Side Quest Syndrome: Designing The Road Less Traveled

10 Feb 2017

A while back there was an editorial describing how side quests erode everything that makes RPGs great. Now, because we are good Druids and appreciate balance in things, we present a GameInformer feature arguing precisely the opposite. Why have side quests at all? How to make them engaging as opposed to tedious? What connection, if any, should they have to the bigger picture? These questions are pondered through a series of intersecting quotes from various prominent developers, arriving to a conclusion that if variety is the spice of life, side quests are the spices of games.

The article is on the longer side, so here's a primer of what to expect:

Optional tasks have peppered digital worlds ever since early role-paying games started flirting with nonlinear design. In 1986, The Legend of Zelda featured five hidden heart containers that players could choose to find – or not. In 1988, Pool of Radiance became one of the first games with side quests that shaped the attitudes of characters around you.

At a time when player choice extended little further than controlling how fast you ran to the right of the screen, these were significant steps on the journey away from singular objectives. Over time, these small opt-in activities evolved from mere gear- and XP-dispensers into sprawling, complex narrative arcs of their own. Today, it’s impossible to imagine RPGs or open-world games without them.

But, at least from a surface-level perspective, side quests don’t make much sense. When you consider how expensive development is, committing resources to non-essential content is borderline irresponsible. Combine this with surprisingly low completion rates (PlayStation trophies reveal that only 29-percent of players finished The Witcher 3) and side quests become even harder to justify. So, why offer them at all?

“Aside from the obvious answer of giving players extra things to do, a world that only revolves around the main story feels dead,” says Nikolas Kolm, quest designer on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

“The world would feel less vibrant. But if you get the player involved in side quests that weave a story, and if that story then impacts other aspects of the world and narrative, then it feels like the realm is alive and doesn’t solely revolve around the main character doing his main mission.”

Even if a player doesn’t engage with a side quest, its presence is felt indirectly; just knowing it’s there adds to the sensation of exploring a living ecosystem. Our world doesn’t revolve around your job, after all, so why should a digital world?

[...]

Whether seeking out a new sword or reuniting a talking dog with his master, side quests are an essential element of modern games. But where do these once-humble distractions go from here? A common theme from all the developers I spoke with was the belief that optional content will become more and more indistinguishable from a game’s main quest.

“I’ve undergone a bit of a realization since releasing Inquisition: even side quests players don’t see in their playthrough tend to be experienced by them regardless,” says Laidlaw. “Players compare notes. Streams and Let’s Plays abound. If the player wants to see a part of a game, or see something he or she missed, it’s out there. So I’ve decided to stop thinking about them as ‘side’ content. As a result, it becomes remarkably easy to devote time to them.”

Afrasiabi says that now, from a production standpoint, Blizzard treats side quests and the critical path with the same amount of care. “We don’t design quests with allotted production values in mind. Everything we put into the game is treated as a foreground quest that everyone in the world will see, and therefore it must live up to the standards established... So in that regard, side quests have the same attention to detail and budget and production value as main plotlines.”

Kolm agrees: “We like to think of side quests not as poorer cousins but more as the side dishes, spices and herbs that add flavor to the main dish, and without which the whole dish won’t be as tasty.
 
 

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