Adding Meaning To The Meaningless
Gamers rarely do anything without a reason: we’re trained to look for purpose behind everything, so motivation is a key consideration when designing side quests.

“You need to know why players would even bother touching your side content,” says Hutchinson. “It’s great if it’s intrinsically fun, but generally players want an extrinsic reward to drive them, whether it’s currency, story, or new abilities and toys.”

When designing The Witcher 3, there was only one answer to this question for CD Projekt RED: story. Rather than simply showering players with XP and loot, the ultimate reward for completing side content is the chance to learn more about Geralt, his friends and the war-stricken realm around them – such is the quality of the game’s writing and presentation.

“Other games use mechanics to give players a pastime: we operate with story,” says Gelencser. “We really wanted to get rid of all the ‘FedEx quests’ and the MMO-style quests. You know, ‘Go to the forest and get me 50 bat droppings.’ We didn’t want to do that.”

“Narrative is our strength, and we firmly believe that a good narrative is a good incentive for side content,” Kolm adds. “In the end, aren’t we all curious about stories if they are presented well? If the content is made in a way that actually makes these explorations worthwhile, rewards the player with an interesting moral dilemma or a thrilling plot-twist – or even just a bag of laughs – then we think players will feel good about that and it will encourage them to explore more.”

The Witcher 3 elevates its side content further by carefully intertwining compulsory and optional quests. Many of the game’s narrative arcs, like the celebrated Bloody Baron quest-line, begin on the critical path but conclude in side quests.

During Geralt’s encounters with the Baron along the main path, hints of a deeper family tragedy present themselves, but never so explicitly as to distract you for too long from your primary mission: finding Ciri. But, if you feel intrigued by these traumatic morsels, you can pursue them at your own pace in side quests.

This approach not only introduces players to side quests in a more elegant way than stumbling upon blinking icons on a map, it also has the added advantage of making sense within the game’s world – Geralt is, after all, rather busy.

“[A good side quest is one where] you don’t feel disconnected from the main content of the game – you don’t feel like you are doing trivial things in terms of how the quests affect the world,” Kolm says.

Though narrative is less of a motivation than gameplay in Far Cry 4, Ubisoft Montreal employed a similar structure, introducing players to side activities like arena battles and psychedelic tiger-rearing through the main story missions.

“You have to do it right,” says Hutchinson. “If you make sure everyone gets to taste the first part of each side mission chain as part of the main story, then leave them to discover the rest, then you’re at least offering people the opportunity to try different parts of your game.”

Even World of Warcraft, a game that can’t allow side quests to alter a world’s state because of its multiplayer nature, attempts to link them to the main plot. “We are much more deliberate (these days) when developing side quests,” says Afrasiabi.

“Oftentimes we want the side quests to also touch on the primary plot points of the zone, even if just referring to the threat offhandedly. This reinforcement helps keep the primary story in the foreground.”

Exposing The Numbers
Although story lies at the heart of Dragon Age: Inquisition and Mass Effect 3, BioWare employs a different approach to player motivation: meta mechanics. An overarching numbers-based system ties optional content to your overall success. Essentially, the more side quests you complete, the happier the ending.

In Mass Effect 3, Commander Shepherd is tasked with building an intergalactic army to fight off the Reaper threat. The game very clearly shows players exactly how strong Shepherd’s force is with its “Galactic Readiness” system. Similarly, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, players open new story strands by earning Power Points – another numerical indicator of your army’s influence. These are acquired by completing nearly any of the game’s tasks (even druffalo herding).

“It helps when you can tie the actions you are taking in non-critical events to your overall success, which was our main driver for Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Power system,” says Laidlaw. “The thinking was that we could create a smooth loop where exploration led to story, which in turn opened up more exploration.

“In practice, I feel that Inquisition’s implementation was a bit too abstract and happened too much in the background for me to be truly happy with it. Something to improve if we do another chapter, I suppose!”

Although these numbers are built into the fiction – a good commander would know how many troops the army has, after all – by displaying progress in such an overt way, BioWare runs the risk of it feeling too “video gamey.” Especially in universes that otherwise strive for realistic, organic interactions and relationships.

Kolm says that The Witcher 3 avoided using this approach because numbers can “detach you from the experience,” but he does concede that it “can be done well if you manage to disguise the meta mechanic as part of the experience.”

The secret is finding a careful balance between maintaining the game’s illusion and providing clarity to the player. “Games always feature a bit of abstraction, and I find players tend to appreciate clear information,” Laidlaw says. “That said, the real ‘grace notes’ of these systems are when there are cues other than just a number to tell you how things are going.

“Take, for instance, how Quiet becomes more active, curious and engaged on the Aerial Command Center as the bond between her and Snake increases over the course of Metal Gear Solid V. That was a really cool, subtle change that added some texture to what otherwise was just a number on a screen.”

The Future Of Side Quests
Whether seeking out a new sword or reuniting a talking dog with his master, side quests are an essential element of modern games. But where do these once-humble distractions go from here? A common theme from all the developers I spoke with was the belief that optional content will become more and more indistinguishable from a game’s main quest.

“I’ve undergone a bit of a realization since releasing Inquisition: even side quests players don’t see in their playthrough tend to be experienced by them regardless,” says Laidlaw. “Players compare notes. Streams and Let’s Plays abound. If the player wants to see a part of a game, or see something he or she missed, it’s out there. So I’ve decided to stop thinking about them as ‘side’ content. As a result, it becomes remarkably easy to devote time to them.”

Afrasiabi says that now, from a production standpoint, Blizzard treats side quests and the critical path with the same amount of care. “We don’t design quests with allotted production values in mind. Everything we put into the game is treated as a foreground quest that everyone in the world will see, and therefore it must live up to the standards established... So in that regard, side quests have the same attention to detail and budget and production value as main plotlines.”

Kolm agrees: “We like to think of side quests not as poorer cousins but more as the side dishes, spices and herbs that add flavor to the main dish, and without which the whole dish won’t be as tasty.

“I also think that the term ‘side quest’ will eventually disappear. It’s a traditional term... Because of the labeling, a lot of people seem to believe that side quests should not receive as much attention and as much love as their main counterparts. But that’s just not our way.

"The game wouldn’t be the same without the additional flavors of the side quests. We don’t see them as less valuable, and I hope that this will become the standard someday.”