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The Quest For A Real Quest

One of the main reasons I keep this blog is because I like to keep track what I'm doing.  You don't have to have a chronic mental disease for life to get away from you, it just happens... especially as you get older!

Thinking of how I spent my past 4 months,
the story of Rip Van Winkle comes to mind.
Today, I skimmed my 2013 and 2014 articles and came to a startling conclusion.  In 2013, I had a wide myriad of games I was playing around with... I even bought a Nintendo 3DS!  Yet, somehow, in 2014, I've done little but play Minecraft for the past 4 months.

What the fuck happened?!  Well, I guess this level of single-minded dedication to the same game would have been impossible were it not for a bunch of Minecraft mod mixes that I was experimenting with.   I also have adopted a habit of watching YouTube serials (mostly Yogscast's Lewis and Simon) and that took up a considerable hunk of many days.  Still... 4 months of Minecraft, how the Hell did that happen?!  No wonder my readership dropped off.

Actually, I did take a break in February, and a few things rapidly happened:
By late February, I was playing Minecraft again... and didn't come up for air until mid-April!  As of two weeks ago I was finally re-evaluating my situation as a game developer.

Having taken all this into perspective, I did a little thinking on the matter, and I have come realize that there's basically one feature I want to see in a game, and the reason why I've been playing Minecraft all this time is because it's the closest game to delivering that feature.

I've called that feature the ability to create great dynamic narratives.   I've called that feature Minecraft with Civilization on top.  But to boil it down to something simpler yet, a mere feature in a game, it may only be this:

I want radiant quests which happen for realistic reasons.

First off, understand that when I say "radiant quests," that was the Skyrim wording for something that has been around awhile.  To describe it, let me employ a few examples:
  • In Skyrim's case, some NPCs offer quests that dynamically populate parts of the world with what needs to be done.  Perhaps you are sent to clear a dungeon, steal something, assassinate someone, ect.  But, while unlimited, these quests are unrealistic, because they're working backwards: the existence of the goal should prompt the NPC to assign the quest, not the other way around.
  • In the case of Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning, these were events you would stumble across in the world.  There, they were known as public quests, because these were events players would stumble across in public virtual space, and everyone there could partake in the quest as they wanted to.  To me, the most important thing about these quests is that they change a part of the world... at least until the public quest reset, as they were unfortunately static set pieces.
  • In Star Wars Galaxies, there were some quests that would direct you to kill specific NPCs out in the world.  This was a crude, early version of this idea, and I am not sure if the quest generated the NPC or if it simply referenced an existing NPC... but I will tell you that other players could kill the NPC for you by accident, and that's an example of how this idea can go wrong if not designed to take this into account.
  • In Rift, there was basically a much more elaborate version of the Warhammer Online: Age Of Reckoning public quests in the rifts and invasions mechanic.  Tears would open up in reality, and the players would need to go in and seal them or demons would inhabits parts of the world.  Enough areas inhabited would cause large demon invasions that could actually lead to losing services and towns in the world.
Of the MMORPGs I know, Rift was the closest to realizing my ideal of realistically meaningful, dynamically generated quests.  Yet, it's still not quite there because the tears in reality pretty much happened in predetermined spots "just because" there happened to be demons wanting to break in.  It's not a realistic reason, and consequently there was nothing the players could do to anticipate or prevent the rifts from opening: those demons are just obnoxious neighbors who won't keep the noise down between worlds.
Those neighbors really need to learn to keep their tentacles to themselves.
In this way, Rift falls short, and so do all the other games I have played.  Doing a quest because it's prefabricated content that will merely reset to regenerate that content is not good enough because life doesn't work that way.  "Radiant quests" like these are cop-outs without real reasons to do them except to crudely deliver something for the players to do, and players of these games come to know it.  Knowing that there's no room for heroes in MMORPGs kills the suspension of disbelief: it's all just silly computer game, after all.

The reason I have been playing so much Minecraft is because, even though there are no quests, per se, there are indeed a number of realistic tasks that the players assign themselves, and every one of those tasks have a realistic reason to do them:
  • Activities involving collecting or growing food.
    Because the player character will get hungry, and food is also the primary means to heal.
  • Activities involving collecting wood, stone, ore, ect.
    Because there are things the players would like to build, and these things are required to build them.
  • Activities involving building a home.
    Because, if you don't have shelter, you're eventually going to be worn down by those pesky monsters that spawn every night.
These are more than quests, they're tasks with genuine meaning.   Yet, I find myself complaining about the trouble with Minecraft: there's no long-term purpose beyond crude survival or building whatever strange monuments you invent to pass your time.

