Saturday, January 30, 2010

Quest wrangling

This morning I am wrestling with a quest that I want to add for the coming EQ2 expansion, The Sentinel's Fate. Since the beta is still under NDA I can't talk about any details, but I can say that writing this particular quest has been giving me grief for the past few days.

I've talked a little bit about the process of writing quests before, on the official EQII blog. Here's a link to that post, and below I've quoted the bit specifically about writing tradeskill quests:

On the tradeskill side of GU47, I just finished checking in another quest for the Grandmasters in the tradeskill societies to give out, this one in the level 60-69 level range. At the same time this goes live, the city faction merchants (both adventure and tradeskill) will begin selling a black version of the blue formal dress that city merchants sell, and this new quest ties into the appearance of this new item. Naturally, the various city factions would turn to their local tradeskill society to produce large orders of any new clothing that they begin selling. And when the local tradeskill society’s harvesting team fails to return with the required resources that will be needed, who should they send to investigate but a trusted local tradeskiller who has served them well in the past? Crafters level 60 and over who have completed the other quests the Grandmasters offer will be asked to investigate the missing harvesters, and save the day once again.

I don’t create nearly as many quests as many of the design team — other designers might be asked to create quests for entire zones at a time, and some of them are amazingly fast and clever at thinking up fun new ideas and implementing them. A lot of what I do is more dry, such as the creation of recipes, balancing of stats, tweaking of drop rates.

Tradeskills being technically part of the “mechanics” team rather than the design team itself, a lot of the work is less creative and more statistical. However, quests are fun, and tradeskilling players have not had many tradeskill quests to enjoy in the past, so I’ve added quite a few since I started here and I expect more still will come in the future.

How I design a quest can vary quite a lot, depending on the quest and where it’s intended to fit into our world and our lore. The first thing to do is consider what information I already know about the quest. Do I know certain characters who must be involved? Do I know a certain story I need to reference? Or do I know what the reward will be? Many times, I begin planning a quest with a specific reward in mind. I start by knowing that I have this nice new purple robe, for example, and I think that a quest would be a fun way to give it to people, so I start planning from there.

For this type of quest where I start by knowing what the reward is, I can then start thinking about how and why a player might earn such a reward, and construct the story of the quest backwards from there, by asking and answering for myself a series of questions about the quest. Why would a player be given a robe? Maybe the tradeskill societies are starting production of a new line of robes, and players could be given one of the first ones in thanks for their help. What kind of help? Well, what if the tradeskill societies are short of supplies. Why are they short of supplies? Maybe they have teams of harvesters who go out and bring back the supplies they need, but perhaps the team has failed to return, and our players need to investigate. What will they find? Well, they might find a few clues that will lead them in the general direction, and then they will eventually find the harvesters. Where does the tradeskill part of the quest come in? Maybe the harvesters are hurt, or having problems, and players can craft something to help them out. And so on, asking more and more detailed questions until I know the general outline of where the players will have to go and what they’ll have to do. 

Once I have this outline, it’s a matter of filling in the specific details of dialog, and so my next step is to generally create all the characters for the quest who have anything to say, and then creating the dialog chain between them and the players. This fills in pretty much all the remaining details of the quest’s story, and is also where I get to have a little fun being creative. I usually try not to be too long-winded, but I do try to insert some humor into the dialog so that people who do pay attention to the text will find it worth their while and be amused. Once the dialog is taken care of, it’s just a matter of putting any characters and objects required into the world, and then hooking it all up into the actual quest file that goes into the player’s quest journal so that the game knows character A’s dialog B updates quest step 3, and so on.

