Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why Side Quests? (Part 1)

Side quests are a staple of the RPG genre. Optional quests to get extra experience, items or gold or to learn a little bit more about characters or the game world, they are almost considered an essential part of the RPG experience. But why? They typically don't exist in other genres. You rarely have a sidequest in an FPS that gives you a new weapon or extra ammo. You don't get asked to fetch an optional item in a platformer. RTS games might have optional objectives that are somewhat akin to a sidequest, but this is definitely the exception rather than the norm. So why do RPGs need sidequests?

For the purpose of the discussion today, I'm going to look at all the weaknesses relating to sidequests.  I'll cover the benefits in a subsequent post, but focus entirely on the ways sidequests can impact negatively on a game.

Diluting Narrative
An RPG often lives or dies on its core narrative - the main plot or conflict of the game which the player is trying to resolve. This isn't always the case, but this is generally the major drawcard of the game. The main questline will have a continuous story that affects the main character in signficant ways, its NPCs will be the most complex (and use the big name voice actors) and generally will be the core means of setting the "tone" or "theme" of the game.

Is the theme "Everybody is dead, Dave" ?

If the game's core theme is dealing with an eternal struggle between two opposing forces, how does doing a menial task for a character completely devoid of any relation to that struggle further the development of that theme?  What about if we have a glib character making one-liners while we're dealing with impending doom?  Now, I'm not mandating a need for everything to tie into the game's core plot. That would feel incredibly artificial, and would make it feel as though the entire world was revolving around our character. That is hardly believable in the vast majority of circumstances.

The important point is to not have so many sidequests that your player gets distracted from the main thrust of the game. They should not forget the goal they are ultimately trying to achieve because they get bogged down with completely unrelated quests. For example, in Mass Effect 1, there were quite a lot of different side quests, but many of them tied back into the current threat of the Geth or other elements related to the main story (e.g. Thorian Creepers and Rachni). While these their own separate stories, they were still able to tie in and support the main plot rather than detract from it. This avoided what otherwise could have felt like a chore of doing a lot of quests the seemingly had nothing to do with the main story. Compare to Mass Effect 2 where most of the side quests related to one of three mercenary companies and bore no relevance to the game's core plot. Those sidequests did not add to the core narrative, and in doing so made the game's plot feel less cohesive than that of its predecessor.

The only good Geth is a dead Geth.

Inspire Boredom
We all know the apathy that we feel when we as a player are asked to bring back "a pair of leather gloves", to deliver "5 healing plants" to someone, or "kill 10 rats". This is not the stuff of excitement or adventure. It's the essence of humdrum.

The Oblivion Gates in Oblivion were able to support the main narrative of the game to an extent by constantly reminded the player that Tamriel was under siege because of them, but they failed miserably on this point. After closing a handful of Oblivion gates, you quickly knew the various layouts that were possible, and became sick of going through exactly the same routine to clear each gate. They were not an inherently boring quest like "fetch me a healing potion from the store", but they became boring because they became tediously repetitious. No one likes to do the same thing over and over again, and this is exactly what the Oblivion gates demanded of you.

Oh, another Oblivion gate. Yay.

Add Design Work
From a design perspective, everything takes time and resources. Every side quest requires time for writing, scripting, testing, voice recording, and so on. This translates to a longer (and more expensive) development period and more potential bugs. Every development has things cut, and each side quest means that resources are stretched further. Adding too many sidequests can result in an unpolished game, or one that feels shallow and lacking direction. Even if your aim is to make a sandbox for the player to explore, you don't want to have quantity at the expense of quality.

Removing Importance
Since I'm a big fan of choice in RPGs, I advocate decisions having some meaning. Yet when you deal with sidequests, so often those choices you make feel like they are insignificant and ignored. The consequences from rescuing or saving someone in an individual sidequest is never referenced again, making the player wonder what the effect their choices are actually making.

I rescued Big Town... Big Whoop.

This is particularly the case when characters involved allude to some greater consequence or impact due to the player's actions. If there is some threat directed against the player about future reprisals that never eventuate, what was the point of making that decision that caused it? Admittedly this comes down to the issue of time and resources mentioned above, a multitude of sidequests that have no effect or relevance apart from when they are experience potentially exposes the artificial nature of the game world rather than making it feel alive.

Of course, sidequests can add a lot to a game, and there are many positive aspects that they can contribute. Some of these issues even have counterpoints that actually make a game better. But without being mindful of the pitfalls and potential shortcomings relating to sidequests, designers are in danger of producing content that hampers their game rather than improving it.


  1. I like subquests that are interesting stories in their own right. obviously they are going to kill the pacing of the main story though. Many rpgs are crazy slow. That was a good thing about nwn1-2 mods. They were often like short stories and because they were shorter they had better pacing.

    Most games don't have very good writing so you can just hope for good moments every now and then.

  2. I have to agree with your comments regarding the danger of side-quests to dilute the main narrative. Another good use of side-quests is to provide the ability to provide greater depth to minor characters and an opportunity to explore parts of the world that the main character(s) may otherwise bypass.

    There is a good reason why you may not want to include this in the main quest - if it is not vital the main story arc and the player is not engaged then it may actually turn players away from the entire game. Of course the rewards for playing in an RPG are often the XP, items or just the additional story line.

    Finally I found Oblivion to be a good example of how not to design an RPG. When I first played it I ignored the main quest to just explore and do side-quests. It became plainly obvious that any action that my character had no effect on the game what so ever. The main storyline stalled while waiting for me trigger the next part of the main quest. If an RPG has a lot of sidequests I think that it should also at least have the perception of events taking place without the main character being present for anything to happen.

  3. You forgot the peasants who are convinced it's entirely appropriate to ask the fabled hero of the free world on a critical mission to save all sentient life to take 30 minutes to find their lost wedding ring. If we're bitching about sidequests I think that's a pretty vital point — I mean seriously, if I'm the last of dying order X, or the only hope for civilisation Y, can't I delegate some of this shit?

    It'd be kind of cool if after you said no to a few villagers when asked to find their 4-year-old, every average joe would be a bit more reluctant before calling in a favour. Or if you could say "yeah yeah sure", not do it in an actual game timeframe, and then get some kind of reputation as a slacker or cocktease.

  4. Excellent points all round.
    Corey: I'd possibly concur that RPGs are "slow", but as soon as anyone does anything to make it more streamlined or action focused - see ME/ME2 - you get all the "hardcore" RPG fans claiming "it's not a real RPG." It seems you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

    Richard: That is the main weakness of Oblivion and all of Bethesda's sandbox RPGs. They are great for what they are, but the feeling that you are in a living and breathing world that is the entire aim of the sandbox does fall somewhat flat when the main storyline goes nowhere because you're not interacting with it. Admittedly that can't really be avoided to any great extent because you can't progress the game's main narrative without letting the player know. Perhaps there could be unexpected negative consequences upon the player if they don't do something... maybe one of the towns would eventually get overrun by Daedra if the player didn't do something about the nearby Oblivion gate - after suitable warnings to the player, of course.

    Thom: Nice ideas and observations. It does seem somewhat ridiculous that "the world's only" hope is fetching someone's missing potatoes. That said, I seem to remember some quests in older games where you had to meet people at set times and locations, and if you didn't, the quest ended. Come to think of it, time is probably something that deserves a lengthy discussion on its own...