Quests serve four important purposes in MMO design:
- To direct players towards core gameplay.
- To place core gameplay within the context of the fictional world the game represents.
- To provide a definable duration for small-group play.
- To wallpaper over aspects of the world or system that don’t exist.
I support the first three goals, and give grudging respect to the fourth.
We’ve become used to thinking of quests as atomic units of gameplay. As an MMO designer, I might sit down to design a zone, and do the following:
- Create a feel and backstory for the zone.
- Imagine some denizens of the zone, both friend and foe.
- Create chains of quests that tell a story for the zone, roughly from the time the player begins inhabiting it to the time they’re ready to leave.
But the scope of a quest is necessarily zoomed out. I propose, instead, that we consider the atomic unit of an MMO-with-a-story to be the scene, rather than the quest, the NPC, or the zone.
The scene comprises a few minutes of gameplay, and includes the following components:
- The Context (“Why and Where”): The story of this scene. Example: an angry man accosts the player in a bar.
- The Encounter (“What”): A mechanical interaction between player and game that defines the duration of the scene. Example: A player character fights an enemy.
- The Reward: The mechanical or informational advantage the player receives for completing the scene. Example: A pair of boots.
A “starter quest” in most games has one scene. For example, a farmer’s basement is infested with rats. He asks you to go fight the rats.
- Context: Rats are eating the supplies.
- Encounter: Fight 10 rats using the combat system.
- Reward: Some boots, and a pointer that the farmer’s neighbor also needs a ratcatcher.
A later quest in the same zone might have several scenes, perhaps arranged in a dungeon space.
Alright, so I’ve succeeded in splitting a quest into smaller units. What good is that?
Well, what if the primary unit of collaboration in an MMO weren’t an entire quest or dungeon, but a single scene? And what if the way these scenes piece together into larger narrative threads wasn’t dictated by a linear or overtly branching progression, but by an abstract economy?
Sound too weird to follow? It isn’t, and a couple folks in England have already done it.
Allow me to introduce you, delicious friends, to Echo Bazaar. Echo Bazaar is made up of individual scenes, which in turn trigger more scenes via an abstract resource system. The Reward component of a scene modifies the resources attached to your character, which in turn tell you which semi-random content you’re eligible for next.
The magic, though, comes not from any one resource triggering the distribution of new content, but from what they unlock in combination. Suppose, for instance, that my reward for one scene is “Boots” and my reward for a second is “Scandal.” A content chunk — an individual scene — can be tied to that combination of resources.
The world now knows to allocate for me the scene “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” in which NPCs attempt to roust me out of town for unfashionable footwear.
Mm, except… why NPCs? Didn’t we agree just an article ago that NPCs are badwrongfun? What if, instead, the combination of Boots and Scandal alerted other players that I was a pariah and should be driven from the zone?1
With even a small handful of variables and prepared scenes, the order and events of play become more dynamic without dramatically increasing the amount of content prepared by developers… and most of those scenes can be turned into multiplayer (whether collaborative, PvP, or both) experiences.
And then… take it one step further. It’s an established MMO tradition that I can trade Boots. What if the player market, or the social interaction system, allowed me to trade Scandal as well? Suppose a friend wants Scandal so he can use it to buy Scandalous Underwear, and he trades me a little of his Friendship: Goblins in exchange.
- Scenes are components of the player‘s narrative in game, as well as the player character’s.
- Scenes are potential points of player interaction.
- Relationships between scenes can be defined using player resources.
- These resources can be traded in a player economy.
What do you think, folks?
- This is starting to sound like the Dying Earth MMO. ↩