For some other types of quest, we may start out with a specific event or story that we want to tell, and the reward is actually fairly irrelevant. A good example of this might be some of the seasonal quests like Frostfell or Nights of the Dead, where we know we want to tell a seasonal story, and that story is more important than the actual reward. A tradeskill example of this would be the tradeskill epic quests: I started by knowing that I just wanted to do a tradeskill epic to go out at the same time as all the adventurer epics. Then I looked through some old EQLive tradeskill quests and traditions, and decided to base the epic on the Earring of the Solstice quests from the original EQLive. Next I worked out some modern twists and details to set the story in the present time of EQ2, and also to give each crafting archetype something a little fun and different to do. The steps in this quest were all about the fun and excitement, getting tradeskillers outside, into areas they might not have been into before, and picking some of my favorite looking zones and finding an excuse to get crafters into them. To be quite honest, this was a quest line planned out to intentionally include many “oh s–t!” moments of sheer terror for the people doing the quest, and it was a lot of fun to deliberately do that. I figured out the rewards last of all; in this case the rewards were almost irrelevant, the important part was that there be a tradeskill epic at all, and that it should be fun and very different from anything any tradeskiller had done before. Once the quest outline is known, however, the remaining design steps are pretty similar: create the characters and write the details of their dialog, place the things in the world, and then hook it all up.

Those are the two main ways I have approached quest creation so far. Apart from writs, which don’t really have any story, the tradeskill quests have all just been created through variations of the above. The one quest line that came closes to being an exception to this rule was the sokokar quest line for tradeskillers; the sokokar quest line for adventurers had already been written, but was not doable by tradeskillers, so I knew that I needed to add a separate quest or quest line for them. As time was short, I decided to simply take Srukin’s entire quest line for the adventurers and mirror it as exactly as possible, making fun of the original quest throughout. So for the sokokar quests, you could say that I started off knowing BOTH the reward AND the story, and the rest was merely changing details and inserting humor. The NPC who gives out the quest, Assistant Jones, is actually named after Srukin (Ellery Jones) in order to tease him for not including tradeskillers in the first quest. And while the adventurer quest has players out collecting drolvarg fangs and other heroic things, Assistant Jones is impatiently asking the tradeskillers what on earth she’s supposed to do with all the bags of smelly drolvarg teeth the adventurers keep bringing back to her boss, and by the way those adventurers are still busy out there killing things, so perhaps you could go deliver this hawk instead like the practical tradeskiller you are.

So, the tradeskill quest for the coming game update is checked in, ready for QA to begin testing. There will be a cycle of testing and bug fixing for a while, and then Test server will have their chance to break it and comment — and they certainly do a great job testing and finding new and unexpected ways that things can break! But if all goes well and all the bugs are fixed without issue, then that’s one more tradeskill quest added to the growing list and heading to a live server near you with game update 47. Hope everyone enjoys it!

That was written back in July 2008, a whole year and a half ago. Since then I've had a lot more experience with writing quests and in fact with everything, and I've put in quite a few more tradeskill quests besides, but there are always new challenges to meet and new things to learn.

I posted a little while back about some of the things that players want to see more of in tradeskill quests, and the quest and rewards that I mentioned in that post were in fact the thing that I am now working on. Based on their feedback I want to involve a little more mainstream lore into the quest, I want to send them out around the world and into some places they might not have otherwise seen, and I don't plan to include a large amount of grindy crafting (although there will be some, this being a tradeskill quest after all). What I'm currently struggling with is a combination of the situations I mentioned in the 2008 post: I both know what the reward will be, and I also know the general points of the lore that I want to include. But sometimes this actually makes it harder to write the quest, when you know you have to make the story pass through certain points instead of letting it just go in whatever directions make sense as you write it.  Sometimes - like now - it feels that forcing the quest line through predetermined points is a bit like trying to herd cats through hoops!

One thing I really hate and try to avoid in quest design is when a quest doesn't make it clear why your character would do the things s/he is required to do. I've seen too many quests in too many different games where there's no apparent reason why your character would get from step A to step B on their own. Either the quest explicitly tells them to do step B, or the player has no hope of figuring it out on their own and has to check a spoiler site.

For example, if the quest starts with you finding a mysterious item, and your quest journal just tells you "I should find more information about the item!" then you have no idea where to go to find out this information and probably need to check a spoiler site even to figure out what zone you're supposed to go to. On the other hand, if your quest starts with you finding a mysterious item, and your quest journal then tells you "I bet the laboratory of Lord Evilpants in the Deadly Forest would have more information on this item!" that's better, since you don't need a spoiler site to know where you go next, but it still doesn't make a lot of sense to the player since there's really no obvious explanation why their character would think of going to the laboratory of Lord Evilpants if their quest hadn't told them to. I prefer quests that fill in more steps and actually make sense: for example, you find a mysterious item. You look at the item and discover it has a rune stamped on it. You go to the library to research runes and discover this rune is the insignia of Lord Evilpants, last seen in the Deadly Forest. Now it makes sense why your character would next go to visit Lord Evilpants and perhaps search his laboratory for further clues. No spoiler site required, and also no sudden deus ex machina instruction appearing in your quest journal without a good reason.

