Thursday, October 14, 2010

Personal Review: Quests and Consequence

A few days ago I talked about learning from past mistakes I'd made in my modding creations. I'd like to continue in that theme again today, this time concentrating on quest design. I'll be discussing my Neverwinter Nights 2 (NWN) mod Fate of a City again, but also referring to Alley of Murders.

Fate of a City (FoaC) had a few problems with the quests I'd developed, particularly the sidequests.  The most notable weakness of these was my tendency to "extend" quests further than players initially expected.  A simple quest to talk to someone to solve a problem would never be that simple. There would almost always be new information that would force the player to talk to yet another person in the chain and then potentially return to one (or both!) of the original people involved within the quest. While this is fine to do on occasion, repetition of this can frustrate players.

For one, the begin to feel like they are getting the run-around. They begin to realise that every quest is not going to be straightforward and there is going to be something to throw a spanner into the works. They start to become jaded - it's like watching a M. Night Shyamalan movie - you know there's going to be a twist. Worse, if the player has to traverse areas in order to talk to person a, then person b, then person a again, then back to ... you get the idea. This quickly becomes tedious. In case any game designers or modders haven't got a message they should have heard long ago: backtracking is not fun and should be avoided whenever possible!

Force Speed: Making backtracking (slightly) less painful since 2003

Backtracking is whenever you're covering ground you've covered before. Walking back over the same territory quickly becomes tedious, and doubly so if there's nothing new to make the journey interesting. Commercial games seemed to have learned from some past mistakes. The original Halo made you backtrack for almost half of the game, simply with different enemies. KotOR involved a lot of backtracking for quests that force speed helped make bearable. The Witcher "investigation" has a hideous amount of backtracking. Morrowind used silt striders to help eliminate backtracking to a degree, but it still proved tedious at times. But even Grand Commute Auto, I mean Grand Theft Auto IV had far too much menial travel with little real enjoyment - some people still haven't quite got the message. I tried to reduce backtracking tedium in FoaC by using a world map, but there was still "dead" transit time involved. Backtracking can tend to give people "courier/fedex syndrome", where they feel like a messenger running back and forth delivering or collecting packages. This isn't enjoyable, and it certainly isn't heroic. People don't play games to feel like they're doing a day job.

The issue isn't when you have quests that have twists or are lengthy and complex. The issue occurs when every quest is like this.  Quests should vary in both content, length and pacing, just to keep the player guessing. Two of the most popular quests (and probably my two most favourite) were very different in style and length. One involved exploring and finding a set of clues to lead you to a deadly "Shadow Being", one whom you had to defeat in a puzzle style manner rather than combat.  The other involved a daughter complaining about strange noises in the night, which eventually led to the discovery of two creatures having inflicted a death sentence on the father and the daughter unless the player intervened.  It started off as an investigation, resulted in a short combat, sent the player on a quest to find a cure, and finally deciding how they wanted to resolve the quest. The player had a variety of solutions, ranging from the noble path of spending exorbitant amounts of money to saving both their lives, to fleecing the family for their money and their lives.  The two quests were very different in terms of style and length, providing interesting variety for the player.

A family's fate in your hands

However, the latter brings me to another point, specifically that of unexpected consequences.  If the player chose to kill the family, then later on in the main quest one of the NPCs would choose to limit the assistance they provided. I also implemented a similar consequence in Alley of Murders (AoM), in that if the player helped an elf in one quest, it would result in someone's life being spared in another.  In FoaC, the NPC in question directly tells you that you previous actions are why she will not help you, whereas in AoM the link is only hinted at. But in either case, the consequence cannot be predicted when the player makes the initial choice.  It exists so as to enhance the cohesive nature of the world and demonstrate that actions have consequences, but the player cannot possible foresee the long-term effects of their decision.

This raises the question: Are unexpected consequences a bad thing?  Should the player's progress potentially be affected in unforeseen ways because of decisions they made in quests that seem unrelated to their current actions? One issue of concern is whether to ensure that the consequences do not penalise the player when dealing with such choices.  In FoaC, the NPC provided help in a reduced form, but this did not have any significant impact on the rewards the player received in terms of experience or money, but it may have increased the difficulty of battles at the game's climax. In AoM, the potential death of the NPC had little real effect on the player. The player received a minor monetary reward if the NPC remained alive, but otherwise had little effect on the game's mechanics.

