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Norman Barrows

creating good quests for games

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i'm currently working on the quest generators for my Caveman FPSRPG project.

 

I've spent a couple of days checking out the info available online about writing quests for games.

 

i'm not talking about the backstory for a quest.

 

about the only info i've found of use is that you should define a final goal and simply check for possible success and failure conditions and that's it.  the player should be able to meet the success or failure conditions by any means of their choosing which is supported by the game engine.

 

to provide more ways a player can complete a quest, goals should be stated in the most generic terms, as in "stop the wolves from attacking the flock" which includes possibilities like fences, running them off, finding them another food source, casting a sleep spell and relocating them, etc. vs "kill the wolves attacking the flock", which leaves zero player choice when it comes to ways to complete the quest successfully.

 

beyond that, the goal should probably be "epic" - making the quest an "adventure", as opposed to a trivial or mundane goal, which makes the quest a mere "task".

 

everything else seems to be related to writing backstory or "color text".  with nothing much on making quests with good gameplay as opposed to making quests with good backstory.

 

anyone have any other suggestions besides:

1. having just a generic final goal

and

2. making it an epic goal

 

?

Edited by Norman Barrows

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Quests are designed to motivate the player to do the gameplay your game already has, so if you have a list somewhere of gameplay types in your game, that's a good place to generate quests from.  Like if you can fish in the game, you can have a quest to catch X fish, or Y type of fish, or Z size of fish, or craft a pole/lure/bait...  It's also good to have the same quest type repeated at increasing levels of difficulty as the player's skill at playing the game improves.

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>> Quests are designed to motivate the player to do the gameplay your game already has

 

well, thats one possible use for quests, but i'm not sure its the best use of them. just cause a task is possible in a game doesn't make it a good candidate for an epic quest or adventure.   i can kill skeevers in sykrim, but anything less that kill 10,000 at once is not epic. ok, maybe 1000 at once <g>.

 

BTW, before i forget, i ran across this:

 

http://escholarship.org/uc/item/004129jn?query=The%20Grail%20Framework:#page-17

 

its the 2012 doctoral dissertation by Anne Margarete Sullivan of UC Santa Barbra Dept of Comp Sci: making stories playable on three levels in CRPGs.

 

i almost PM'd you the link last night.

 

in it she identifies stories in games at four levels: world backstory, main quest storyline, individual quest stroylines, and player level actions on a per encounter basis (what clever or un-clever things i did as the player during the encounter - IE my personal story created by my gameplay).

 

she developed two libraries plus tools, and two proof of concept games. 

 

she uses relations matrices to track trust, friendship, romance, and family bonds between PCs and NPCs.  relations are two way, what A thinks of B and what B thinks of A, rated on a 0-100 scale.

 

available dialog options are determined by relations, stats, active effects, and world state.

 

dialog responses are based on the same and affect relations, active effects, and world state.

 

available quests are based on relations, stats, active effects, and world state, and affect relations, active effects, and world state.

 

available plot point reveals are likewise based on relations, stats, active effects, and world state, and affect relations, active effects, and world state.

 

the proof of concept games have no combat, just dialog. 

 

an excellent "gossip engine", but the available quests are hard coded and on the order of "break up the relationship between violet and james", due to the game type. so no help as far as my search for the "epic" goes.

 

almost 250 pages, but a very good white paper. really good work along the lines of chris crawford. numerous citations to others in the industry with similar thoughts on the subject. 

 

another site with some insight:

 

http://www.whatgamesare.com/2011/02/video-game-writing-and-the-sense-of-story-writing.html

 

http://www.whatgamesare.com/

 
but again, nothing about "keppin' it epic".
 
taken together i think they are onto something. 
 
the early lesson in film was "show don't tell".  in games, it appears the early lesson is "play, don't show". i suspect that this concept combined with plot point reveals that let the player "discover" a story a bit at a time in an open world setting might be the way to go with "interactive story-playing" - hey i coined it first! <g>.
 
but that's really what we want - "interactive story-playing".
 
>> so if you have a list somewhere of gameplay types in your game, that's a good place to generate quests from
 
well i have 50 types so far, and only one is 100% non-combat. and this is Caveman we're talking about here - so of course you can do just about anything you could do in the real world. fish traps, musical bows, watching sunrises and sunsets, and snow related actions are some of the newest features added. and i finished cave paintings! still have to add custom user paintings though.   i'm discovering that customizing the look of your character even when it has no gameplay value, has strong appeal to players - even me! the hardest of the hard core min-max gamers! i'll carry around extra encumbrance and second rate armor in fallout new vegas just cause its cool looking. too bad i can never wear it - i die too quickly. but someday i'll be high level enough to shed the combat armor and don the sherrif duster and the outlaw hat (zero armor points!). 
 
