Thursday, October 22, 2009

Questing for Immersiveness in MMOs

Sometimes when the light dawns it hits you like a ton of bricks.

Mike Schramm at wrote two posts recently (
here and here) noting with approval the trend in MMOs to de-emphasize text, particularly quest text, in favor of a more visual model. The ultimate source of inspiration for these posts appears to be an interview with Warcraft creative lead designer Alex Afrasiabi where he repeatedly denigrates the importance of the "the story" to Warcraft. While I have a more fundamental disagreement with Alex that I'll save for another time, I want to focus today on the implication in Mike's post that the purpose of questing is to immerse players into the story.

Damn, that hurt.

Seeking Immersiveness

It never occurred to me before that the purpose of questing in a video game is to immersive players into a story. It's strange to me that anyone would ever think that having the text scroll across the sc r e an l i ke th is c o ul d create an immersive experience. Presumably some developer made it the default in an attempt to give quests that "olde" aura. Yet the reality is that slow speed text is irritating. The first time I ever used the escape key was to find a way (I hoped) to speed up the scrolling. It's a good thing the instant quest text feature was there because otherwise I might not have made it past the trial account.

If Warcraft designers think that quests should create an immersive story they have bigger problems on their hands than just slow scrolling text. The word immerse means to plunge into, to dunk, or figuratively to be absorbed by. There is nothing in the game play design of Warcraft that makes the story absorbing. There's nothing that makes it
flow. Warcraft seems designed to break up flow, to force us to experience the story in bits and chucks, in pulses. Go out at night and stand in front of your car and have your partner repeatedly flick the headlight on and off. That's not immersive; it's irritating. Sometimes irritating can be another word for attention getting but attention getting is not absorbing. Attention has to be held continuously for absorption to occur.

If we define immersion as the state of flow, the state of absorbed attention, then it should be obvious that the enemy of this desired state is interruption. Yet the game play design constantly interrupts one's attention on the story.
The failure of questing to absorb me into the story has nothing to do with the way "the story" is written or the fact that it's text based.

Breaking up is easy to do

First, the nature of questing itself is disruptive to the story. When you take a story and chop it into a 4500 bits, throw those bits to the four winds where they are picked up by it hundreds of different NPCs, and then ask your average person to recreate that story in their own head over the course of months or even years you are simply asking too much. I can't do it; I'm confused; I don't get it. It's no wonder that people want the quest text out of the way as fast as possible. You have given the average user an impossible task and so they brush on by it. And I'm only speaking about intellectual comprehension. If the story is so disjointed and chopped up that people can't understand it, why would anyone expect people to be absorbed by it.

Here is a challenge for Alex and Mike. Take the novel
War and Peace and rip every single page out. Throw those pages off the roof of the Blizzard headquarters. Collect them all and read one page every day in the order they were collected. If you find the story (notice I did not say the task) immersive after one week, you too can be a Warcraft game play designer.

Second, consider all the interruptions to the story from a purely mechanical point of view. One of the biggest disruptions to game play is inventory management. I'm supposed to kill ten rats to help save Stormwind from the plague yet five minutes later I'm not back in Stormwind to report to the quest giver that the rats are dead; I'm back in town because I need to dump all the garbage that I collected because my bags are full. Then there is the whole issue of leveling professions, trading on the auction house and dealing with a character's talents and abilities. Yes, I grasp the technological reasons for limited bag space. I get the fact that much of the trash that we pick up is designed to heighten the realism of the game world and give us a monetary start in life. But with all these distractions and interruptions it's no wonder that some people get their story by reading the paperback novels.

Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. [ACHIEVEMENT]

Seriously, how many people curl up by the fireside with their favorite book and read the same scene over and over again for hours at a time. Yet that is what we do with dailies; that's what we do with heroics. Such behavior might absorb us into the game but it's the antithesis of what it takes to make a gripping story.

The Point of this Story

The point I want to get at here is that it bewilders me why anyone would think that the point of quests is to immerse players in the story. I've always seen questing--as I've seen killing mobs, playing the auction house, running instances--as tools to absorb me into a fantasy, an alternative world. It's the game itself that holds my attention. I think that placing the burden for story cohesion and player absorption is asking too much from the questing mechanic as a function of game play design. Questing is a lousy way to tell a story.

