Richard Cobbett writes about the wonderful world of story and writing in games.
What makes personal quests tricky to look back on is that they're simultaneously one of the best and worst things that ever happened to the genre. Without them, MMOs would be lesser experiences, and it's hard to imagine them being as successful. In their success though, they offered a template so easily copied and safely implemented that they largely killed the point of their genre. It's as if, say, Quake had taught the world to crave flashy 3D graphics, but in doing so decided to remove the guns in favour of a debate system where you talk the monsters out of their evil, and that rather than deathmatch had come to define what modern shooters are. Call of Reason: Advanced Diplomacy would be high in the charts. It would be madness.
World of Warcraft usually gets both the credit and the blame for the rise of personal quests, and that's probably fair on both counts. It wasn't the first to go down that road by any stretch, but it was the first to largely map out your progress throughout the entire world in an ordered way that jumped from NPC to NPC to NPC and rarely, at least until the later zones, leave you just killing monsters to level up in the way that earlier games like Everquest and Meridian 59 had often done. Pre-WoW MMOs did have quests and narrative content, but not to anything like the same degree. Asheron's Call 2 was one of the first to really plant its flag in that terrain in 2002, along with Dark Age of Camelot at around the same time. The smash success of World of Warcraft though established its method as the one that most future games would follow, with precious few daring to simply drop players in a world.
The advantage of personal quests is threefold. First, the player always has something to do. Second, the pacing and difficulty is kept under the designer's control. The problem though is the third, that progress is almost never stymied if there aren't any other players around. This more than anything is why they became such a crutch. If your game relies on, say, armies clashing but there aren't enough people online and up for doing that, the game dies. If progress is reliant on players teaming up, but they either won't or can't, the game dies. If your plan was to have a deep political system but the players just act like barbarians, the game dies. These aren't casual fears either. Ultima Online for instance was set in a world devoted to the Eight Virtues and marketed to an audience well trained to be heroes, only to turn into a Darwinian charnel house. A Tale In The Desert, a very clever game that's still running, charged players with creating a perfect Egypt only for them to immediately strip-mine it.
Personal quests were insurance. No matter what else happened in that world, there would be that strong through-line - NPCs, monsters, specific objectives. There would always be someone in need of twenty bear asses, and twenty bears with asses to spare. And so, over the years, the genre calcified around a few basic pillars - a Personal Quest that would take you through the game, dungeons and raiding where group content would be played, PvP stuffed somewhere around the edge, and maybe a couple more bits. The technology likewise improved, with World of Warcraft typically leading the pack in terms of cutscenes and phasing and scripted encounters that increasingly copied single-player RPGs. In the last couple of years, Warlords of Draenor and Final Fantasy XIV have done a particularly good job of making this cool.
The problem is that in focusing on the single-player experience like this, the multiplayer side is typically wasted. It's often impossible to play with friends if you want to, since your version of the world is different, you're completely locked into your level boundary, you can't share quests based on each person being at different stages or already having completed them, and even if you do team up, every NPC addresses you personally. Now, being an antisocial jerk like I am, I'm not too saddened by being treated like a hero, and I can blank out the fact that I am not really the Commander of the Horde any more than I am Earth's first Spectre or a mighty archmage. Still, it's hard not to feel sad that more ideas haven't been tried.
Well, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Quite often they have, but it's not just developers who will typically follow the path of least resistance in the name of success and keeping their jobs. Personal quests have taught players very bad habits, like eschewing most challenge in favour of just levelling up a bit and powering past it, and expecting an entire world to be presented to them on a carefully levelled out plate. Something I loved in the original World of Warcraft for instance was that early on you had things like the Level 10-20 Darkwood area right next to the super-dangerous Felwood for Levels 40-50 players. It felt more realistic that way; a brooding evil place right on the edge of safety. But now, you never see that any more because people complain about being killed. Or being asked to travel through dangerous territory to get back to safety. Where originally the progress was about blips of experience and levels, it's now as much quests completed. Anything that slows that process down is deemed a problem, not a challenge. Other players aren't potential comrades, they're assholes who steal your kills and call you noob for screwing up.
Easily the most tragic victim of this approach though has to be The Elder Scrolls Online from last year. You know that the cult of the personal quest has reached critical when it even infests a series predicated on freedom and exploration, its world being sliced up into levelled zones and being led by the nose, with just a little wandering around the side to remind you of what could have been. But there are other games too. DC Universe Online springs to mind, where yes, there's a PvP server mode, but a game that could have been built around really fun ways for heroes and villains to clash and compete just ended up with them casually following their own red string paths around the world and listening to pre-recorded mission logs. The Secret World too, as discussed here a couple of weeks ago.
Really, if that's going to be the focus, make a single-player game.
It's no wonder that over the past couple of years especially, the pendulum has swung away from MMOs and in favour of two genres in particular - the MOBA (please address all complaints about my using the word MOBA to someone who cares) that allows the fantasy trappings and team dynamic with far more depth, and sandbox games, be they friendly like Minecraft or brutal like Rust. Their focus on building, on community, on being part of something bigger was the original promise of the MMO genre, with its start coming from a combination of that and the magic of being able to share a world with so many people. Now, more or less any tiny company can shit an MMO out if they want to, and the generation they have to appeal to isn't impressed by such magic as 'online play'. MMOs have been left in the dirt, and a big reason for that is that they stuck with what worked, long after it became self-defeating. A few like Guild Wars 2 have tried pulling things back in the other direction, though only with limited success and little copying so far. Age of Conan had one of the strangest approaches, with a highly polished starter quest that then dumped players into a far more basic world with no idea what to do next, to which most decided that the correct answer was "uninstall this". Only Eve has really nailed the MMORPG sandbox, and even then its commercial success isn't universe shattering.
But does all that matter? After all, I said just in that paragraph that these other games exist. Well, yes, to an extent. See, I like a lot of the trappings that go with MMOs. I like the crafted worlds, I like the characters, I like the sense of story. I don't get that from most of the more freeform games, and I don't really care for the brutality of a lot of them. Sometimes, I want to be a super fucking wizard unleashing the fury of the elements on all who displease me, I want to get invested in a bigger story, and I want to feel part of a side even if the competition is tongue in cheek and completely baseless. "For the Horde!" and all that. That's something that, for now, you still need MMOs for. It just saddens me that it took a whole other genre to realise the potential, and now it's only really Everquest Next that seems to be flying their flag. Shroud of the Avatar too, perhaps, though it's too early to tell how it's going to be.
I can't complain too much, of course. I'm as guilty as any of just following personal stories and ignoring everything around, and without them, I doubt I'd have spent have as long in many of the MMOs I've played. Still, when I fire up a new MMO and am immediately thrown into a linear sequence of being told how to hit things with an axe so that a guy down the road can tell me what to do next, it's the wasted potential that most hits home. Story is great, but like everything, it's a tool. Used wrong, it can destroy an experience just as much as it can create one, especially when forced.