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MMO Mechanics: Kill 10 rats can be fun!

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Quests are increasingly an MMO enthusiast's bread and butter, often becoming the staple component of a game's typical serving of progressive content. Over the years, developers have tried to serve up this familiar progression mechanic in many different ways: The modern themepark MMO makes us fetch, carry, explore, and investigate our way to the endgame through countless quest types and story arcs. Among the varieties of quest on offer, kill quests seem to cause the most tears and tantrums amongst picky players. No matter what developers do, there just isn't much love for missions that send characters off with a shopping list of mundane creatures to crush.

Kill quests have become so common that plenty of MMOs have cheekily referenced the "10 rats" trope by literally making us smash in some rodent skulls, but killing cute, twitchy-nosed creatures is not the real problem. It's the uninspired kill list mechanic that often incites complaints of developer laziness, an argument that I don't think is justified. Kill quests exist to hone your skills through repetition, but they don't have to feel like an arduous grinding task and are actually a very useful mechanic for game designers.

In this week's MMO Mechanics, I stand up for the unloved stepchild of questing; I'll show you that killing a list of creatures can be both contextually engaging and mechanistically interesting, depending on how it's presented.

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What makes kill quests seem so bad?

Most MMO gameplay invariably revolves around combat; while some games focus more on exploration, crafting, and other non-violent pursuits, sooner or later someone's gut will meet the tip of a sword. In days gone by, the most efficient way to level up your character in a themepark MMO was to grind kills from endlessly respawning enemies that were vaguely appropriate for your level. The genre has come a long way over the last decade or so, and developers have found a number of ways to hide that grind behind compelling storylines and clever mechanics.

Of all the ways developers have packaged the levelling grind, it's the thinly veiled kill list that bears the brunt of player rage. We've been overexposed to the hack-a-villain phenomenon, and this heavy reliance on just one method of holding us to the grindstone can feel sloppy and dull. All kill quests are tarred with the same brush, so players unfairly point to the core mechanic of kill-rinse-repeat progression as the reason that grinding has become so irksome.

Kill quests often feel arbitrary, asking us to kill set numbers of similar enemies with slightly different names, all milling around waiting for our arrival at their spawn point. Many players are left pondering why they might need to kill four gnoll warriors to make the land a safer place, especially since there is little tangible difference between said warrior and the gnoll shaman one field over.

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Context, context, context!

An MMO is almost always going to be about forcibly ridding the world of your foes. Being handed a to-do list isn't exactly inspiring, meaning that kill quests must gain credibility through context. Mindlessly killing stuff is more than a little psychotic, but cleaning up the abhorrent results of an experiment gone wrong is a noble act indeed. Simply wrapping up the smashing of monsters in an engaging narrative is often enough to disguise the grind, and when placed in context, the number of enemies you must kill doesn't seem so arbitrary.

We can safely assume that NPCs ask us to complete tasks that matter to them since they are willing to hand money and items to a perfect stranger in exchange for the work. Each enemy you eliminate for these benefactors has an inherent worth to them, and that value is conveyed through the quest reward. We may not think the task is very important or glamorous, but a newcomer isn't very likely to be charged with the most critical, exciting work in an area without first being tested with more trivial errands. I appreciate the reality of clearing the cellar to prove your character's worth. Being a hero isn't all about rescuing damsels, slaying dragons, and saving the world, you know!

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Kill lists are mechanically useful too

Kill lists give you more than a recipe for great grinding along a pre-approved route since they also synergise well with story-driven quests and dungeons. There's usually some overlap between the kill quest hit-list and the enemies you would normally encounter while adventuring, so kill quest rewards usually amount to additional goodies for little effort. This type of quest provides a lot of bang for the game designer's buck, as the XP from the enemies killed combines with the quest reward to set the minimum amount of XP a player will acquire from a given quest hub. This is particularly important for MMOs that mark zones with set level ranges since the designers know exactly how much content is required for the zone to cover the required XP span.

Non-combat quests may be more fun, but combat quests help players get to grips with their characters' abilities. Grinding through hordes of enemies gives you the opportunity to try out new skills as you progress through the levelling process and figure out more effective combat strategies. The nuances of each particular MMO's combat mechanics are frequently unclear until you face the same enemies multiple times while varying your strategy. Any World of Warcraft fan who has punished the test dummies can confirm that hitting the same thing over and over again is an efficient way to compare different gear, talents, and spell rotations. In a sense, kill quests are a necessary part of preparing players for endgame content without throwing them in at the deep end.

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Innovation through kill quests

Standard kill quests serve an important purpose, but that doesn't mean MMOs can't innovate and improve on this core questing mechanic. My favourite kill quests are those in which killing is merely a consequence of completing a more important part of my adventure, as when the quest narrative points toward an item that just happens to be guarded by a pack of bloodthirsty monsters.

In this case, the actual number of goons isn't explicitly stated, but their heads still have to roll to complete the objective. The game designer still benefits from knowing the minimum amount of XP the player will gain by finishing a particular zone or quest line, but the player isn't bored to tears with the numerical details or presented with an intimidating list of enemies to be slain.

Even standard kill lists can be rejuvenated by adding unique mechanics that the player has yet to encounter, such as in World of Warcraft's Death Knight quest An End To All Things. The developers jazzed up a simple kill list by putting you on the back of a powerful dragon, and practically every fantasy MMO has something similar. New abilities, vantage points, and perspectives can refresh tired gameplay and reinvigorate the player. EverQuest II manages to turn killing everything in sight into something a little more interesting with the addition of Lore and Legend quests and creature catalogues, while Guild Wars 2's dynamic events add story-driven consequences to the familiar bashing in a certain number of monster heads mechanic.

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The universally reviled "kill 10 rats" quest type is one of the most infamous MMO tropes, but grinding enemies will always be necessary for progression in a themepark game. Not only does it give the designers a better idea of how much content they need to pack into each area, but it also helps gamers figure out good combat strategies and develop their characters for the endgame. Most recent MMOs no longer force adventurers to cull endless lists of nondescript monsters, instead combining them with a good mix of story-driven quests, interesting game mechanics, and dynamic events. With the proper context, even the standard kill list becomes a less offensive undertaking that's more appropriate for a hero to tackle.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively's Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. Her column, MMO Mechanics, explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs every Wednesday.