Every time an MMO is reviewed, every time one is even talked about, it’s near inevitable that someone will ask whether it has ‘fetch’ quests, or ‘kill 10 rats’ quests, because they’re boring, and shit, and grindy, and all sorts of badness. And, inevitably, it turns out that yes, it has fetch quests, and it has kill 10 of x quests, and it has wars of attrition with the bosses, and everyone tears their heads off with frustration and boredom, because really, this isn’t what we want to be doing.
I’ve been playing a lot of DCUO over the past few weeks, both in beta, and now in release. And yeah, it’s got both those kinds of quests, but you know what? I don’t really mind. It’s not been the bore that it usually is in an MMO, and that fact slipped by me at first. I just accepted that I was enjoying myself, without thinking much about the fact that I was enjoying doing something that’s usually so boring. And naturally, as is always the way with these things, over the past day or two I’ve been descending into a deep philosophical analysis of the nature of games and isn’t it all one big fetch quest anyway? Naturally.
Seriously, though, isn’t that pretty much what we’re always doing, in nearly any game? You fire up Halo, and you need to go fetch this thing, kill this many of these guys before moving into the next room and killing another arbitrary number. Just because there isn’t some ticker in the corner that tells you how many you’ve got left to kill, you don’t notice it. Of course the experience is in the killing itself; figuring out how to flank, where to throw your grenades, all that interesting things. It’s the experience of it, rather than the objective. Framing it within a larger narrative helps, for sure, but if the actual moment to moment fighting isn’t fun, it’s not going to work so well.
Even single player RPGs have this sort of thing all over the place, especially in side quests. Usually they can frame them a little better, just asking you to clear out an area, or rescue their daughter, or whatever; the killing of however many mobs is implied, but not required, and they can get away with that because they can explicitly place x amount of monsters in an area, rather than just having random spawns. Put that in a massive multiplayer environment, and it’s not enough to just ask you to go rescue whoever; you might get there just after someone else cleared the whole area, and suddenly you’ve got an easy ticket. And suddenly you’re not satisfied by that mission, and it’s taken you five minutes instead of an hour, and if that happens enough times to you you feel cheated out of an experience, you get bitter, and you stop paying them delicious money.
So they force you to kill an arbitrary amount of things so that you stay in an area for your allotted time. Of course, now it seems like you’re only so much sheep, but it makes sense, in a way. It’s not so much the content of these quests that are the issue, as the framework itself. There are a few people claiming to mess with this framework a little, mainly EVE, with its player run world, where everything you do is either through a direct want for something, or because some other, bigger, more powerful player wanted you to, or in the upcoming Guild Wars 2, where they’re deviating without entirely throwing the framework out the window. It might sound relatively minor to just remove the great big exclamation marks from above quest givers, but it’s more of an immersion, fluid thing; you arrive in an area and you instinctively know what to do, because you sir, are a hero. If you crest a hill and see a village smoking in the valley below, you’re going to rush down there to help out. Or not, as the case may be.
To get back to DCUO though, there are a pair of things that make the mundane nature of the simple quests a little less dull. Firstly, the combat itself is engaging; a system of combos and states you can stack on your enemies make sure to keep you on your mental toes, constantly thinking about what to do to whom next. Forcing you to keep moving, too, helps, meaning when you see a particular bad guy charge up a power attack, you need to roll out the way, or block, or something, or you’re going to lose a big juicy chunk from your health bar.
The second thing they do is break up each major quest into multiple parts. You might have to kill x amount of whatever enemy is in the quest area, but you might also need to save civilians from danger, or destroy sigils. Of course, it’s all just so much chaff, but by having multiple objectives at once, you get to pick which to do when. It creates opportunity when you’re focusing on blowing up something, and suddenly see another objective fly past. You pull them in, beat three shades of crap out of them, and then a completely different objective is getting completed. Wonderful. Having a little XP boost when completing each of these mini objectives, as well as when you complete the mission itself, helps too.
So, in a roundabout way, I’m saying that people dread this kind of thing in an MMO because, by and large, MMOs aren’t fun, in a base level. The achievements are fun. The socialising is fun. The loot is fun. But the combat? The actual minute by minute of it? No, that’s not really that fun. And that’s why, when we’re forced to kill x of y, we yawn and groan. Provide us with a little interesting context in a quest, and we can forget about the unexciting act of pressing the same combination of keys over and over again. Or, y’know, fix that part of it. It’s one of the other. Or both, if you want to be really great.