>> Like if you can fish in the game, you can have a quest to catch X fish, or Y type of fish, or Z size of fish, or craft a pole/lure/bait..
 
but as James from Extra Credits says, that's a task, not a quest...
 
 
i just found the part 1 video, need to watch it.
 
 
>> It's also good to have the same quest type repeated at increasing levels of difficulty as the player's skill at playing the game improves.
 
for combat related quests, the number appearing scales with party strength (numbers and levels) , as does the amount of treasure, and the quality of "magic" items (high quality objects). so you automatically get "high level quests" when you're high level.
 
"build hut at ally's village" is the only non-combat quest so far. (yes - i added villages and wood palisade walls).  a quest was the easiest way to handle that part of the NPC interaction. but its not really a quest, just a task that results from a successful dialog. 
 
coming up with stuff to do in a game is easy. coming up with cool epic adventures to go on is somewhat more difficult.
 
i plan to revisit the seven basic plot types - of which "the quest" is just one.
 
a case in point: i just added a "defend caveman" quest. you must defend a NPC at a shelter from a raid by their enemies. success if all enemies dead, fail if NPC dies. fail if flee combat. now- how do you make that epic?  do you simply place them far away, so the journey itself become an adventure?  the farther it is, the less likely the player will be interested (more work).  if its farther, the prize must be greater.  do you add in some twists or setbacks along the way? remember - this is a quest gen, not a one shot disposable hard coded quest. it has to be generic and replayable.  or do you come up with some contrived BS of needing special item A to kill animal B? doesn't work well with a realistic stone age setting. you're limited to believable quests, similar to missions for a mil shooter - no magic, no space men, no hokey BS - you've got people and weapons and dialog interactions and that's it. "epic" is a bit more of a challenge when you can't have "fantastic".
Edited by Norman Barrows

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>> Quests are designed to motivate the player to do the gameplay your game already has

 

in the quest design 1 video, they seem to be saying the opposite. it can be used for that, but it should be used for more than that. but then again, James always was biased towards lore rich worlds that encourage exploration and interaction.

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you know, if you look at the quest example in the part 1 video - the one with the ring - its not really even a quest.

 

you're just dungeon exploring and find an item. one of those items that you just carry around until your figure out what its for. like the engraved lighter in fallout new vegas. you start with it, can't sell it, and i've got no idea what its for. don't think you can equip it or read the engraving. never tried to drop it.

 

so you carry this trinket around until you learn (IE stumble across) its purpose.  in the example, you then return the item to its rightful owner (the barkeep), who then gives you a big quest to "put the girl's soul to rest". 

 

and that brings up another flaw in quests. the "what games are" website covers it well. at this point, i assume the player is supposed to want to help the girl's soul find peace, cause of all the stuff that's come before.   books and film can cause you to empathize with a character as you helplessly watch as a captive audience as their fate unfolds. in games where the player has agency, unless you restrict that agency, you can't do that. its all about the hassle to benefit ratio for the player. you can't make a player care. a few might actually care, some minority will care simply cause they are trying to role play, the rest won't care - unless there's something in it for them - something worthwhile.

 

there are an amazing number of good insights in both the whatgamesare and the whitepaper links.  todd howard's thoughts cited in the white paper explain why bethesda's quests are the way they are.

 

i wish i had the money to hire them both - right now.  they actually seem to have a fricking clue - both of them.

 

an answer might be found in "the hobbit". it was pretty epic as i recall.

Edited by Norman Barrows

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"the hobbit" from wikipedia...

Plot:

Gandalf tricks Bilbo into hosting a party for Thorin and his band of dwarves, who sing of reclaiming the Lonely Mountain and its vast treasure from the dragon Smaug. When the music ends, Gandalf unveils a map showing a secret door into the Mountain and proposes that the dumbfounded Bilbo serve as the expedition's "burglar". The dwarves ridicule the idea, but Bilbo, indignant, joins despite himself.

 

and there it is: the epic challenge, the great reward, and the throwing down the of the gauntlet (the challenge to bilbo to take on the quest).

 

so how did we get from Smaug and vast treasure in 1937, to 10 skeever hides for 10 GP in 2016? are we de-evolving as a species here?     never mind that - sometimes i think we are <g>.

 

but really, Smaug to skeevers, this is just - sad.

 

and you can get the player to care about NPCs. at the end of the hobbit the leader of the dwarves dies as i recall. losing a long term useful follower like that would touch the player emotionally, at least a bit.  even relatively useless ones like martin an the rest you can "collect" in oblivion by not finishing their quests. when they are gone, you miss them simply cause they've been around for so long - despite sometimes (or often) annoying you.

 

i think the answer may be that quests must be "non-trivial".

 

perhaps the blanket term "quests" is not appropriate.   it should probably be more like "jobs" for mundane tasks, and "quests" for epic challenges.

