Structuring Quests for a computer roleplaying game.

Everyone loves finding interesting quests; they drive change in the world and progress the game. To make quests manageable there are few points to consider. A player can actively manage about three quests at once, with an excellent UI the player can perhaps manage up to ten. Anymore than ten and it's too easy to lose track of what's happening, forget details or become confused. To avoid this, avoid bush-like quest structures. In this article we cover what bush-like quests are and how to avoid them.

What Are Bushy Quests?

Quests are bushy when they're mostly accessible from the start of the game. First let's consider a linear RPG like Japanese-style RPG.

Linear Quests.

Pretty simple. It's like a stick. The player is always clear about what to do next. From the start of the game you're told to do X, once you've done X, you're told to do Y, then Z and so on until the game ends. JRPGs sometimes open up a little in later game, which makes their questflow tree-like.

Ok. Now let's consider a game like Skyrim where the majority of the quests are open to the player immediately. A partial illustration of this type of structure is shown below:

Bushy Quests.

Here the player can easily overwhelm themselves with quests. The number of available quests makes them individually less valuable, worthwhile and exciting. The player knows these quests won't influence each other or have any meaningful effect on the game world.

Why Avoid Bushy Quests?

A limited quests makes each quest seem more meaningful and important. You can still have a game absolutely stuffed full of quests but before the player can access new ones they must complete some of the old ones. We achieve this by grouping the quests into buckets tied to overall game progress. The benefits are:

  • Better pacing.
  • Player far less likely to be overwhelmed.
  • Easier to manage (for designer and the player).
  • Advancing the main plotline feels even more rewarding.
  • Quests are more free to have world changing effects.

There is a cost to this approach. The player has less freedom and for some designers and players this is a dealbreaker. But even so, I think it's worth partially implementing this approach even for more open world games like Skyrim.

Trees Over Bushes

To avoid bushy quests break the game up into pieces. Assign groups of quests to each piece. Completing certain quests successfully opens up a new piece of the game and all it's quests. These pieces can be in space or time i.e. a new zone opens up; "The Hidden City of Quet" or, time advances, changing the game world i.e. the armies of the north take over the capital.

As the player completes more of the game they get a steady dripfeed of quests. In the later game more quests are available than the start making the questflow more like a tree, than a bush.

Here's an illustration of breaking quests into groups.

Breaking quests into groups tied to progression.

There are two obvious ways to add the new quests:

  1. Additive: newly opened quests are added to the existing pool of possible quests
  2. Replacement: unfinished old quests are removed and replaced with the new set.

Humans are loss averse (check out the term "Loss Aversion" for more details but very loosely: humans hate to lose what they have, more than the like getting new stuff). If you take away a player's open quests without good reason, they won't be happy. Sometime it's necessary; if in Act I you blow-up the spacestation, then in Act II, you're not going to be able to complete any quests requiring the spacestation to be intact.

Player are naturally completionists. Given a todo list, which is basically what a quest log is, there's a strong incentive to complete all the items. The player may not enjoy or particularly want to do some ancient quest about collecting rabbit hides but the quest log doesn't forget; it stays nagging the player to complete some game content. Therefore eventually, it might be a relief for the player to have some low value quests pruned away.

When You Might Want Bushy Quests

Open world games are awesome. If you restrict quests, you restrict player freedom. If you do decide to go for bushy quests then you can make things a little easier on the player by implementing the following quest tracking features.

  • Quest log with excellent UI, tracking: progress, location and "story so far" summary.
  • Let the player mark one quest as the current focus
  • Quests should be prioritized by location. Only showing the quests in the current, region or town by default
  • Quest should be presented in a hierarchy - core, side-quest, minor etc.
  • Clearly explain to the player when they're going to do something that locks them out of an in-progress quest.
  • Consider limiting the number of quests allowed in the log (others may be restarted as desired by revisiting the quest giver)

Take Aways

If you're making a game that's open world and want a lot replayability then bushy quests are ok. For any other game it's best to unlock new quests as the player completes older ones. For quest-heavy open world games; time spent developing a powerful quest log is time well spent.

If you're thinking about starting your RPG then decide when and how to distribute quests throughout the game. Consider breaking the game into narrative states e.g. Trapped in the First Town, The Coming of the Orcs, The Eruption of Mount Doom etc. If you're working in a team add an allotment for how many quests can be introduced at each stage.

If you're midway through developing your game; begin by finding out how many quests the player can accept from the starting point. Once you have this number ask if it's too many, then rearrange things so some are locked off until others are complete.

Have fun!