Saturday, July 12, 2014

Meaningful Quests

About 5 years ago there was a new trend appearing with the rise of Free to Play and Facebook games; The Tutorial Quest. These quests were designed to merge the traditional tutorial into the start of the game by implementing interface learning through a simple quest structure. "Please accept a quest to click on this building". Wait, What? Who is asking this of me? Am I participating in the game world or interacting with the screen in front of me? Why are medieval societies asking me to click my mouse? Furthermore, why am I being rewarded handsomely for completing such a menial task? Are the citizens of this world so inept that they have to pay someone to let them know when to harvest their crops?

Ok, so I accept the quest. Who wouldn't? Such a simple task for a bag of gold. Awesome! But why am I doing this? Am I seeking adventure? Am I embarking on this though any volition of my own? No. It's purely about the reward. For tutorial replacements this is somewhat Ok because there really wasn't any intrinsic reward for completing the tutorial except the knowledge that you can play the game properly without getting frustrated, but a new trend is appearing (especially in Free to Plays) where these types of quests extend further and further into the game to the point where there is nothing BUT quests with no in-game meaning.

There was a debate recently on the Games Design Round Table regarding Intrinsic vs Extrinsic rewards. Throughout the podcast the scope of defining what is intrinsically fun kept changing, but to me it comes down to where you find the fun in each task. If the task is still fun when NO completion reward is offered, then the task is intrinsically fun. Ideally the game is made up of all intrinsically fun tasks bound together to make up an intrinsically fun game. The current quest designs of modern F2P games highlight that there is little to no intrinsic reward in the tasks themselves.

Rewards aside, there are also intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Why am I completing this task? What motivates me to even accept the task in the first place? Is it for the shiny bag of gold at the end, or are there tasks that I would do regardless of reward? Motivators become a little more grey because we often accept rewards for common real world boring tasks. Most people would class work as: Do something, get money, spend money for fun. The lucky few find work that they would gladly do for free, but manage to also find someone that would pay for the work to be done. Motivators are also different from person to person. Rushing out to risk your own character to save others may be taken differently by different people and their affinity to your character and to others in the game. The question of "Why?" can still reveal what is REALLY going on in quests.

Why do I need to level up my barracks? Hopefully I see the intrinsic usefulness of building up a larger army to achieve some other task, but some F2P games give such a reward for levelling up my building that the motivation becomes to .. spend the money levelling up my building even further? The motivation is to bounce from quest to quest, completing them for no other reason than the sake of completion. In the current batch of F2P games I'm catching myself doing this more and more.

So why do I do quests? Is "just because it's fun" enough? Why do I play games? Is "just beacuse it's fun" enough? 2 years ago I would have said Yes, but after the recent glut I'm thinking that maybe there was something else in older games that's missing now? I remember playing Railroad Tycoon and walking away with a deeper appreciation of the steepness of the Alps and where Innesbruck is. The fun certainly drew me to the game and kept me there for a long time, but I look back on that game more for its geography lessons than the endless hours I spent in front of the screen. The physics puzzles of Portal drew me to the game, but the end scene is my bigger takeaway. What will I look back on for the 50 hours put into Wartune? Don't get me wrong, I'm still enjoying Wartune at the moment, and it hasn't quite hit the F2P self-referential quest loop yet, but I can see it's coming.

Why do I play games? Mostly because I want to understand the underlying systems. It's a problem yet to be solved. I find intrinsic motivation by seeking out hints through the exposed quest structure as to how the game is put together. Hopefully it also highlights other aspects of understanding the world, but more recently I'm finding it is just a self-serving loop. I complete quests for the sake of completion, I play for the sake of playing. Is there more to games? I hope so. Give me more meaningful quests ...