By Ian Adams, Age 32
Hello again, folks, this is Ian Adams, Content Designer and Writer on Moonrise. I’ve already introduced myself in a previous article, so today I’ll just give you a fun fact: I can say “toy boat” ten or more times in a row, quickly. I can do any other tongue twister as well, but that’s the one I’m proudest of. I challenge all of you to do it even four times. If you can, maybe Sanya will give you a prize. I don’t know, I didn’t ask her about this.*
When discussing story, we’ve mentioned “quests” off-handedly a few times, but we haven’t really gone into detail on what that means. By the time this article is over, we will no longer live in a universe where that is true. We’ll talk about quests, what they have to do with story, how we make them, what our goals are and other things that I’m going to leave out of this list. To find out what they are, keep reading!
Before we jump into the specifics of quests, let’s ask the kind of question Game Designers have to remember to ask themselves: why do we even want quests? I mean, we could have told our story with dialog outside of quests, if we’d wanted. We could have just had an open world that you played around in, slowly gaining strength. We could have gated plot reveals by player level, or number of battles fought, or any number of other things. So why quests?
First, the dirtiest, most mercenary reason: games (and players) generally benefit from having a list of stuff to do. Having a sense of direction, of what needs to get done next, gives players focus and motivation, and helps create momentum. Even games that SEEM super open, like SimCity or Minecraft, have implicit early goals (build roads/power/zoning, craft tools and find a safe place to spend the night, respectively). A good quest system functions as an engine to move players through various gameplay loops, making sure they’ve been exposed to the breadth of what the game has to offer, and hopefully ensuring varied and engaging play.
Quests are also an incredibly great fit for delivering story. You can have story explain why you need to do something, then have story explain what the results were. Instead of the story telling you a boss is powerful, we can give you a quest to defeat him. When the story wants you to feel powerful, we can give you a rematch with a fight that was challenging 15 levels ago. Quests and story can exist separately, but together they become definitely more than the sum of their parts.
Tying quests so tightly to story is a double-edged sword though. Designers often talk about their player’s “verbs”, the list of stuff you can ACTUALLY do in the game. If we want to tell a story that ends with you racing dramatically back to the Gateway Guildhall, well, the verbs for that are to tap on the map icon, tap Gateway, tap confirm, then tap on the Guildhall. Do it in twenty seconds, or two days, it completes the quest. Not really the best use of your time. Similarly, we have to avoid the ending where you sabotage the giant doomsday bomb, unless we want to make a 3D model of that bomb for one fight, then figure out what the combat looks like. (Do we treat the bomb like an enemy Warden?)
We’ve got verbs like “buy a relic from the store” or “equip a piece of defensive gear”, and those can work in quests here and there, but they’re definitely not as dramatic as, say, “finish the Haunted Mines** dungeon” or even “evolve your Emberjaw”. Functionally, this means we need to find good ways to write a wide variety of stories that generally have the climax of “the player fights someone.” Lots of good stories end with someone fighting someone else, so this isn’t incredibly difficult, but it’s really important to keep in mind.
So, we’ve decided we want quests, we’re excited to tie them into our story, and we have our eyes open in terms of how our quest system is going to impact the kinds of stories we can tell. Well, now we have a bunch of other decisions, which I’ll illustrate as binaries, even though that’s an oversimplification:
- Linear vs. Branching
- Optional vs. Compulsory
- Locks or restricts content vs. Content always accessible
- Repeatable vs. Single-Use
- Random vs. Crafted
- Foregrounded vs. Backgrounded
- Complex vs. Simple
- General Goals vs. Specific Goals
- Automatic vs. Optional
Essentially, what kind of quest system do we want? In the case of Moonrise, our guiding pillars were a desire to tell an interesting story with a nod to classic JRPG feel, to make the game world feel big and alive, and to make sure it felt good on a phone or tablet. In what is very unlikely to be a shocking twist, we resolved most of the choices above with “something in the middle.”
Our quests fall into two categories (there’s a third category but it’s a secret) Story and Side.
Story quests are where we work our hardest to introduce mechanics, reinforce techniques, explain strategy, and exhibit the different things we think are fun to do in Moonrise. They start when you finish the opening combat tutorial, and they stop when you’ve completed the very last one of them. Then we’ll do a story update, and you’ll get a new story quest, and the cycle will continue, until the end of humankind. Even so, our story quests aren’t strictly linear. You’ll regularly branch into two (or more) threads of story quest, which the player can take on in their preferred order. However, these branches always converge at some point, and the story proceeds from there.
However, story quests are inherently limited in how difficult or time-consuming they can be. A frustrating story quest blocks access to ALL future story quests, so it’s not the place for a two-month-long hunt to catch the rare version of the boss enemy that only shows up 1/2000 times at the bottom of a dungeon.
That’s what side quests are for.
Side quests are our “everything else” category. Anything that isn’t part of the main story thread goes into this bucket. Side quests let us play with the world, expand the background on our characters and regions, and make it something you decide to do, rather than something you have to do in order to get to the next town and start recruiting new Solari.
We also use side quests as the place we can ask you to do something a little more hardcore. The quest isn’t necessarily blocking anything (and certainly not blocking everything), so it’s a good way to give those looking for a little extra challenge something special to work toward.
Unlike story quests, side quests don’t just start automatically. You find side quests by checking out the building no one told you to look in, or by returning to a previous area and poking around, only to discover an old NPC needs your help. Once you stumble upon a side quest, it gets added to your quest log. Some are one-offs, some have a small chain, but none block progress.
Anatomy of a Quest
Both story quests and side quests are similar in structure. You get some dialog up front discussing the reason for the quest, then you get your objective(s). Upon completion of the objective(s), you see wrap-up dialog text, and any new quests that you’ve triggered start up. We generally keep the number of objectives per quest to 1 or 2, in no small part because we’re on mobile. We know full well that people will be 60% of the way through something, and their bus will come, the commercial will end, or their boss will show up. We made a game that plays beautifully if you sit down and play it for an extended period, but we have to accommodate the reality that working well on mobile means breaking your epic adventure into bite-sized chunks.
While working on Moonrise, I’ve also occasionally pitched ideas for Other Projects, which would have quest systems of their own. It’s been really edifying to see how, with similar goals overall, this other system looks utterly and completely different from what we’re doing in Moonrise. If it sounds strange that I’m happy we’re building wildly different systems, understand that what it means to me is that we’re creating the right system each time, customized to the game and experience at hand. One of the single most important things a designer can do is not take things for granted. Don’t just build a quest system that looks like some other quest system because it worked pretty well in that game. Build the system you need for the experience you want to create.
* Sanya here: I totally will…put all the people who do it into a drawing for one of you to win some Moonrise swag. Post a video/Vine/YouTube to our Toy Boat contest thread of you saying “Hello, Undead Labs! Hello, Moonrise! TOY BOAT TOY BOAT TOY BOAT TOY BOAT.” I’ll pick a winner on 12/12.
** Ian again: As of this writing, I have not been able to get a haunted anything into the game. I’ll keep you guys posted.