Content flow

One of the many sources of frustration in the current (quest driven) generation of MMORPG’s comes from being lead back and forth through a zone in an erratic manner. It is probably in my top five of reasons why I drop certain MMO’s like a hot potato before I’ve even gotten to the meat. Yet, all it takes to rid your game of this is a structured approach to your design work. Let’s look at two complaints born out of poorly thought out content flow:

I spend more time running from a to b than actually fighting anything!
Having some travel time when going to new areas is no problem, but if you’re always having to run a marathon to get to a quest objective, it won’t take long until you’re both bored and frustrated. It’s quite common that designers wish to extend their quests through long journeys filled with mobs, but more often than not the mobs on the way can be bypassed. Traveling is not content.

I feel like I’m going through the same areas all the time!
Sometimes zones have just one main quest hub. This forces players to repeatedly pass the same areas to get and deliver quests in the same old quest hub. This continues even as the player has moved on to higher level areas in the zone, having to fight mobs outlevelled to a degree where they no longer pose any kind of challenge.

Quest pockets

“Quest pockets” is a framework for structured content flow within zones. The purpose is to avoid the problems described earlier, minimizing the need to travel back and forth time and again, using the space effectively and allowing the player to discover the zone organically. There are three important components to this:

  • Keep the content close to the quest hub.
  • Use all 360 degrees of the quest hub for content.
  • Spread the content evenly around the quest hub.

The area around a quest hub should be divided into 4 quest pockets.  The player get quests for one pocket, heads out to the corresponding pocket space to finish the quest objectives, and finally returns to deliver the quests in the quest hub. Then he progresses to the next pocket. If possible, the quest levels should be different between the quest pockets, allowing for a natural progress between them.

Each quest hub should have a budget for the number of available quests. In a best case scenario, the number of quests should be evenly divided for the four pockets. Let’s have a look at a possible formula for quest budgets.

There are 3 factors to regard. How many hours of gameplay do we expect the area to provide? How long should quests last in average on the level range of the area? How much of the gameplay time should be covered by quests?

Hours per area * quests per hour * play time ratio

Quests per hour
1-20: 6 (10 minutes)
20-40: 4 (15 minutes)
40-60: 3 (20 minutes)

If we have a quest area with a planned 4 hours of gameplay at level 50, and we say that the amount of quests per hour in that level range is 4 (15 minute quests, according to the table), and we want 30% more quests than the necessary minimum for always having your play time covered by a quest, then the numbers would be:

4 * 4 * 1,3 = 21 quests for that area. Those 21 quests would then be divided between the 4 quest pockets, giving us about 5 quests per pocket.

Picking pockets and zoning out

We control content flow throughout the game on 3 levels; between quest pockets, between quest hubs and between zones. Let’s look at quest pocket progression first.

Using the previous example, we have 5 quests per pocket. We’re trying to not overwhelm players with alternatives, but are at the same time after a sense of non-linearity. The two ways of controlling access are levels and quest chains. In an ideal situation the quest hub would involve more than one level, which guides the player in deciding what content to access first. The quests of one pocket could also unlock quests of the next pocket.

Looking at the figure above, the player would enter the zone close to quest hub 1. In our example, pocket 1.1 and 1.2 would have 5 quests each at level 48-49, and 1.3 and 1.4 5 quests each at level 50-51. Some of the quests in 1.3 and 1.4 would be followup quests from 1.1 and 1.2 This way we get a natural progression through the zones.

Players progress between the quest hubs through transition quests, leading the players between quest hubs, and zones. Returning to the example, a transition quest would become available when the player has finished some of the content in 1.4 – taking them to quest hub 2 where new quests are available starting in 2.1.

This second quest hub could have a few followup quests from the first, allowing for a continous narrative. Just be careful not to block players from finding content in later quest hubs (if they arrive in the zone with a high level character) through too many and too long quest chains.

When the player has finished the second quest hub, another transition quest takes the player from 2.4 to 3.1. This is the final hub of the zone, where 3.4 carries a new transition quest taking them to the next zone’s first quest hub.

As always, guidelines like these have to be broken to create interesting and unique experiences. Have quests go through the entire zone, or between several zone. It’s vital to make sure the experience does not feel formulaic, especially considering how formulaic MMORPG’s are by default.

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