In saying that I don't mean to suggest that the story, the lore that serves the basis for the game, doesn't matter. I think the story matters a great deal. I think the
written story matters most; that's my fundamental disagreement with Alex that I hope to get to in another post. But when the creative talent makes the lore inaccessible in the game it's two faced to claim that the players don't care about the story. The game design itself discourages us from caring. When Alex tells his new talent "nobody cares about the story" it's a vivid example of blaming the victim.


Kromus said...

Have to admit - I rarely read the quest text.

As I've mentioned in some of the earlier posts, I love raiding for the story, but I don't take to quests much.

Thus this would support the visual representation of the story theory over text. Thats how I roll! I would scream if that insta-quest text feature wasn't there. No really,- it would be a arguement to quit the game.

Great post, story does get broken up a lot, and sometimes depending were you go depends on how awesome the story is- which means you can lose a lot of lore by sticking to what you know best.

Klepsacovic said...

Frodo had pretty much one long quest chain with what, a dozen individual quests at most? If he was in WoW he'd had done thousands of quests: "Defend the ring from Boromir" - "Run away from orcs" - "Take a boat across the river" - "Walk really far."

WoW should restructure questing to have it dominated by chains. 95% of quests would be in chains of at least 20 quests. This would make much more of the world a linear, cohesive story instead of the random tasks we have right now.

RatherNotSay said...

This was a good article. I see both sides of this debate and believe that my own opinion lies somewhere in the middle.

I too have the instant text turned on just because I read faster than it scrolls on the screen and also because the majority of time spent playing is on PVP servers. Trust me nothing like trying to read a long quest line in Tarren Mill or Stanglethorn Vale. At any rate, back to point. I think the designers should put quality story lines in the game and leave it up to the player as to how they want to experience the game.

I would wager a lot of players are newer to the series of Warcraft and have not spent time reading the books or completing the Vanilla content story lines. In reality most players race to the level cap to raid. Which defeats the purpose of the story. Why in the world do we care if we kill Onyxia then? Or who really cares about what happened 10,000 years ago with Illidin and Malfurion? We just want to kill the baddies for the loot right?

In the end it is up to us, the player, to decide how we want to experience the game and whether we will immerse ourselves in the story or just see how many badies we can kill.

Ben said...

WoW Lore isn't really the best if you're hoping for a good story. But there are some decent moments, like discovering Thassarian's personality through the quests he gives. I like going back to reread quest texts on occasion, especially if it deals with instance lore, to get a good feel of the design process and themes.

I'm one of the many people that skip quest text when I experience them first time on the way to the level cap. That doesn't mean that it should be dismissed and be left unpolished.

Anonymous said...

The example you give (the torn pages of the book) is, at the same time, a gross exaggeration AND a perfect example: exaggeration because pages usually do not even end in any logical manner, chapters do; pages might literally finish in the middle of a word. Therefore, asking anyone to actually read a book like that proves nothing, since no one would under any circumstances read a book like that with any benefit (except maybe for testing of some kind, or experiments). But on the other hand, book reading, especially books like War and Peace, happens pretty similar to questing: in portions. Would you sit down and read the whole of War and Peace in one sitting? I dare you :)

Since I studied theory of literature, I read it a few times, and never spent less than 5 days on it. And always made quite a few break of time when I was not reading it. Did the breaks somehow interfere with understanding or enjoyment? I would think not, since the breaks serve not only a "physical" purpose of resting, but also collecting what was read into a more irrational, over-view type of whole which allows forming emotional responses and very specific intellectual and emotional reactions you form towards the characters or the story of the book.

And that is exactly what I think developers are talking about when they talk about a "story" in WoW: they are not gonna quiz you about the exact name of Thorim's proto-drake ride (although it is there for those that love the specifics of the lore) or the exact time line of events of how Arthas became the Lich King (again, it is there if you want to know about it). But the details that 99% of players forget in terms of not being able to for example, remember them when asked, do contribute to that overall, general feeling, your emotional response to Arthas and build up to actually facing him.

So, yeah, the quests break up the story in a strict plot sense of the word, but they do not interfere not forbid the emotional attachments, if you are inclined to make them in the first place.

