Editor's Note: The following article first appeared in Game Informer Australia Issue #85 and is written by David Milner. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Winning the loyalty of the Normandy’s crew as it prepares for a desperate suicide mission. Performing an exorcism on a wretched soul no longer fit to rule over a wild Skellige province. Discovering a tortured, talking tree in a hidden oasis – a placethat shouldn’t exist but somehow does – amongst the irradiated wastes of Washington D.C.

A good side quest can come to define a video game, giving life to its world, telling tales more intriguing and nuanced than any lying along the critical path.

Over the course of many months, the creators behind Dragon Age, Far Cry, World of Warcraft, The Witcher, Assassin’s Creed and Diablo shared with me their varied philosophies on the art of side quest design. With the leaps made in recent years, ignoring the apocalypse while you gather boar tusks will never again be seen as a satisfying diversion.

Why Have Side Quests At All?
Optional tasks have peppered digital worlds ever since early role-paying games started flirting with nonlinear design. In 1986, The Legend of Zelda featured five hidden heart containers that players could choose to find – or not. In 1988, Pool of Radiance became one of the first games with side quests that shaped the attitudes of characters around you.

At a time when player choice extended little further than controlling how fast you ran to the right of the screen, these were significant steps on the journey away from singular objectives. Over time, these small opt-in activities evolved from mere gear- and XP-dispensers into sprawling, complex narrative arcs of their own. Today, it’s impossible to imagine RPGs or open-world games without them.

But, at least from a surface-level perspective, side quests don’t make much sense. When you consider how expensive development is, committing resources to non-essential content is borderline irresponsible. Combine this with surprisingly low completion rates (PlayStation trophies reveal that only 29-percent of players finished The Witcher 3) and side quests become even harder to justify. So, why offer them at all?

“Aside from the obvious answer of giving players extra things to do, a world that only revolves around the main story feels dead,” says Nikolas Kolm, quest designer on The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.

“The world would feel less vibrant. But if you get the player involved in side quests that weave a story, and if that story then impacts other aspects of the world and narrative, then it feels like the realm is alive and doesn’t solely revolve around the main character doing his main mission.”

Even if a player doesn’t engage with a side quest, its presence is felt indirectly; just knowing it’s there adds to the sensation of exploring a living ecosystem. Our world doesn’t revolve around your job, after all, so why should a digital world?

Ubisoft Montreal’s Alex Hutchinson, creative director of both Far Cry 4 and Assassin’s Creed III, says side quests allow developers more leeway to experiment with tone, texture and mechanics, adding vital color and character to a game. Free from the creative shackles of mandatory missions, side quests can be weirder, harder and more obscure.

“If you’re trying to make a game that reaches a wide audience, often you need to ensure main missions are very clear, well defined and delivered to the player so they can’t miss them,” Hutchinson explains.

“You want as many people as possible to finish a game, so hiding content or allowing people to discover it on their own can be risky. But side quests can be incredibly difficult, or hidden, or have a very different flavor to the main game – which is a great way to be creative as a designer.

“I don’t mind that some side quest chains are loved by some and hated by others. That’s okay, because you’re not forced to complete them.”

In Diablo III, a game in which looting and beast slaying tends to take priority over narrative, side activities provide valuable context, lore and player agency. “Consciously or not, as someone plays a game they’re actually writing their own characters,” says Leonard Boyarsky, Diablo III’s lead world designer. “Side quests are a way for players to fully realize these characters and tailor them to what they imagine inside their minds.

“In a way, every side quest is a small narrative on its own,” he continues. “It has a beginning, middle and conclusion. So it’s easier to take that smaller piece of content and go, ‘Okay, in this section we’re going to let the player choose whether he sacrifices this person or not.’ In the main story that can be much more difficult because you have more imperatives that you’re working with.”

A Whole New World
Filling a realm with side quests is more complicated than dropping characters on a map and sticking exclamation points above their heads.

BioWare’s Mike Laidlaw, creative director of the Dragon Age series, says a lot of thought goes into the location of every single mission. Making sure there isn’t an abundance of dead space between activities; being careful not to overwhelm a player with choice early on; and ensuring that travel routes serve as de facto tour guides for jaw-dropping landmarks all comes into consideration.

“We found that mixing and matching these different styles worked best in Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of my favorite learnings was that quests naturally push players along certain paths: get a quest at point A and players will likely travel to point B as part of it. If you can map those likely paths and look for intersections – places where two such paths overlap – those create hidden hubs that players are quite likely to cross.”

Put simply, if you keep ending up in the same places when so much of a realm remains unexplored, it’s by design. Though it might feel like you have total freedom as you roam the wilds of Ferelden, BioWare can predict (and control, to an extent) where you’re likely to wander based on quest placement and the clear routes through the world.

“These [hidden hubs] then make for excellent spaces for hidden items or other quest paths,” Laidlaw continues. “Once I recognized this, I started to see how plot lines in Skyrim and The Witcher 3 also had similar intersection points.”

Aside from the odd creepy woodland hermit with a mystical quandary or the lake sprite in need of a legendary blade, the majority of quests tend to originate from densely populated locales like towns. This makes sense: people tend to cluster where work is available. But even these hubs need to be placed logically within a world for them to feel believable.

“A town has to make sense within the environment,” says Peter Gelencser, senior level designer on The Witcher 3. “If there’s a forest or river, that’s a good location for a village because there’s water and a place to hunt... We needed realistic infrastructure so these villages aren’t just for display; people need to be able to make a living there as wood cutters, sheep herders, et cetera.”

With towns carefully placed on the map, a developer can then enhance a quest’s atmosphere with the surrounding environment. A ghost story is more compelling near dilapidated buildings – doubly so during a thunderstorm – while learning magical powers on top of a mountain or within an ancient catacomb has an epic aura that the same quest would lack in the local tavern.

“A good side quest is one that can counteract the pacing of the main quest in a zone tonally and thematically without breaking the story thread,” says Alex Afrasiabi, creative director on World of Warcraft.

“For example, we send players to Val’sharah in Legion. As the questing unfolds, we find out that the Nightmare is threatening to take over the area. It’s a lot of dark, sad stuff. But as you’re going from one heavy story hub to another, you might run into a dryad who gives you a side quest to become a wisp with the ability to grow trees, and you do that while playing a little minigame of avoiding hungry fish that eat wisps. It’s super fun, but super appropriate for a Val’sharah side quest.

“It breaks the pace at the right place, but also perfectly fits into the world and ecosystem of Val’sharah.”

To read about how developers are planning to tackle side quests for future games, go to the next page.