Quests: Splitting the Atom

Quests serve four important purposes in MMO design:

  1. To direct players towards core gameplay.
  2. To place core gameplay within the context of the fictional world the game represents.
  3. To provide a definable duration for small-group play.
  4. 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:

  1. Create a feel and backstory for the zone.
  2. Imagine some denizens of the zone, both friend and foe.
  3. 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:

  1. The Context (“Why and Where”): The story of this scene. Example: an angry man accosts the player in a bar.
  2. The Encounter (“What”): A mechanical interaction between player and game that defines the duration of the scene. Example: A player character fights an enemy.
  3. 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.

  1. Context: Rats are eating the supplies.
  2. Encounter: Fight 10 rats using the combat system.
  3. 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.

To recap:

  • 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?


  1. This is starting to sound like the Dying Earth MMO.

4 thoughts on “Quests: Splitting the Atom”

  1. One of the folks from England here. Thanks for the link!

    I think you’ve zeroed in effectively on one of the intentions we had with the EBZ framework. There is in fact some interchange or player resources, and I’d like there to be much more. For example, we’ve seen players deliberately listen to other people’s ghost stories so they can get to a State of Confusion; there’s an option [spoilerz!] in Heart’s Desire to commission another player to steal from the Museum of Mistakes for you, which unlocks content they can’t get otherwise.

    A couple of other intentions of the approach, while I’m here:

    (i) we want to make it easy to add, expand, and crowdsource content (a primary intention with the Prisoner’s Honey project, if we ever get time to finish it). By making the basic narrative unit a storylet – a scene – and making qualities the only connections between them, in principle we have a large number of very loosely coupled units of narrative. In practice there’s tighter implicit coupling, but we’re learning to deal with that.

    (ii) one of the things that particularly excites me (narrative nerd: sorry) is trying to find a middle ground between a very fine-grained procedural way of presenting a universe (like Dwarf Fortress) and a very coarse-grained linear or branching-linear presentation (like WoW or yer traditional CRPG). I want resources and rewards to be broad statements about a character or their place in the world – like Scandal or Hosting a Troublesome Aunt – that indicate progress along a narrative axis but can be the result of playing one of several scenes in several different orders; I want the connective tissue between these scenes to be implicit rather than explicit (which we talked rather grandly about here:

    We’re on baby steps with a lot of this at the moment, and we’re mostly very linear because this is so time consuming to do: so comment and interest like this is very welcome. Thanks!

  2. I like the cut of your jib! Playing with atomic elements of story is cool and innovative for all the reasons you say. The most exciting part for me is the endless permutations of different players mixing it up, combining and sharing their elements in surprising and meaningful ways. Wow, I’ve got tingles!

    This is the sort of thing I’d started to hope for when I heard about Eskil Steenberg’s Love MMORPG. The focus on community, players working together and fighting together and letting THAT be the “story” of the game, as well as a responsive environment rather than infinitely resetting instances, showed such promise. I haven’t had a chance to try it, though the aesthetic at least is beautiful.


  3. I’m not very fond of the quest mechanic either, mostly because it seriously screws with my sense of verisimilitude (how many rats are in that guy’s basement anyway?). I think they are largely a legacy of trying to twist a single-player game design into a multiplayer one, and they don’t really work all that well. I’m not sure I completely understand what you mean by “scene” in this context, but I agree that environmental narrative is a much better way to tell the story than quest text or wiki infodumps.

    Personally, I think in an MMO, if you want to drive player action and attachment to the world, you need to manipulate the parameters of the world the players are participating in and make the universe feel real and tangible to the players. Arbitrary mechanics and guided tours are antithetical to the entire concept because they are clearly not “part of the world.” Quests, intended to make players feel like they are doing BIG IMPORTANT THINGS, actually do the opposite once players realize everyone else is doing the same damn thing, or they have saved the Damsel ten times already.

    Instead, you tweak conditions to prompt responses, like a government does trying to encourage certain behaviors. You want people to spend more, reduce interest rates. You want people to buy electric cars, subsidize them. In the same way, a game “shepherd” (I’m not sure designer gets to the heart of what the intent is) can do things like manipulate market prices or spawn more NPCs of a certain type to reflect a change in the world or encourage certain behavior. I’ve never been a fan of the more “gamey” mechanics even in a player-centric game like Eve, because they change the focus from “what do the players want and how do they go about it” to a game of who can win at a game of king of the hill or capture the flag, neither of which models the way conflict and cooperation really occurs in real life. Game mechanics should recognize player achievement, not drive it, in this case.

    I’m much happier with the game’s storyline occurring at a level above the players’ heads — the metaplot, in terms of pen and paper games — and being influenced by the actions of the vast multitudes of players. The story, at the player’s level, is how they fit into the grand scheme of things and the small narratives that occur between them and the other players — I think that is what you are driving at, and any effort to develop that further is laudable, but I don’t think it’s the entire story. Of course, I’m not sure if the kind of high-level stuff I’m talking about makes sense for a sharded game for the same reason it’s hard for the players to have any real impact on the story when you have to keep track of what is going on on hundreds of servers rather than one. But then, I’ve always thought that a sharded game largely defeats the purpose of an MMO in the first place, so I may be somewhat biased there.

  4. Chas, I’m with you up until the end:
    “I’m much happier with the game’s storyline occurring at a level above the players’ heads — the metaplot, in terms of pen and paper games — and being influenced by the actions of the vast multitudes of players.”
    And then I lose track of what you mean. Are you saying Metaplot is the aggregate sum of the effects of al player actions? If so, that would line up with Rose’s concept, and is an exciting and underexplored avenue for design! However my understanding of “Metaplot” is more of a story imposed on play, which the players get to witness, and may even put in a token effort or act as errand boys, but not really affect the outcome. Which seems to be something that Rose is railing against–there’s all this Doom and Portent and the Fate of the War-Torn Kingdoms, but the content is all pre-plnned and the players’ role is to ride the tilt-a-whirl and gain a level.
    It’s fine with me if you mean Metaplot in a different way; I just wanted to understand your point better. Also, I’m a little out of my league on video-game lingo; can you tell me what “sharded game” means?

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