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The Soapbox: What's my motivation?


If you play MMOs, odds are good that you're familiar with the classic "kill ten rats" quest trope. Kill quests are one of the most fundamental elements of traditional MMORPG design, and a great deal of modern and classic MMOs would have little to no content without them. Whether it's ten rats, ten wolves, ten bandits, or ten dragons, the basic gist of the quest is always the same: You, the seasoned adventurer, must eliminate animals or enemies for an NPC who for one reason or another cannot handle the task himself.

MMOs are built on combat. It's difficult to design a full-featured MMO that engages players for years on end without some sort of PvE killing content; only a handful of MMOs have even attempted it. And while some would say the days of the kill quest are coming to an end, modern MMOs certainly aren't cutting back on killing in general. As a primary mechanic for advancing a character, slaying seems to be the most popular design choice.

I don't have a problem with the bulk of my progression coming from throwing fireballs or bashing shields. I don't mind obliterating monsters in multiples of five. What I do mind, however, is being asked to kill without a good reason.

Emotional involvement

One of the biggest challenges faced by MMO designers is creating a massive world packed with content yet somehow making all of that content interesting and emotionally engaging. The responsibility is enormous; developers must create thousands of hours of in-game experiences that never feel cheap, forced, tedious, or boring. Some MMOs do this exceptionally well. Some do not.

Guild Wars 2
The reason people look down on the "kill ten rats" design isn't that they don't enjoy killing rats. I've played dozens of MMOs and slayed hundreds of rats (and their game-specific substitutes), and the mechanical satisfaction of slaying an enemy doesn't really fade over time. If the buttons work and the animation is pretty, killing rats is just as fun as any other in-game activity. The reason MMO fans tend to dismiss these quests is that they are low on emotional involvement. There's no motivation. And often, they feel lazy.

Designers don't need to get rid of kill quests or attempt to redesign the MMORPG wheel (though innovations are always welcome) to make games engaging. Instead, MMO creators should build worlds, characters, and storylines that are intriguing and interesting enough to inspire us players to slash our way through waves of rats and feel satisfied in the process. Rats eating an NPC's grain? Who cares? Rats spreading dangerous plague in an orphanage? Now you have my attention.

With the right story and the right characters, I'm happy to kill as many things as the narrative demands.

Running errands

One enormous problem in MMORPG design (and game design in general) is how common it is for NPCs to hand the hero errands that the NPC could reasonably complete himself. This is another developmental misstep that causes player to question the importance of any given task and feel as though completing a quest is just running through the motions until the next ding animation.

Returning to the "kill ten rats" trope, I think it is the developer's responsibility to establish stakes for each quest and to make those quests feel important using those stakes. What are the consequences of not helping this particular NPC kill these bad guys? Will he die? Will his family die? Will he continue to stand in one place for the rest of my time in the game, asking other adventurers to handle his chores? Completing a quest -- or not completing it -- needs to have consequences, even if only implied.

Once a quest has stakes, the next order of business is to explain to the player why the NPC can't handle this task on his own. This is a step that is glossed over in so many traditional MMORPGs and the reason that "kill ten rats" has become a metaphor for lazy quest design. How many times have you read quest text only to ask yourself, "Uh, why can't this dude handle this on his own?" The number of ranch owners without shotguns in MMOs is staggering.

The Secret World
There are two enormous problems with asking the player to kill things that an NPC could probably kill if he stopped chit-chatting with passers-by. The first is that it forces the player to complete a mundane task that any idiot with a rake could easily handle, and this makes a game boring to play. The second is that it rips the player out of the hero's dramatic story arc. "Hey, you! Hero! I know you're killing dragons and saving the universe from dark wizards or whatever, but can you spend a few hours here seeing about my grain?"

To function well in an MMO, a kill quest requires stakes that prove the quest needs doing and a valid explanation for why the hero of the story should take time out of his day to do it.

Beyond the kill

It's worth noting that the above rule is actually pretty powerful when applied to any in-game task. I'm writing mostly of kill quests here since those take up the bulk of our gaming time in MMORPGs, but every other quest type benefits from having stakes and explaining why it needs to be done. Whether it's gathering herbs, delivering a message, investigating a nearby phenomenon, or tracking down some guy's wife, providing the player with stakes and hero-level justification will go a long way toward making the task interesting and engaging.

Final Fantasy XIV
It's not enough to write a brilliant story and slap it on top of pretty art and solid design. The story has to be felt in every element of gameplay from start to finish. This is why certain MMOs have flourished while others have failed -- the MMORPGs that do the best job of marrying story to gameplay are the ones that resonate most powerfully with gamers and keep people playing the longest.

I'm happy to kill ten rats. Just tell me why I should.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews and not necessarily shared by Massively as a whole. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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