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The latest of Richard Cobbett's RPG Scrollbars columns takes a detailed look at World Quests. What's a World Quest, you ask? Read this excerpt and find out:
World quests come in many different forms, but typically ‘icons on a map’. Kill this. Collect that. Blow up this. Keep doing it and typically your reward is something that would have been really useful about ten hours ago, but now only serves as bragging rights for the literally nobody interested in hearing anyone brag about their success in RPGs. The irony is that they’re usually pretty easy to ignore, in terms of raw game, but always prominent as a way to level up a little more or get some extra cash that may or may not be useful later on, or simply obscure what you’re actually supposed to be doing next. The biggest recent failing is of course Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Hinterlands map, which many players found themselves playing to the point of screaming instead of playing as Bioware intended – to do some stuff, and come back later. “The Hinterlands” is now effectively industry short-hand for offering too much up-front, from regular quests to solving ‘Astrariums’, and closing wibbly green Rifts.
There’s often a fairly wibbly line between world quests and simply optional side-quests. The easiest differentiation is that they’re repeated content in some way, whether it’s getting one of many things, or performing the same rite to shut a magical doorway, or defeating X waves of monsters to mark a location as ‘safe’, or exploring a ruin in search of a treasure that nobody in the game will ever send you after. Conversely, a FedEx quest to deliver something rarely counts, nor would tracking down a bounty hunter target or something like that. Usually they’re shown on a map either up front or when you get close. Also, usually they inspire a sound not a million miles away from ‘urrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh’ after the first seventy times, usually with the general feel that being The Chosen One has become something of a janitorial position.
So, what makes for a good world quest?
The first part is that you can’t just throw Something down and expect it to work, or for that matter just something that can be handwaved as ‘a thing the hero would do’, since that tends to be a very general platter of murderous and thieving activities. It has to feel like a diversion that’s actually worth their time, even if the player knows that ultimately it’s of tertiary importance. That can be, for instance, taking the time to build an interesting location, or having the player fight a tough enemy, or taking advantage of the fact that it being off the critical path means that the difficulty can be cranked up to present something familiar in a real gloves-off, come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, kind of way, with a suitable reward to match.
The second part is that the job should be, in itself, fun. Now, that sounds obvious, but I’d argue its a jump from the open-world games where this kind of thing started. Red Dead Redemption for instance had its treasure hunting challenges, where maps had to be found, deciphered and then solved. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag also had its treasure hunting, along with contracts. That mental element is the obvious thing to take. However, those games also put a lot of stock into making simple traversal into part of the game experience – riding through the desert or sailing a ship to a beautiful island, and then clambering all over the final destination and so on and having exciting encounters. Zelda too falls into this category. But even The Witcher treats travel primarily as a way of getting from A to B rather than something to do for fun, which radically cuts down on the excitement of wandering. Its world too is beautifully rendered – the game looks gorgeous – but it doesn’t typically go in for points of particular scenic beauty to find and enjoy. (There are exceptions of course, like the palace in Blood and Wine, with its amazing vistas, or the painter quest, but they remain exceptions to the rule.) A monster’s nest for instance is just going to be another bit of forest, not an incredible ancient temple to clamber over.
Third. The reward has to be real and imminent. That doesn’t mean immediate. But part of the problem with most games is that they don’t necessarily have much to give out for their side-quests that actually ‘feels’ notable – equipment can’t be too good, or it unbalances the game, and it can’t be crap, or it’s not worth it. Gold is usually functionally worthless by the middle of every game. And if it takes too long to get some form of attaboy, then it’s a pain. This is a challenge for every game to solve individually. Zelda for instance exchanges seeds for larger inventory space. The Witcher, as mentioned, offers unique looks and stories. Black Flag offers sea-shanties.