Side Quests: Interesting vs. Boring

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.

HighDragonDAII

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.

Another Argument for Mechanic Transparency: Dragon Age II Edition

Warning: Semi spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II.

 

Enemy waves are no new concept to video games.  They have been around for years and will probably remain for as long as they offer value to players.  While from my experience their existence can be a bit polarizing, it’s hard to discount them completely given the numerous amounts of players that like the challenge.  That being said, there are cases in which its execution is flawed at best.  One such instance that I wish to discuss today appears in Dragon Age II, where a lack of transparency makes the experience somewhat infuriating.

Before I delve into the brief discussion, let’s first define what I mean by waves of enemies.  In this case, I am talking about games that have their enemies appear in large groups or “waves.”  Regardless of whether the initial wave is visible at the start, enemies will continue to show up in a group at specified intervals.  These intervals can be dependent on time, amount of enemies left, or other factors, as long as a clear, identifiable separator between groups can be determined with observation.  The size of the groups is also irrelevant for the sake of this discussion; all that matters is the game’s enemy mechanics are based on several groups/waves of enemies showing up before full completion of a combat sequence (whether for a temporary sequence or the entire game).

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With that established, let us turn to Dragon Age II.  Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, where most of the combat has all enemies on the screen, Dragon Age II relies on waves of enemies to save on processing power amongst other things.  The various waves show up usually dependent on health and amount of enemies left on screen.  While in some cases the player can escape and get out of the combat sequence (though generally this requires a lot of stubbornness to achieve), in most cases the player is stuck in the combat sequence until all waves are defeated.

Of course, this sounds fairly standard for a “waves of enemies” mechanic, so at what point do I think the game went astray?  As I stated, this has a lot to do with a lack of transparency.  In a lot of games, when it implements waves of enemies, it will have information on the screen for the player.  Generally, this is information such as number of waves that the player will have to face, number of enemies the player has to defeat, or a combination of both.  In either case, these sorts of games make it clear to the player how long they will be fighting.  As such, the player can strategize appropriately.  Especially in games where inventory may be limited, this allows players to choose appropriate moments to use items, or to know when their best opportunity to prepare a trap is.  There are numerous instances where such information can be handy, and for players it makes the experience more satisfying.  Additionally, if a player fails, they know better at what point, and can appropriately adjust their strategy for the next try.  In the end, this results in a more fulfilling experience, since the game is delivering enough information to allow the players to apply their skills appropriately.

Unfortunately, Dragon Age II does not feature this simple information.  Rather, the player is left in a void of uncertainty on how many waves they will face.  While some can be guessed because of certain questlines having consistency, more often than not the player will have to have played the game before to know.  This makes good strategizing near impossible, sadly.  You could be struggling to save a mana potion, only to find out you were on the last wave and could’ve ended the fight quicker if you had taken it.  Another scenario: you went through most of your health potions, used the last one thinking you’re at the end, only to discover there are two more waves.  Numerous situations like this come about, all because the game chooses not to inform the player more clearly about what situations they will be facing.  While some would argue that this makes it so players have to be prepared, there is a point where preparation and strategy must work in conjunction.  Unfortunately, Dragon Age II’s transparency issue makes it so the preparation and strategy are not able to work together.

This lack of transparency results in one simple thing: the combat becomes tedious and somewhat unenjoyable.  The end goal is fairly undefined outside of kill everyone and don’t die.  By consequence, once the player wins there is almost of a sense of anti-climax, since there was no way to identify that would be the end point.  In similar fashion, when the player fails, they feel less like it was their fault; the game feels like it is unfairly throwing enemy after enemy at you, so it was more the fault of a badly designed game than the skill of the player.  Whether that is true or not, players who come away from combat feeling that will not be inspired to continue playing the game.  In the end, a lot of fun is ruined in Dragon Age II, simply from choosing not to be transparent about its game mechanics.

While I do like Dragon Age II just fine, I can identify its combat has this fairly noticeable flaw.  Though many others would point out the terrible, over-used level designs, I think the very nature of its combat exasperates that problem as well.  Had the developers chosen to be clearer about the enemies faced, whether it be by wave number, enemy number, or something else, the game may have had a more robust feeling combat that was skill based.  As it stands, though, the experience can be frustrating.

Overall, I hope this analysis serves as a cautionary tale to indie developers.  Even if the information seems minuscule, sometimes it is better to mention than not mention a piece of information, lest you wind up damaging the player’s experience by leaving out too much.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II promotional game screen.  Obtained from PC Gamer.