 

by those definitions, many current games would have few or no quests, but many jobs.

 

taking on benny single handed at low level in fallout new vegas would probably qualify as a true quest. but all the "quests" leading up to it are just "jobs".

Edited by Norman Barrows

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i decided i needed to think about this for a bit, so i did what i always do when i have to think about something - i played a bethesda game <g>. i find its just the right level of distraction to let you mull things over on the back burner.

 

so i didn't even get as far as new vegas not being able to load my last savegame, and i realized, its not the challenge, its the reward.

 

in the hobbit, they're not going to kill Smaug, they're going after the treasure.

 

Jason isn't trying to fight fire breathing bulls and take on a dragon and all the rest of the stuff he has to do, he's just after the golden fleece.

 

Odysseus  isn't trying to explore the world, take on sirens and cyclopses, etc - he's just trying to make his way home.

 

in the lord of the rings trilogy, frodo's reward is the lack of a very negative outcome: the death or enslavement of himself, all his family and friends, the entire shire - indeed, all of middle earth, no less. with a failure penalty like that, its easy to see why reluctantly he decides to "pick up the gun" - "I will take the ring - though i know not the way."

 

http://www.whatgamesare.com/pick-up-the-gun.html

 

Jack Palance in the "Pick up the gun" scene from the movie "Shane" 1953:

 

 

note that it doesn't go down as everyone says it does. this line is not from this movie. a quick google indicates its not from any movie, and the scene is part of the monologue of a well known comedian. but it does sound familiar - i might have seen it in some movie. clint eastwood or john wayne most likely, perhaps garry cooper or henry fonda. can anybody place it?

 

so it would seem that a big penalty for failure - and the ability to avoid it - can also work in addition to a big reward for success.

 

so it would seem that the reward (or penalty avoided) must be substantial (IE epic).

 

10GP just don't cut it. that's not a reward - that's an insult.  pull that BS on me in new vegas and i like your gun, and you'd be dead right now. if i didn't like your gun, i wouldn't waste the ammo.

 

to keep it interesting and an epic adventure, it seems you would have to ensure somehow that enough things of interest occur in the pursuit of the prize. these could be contrived, or you might just make the prize so distant (in distance, level requirements, money, relations, etc) that they are guaranteed to find plenty of action along the way.

 

that's all i've come up with so far.

 

time to play some more new vegas and think about it a bit more.

 

PS anyone know what the engraved lighter does? <g>.

Edited by Norman Barrows

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"is this worthy of superman?" might be a good test.   you wouldn't call superman to keep the wolves away from your flock - all you need is a sheep dog.

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Seems to me the quest in New Vegas is more about setting the politics of a region for years to come. That's what the little closing scenes at the end of the game are supposed to convey. Pretty much everything else you do is some sort of task on the way to fulfilling that quest with the exception of dealing or not dealing with Benny which is more a personal matter.

 

Affecting political influence over a region certainly sounds like the sort of grand thing that you're after. How you would achieve that in your game beyond establishing a handful of alliances, I don't know. The player can go out and get two, three, ten or a hundred alliances and without conveying some sense of what that means, it's just another statistic in a list of game achievements. If you stop and tell the player that he's formed the basis of a powerful tribal nation that would last for generations, that's great. But now what? Having the player go on to lead that nation is a completely different game and continuing to play as you have up until this time is going to feel hollow.

 

Other similar levels of "quests" I think suffer from the same problem. Discovering some kind of technology or idea, amassing some amount of wealth or happiness. Once you have these things, what do you do then? But maybe looking at "what then" isn't the point. Maybe it's about the journey to get to those final destinations. So then I suppose it's more of what sort of tasks could you then lay before the player to choose or ignore to ultimately arrive at one of the more grand ends?

 

(edit)

I don't remember what I did with the lighter but after googling it, it appears you can show it to somebody at the casino to show that Benny doesn't have their best interests. What that gets you, I don't know.

Edited by kseh

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>> Seems to me the quest in New Vegas is more about setting the politics of a region for years to come. That's what the little closing scenes at the end of the game are supposed to convey.

 

my super good "courier girl" character got as far as the battle for the dam (working for house - who STILL hasn't paid her), only to discover you need 100 lock pick to flip the last switch! and you can't leave the battlefield! none of my other three characters has gotten that far because:

 

"Pretty much everything else you do is some sort of task on the way to fulfilling that quest with the exception of dealing or not dealing with Benny which is more a personal matter."

 

tasks - not quests.  most don't even pay caps as a reward - just incidental loot on the way.

 

and just whats supposed to be my vested interest in the politics of new vegas in the future?  how does that enhance my gameplay capabilities ? what makes bethesda assume me (or anyone) would give a damn about that?

