The Secret World is by far the most polished, interesting and entertaining MMORPG I have ever played. It is smart, entertaining, and bold, and though perhaps difficult to approach at first, it always rewards the effort you put into it. At its heart, however, it’s still the MMO you know – but it does the things you know, and perhaps dislike, in a way that elevates them and makes them fresh. I wanted to discuss today some bugaboos that haunt not just MMOs, but perhaps even the humble Tabletop RPG player, the far less technological common subject of this blog. Quest is the word of the day.
MMOs are made and broken by quest lines. We’ve all got archetypal quest lines we love or hate. None more than the following two. I want to talk about not only what The Secret World does right, but also what you, as a game designer, dungeon master, adventure writer, whatever, can think about when you assign “quests” like this. Avoiding them is foolish, I think. These objectives resonate with people – if they’re done properly, they can convey a lot more than you think.
Kill X Number Of Things
The Secret World does a really fantastic job of giving its enemies purpose. They are vivid in their interactions with the environment. In The Scorched Desert you see cultists praying at the altars of Aten and brainwashing villagers from Al Merayah to join their cause. In Transylvania you see Ghouls digging burrows to invade Harbaburesti and spilling toxic waste into rivers. The Draug in Solomon Island establish lines of powerful defenders across every beach, blocking intruders from their vulnerable pods at sea. They have a modus operandi that is distinctive and, initially, mysterious, but that the children of the Bees can then uncover. Every enemy faction in the Secret World has so much purpose to it, that the truly purposeless, chaotic, unknowable things stand out all the more. Whenever you find a Filth-infested area it’s legitimately scary. You can’t figure these guys out.
Figuring out the enemy is a huge part of The Secret World. Every world has a quest that introduces you to the enemy faction in that area. A very good example happens early on, and most players have probably experienced the quest called “Draugnet.” In Kingsmouth, early on you can speak with Deputy Andy, who’ll direct you to try to discover the life cycle of the Draug, lovecraftian undead risen out of the sea. Doing so requires you to kill Draug – but you do this with quite a purpose. The first Draug you kill are blocking the way to the beach. Next you kill Draug in order to study their birthing pods. These things are dangerous in fetal form as they are when fully-grown, so your powers do the talking there. Next you kill Draug again, but you’re doing so to cut through the swarm in the deeper waters in the bay, to push through to the secrets that they are trying to keep hidden out at sea. After you’ve completed all the “kill X draug” objectives you will also have learned a lot about their life cycle, chain of command, and defensive lines on the bay. The discovery at the end is downright chillingly alien, and quite a payoff.
Even earlier than this, the very first quest you will probably do in Kingsmouth is a “kill a bunch of zombies” quest. However, it, too, serves as a learning experience. You start humbly, killing zombies around the lookout of an NPC survivor who needs the pressure taken off him. Next you become more experimental, testing the zombies’ limits. You try to set them on fire (you must literally set zombies on fire and kill them to do this objective), you jump on cars to trigger alarms and draw zombies in, you examine corpses eaten by zombies, and ultimately, discover a very dangerous enigma. These are not your parent’s zombies, and the reveal after all this zombie experimentation is your first clue of some crucial differences.
So you’re essentially doing the “kill 20 wolves” quest famously derided in MMOs, but it’s very firmly grounded in the lore and purpose of the setting. Mechanically the objectives are very similar and simple – straight up RPG combat action, where you’re engaging enemies and clearing them out of a place. But it feels like more than that. You’re investigating. You’re exploring. These things you’re facing are alien and enigmatic. The act of challenging them is informational. And at the end, when you’ve killed the 20-30 zombies you were told to, there’s a dark and ugly clue to a darker, uglier secret.
Collect X Number of Items
The NPCs in The Secret World are perhaps less interesting than the enemy, if only because their own interactions with the environment are less creepy and weird. That’s not to say they’re boring – far from it. They are very human, strikingly familiar, and as such, the alien things contrast all the more. The people of Al Merayah are just trying to ride out the war between the Maryah and the cult of Aten. The survivors in Kingsmouth, holed up in a police station manning barricades against zombies, are an all too familiar scenario for the average gamer. When you get into a cutscene with them, the voice acting is wonderful, and the script is fresh, smart and entertaining – they’re well grounded in their environment and in modernity.
Collect-a-thon quests are perhaps the most aggressively loathed quests among gamers. It’s a simple goal, easy to drop into any game, and bound to consume some game time. Whether it’s collecting berries or searching for blue keys to blue doors, gaming has grown up on collecting items, and some folks are vehement that item collection is the most purposeless and boring activity a game could muster up. I’m not dead-set against collection quests, so long as they have imagination.
When The Secret World asks you to collect items, the fetch quests have gravity because of the situation and the person behind the quest. These are simple quests – there’s not much to say about them compared to Draugnet, but they make sense. One of the first quests you do in Kingsmouth is a collection quest. The Sherrif requires you to get some items from the zombie-infested town that can help her survivors to better fend off the assault on the police station. The items you recover are important and make sense – food, parts, bullets, etc. But this quest also gives you an impetus to explore the town. You have to check a phone book for places to search. You have to walk to the far corners of Kingsmouth town and into zombie-infested buildings. You uncover the cruel and undeserved fate of the townsfolk in the shops you’re raiding.
Mechanically, you’re collecting stuff to put in a box and end the mission. But the missions do more than that. They drive you to interact with a new environment. They give you an incentive to complete the map, to observe the enemies and what they’re doing, to get acquainted with key places in the world you’ll visit again.
There’s also narrative gravity to them. You collect ammo and food for the Maryah because you’ve seen their desperate situation and you’ve seen the mindless cultists of the Aten and the depravity that they have fallen to. It’s hard to do item fetch quests that don’t feel like a waste of your time. It’s perhaps impossible to make such quests that don’t piss off some portion of players. That said, the quests here always make sense. You don’t have to question why someone is asking you to pick up bullets, or car parts, or the hunks of a vampire hunter’s soul – everything is explained, makes sense, and contributes tangibly. And while you’re picking up things to put in the box for your XP, you’re building your own experience and knowledge of the area.