way.
So obviously not all of these are made equal. Fantasy/Story people will like your game based on its world-building instead of on its gameplay, the quest’s goals don’t matter so much for them, it’s all about what you learn along the way. Excitement people, similarly, don’t really care what they’re being asked to do so long as it’s really damn cool! Completion, Competition, and Challenge are very easy to gamify, those players are catered to in nearly every game already.
So how do you balance designing an area around all of these competing needs? First, figure out your tent poles. You know that Fantasy players don’t care what they’re doing as long as the story is interesting, so as long as you do a good job in your basic craftsmanship, and design your game to facilitate fun storycraft, you’re already set. Completion players just want a checklist, which basically just means they want a large number of things to do; another goal you’re already building into your production, presumably. Discovery players want to know what’s in the space, yet another thing you’re likely catering for already (and if you’re not planning to have a story-rich space with lots of things to explore and do, I question why you’re making an open world game). Excitement players want an exciting event, so give them the chance to steal the cursed idol and escape the giant rolling boulder just in the nick of time! Challenge players want some large THING to accomplish here, which may also be the really cool thing you put in for Excitement players, but while excitement players just want to dodge the giant boulder, Challenge players want to have to work for it. Competition players will want some sort of leaderboard, something I don’t often see in open world games.
So to return to the original point I was making with this article: Who is your quest being designed for?
Go kill 10 rats is a boring quest that fulfills none of the above player type requirements. You fill your game with those types of kill quests because your game needs filler. Players do those quests because they need to get to the next level before they can do the quest they want to do. These aren’t quests, they’re jobs. They help the player earn enough of some currency (even if that currency is experience points) to pay for what they really want. This serves the same purpose as timers in mobile games, “wait 1 hour to get your health back, or pay $1 to continue now” except without the option to buy your advancement. I want to be very clear that I don’t consider that a bad thing, either! Open world games are all about ebb and flow of interest. If everything were exciting all the time, there’d be no time for fishing. I play open world titles for the down time as much as the excitement. But who is your 10 rats quest there to entertain?
Well currently the quest only fulfills the needs of the checklist players. It’s a quest to complete, though that quest isn’t particularly interesting. In order to make it interesting, you combine it with the needs of some other player type. What if the 10 rats are hard to find? You need an Explorer type player who has fancy tracking spells in order to find the 10 rats. That’s interesting. What if the 10 rats have to be killed within 15 seconds or they disappear into the ground? You need someone who’s very skilled, it’s quite a tough Challenge. That’s interesting. What if there’s a leaderboard posted nearby that shows who managed to kill the 10 rats the fastest? That’s interesting. All of these things improve the quest, and don’t require unique mechanics that can’t be reused. You can have a leaderboard in a million contexts throughout an open world game, design it to be reused and then milk it. Same with a timer, it’s trivial to implement and yields a ton of variation. Rats being hard to find requires a tracking spell to be implemented, but once you’ve implemented a tracking skill in your game you can get SO much mileage out of that! Imagine a game where you get to hunt your prey and players can be better or worse at hunting, imagine how many variations of that you can make into quests!
The trick to improving quest design in games, and aligning those quests with the quests you find in novels and films, seems to be that we need better verbs for our players. We spend so much time building out the combat loops that we forget that open world games aren’t about combat. Most of the people I know who played Skyrim never bothered to complete the main quest. In my experience, it’s often because the main quest just isn’t that interesting compared to all the other things you can do, and the specific complaint I’ve heard most often is that the dragons interrupt players doing all the other cool things they want to be doing. Which is because dragons in Skyrim are only for Excitement/Fantasy players. They aren’t a difficult fight, as long as you’re high enough level, there’s no leaderboard for who’s killed the most dragons, there’s nothing to explore in fighting them. Dragons are a niche interest among open world players. Plenty of people like them, don’t get me wrong, but they’re one element among many, and that exact combination of player types is already covered all throughout the rest of that game.
So what ISN’T catered to in Skyrim? Well, where’s the hobbit character? How can I play Frodo Baggins in Skyrim? The answer is that I can’t. The only way to play the game is to become the Dovakin, hero of legend and slayer of dragons. There’s no way to play the game if I don’t care to fight dragons. There’s plenty of game here that doesn’t involve fighting dragons, there’s quite a lot of exploration to do in Skyrim, and plenty of unique achievements, challenges, etc. But the game only has an ending for people who want to play the game in one specific way, and only a small group of players are likely to want to participate in that.
This isn’t a condemnation of one of the most successful games of the last decade, I’m just pointing out that most of our games right now are Skyrim.Open worlds tend to cater almost exclusively to Excitement/Fantasy players. There are exceptions, of course, Outer Wilds is an open world catered to Explorers, and Genshin Impact seems to be doing some numbers right now, catering towards people who love collectables (which is a sort of checklist/achievement system).
MMOs, however, seem to all exclusively cater to the Skyrim demographic. I’ve been making the rounds of them lately and there’s very few leaderboards for anything but PvP, very few exploration-focused mechanics that aren’t just “walk here so we can check off the box that you’ve walked here”. Which is a shame, given that I’m old enough to have played EverQuest and I know that it’s possible to have more interesting mechanics. EQ is old and clunky and kind of awful by today’s standards, but we seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in streamlining early-MMO mechanics.
So if we want Frodo to take on our quest, we have to acknowledge Frodo as a noncombatant. We have to accept what Frodo brings to the table, even if he isn’t the great warrior of prophecy like Aragorn. His altruism will cause him to accept the quest if there is a need, but our players aren’t likely to be so giving to our fictional characters, and so we offset that with other motivations. Offer them a quest that works with them, regardless of what skills they may have.
And on that note, my next article is going to explore those skills an adventurer might have. We can’t design for Frodo if we don’t know what Frodo brings to the table. How can we approach our open world design in a way that more player motivations are catered to? How can we allow different player types to express themselves through action? Tune in next time to find out!
As always, thanks again for reading!