Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Side Quests? (Part 2)

In my last post I discussed the potential drawbacks of sidequests within games. Again, nothing that they are almost exclusively an RPG phenomenon, let's look at the ways that they can be used to enhance a game.

Provide Rewards
People love getting presents, and rewards in games are presents for achieving something. You mastered a gameplay skill? Reward. You completed a difficult task? Reward. The game gives us something for achieving a task, and because of that, we want to achieve more. Now while this is useful technique to keep players engrossed in a game, taken to extremes this can actually destroy the player's enjoyment of the game. How many people find monster-killing grinding in an MMO fun? I'd imagine not many, but it's the reward of new levels and loot that keeps the player going even though the actual activity itself can feel very tedious.

Done right, rewards are a great benefit of sidequests. They make the player feel like they have achieved something, and give them the power to deal with situations with slightly less difficulty than they otherwise might. Having more experience or better weapons to dispatch enemies makes the player feel like their efforts were worthwhile in the long term as well as giving them the immediate benefit of a reward.

The Big Metal Unit - A series long sidequest to "become" a golem

Add Depth
Sidequests are great for fleshing out additional characters or the gameworld in general. For those that care to get involved in the fiction and reality of a gameworld and its people, these are an excellent means to explore aspects that might otherwise be relegated to simply text in a codex entry/journal/book. Providing the player with an interactive experience that allows them to see this content first-hand can be infinitely more powerful than simply reading about it.

In Morrowind, the player could find read about the importance of creatures called Kwama to the economy of the island. Alternatively, they could experience the trials and associated dangers directly by accepting a quest to cure a Kwama Queen of blight. By getting involved in this quest, the player got a far greater sense of the stakes involved and the potential effect of having an infected Queen.

An infected Kwama Queen - she's bad for business

Allow Choice
Presenting a counterpoint to the importance and consequences relating to sidequests, providing the player with choice is actually a great benefit to a game. The core plot of a game has to have a relatively linear plot, because a completely free and branching story would either take far too long to create or likely have a weak narrative. As such, sidequests are where the player should get a lot more leeway in terms of dealing with situations and taking matters into their own hands.

Take the Paranoia quest in Oblivion, where a man named Glarthir is convinced people in the town are spying on him. You can refuse to help him, have him attack you by denying all his accusations, kill the "spies" for him, turn him into the guards, or even watch as he attempts to kill each of the people he believes are spying on him. This wide variety of options for dealing with the situation makes the quest an interesting proposition (above and beyond that provided by Glarthir's insanity).

Explore Creative Gems
As a designer, side quests are the perfect outlet for "creative gems". These are the little ideas that designers have that they want to try out or explore, but they aren't substantial enough to warrant a full plot. A melting pot of mechanics and stories, sidequests can offer a great deal or variety and interest to a player's gaming experience. Anyone who has ever enjoyed playing an RPG will have sidequests that they remember fondly. Whether besting Sir Roderick Ponce von Fontlebottom the Magnificent Bastard in a battle of wits in Jade Empire, or causing havoc in a "Murder Mystery" in Oblivion, there is an enormous amount of fun to be had from sidequests.

Sir Roderick Pon... err, John Cleese.

So now we've had a look at both side of the coin - examining both the good and bad about sidequests. They add a lot to RPGs when they are done well, but can detract from the experience if implemented poorly. Knowing the benefits and potential drawbacks allows designers to maximise the impact of their sidequests to improve both a game's narrative and mechanics.


  1. My attempt to try and answer the question that you raised in your first point asking why FPS games do not incorporate side quests!

    All of the above benefits that you have stated do not actual fit into the FPS/RTS genre. Both of these games are more about overcoming the next (increasingly) difficult obstacle rather than advancing any form of narrative. If there is a storyline it is often an afterthought rather than providing any real incentive for the player.

    The only category above that I believe fits into this genre is the potential reward aspect of a sidequest. And even this is a difficult claim, if a particular weapon/item provides a significant advantage then it becomes a necessity rather than a optional quest. If done poorly then it detracts from the game and disrupts the overall pacing.

    One aspect that you haven't discussed is the use of achievements by developers to create user driven side quests. If the achievement is known ahead of time then it can actually force the player to change his or her playing style to accomplish a goal. This may (or may not be) reflected in the narrative. I find it an interesting way of motivating players, but I am in two minds of whether it is good practice.

  2. I was actually contemplating writing a third post on this topic discussing non-RPG genres and how side-quests might be effectively added to them.

    However, I agree with you that at the current point in time, the benefits that players get out of sidequests would likely not appeal to the gamers who love the gameplay that FPS/RTS games provide. I'd perhaps argue that Blizzard attempt to push story a little more strongly in their RTS games than other developers, but I concur that it still doesn't feel like a crucial part of the game when compared to RPGs.

    I'd love to see writers get more of a look in on the creation of more action focused genres; to have them play a more crucial role in terms of shaping games to give players a truly engrossing experience that's not purely about the gameplay and crushing your enemies in varied and interesting ways.

    As for achievements, Half-Life episode 1 and 2 possibly have some of the best examples of this in an FPS. They're almost like sidequests... Episode 1 has an achievement for completing it and only firing a single bullet, and Episode 2 has the challenging "rocket man" achievement for launching a garden gnome statue into orbit by carrying it with you through the majority of the game. These appear to be more designed to get the player to replay the game entirely rather than to enhance their gaming experience in a single playthrough - again, whether this is a good thing or merely a cheap method to increase a game's playtime through arbitrary measures is definitely open for debate.