Quests and Events: The Return
Coming back to a quest-based MMO, in this case Lord of the Rings Online (“LOTRO”), after spending so much time in Guild Wars 2 was eye opening. I never once believed that the renown/event system of Guild Wars 2 (“the Guild Wars 2 system”) would kill quest-based design in any sense of the word. Guild Wars 2 had something very similar in their personal story. I did however think that perhaps the renown/event system was better, at least for me.
I realize now after spending a couple hours in LOTRO, that “better” is not the right word. “Different” is more accurate.
I Am Free!
The reptilian shock from the Guild Wars 2 system comes from the amount of freedom in gameplay. In LOTRO, I have to follow the quest chains in the hubs. If one guy wants me to pull turnips before he’ll tell me where the secret lair of Grofmog Hobbit-Eater is, I have no choice but to pull those tasty roots. In Guild Wars 2, a renown area might have turnips to pull, but I can also choose to kill local denizens, take part in local events, and various other activities.
Like any moment of freedom, it’s freshness is fleeting. We start to hit the edges of boundaries. A renown area might not be that fun so we stick to killing mobs to fill the heart. The events aren’t kicking off because there aren’t many players around. Renown activities start to seem to run together as much as gathering warg claws, gathering beetle shells, and gathering orc banners is really all just gathering rat tails.
I think that the Guild Wars 2 system is one of the best for an MMO, but I also think it is important to step back for a moment. In my case, LOTRO helped me do that because it allowed me to clear my mind of the subjective glee of playing Guild Wars 2. I had to return to restriction with quest chains to truly see the Guild Wars 2 system.
A Pause That Refreshes
The biggest flaw, yes, let’s call it a flaw in as much as too much freedom can also be a content delivery flaw. Where was I? The biggest flaw is that the momentum in Guild Wars 2 can be continuous. In quest-based MMOs there is always a pause. For many players it’s just click, accept, click turn-in, but it is a break from the action. It is a moment to refresh. That is important. In my case, it is also the moment to learn, but we’ll get to that.
Ironically, the biggest refreshers in Guild Wars 2 in the open field seem to come from events. During the start and end of events, usually some NPC is slinging names at someone or talking about the effect of the event or something, and it creates a break. Events are also usually higher in the activity charts than renown activities anyway.
ArenaNet gave a small pause when the heart is completed because we get a mail from the renown NPC with a bit of gold. Most of the letters are not worth reading, any more than the standard “you’ve killed ten rats, and made this area more rat-free”-type quest text. Yet, I’ve also forgotten or simply ignored this mail as I barreled onward. A few hearts later I open up my mailbox.
I think a better system would have been to go talk to the renown NPC once the heart is completed to receive that bit of gold and a personal thanks. This would have created a better pause and provided a better way to deliver text content (yes, yes, getting to that). Then again it makes it get closer to quest turn-ins, and ArenaNet seemed to want to separate themselves as much as possible from the book-ended quest deisng. Perhaps I am giving too much weight to these pauses, but I truly believe the ebb and flow of action is important for any gameplay. The more constant the action, the more, I feel, that different content is going to seem to bleed together.
As Lore Delivery
This part is even more subjective. I love how ArenaNet delivers lore content in Guild Wars 2 because they really emphasize showing, not telling. LOTRO, on the other hand, as well as other quest-based MMOs, is about telling. However, this is not an issue of “better”, although I do think ArenaNet has it a bit harder.
Quest-based MMOs have a chance for depth that can be very hard to show otherwise. Even with Guild Wars 2 plethora of NPCs, the modicum of that speech was conversation instead of information dump. Plus it can be easily missed.
One of my favorite hearts in Guild Wars 2 is to help maintain order in Moriarity’s Hold in Bloodtide Coast. The heart objective is just to break up pirate fights, rouse knocked-out pirates (who will then drink or fight), and drink rum so pirates don’t drink it. The reason for doing all of this is because the Order of Whispers is trying to groom a controllable pirate crew to take over the other pirate crews. Players would not find this out unless they took the time to talk to the renown NPC. If this were a series of quests to fight pirates, click on downed pirates, and find and drink rum, the story of this subversive activity could be more blatantly told.
At the same time, there is the pig with lipstick effect. Perhaps there really is no epic purpose for the activity. In many places in norn country: there are dredge, they are bothersome to norn, kill them. With quest text, the bar is higher. There is a pause for delivery, and something worthwhile must be delivered. I don’t know how many times I have read some iteration of ‘local denizens are bothering us to some degree; please kill them’. Many writer flourishes are added (some quite good), but the pig still remains.
The best content designer will understand when to use certain brushes and colors available. Turbine, I feel from my current experience in Dunland, is getting very good at this, and I would love to hear from people playing in the latest World of Warcraft expansion, how those quests are fairing.
LOTRO quests uses a palette of phasing and instances to really good effect. They give the illusion that the world is changing, and they can create really nice story moments interwoven with the more mundane quests.
In my latest quest hub in LOTRO, I helped a family in Starkmoor whose farm has been ruined by enemy clan attacks. To do this I had to help a boy retrieve goods from the farm while stragglers attacked us, round up people at the town to the auction (by basically giving them goods to auction), and then experiencing the auction in an instance. I had to say for such an unepic story, it was really good. It was very well delivered even though the quests themselves were surrounded by mostly mundane activities.
I am not sure such a complete regional story could be told through the event system in Guild Wars 2. I can easily envision the farm portion and gathering portion as events, and yet in LOTRO’s case there was finality. Saruman came and took the father back to Isengard. There would be no event cycling or second chances. As much as the event system was supposed to change the world, in some cases it is even more locked in time than a quest-based system.
Here Come Old Flat Top
What I would like to see going forward is a step towards each other. I feel Guild Wars 2 could benefit from having either zone-wide or renown-area personal story portions. That would give them a chance to make smaller stories that are more personal to the small region. At the same time, I would like to see less restriction for quest-based design. It does not need to be on the level of renown areas, but if the local hunter needs beetle shells give me a couple way to retrieve them instead of just killing beetles.
Neither system is perfect, and ultimately like a palette it comes down to the finesse of the content designer. Some quest hubs in LOTRO are going to feel like grindy chores without style, and some renown areas in Guild Wars 2 are going to just bleed into the other areas.
Overall though, I am pretty happy with both systems. I think Turbine is using their palette in ways that bring it away from “tiresome”, and I definitely like the freedom involved with ArenaNet’s style. I feel that playing both MMOs at once is going to be very complementary.