 

from what i've seen almost all the factions are some sort of scum. one of my characters decided to start their own faction: the New Vegas Liberation Army (NVLA) - or do you think NVLF (new vegas liberation front) sounds better? anyway, the NVLA (or NVLF) believes in "new vegas for new vegans!" (as in skyrim is for the nords!). so they fight for the folks who haven't been overrun by the NCR yet, and the folks living under the rule of gangs like the kings. pretty much every faction is the enemy. it kinda sucks when BOTH caesar and the NCR are sending hit squads at you. 

 

>> Affecting political influence over a region certainly sounds like the sort of grand thing that you're after.

 

the first lesson in games is "play - don't tell". a quest reward of telling you that you affected the political influence is no reward at all. if the game doesn't end right there (i don't know if it does or not, never finished main quest line yet), you're left with whats left of the game world, and those you decided to let live. so your reward is there are no more badguys? how does that enhance my gameplay?

 

>> The player can go out and get two, three, ten or a hundred alliances and without conveying some sense of what that means, it's just another statistic in a list of game achievements

 

i don't believe in "achievements" with no gameplay value - except as add on chrome/bling. in Caveman you can form alliances with other bands, call on your allies for aid in a raid, invite them to join your village, and give them gifts. they may also call on you for aid, invite you to join their village, or give you gifts.

 

>>  If you stop and tell the player that he's formed the basis of a powerful tribal nation that would last for generations, that's great. But now what? Having the player go on to lead that nation is a completely different game and continuing to play as you have up until this time is going to feel hollow. Other similar levels of "quests" I think suffer from the same problem. Discovering some kind of technology or idea, amassing some amount of wealth or happiness. Once you have these things, what do you do then?

 

thinking about it further, that's the next thing i came to: a big reward might be monty haul. so the reward must be epic, but not monty haul. if its monty haul they become too powerful and ruin game balance.

 

>> Maybe it's about the journey to get to those final destinations.

 

overcoming challenges encountered in the course of pursing the final goal is where the gameplay fun is. and a valuable and useful reward that aids future play should be the payoff for success. its all about enhanced play - not something like unlocking cut scenes. if you want to do that, just go watch a movie, even the worst movies tend to better than the best games in that respect. cause thats how they are meant to be used. "pictures are for looking - at games are for playing".  and "pictures are for looking at - cars are for driving".

 

>> So then I suppose it's more of what sort of tasks could you then lay before the player to choose or ignore to ultimately arrive at one of the more grand ends?

 

it seems its all about the reward, not the challenge. its the reward that motivates, unless they do it just for bragging rights, which is nothing but a hollow "achievement". the challenge alone would only motivate if you were not sufficiently challenged, and thus you were already somewhat bored with the game. in the end, odds are both the challenge and the reward motivate the player to "pick up the gun" - which seems to come from the john wayne wetern "el dorado" (1966).

 

both challenge and reward should be "epic". the reward should be large but not monty haul. player level determines whats monty haul, which determines the max reward. the reward determines the final goal difficulty. or you can start with a goal (like most folks do - but it must be epic), and make the reward appropriate, but not monty haul. if an appropriate award is just too monty haul, then the quest goal is simply too epic for the game. IE the game isn't big enough to handle an appropriate reward without screwing up game balance.

 

the challenges encountered in the course of pursuing the goal should be appropriate for the reward, so the reward (which is based on player level) should determine the difficulty of the challenges. 

 

challenges should occur frequently enough that the payer doesn't get bored. this would seem to call for periodic random encounter/event checks, or a number of spawn points/event triggers.

 

challenges should have sufficient variety to not become repetitive. "kill X number of monster type Y" is repetitive unless ((X<=4) && (Y==ONE_BADASS_MO)).   <g>.

 

in a nutshell it seems that:

level determines whats monty haul.

whats monty haul determines max reward.

max reward determines goal difficulty.

goal difficulty determines goal type (kill dragon vs kill skeever).

level / reward / goal determines difficulty of any challenges.

challenges should be varied and frequent enough to avoid repetition and boredom while pursing the goal.

 

>> I don't remember what I did with the lighter but after googling it, it appears you can show it to somebody at the casino to show that Benny doesn't have their best interests. What that gets you, I don't know.

 

as i recall, you can go the stealth route and sneak up to the 13th floor to confront benny. i'll bet the lighter is used to convince the bodyguard.

 

never tried the stealth route myself. just thought of a new challenge though, at how low a level can you get into the tops casino and kill benny, the bodyguards and all the chairmen? you have to get to the strip, have 2000 caps in your pocket, and be loaded for bear. i think the lowest level i've pulled it off at was about 7th level so far, out four characters so far

 

i checked my inventory and the lighter is gone. i guess you can sell it once you cap benny.

.

Edited by Norman Barrows

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