One of these templars will always die, but the other might live

Is having unexpected consequences fair on the player? Should players be expected to have a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions in order to make a reasoned decision, or should they potentially be penalised (or alternatively be rewarded) at a future time due to past decisions? In a way this is somewhat of an argument of the visibility of mechanics versus the verisimilitude of the setting. To an extent, I must confess that I'm more of a fan of the latter because I love being presented with choice in games, but I understand that a balance must be struck between the two. The designer must strive to reinforce the basic mechanics of choice in the majority of cases, for too many decisions that result in unexpected consequences will not only serve to frustrate the player, but also ruin those special moments when the player realises that their previous decisions have come back to haunt them.

The main take home message is to ensure variance in a player's experience. Presenting the player with something unexpected will get their attention and usually make them remember their experiences, and creating something memorable and enjoyable is what designers should constantly strive to achieve.


  1. AmstradHero wrote ...
    Should players be expected to have a clear understanding of the consequences of their actions in order to make a reasoned decision, or should they potentially be penalised (or alternatively be rewarded) at a future time due to past decisions?

    My view is that the understanding of consequences should always be limited to the information on hand at the time the decision was made - which would, in most cases, mean that the player will be rewarded or penalized (or neither) at a later point in time due to those actions. One thing I do dislike is when those reactions are very significant - like a party member leaving - when no hint (eg: that same party member voicing their opinion before the decision is made) was given prior to that moment.

    I agree that the quests should be varied but I also like the scenarios where players have the opportunity to learn/do something that is not tied to a quest but still has a consequence later on. Something as simple as throwing a gold piece to the beggar outside the warehouse you are breaking in results in him creating a diversion if you trip the alarm and run out. There should be no hint or opportunity to meta-game (via interjections by companions who remain oblivious of everything rest of the time) that action - which makes the result have more impact when it does happen.

  2. from wizard of thay
    Unexpected concequences in my opinion, totally fine.
    they are a device to challnege the player, but in using them I think it would be important,
    1) not to overuse them so that everything the player does has an unexpected concequence.
    2) should be balanced against expected concequences. I helped them they helped me. this can also be used to build up to an unexpected concequence and add even more impact
    3) I also feel that when using an unexpected concequence it can be as extreme as you want, on one condition...that the player inretrospect can go. yes tha makes sense that that happened to me.

  3. 1. Backtracking has some value I think, but it requires a light touch. There's a certain tension between player convenience and the feeling of an authentic world, and while in specific cases you want to err on the side of the former, you may still want to preserve the latter in the aggregate. I think a certain amount of returning to hubs and key locations helps. I often think of WoW vs Guild Wars - despite GW's superb design and high degree of player convenience, despite WoW's highly stylised art, Tyria just doesn't seem as real as Azeroth.

    I may have gone a little too far in Classic Week (certainly Ostagar's back door could have used its own map pin), but I think the side quests gave a bit of extra life to the areas that Fragments lacked. And of course the final encounter in Dirge is all about backtracking (in a real hurry), which works nicely with the design of your village level :)

    2. Unintended consequences require a delicate touch too, I'd suggest. If your module is short, go nuts. The player can trivially replay. If it's longer, you want to avoid anything that would make the player want to reload or start over.

    In particular I'd suggest significant mechanical impact is inappropriate. You don't want to disadvantage players on the game layer for opaque RP choices, and you don't want to teach them that seemingly innocuous choices must be done "correctly" in order to optimise. That can encourage extreme metagaming ala Persona calendar planning - you can make the player feel EVERYTHING must be checked in a FAQ.

    Little changes to dialogue or story down the track adding up to a pervasive sense that the game is paying attention but that there's little to fear from making choices is probably a good approach. More decisive choices can be more transperant and immediate on top of that foundation without the game feeling stateless.