When I play mods like Buildcraft and Applied Energistics, the problem is only exasperated: great, thanks for boosting my productivity so, even sooner, I could reach the point where I had no long-term purpose to play. When I play mods like Galacticraft, Chocolate Quest, or other "epic endeavor" mods, they just add some more activities to perform before I encounter an inevitable lack of lasting purpose to play: great, I'm on the moon, and I've cleared out these dungeons... now what?
Most exciting thing that happened to me in Minecraft in a long time: I compressed my cobblestone into blocks that represent more cobblestone.  It was a purpose behind the meaningful task of getting the cobblestone to begin with... but still lacked a real purpose.
The problem is almost solved by NPC colony building mods, such as Millenaire and MineColonies.  By helping to grow a village, I can feel like I am part of something larger than myself.  But (disregarding the bugs) these mods are not quite there yet for two important reasons:
  1. They're capped; at a certain point, buildings can neither be built nor upgraded. 
  2. There's next to no purpose to villages outside of the village: they're all about growing themselves.
Can you see what's missing?  There's still no lasting purpose here!  As a player, the only real benefit of growing a village is to trade with them... and usually it's not long until you have far better resources than the villages provide, anyway.

This is why I recommended the idea of "putting Civilization on top."  It invents a purpose to the village besides just growing: the idea that village is part of something larger than even itself.

But there's another side of that as well, and this leads back into what I was saying about MMORPGs.  Think of all the little problems a city encounters, and more importantly, think of why they encounter those problems, and then think about how this applies to the average situation encountered in an MMORPG:
  • People in a 4X game usually do not become bandits just so the player can defeat them; they become bandits because the economic situation is terrible or crime is out of control.
  • When you encounter a plague of rats in a baker's basement in an online environment, it should not be because the developers wanted to add something for the player to do, it should be because the baker was foolish enough to attract rats and now needs to get rid of them!
  • If there are skeletons all over the town graveyard, there should be a reason why!  Is it the work of a necromancer?  Did someone disturb a powerful spirit? 

    A story can invent answers for these questions, but when you solve the problem, do the dead actually stay rested?  No, and this defeats the purpose of having that story to begin with!  So here's an idea: what if it's not a story, and the causes actually manifest naturally from simulation?
Yes, I am advocating that there be a finite number of threats for adventurers to deal with, that these threats should be caused by something that could have been prevented with (for example) good leadership, and that it may actually be possible to eradicate all sources of evil from the kingdom.

If you're reading this and thinking, "But Geldon, if we did that, the game would run out of content in under a day, all the developers' hard work would be pointless because there'd be nothing to do, and everybody would go away" then my answer is, "FUCK OFF."   I've heard it a million times before, but that kind of small-minded thinking is the reason why we don't have the proper dynamic quests we should have by now.

I believe that it is possible to realize the design of realistic radiant quests.  It's mostly a matter of balance:
  • If it's too easy for players to eradicate all the evil in the kingdom, you could make it harder to do.  After all, if we did not have to put out fires from time to time, there would not be a fire department, and this is an hero's lot in a land of monsters.  
  • You could also give the players plenty of "peace time" things to do, such as crafting, intrigue, and so on.  
  • I would imagine that there could also be a sizable "no man's land" outside of civilization proper.  
  • There's quite a lot of potential for additional drama here, even PvP, though that's a huge matter of balance in and of itself.
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head, and even better solutions than these may be found.  The realistic radiant quest idea is definitely possible, so I wonder why we have not seen many, if any, games that do this yet.

Games which do this are advertised to be just around the corner, but I'm cynical about that.

EverQuest Next could do this, if they wanted.  They've got the mutable world, so just make it happen, right?  Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure the developers are going to get so bogged down in being the next Minecraft that they never get around to it.

ArchAge could have done this, too.  But I'm looking at their feature set, and it seems to me like they gave up on the PvE angle, and consequently it's going to be another big gankfest where the players largely dogpile into winning factions and war just for sake of war: utterly pointless.

EVE Online already messed up in that exact way.  The NPC governments largely exist in name only, the incredible drama surrounding the PvP antics of the players largely stems from the game not having any real narrative drama of its own.  If you believe otherwise, I envy how your delusion has delivered to you a facsimile what I still greatly desire.

I had hoped that many Firefall would implement a proper dynamic quest system, but they're still thinking too small, it's basically just Rift all over again.

The way things are going, I might have to do this myself.   But, on the upshot, it doesn't need to be anything as big as an MMORPG.  If I could demonstrate how this mechanic could work, even on a smaller demonstration game, maybe the rest of the industry will follow...

...or maybe that's what games like Hinterland and Drox Operative have done, and the industry still hasn't sat up and taken notice yet.  I guess I'm going to do need to set the scale a little higher, something epic enough to be really interesting, and hopefully with gameplay that really catches on.


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