So, the very first stage of writing this quest is to write out a point form summary of each step of the quest: each point of the story generally corresponding to each time the quest will update. I know how the quest will start, what the end reward will be, and I've picked some zones they need to pass through in the middle, and some people they will meet. And then I write in the details of exactly what information they gather or what clues they find that lead them between these key points. Sometimes it's fairly obvious, but for some reason getting the exact details to come together in a way that makes sense has been surprisingly difficult for this quest. What on earth is there about item A that would lead the player's character to think of going to zone B? What kind of clues could they pick up that would point in that direction? And of course, whatever clues there are have to fit in to the world's overall story and lore. If they find information in the library pointing to zone B, does it makes sense that the library would even have that information? If they find a relic that hints that zone B might be related to the story, where would it make sense the relic is found, and why would the players think to go check that place? If they talk to person A to find out more about person C, why does person A even know about person C, and why would they tell the players about him?  So far I've rewritten these intermediate steps three times and there are probably more revisions to come.

Perhaps I'm being overly picky. I suppose there are many people who don't particularly care whether it makes sense that their character would figure out to go to zone B or whether their quest journal just tells them "go to zone B." Still, I know details like that do annoy me when playing, and I think that having those details is important to a well-written quest, so gosh darn it, I am going to be a stickler and do it right. Even if it means a few more hours sitting here on Saturday morning staring at the screen and asking the cat "but WHY would they do that?"

It may be confusing the cat at present, but I hope it will be worth it for not confusing the players who complete the quest in the end. =)


  1. "you find a mysterious item. You look at the item and discover it has a rune stamped on it. You go to the library to research runes and discover this rune is the insignia of Lord Evilpants, last seen in the Deadly Forest. Now it makes sense why your character would next go to visit Lord Evilpants and perhaps search his laboratory for further clues. No spoiler site required"
    but once players find this stone, they may go to the spoiler site and find where to go, instead of wasting time going to the library. Unless the player is rewarded for going to the library :-)
    Another way to avoid the spoiler site being used too much is including randomness. For instance, the stone could lead to Laboratory A, B or C of Lord Evilpants, and you know where to start only if you go to the library. Technically, the quest variable determining which Lab to go to could be actually set at the library.

    I also care about details in story, especially when it deals with "motives", and I think some players do too. For sure, not everyone does. Complex and interesting quests are not designed for simply brutish players.

    PS: inspirational cats ...

  2. In this example, I was assuming that the library would be an actual quest update point, so we actually add another step in the quest for "go to library" before sending them to the lab.

    To clarify, I certainly don't object to spoiler sites per se, they're very useful and have huge amounts of helpful information. And if some players still prefer to run through using a spoiler walkthrough, that's fine with me. My goal is to avoid players NEEDING to use a spoiler site, having no other ways to figure out how to solve the quest without them. That's what I think removes the fun and the immersion and should be avoided. =)

  3. I for one love tradeskill quests. Absolutely love them. I appreciate the ones you add to EQII, still my longest-running favorite game... and now you MUST make one with Lord Evilpants.
    Thanks for this fascinating blog post!

  4. Yes, but first you need to explain the motivation behind his name. Right? Why did poor old Lord Evilpants parents/cronies/loyal subjects give him that name? Was it because of his "pants fetish" or was it due to the fact that he constantly wore the "cursed pants of evil"? It's an important detail! Or wait a moment....
    Detail is good and most people enjoy it if they are in the mood to immerse themselves in the story and lore but too much detail quickly becomes... too much. Once at the too much stage players will usually react by pressing the "skip" button and not care/read/enjoy any of it at all. Then again, each players tolerance for what is "too much" is pretty much exclusive to them and then knowing your target audience and catering specifically for their "tolerance" should be the goal.
    To sum it all up. Detail is good. Too much detail bad. The level of "Too much detail" varies depending on the game and its players.