One other thing: without that obscurity/discontinuity/etc of stories, and their sheer number in WoW (just count the major characters and it is already a book much larger than War and Peace), the "collateral" worlds of official books, fanfiction, WoWwiki, and other available resources would not exist or would be less entertaining and themselves immense :)

ps: if I remember correctly, the instant quest text was not even available 'officially' in the very beginning/game release, you had to have an addon for it ^^

& thanks for a thought provoking post :) wickedgirl@arathor(EU)

Lance said...

Imagine if there were no `story' related quests at all? Just dailies and grind. That would not immerse anyone to anything apart from a mindless grind. Nonetheless...

Wow lore and the story we are immersed to (or at least attempt to be immersed) is not indefinite. In fact its rather small. In a patch cycle which lasts a good few months an army ventures a caste (for example) and slays a boss, within a few hours. An individual kills an old enemy and returns the proof to his faction leader... within a few minutes.

Its virtually impossible for the developers to provide the flow you mention. Simply because the shared virtual environment of WoW is real-time. But the story can't be. Well, it could but it would be superficial and... well, crap. After all their revenue comes from how log you play, not how good their story is. Of course these are correlated but... we are present in-game much more frequently than we actually push the story further.

Moreover, immersion (or more appropriately the sense of presence is not solely dependant on quests. What we often disregard is the synergy of various in-game mechanisms that as a whole affect our sense of presence. Graphics, fps, connection quality, gui mechanics etc.

Inevitably, we are not immersed in an Azerothian world full of turmoil, knights, orcs and undead... but at a very specific shared virtual environment with its on visual appearance, social norms, speed, time-frame and dimension.

Very interesting post, indeed! On a more serious note on immersion/presence check these if you are interested :-p

J. Prothero, H.G. Hoffman, D.E. Parker, M.Wells,
and T.A. Furness. Foreground/background manipulations
affect presence. In Proceedings of Human
Factors and Ergonomics Society (HFES’95),
pages 1410–1414, 1995.

T. B. Sheridan. Musings on telepresence and virtual
environments. Presence: Teleoperators and
Virtual Environments, 1(1):120–126, 1992.

Stabs said...

The quest-delivered story is a historical thing.

When you had single player games it was not uncommon to expect players to read the text. In games like Baldur's Gate you had to pick an option and it had fundamental gameplay effects (like turning you evil and causing town guards to attack you).

As Computer RPGs moved into virtual worlds they kept much of the same baggage.

Daily quests were introduced in response to a flood of player complaints that they couldn't keep up with the gold requirements of end game play, especially when not specced or geared for dps/grinding. They have story simply because they use the quest model that pre-existed.

Developers are slowly moving away from telling story in this way as you mention but it takes time for this to happen.

Interestingly Bioware's upcoming MMO plans to emphasise story much more than games like WoW. They've gone to the fairly extreme step of making the entire game fully voiced.

The future shape of the genre is very likely to be shaped by the success or not of that game. If they flop then story will recede as a design concern.

I noticed personally that I'm actually very fond of good story and good quest text. It surprised me - I thought of myself as a quest text skipper until I tried two fairly badly localised Eastern MMOs and found them completely unplayable without good text.

I do think that if SWTOR does a good job (and doesn't bomb for unrelated reasons) that story will be here to stay.

Ruhtra said...

I actually am somewhat of an oddball. The first time through with leveling Ruhtra, I read every quest line that came up.

However, I did this because I was a completely new player and I had to study the text of the quest in order to find what I was after. This was back prior to quest helper and the nice glowing effects that Blizzard added to quest items that you were supposed to search for.

It is a habit that has stuck with me to this day. Often times I ignore my quest helper and read the quest first. I also do like the stories behind the quest. I realized that when I raced through BC I missed so much wonderful storyline and then I just sat for a year and a half grinding dailies, running heroics, and trying to get in raids. So I made it a point that after that to always slow down and enjoy the game.

Larísa said...

This post nails why I find it so hard to be immersed into the story by questing. I need to read the novel outside of the game, the single-teared-out pages don't make it for me.
I can get immersed into the landscape - sinking into Winterspring as I'm grinding for my mount - I can get immersed into raiding - it takes my entire focus and I forget about everything outside of it. But I just fail to get spellbound by the story told through questing.

