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Side Quest Syndrome: Designing The Road Less Traveled

by Game Informer Editorial on Feb 09, 2017 at 09:22 AM

 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.

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.”