Very Public Quests

Public quests aren’t really new at this point. Warhammer Online was the first AAA MMO that made a big deal about having them, Champions Online quietly introduced them not long after, and Rift made them a focal point of the game. The concept is pretty simple: anyone who walks into an area where one of these things is happening gets a quest goals pop-up and sees it increase as everyone in the area completes the goals. Instead of one person killing ten rats, you might have twenty people killing 200 rats. Once the quest is completed, you get a reward based on your contribution level, but everyone who tried to help generally gets something.

The running problem with the existing model is long-term scaling. A zone-wide quest that’s fun when there are 200 people in the area due to launch may be unplayable if you’re the only one in the zone six months later. In CO, I almost never saw anyone at some of the more out of the way public quests after the first couple of weeks. Some public quests don’t properly scale down to one player and aren’t really completable unless you have a group.

But what the move to public quests seems to have done is to open the question of the value of private quests.

In most MMOs to date, other players are competition most of the time: every creature they kill and object they interact with is one less available for you. Games have long struggled with whether to have a tagging/locking system (the first person to hit the creature gets credit when it dies) or give all rewards to the last person to damage the creature. Either case can be easily manipulated by players who don’t mind taking from others to get ahead. And either way injects a heap of antisocial sentiment into a game based on multiplayer and community.

Some of the newer games are relaxing this limitation significantly. In The Secret World I was pleased to note that everyone seemed to be getting quest credit when ganging up on quest monsters; it made the beta rush bearable as you could effectively team up without having to formally create a team. And that methodology is extremely core to Guild Wars 2 where there are very few private quests. Instead, events happen in an area and everyone that participates gets rewards (and it’s pretty easy to get the maximum possible reward). Further, everyone that hits an enemy, even for minimal damage, gets full credit for it.

The change in mindset, other than technical developments, primarily comes down to quantifying player effort. Older MMOs have often been somewhat obsessed with what is “fair” in a zero-sum sense. If I did 90% of the damage to a creature and you did 10%, you certainly shouldn’t get the same rewards as me. But while that does seem fair in an absolute sense, it causes all the problems with kill stealing, antisocial multiplayer behavior, and other unnecessary competitiveness.

The contrary view is simply setting up a game where people getting equal rewards for not quite equal contributions don’t cost you anything. Sure, the guy only doing 10% of the damage is benefiting from you, but you’re still getting your rewards 10% faster for his help. And in most cases he’s probably not a parasite out to make you do all the work for him, but just genuinely someone that’s not as good as you but still wants to have fun. Removing the competition will, in most cases, make things more social and fun for everyone.

I do have some worries that GW2 is betting too heavily on what are, still, essentially the same public quests that aren’t as fun once zone populations thin out, but I really like the experiment they’re trying in player behavior. I don’t like pickup groups, but I do like being able to play in a multiplayer game without feeling that other players are the enemy. And, so far, the games where big groups of players can all do stuff in the same without hurting one another’s fun is a definite win. I really hope this mindset survives to influence future MMOs, even if the particulars of public questing don’t pan out.