Ooke said...

the quests are not in the text, it's in the doing.

I actually like the story being told through the quests in Northrend. It's like a puzzle and I actually like it more the second time through. Stuff like Yogg wispering to you in Howling Fjord and the slaves jumping to their death in Icecrown. From all the comuniques Loken does to his "followers" to his capture and triumph over his brother Thorim. From stupid pirates waking up the funny sea Vrykul to them slaughtering the funny Walrus People north of the Tournament. They're all facets of the story from start to finish. It's one long story that starts in the south and moves north (sorta).

Where it fails is in that questing and dungeon delving is non-linear. You don't have to quest in the game and in some cases you can do them backwards. I'm looking at you mr Drakuru.

The phasing technology does immerse me in the game more but only if I'm alone, when in group or trying to help people in a different part that immersion can be shattered quite easily. "What do you mean you can't see the mobs that are ripping me to shreds?"

I primarily quest to get the story and I genuinely like doing it (unless it's something overly stupid like kill 200 x mob for a small chance at y drop).

So maybe I have the opposite view of it, I donno.

Elnia said...

@wickedgirl. You're right that most people don't read War and Peace in one setting yet it is also true that you don't read it in 4500 sittings either. Now, some people may do hundreds of quests at a time and therefore their experience of the story is more akin to reading a chapter at a time. But I don't think that represents the way most people interact with questing.

@lance. Your point about synergy is exactly the point I'm making in my conclusion. It's not the story that matters it's the world that does. People are paying for a world not a story.

@stabs. Indeed. It should be interesting.

@ooke. But without the story would the doing have any meaning?

Frijona said...

You've really got something here. There might be an interesting quest-line, but somehow it gets filled with other crap. Like someone needs animal hides, or some enemies killed, or a bunch of trees chopped or poop dug through. If I was to take all the quests and determine the story behind WoW it's that Azeroth is filled with a bunch of lazy denizens who need all their work done for them.

I'd like to be able to finish a quest chain before starting another without having that completely ruin my XP gain rate. I think phasing will help that somewhat.

Mike Schramm said...

Quests are really the only story that MMOs have, though, otherwise it really is just "Kill 10 boars and come back here." Agreed, most people just stick with the "kill 10 boars" and don't immerse themselves in the quests, but with a quest you can go from that to "My family has been on hard times lately -- Dad lost his leg in a hunting accident last week, and since then we haven't had any food at all. There are some deadly boars over the hill, but I wouldn't dare to go over there... perhaps, you, hero, could go and get us some meat for the long winter ahead?"

I agree that quests aren't very immersive. But in terms of putting a story frame around all of the killing, and the AH, and the instance-running you're doing, quests are pretty much all we've got. Otherwise we're just out there killing and selling for no reason.

Zernam said...

Lately a blue post noted they wanted people to go easy on reading sites that do data mining and might spoil what's in store for ICC because they have put thousands of hours into creating an Epic conclusion to the WotLK story. I hope it delivers, because in WotLK I can think of 2 quest lines that made me feel like I wasn't quest/grinding to level.

Dragonblight [Wrathgate] - Totally rocked - I had completed this Horde side and had a 70 Alliance and completed it there just to see the Alliance side of the zone... was good but not as much as the Horde side.

Icecrown - Forgive me I don't recall the quest name but it involved attempting to cure a hero from the scourge disease - trying to get help from npc's culminating with A'dal. Simple little run around questline I'll never forget.

I enjoy that stuff - I think it elevates the game and to suggest it doesn't matter closes the door on creativity.

What's my main Again? said...

I swing both ways... most of the times I'm skipping text and flying through quests without even thinking about why I'm there. There are times though where I force myself to start reading quests. Soon I find I'm completing the quests just to see what the quest givers response was and what the next piece of the puzzel is.

For instance I've been playing horde side on a DK to experience that side of the world. Going through outlands I generally skip reading quests that have objectives of quests I've done countless times on alliance... but there are many horde specific quests that are fascinating.

