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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.
Variable State’s game was nominated for several Independent Games Festival awards, including Best Audio, Excellence in Narrative, Excellence in Visual Art and The Nuovo Award for innovation. …
Codemasters recently announced Dirt 4 (coming on June 6 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC), a return to the multi-discipline racing of the series (which excludes the excellent Dirt Rally) which we haven't seen since 2012's Dirt Showdown. Since then we've not only had a new round of home consoles, but countless other racing titles – including a number of them from Codemasters – have brought their own ideas to the track.
What does Dirt 4 have to do to make its mark and elevate the franchise? Here are some things I'd like the game to address.
IS GYMKHANA IN THE GAME OR NOT?
Codemasters' first unveiling of Dirt 4 makes no mention of Gymkhana, the precision drifting discipline featured in both Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown. I find the absence so far conspicuous, and I hope that gymkhana is indeed in Dirt 4. I not only think the freestyle gymkhana arenas are cool, but the events also offer a different kind of car action beyond just racing. Dirt 4 has various types of off-road racing including rally, rallycross, and short track racing. Including gymkhana or something we haven't seen so far would add diversity – something that's always welcome in racing games.
WHAT ABOUT OFFLINE SPLITSCREEN RACING?
I get this question about every racing title that comes out, and it's unfortunately been missing from a lot of racing games. Of course, splitscreen doesn't make sense with rally racing in Dirt Rally, but this year's Codemasters' game F1 2016 did not have it, while both Dirt 3 and Dirt Showdown did. Hopefully it's included for Dirt 4 for the appropriate disciplines.
DIRT 4 NEEDS A GOOD CAREER MODE
While this is a given, Codemasters' titles, from previous Dirt titles to past F1 games and Dirt Rally, have been inconsistent when it comes to giving single-player racers a compelling career campaign. Dirt 4 has partnered with the FIA for the World Rallycross Championship, but as the game contains various disciplines I'm curious what the overarching structure is. The press release states that players can create their own driver, take on sponsors, and build a team with goals and rewards.
This sounds like a good start, but I'm curious how far the game takes it. Will there be a virtual paddock and cutscenes like F1 2016? Grid Autosport from 2014 highlighted the team aspect with teammate controls. How will that important team dynamic play out on the track, in the R&D of cars, and in the arena of team/driver politics? Without a compelling structure to spur players forward, this mode could easily wear thin quickly. Racing titles have often struggled with ameliorating the race-to-race grind, and Dirt 4 doesn't have to replicate verbatim all the things Codemasters has done in previous titles, but I feel like that on the whole Codemasters has struggled to offer consistently compelling career structures though its various franchises over the years. F1 2016 is only now giving fans something to get excited about, and I can only hope we're not starting over again and going back to basics for Dirt 4.
HOW CAN DIRT 4 COMPETE WITH FORZA HORIZON 3?
Dirt 4 is not an open-world title like Turn 10's lauded game is, but the comparison is not completely out of left field. Fair or not, people are going to compare Dirt 4's off-road races with the freedom to explore in Forza Horizon 3. In a larger sense, Dirt 4 can address users' desire for flexibility with a range of experiences. The game seemingly does this by switching players between rally, rallycross, and other racing types (here is where gymkhana would be useful, if it's in the game), and a strong career structure could be a way to marshall all those efforts under a larger all-encompassing goal – another strength of a good open-world title.
From a moment-to-moment perspective, a previous Codemasters title had its own way of dealing with the challenge of delivering the anything-can-happen feeling of an open-world racer in its own lap-based context. Grid 2 featured LiveRoutes, which were specific races whose turns were procedurally generated as you raced. Taking on the unexpected (you didn't have an onscreen map, BTW) at full speed was exhilarating and kept you on your toes. While I doubt that Dirt 4 makes use of this specific feature (which hasn't been used since Grid 2) since it isn't mentioned in Dirt 4's initial features reveal, this illustrates one of the ways that a game could try and liven up the lap-by-lap experience.
Dirt 4 does feature a rally route creation tool called Your Stage, which lets you choose a rally stage location and route parameters to create and share an almost endless amount of content. This is a very promising feature, and hopefully it's presented in a focused way beyond just throwing up a sea of user-created content to wade through. I think it would be cool for the creation and racing of these Your Stages to be tied to your career profile or even presented to you in career mode. In this way it could not only offer unexpected racing content, but also give the feeling that you're taking on the real world even if you aren't racing online per se similar to Forza's drivatars.
So far Dirt 4 features daily, weekly, and monthly challenges and leaderboards and tournaments, but I'm curious if there will be any club or league options (like Grid Autosport and Dirt Rally, respectively), if online progress will be tied to single-player progress and vice versa, and how full featured the experience is in general. Online isn't just about competing with real-life racers, it's also about feeding fans social desires and giving them a progression path. The online components of previous Codemasters' titles have varied in their feature sets, so I'd love it if Dirt 4 set a high standard the company to follow.
WHAT ABOUT THE FORMER EVOLUTION STUDIOS?
When Codemasters took on the former developers of Driveclub after Sony shut down Evolution Studios, it was announced that the developers would be taking on a new IP. Codemasters also said the former Evolution Studios devs would help with existing properties, listing Dirt specifically. While we don't know exactly what these devs are doing within Codemasters, it will be interesting to see if there are any new ideas – particularly in the area of online, a focus of Driveclub's – that make their way into Dirt 4.
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Official Motocross Game MXGP3 Announced
Spring title is based on the 2016 season.
R.B.I. Baseball 17 Announces Cover Athlete
The series' latest comes out this spring for PS4/Xbox One and mobile.
Respawn and EA have stuck to their free DLC plan since announcing it, and have some new details to offer about what's in store for the future.
Live Fire mode will be available in February. It is apparently inspired by playing speedball in paintball, according to the mode's designer Griffin Dean. In the 6 v 6 mode, players have 60 seconds to grab a neutral flag. Whoever has the flag when the timer runs out wins, regardless of how many lives have been lost up to that point. The mode will be available, for free, in February.
In March, a (sort of) new map, Colony will be available. It is a map from the original Titanfall that is being updated to appear in the sequel.
For our review of Titanfall 2, head here.
[Source: Titanfall 2]
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