MMOs are built on combat. It's difficult to design a full-featured MMO that engages players for years on end without some sort of PvE killing content; only a handful of MMOs have even attempted it. And while some would say the days of the kill quest are coming to an end, modern MMOs certainly aren't cutting back on killing in general. As a primary mechanic for advancing a character, slaying seems to be the most popular design choice.
I don't have a problem with the bulk of my progression coming from throwing fireballs or bashing shields. I don't mind obliterating monsters in multiples of five. What I do mind, however, is being asked to kill without a good reason.
One of the biggest challenges faced by MMO designers is creating a massive world packed with content yet somehow making all of that content interesting and emotionally engaging. The responsibility is enormous; developers must create thousands of hours of in-game experiences that never feel cheap, forced, tedious, or boring. Some MMOs do this exceptionally well. Some do not.
Designers don't need to get rid of kill quests or attempt to redesign the MMORPG wheel (though innovations are always welcome) to make games engaging. Instead, MMO creators should build worlds, characters, and storylines that are intriguing and interesting enough to inspire us players to slash our way through waves of rats and feel satisfied in the process. Rats eating an NPC's grain? Who cares? Rats spreading dangerous plague in an orphanage? Now you have my attention.
With the right story and the right characters, I'm happy to kill as many things as the narrative demands.
One enormous problem in MMORPG design (and game design in general) is how common it is for NPCs to hand the hero errands that the NPC could reasonably complete himself. This is another developmental misstep that causes player to question the importance of any given task and feel as though completing a quest is just running through the motions until the next ding animation.
Once a quest has stakes, the next order of business is to explain to the player why the NPC can't handle this task on his own. This is a step that is glossed over in so many traditional MMORPGs and the reason that "kill ten rats" has become a metaphor for lazy quest design. How many times have you read quest text only to ask yourself, "Uh, why can't this dude handle this on his own?" The number of ranch owners without shotguns in MMOs is staggering.
To function well in an MMO, a kill quest requires stakes that prove the quest needs doing and a valid explanation for why the hero of the story should take time out of his day to do it.
Beyond the kill
It's worth noting that the above rule is actually pretty powerful when applied to any in-game task. I'm writing mostly of kill quests here since those take up the bulk of our gaming time in MMORPGs, but every other quest type benefits from having stakes and explaining why it needs to be done. Whether it's gathering herbs, delivering a message, investigating a nearby phenomenon, or tracking down some guy's wife, providing the player with stakes and hero-level justification will go a long way toward making the task interesting and engaging.
I'm happy to kill ten rats. Just tell me why I should.
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