Finding the Maghar in hellfire after killing them countless times as alliance... and then traveling to Nagrand meeting sissy Garrosh. Learning the history of the Maghar and Oshun'gun (sp?) was extremely interesting storyline.

I guess that is where the difference is. To me each quest is its own story. I know the the story of WoW from the warcraft series even before I played WoW. Playing through WoW though I get to see the living breathing world. Quests are quests. Having to do the objectives is boring... but why you are doing them can be very interesting.

A lot of single player games have driving storylines and then may offer side quests that serve to flesh out the world. WoW doesn't have a driving storyline but that doesn't mean that the quests don't flesh out the world.

Tesh said...

"The game design itself discourages us from caring."

I've written about this more than once. MMOs just aren't the place for strong narrative storytelling. Games in general aren't the place, just considering their nature as an interactive medium where the artisan loses control of the pacing and other variables. "Choose Your Own Adventure" books (the best model of games in the book world) aren't high literature. They are fun, but not all that impressive in the storytelling department.

Games should be games first and foremost. Story, lore and narrative are fun and help build a world, but they will *never* be as good as a great book or movie, and they *shouldn't try to be*, because it would compromise the point of playing a game in the first place.

Games are interaction, and that generates the immersion. Otherwise, we'd watch a movie or read a book.

timejumper said...

I'm fairly new to the game and I think the stories told in the quests encourage me to complete them in some cases.

That said, I don't think the stories are, or need to be, immersive. I simply want a fun story go with my participation.

I enjoyed the idea of offering help to my fellow Draenai as we built our new home in Azeroth. I liked taking on the Defias Brotherhood and drawing out the traitor in Stormwind.

But I'm looking forward to a revamp of the vanilla content. They lost me around level 25-30. I don't know if I just got bored with the stories or if I didn't like traveling so much for the next part, but the stories became too disjointed for me to care.
(Yes, I know there is a lot of running in the Defias quest line, but that was my first one)

By the time I got to Outlands, I had basically given up on the stories, instead eyeing that exalted level 70 position. (I started in TBC, so 60 didn't mean much to me)

When Lich King came out, I fortunately tried the stories out again.
I also think they did a good job with them. I loved the Death Knight storyline and felt like I needed to keep questing. Not because I wanted the new level 80, but because I wanted to see how this evil being was going to be turned to the good (Alliance).

I also thought they did a lot better job of keeping the quests in the right area through Northrend. I don't mind them leading me to another location, but I sure don't want to run all over the place for one quest chain.

I think the problem in Lich King comes after hitting 80. There doesn't seem to be any storyline to go with the raids and those are supposed to be the big fights. Maybe I just haven't looked in the right area for them, but it feels like they are just something to do after the regular part of the game. The only reason to go is for loot and the challenge. That's nice and all, but I would like to think that the success is going for something bigger.

I am curious how they will handle the path system in the next expansion. Maybe that will be a way to continue the story past 85.

Stupid Mage said...

You're playing the story.

Ixobelle said...

Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. Third, if game designers are seeking player absorption in the story I can't think of anything less immersive than daily quests. [ACHIEVEMENT]


Wolfshead said...

Very good article!

Text in a visual world is a very poor way of communicating stories to players. It would be like turning on a TV set and instead of watching a movie, you'd be reading the text of a book. It just makes no sense.

My problem with this is that who decided that a MMO is supposed to be about "telling stories"?

Even if you agree with telling stories then I have some questions:

Whose story do you tell?

What about the story of the player?

Quests do not work for me anymore. At first they were a novelty but they are deeply flawed and problematic. If you want to read a story, then buy a book.

Another problem is that there are far too many quests and most of them are not even true quests. Then add to that the abomination of the "daily quest" and you have a rather silly mechanic that ends up detracting from the MMO.

Chiren said...

Awesome post, and awesome blog.

FFXI has a really good approach to communicating story when delivering quests - but yeah - the big problem is that the time it takes to finish the quest or mission is usually long enough to totally break the cohesion of the story.

Just go on youtube and look up "Wings of the Goddess" or "Treasures of Aht Urghan" to see what FFXI cutscenes are like - they're practically in-game movies, complete with intrepid heroes, cute comic relief sidekicks, and high drama.