Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II and Kingdom Hearts.
Anyone who has played any sort of mission/quest based game is familiar with side quests. They’re those pesky optional quests that the player can choose to complete or not. Some are simple, such as delivering a package to the NPC in the next town. Some are challenging, like cave diving for a treasure. Then there’s also the invariably hard and cruel ones that have you defeat some optional boss that takes every ounce of your being to defeat. In either case, side quests come in a variety of flavors and vastly help to buffer the gameplay time.
However, not all side quests were created equal. In fact, some can be outright snore fests. Take, for instance, pretty much any optional quest in an MMORPG. In general, these fall into one of a few categories: kill a certain number of creatures, collect certain ingredients/items, or deliver something to an NPC. MMORPGs are very formulaic when it comes to this matter. While these side quests do earn you experience points (exp) and virtual money, they have little else to offer the player. They are, essentially, what makes a lot of MMORPGs grind-fests as it were. Single player games can often be guilty of the same thing, especially for the RPG genre in general.
That being said, it is quite possible to make interesting side quests. There are a variety of routes to go with this, but let’s examine three types of side quests that can actually be interesting. These are namely side quests that add to the story, side quests that offer worthwhile loot, and side quests that offer an enormous challenge to test the player’s skill. As a last note before we begin, for the purposes of this article we are defining side quests as any sort of optional task or fight that can be completed.
In regards to the first one, and personally my favorite, are the side quests that add to the story. To example this, let us examine Dragon Age II. Quests in this game are divided into several categories, namely “Main Plot,” “Secondary,” “Side Quests,” and “Companion.” Despite the titles, the latter three can all be considered side quests for our purposes, since no quest in them absolutely needs to be done. “Side Quests” in Dragon Age II offer the generic set of fetch quests, though they are useful for gold in Act 1 of the game. However, “Secondary” and “Companion” quests are more than that; rather, they are sequences that add to the story. For example, each party character has a personal story arc, such as Isabela’s attempts to find a relic she lost at the beginning of the game. At the end of Act 2 when tensions are hitting their climax, the player receives the option to do a personal quest for her to retrieve the relic. During this quest, the player learns that this so-called relic is the sacred Tome of Koslun, the entire cause for why the Qunari are in Kirkwall causing trouble. Whether or not the player does this quest largely influences the main quest. If the player chose to help Isabela and has a strong relationship with her, she will return with the tome, giving the player a different way to solve the main questline. If not, the player is stuck with only two real options, both which involve a difficult fight.
As you can see in this example, the side quest can vastly affect the outcome in the story. That being the case, the side quest becomes worthwhile, whether you do it or not in this case. Particularly for story heavy RPGs, any quest that can tie into the story, even it’s just about developing the player’s relationship with a character, can increase their emotional involvement in the story. This makes the game far more compelling to play, even to the point that sometimes you can overlook poorly implemented mechanics to continue the story. Thus, the quest is interesting, because it can have tangible effects and doesn’t just fade into memory.
Another sort of interesting side quest is one that has worthwhile loot. In this case, we will look again at Dragon Age II. During Act 3, the player has the option to slay a High Dragon. Though I wouldn’t personally say it’s the most difficult fight in the game, it is one that is a challenge and requires quite a bit of micro-managing to succeed. However, what makes this fight worthwhile to do is that the dragon drops one of the main components for the “Mantle of the Champion” armor set. Not only is this set extremely good as far as stats, but it’s also probably the most badass looking armor in the game. Frankly, I could not imagine completing the end game without wearing that armor. It would just feel too odd and make the end game even more difficult.
Regardless, it is the loot in this example that offers the interesting facet. In more boring side quests, though the player may get money or loot, it is generally not anything game changing. In this example, however, the game adds value to the player’s time spent doing the quest. The rewards, despite the pains in doing the battle, are worthwhile and give the player a greater edge during the last parts of the game. In that case, then, though the quest itself is straight-forward, the reward creates a side quest that is compelling for the player to complete.
Lastly, let us discuss the final type: side quests that offer the player a challenge for their skills. In this case, I’m going to switch series and look at something more classic. Namely, we’re going to examine the optional boss fight with Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts. For those not familiar with this fight, let me start off by saying the following: Sephiroth can one-shot you right at the start of the battle. This fact alone should give you a hint at how hard this boss fight is. Not only are Sephiroth’s attacks powerful, but his long sword gives him an immense range. Even if you spend the hours it takes to create the best Keyblade, the fight is still extremely difficult. One must have honed their skills and strategy in the game for several hours to even dream of taking Sephiroth on, and even then the fight would still be a challenge.
However, that is what makes that “quest” interesting. The difficulty of the battle is like nothing else offered in the game. It taxes the player’s time, skills, and reflexes and may even require training to complete. The consequence, though, is that being able to defeat Sephiroth offers a sense of pride that other fights do not. The player knows that it is because of their skill that they were able to beat this boss, so they can take satisfaction in that. In a sense, what makes this type of side quest compelling is the potential bragging rights. By doing this quest, you join a special club of people (metaphorically) who were actually able to complete it. All in all, it is these factors that make the optional quest captivating to complete, despite the huge spike in difficulty.
In summary, there are a variety of ways you can make a side quest interesting. Whether it’s by story, loot, or challenge, each of the mentioned examples above adds value to the player’s time. In a sense, these quests feel like they have purpose in the game, more than just making the player feel like the game is longer than it is. They offer compelling experiences that serve to immerse players more, rather than remind them that they are playing a game. Though fetch quests and other similar low maintenance side quests have their place, one must not forget these should not be the sole form of optional quests. Players are devoting their time to the game, so one should respect that time given. Though no simple task design wise to be sure, it is something I hope aspiring developers will consider when developing their games.
Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.
Kingdom Hearts is © Square Enix, Disney Interactive Studios, and all affiliated parties.
Image: Dragon Age II screenshot of the High Dragon. Obtained from the Dragon Age Wiki.