The Time of Your Life

In major DIKU-style commercial MMOGs, there are a lot of standard-issue quest types. One of the creative challenges that designers face is how to introduce enough variation in structure or theme with these quests, and every once in a while, they succeed in coming up with a new twist to an old formula. (For example, the Burning Crusade's popular aerial 'bombing runs'.) One type that most games have used  extremely sparingly, however, is the timed quest, where a player must complete a task within a specified period or fail the quest.

There are some technical reasons why these kinds of quests might be a bad idea. Nor, from what I can see, are they popular with players, for a variety of reasons. But it seems to me that they also underscore something odd and unsettling about the temporality of most synthetic worlds.   

Timed quests pose the same problem that "twitch" elements in a synthetic worlds design pose: they can run afoul of latency issues, make a disconnection or lag into far more infuriating problems than they would be normally. Players of games with save-and-reload are accustomed to having to redo the same sequence of play over and over again, but MMOG players are not. Time  is accumulation, and a quest that is difficult to complete because of technical obstacles is bound to create howls of anguish from players. It's also easier to grief other players who may be completing time quests if those quests involve non-instanced targets or environments--a malicious player can just watch for people who are obviously trying to finish the timed quest and harass them.

However, it's also a question of what kind of fiction a timed quest invokes. In a MMOG built around accumulation of resources and experience, all that a timed quest may do is simply dictate the order in which a player completes some of the quests on his or her list--it's rare that such a quest is set with a demanding time limit that constitutes an element of serious difficulty in its own right. But in magic-circle terms, a timed quest ought to be a part of creating drama, of giving the player a sense of narrative urgency.

That's hard to do in a non-dynamic world, for one. If you're racing against the clock to get an antidote to a poisoned NPC and you fail, it takes some of the potency out of the experience when you just reload the quest and try again.

The lack of dynamism is more important on the overall scale of a synthetic world. The narrative experience of urgency in a timed quest synchronizes poorly with a gameworld where players otherwise have all the time in the world to accomplish all the other quests and tasks that lie before them, and a world where other 'emergent' events coming out of player behavior follow still another temporality.

To take the example of Lord of the Rings Online. LOTRO has a series of Epic "storyline" quests that parallel the narrative of The Fellowship of the Ring, often rather cleverly. Accomplishing such a quest occasionally earns the player a short cinematic about where the story of Fellowship is at that moment. But anyone even moderately familiar with the books or films knows that at times, your character has been doing things that would require weeks of fictional in-universe labor within a timeframe of a day or so in the contexts of the books. While Aragorn took Frodo and his companions to Weathertop and onwards to Rivendell, from September 30 to October 24 of the year 3018, my character fought hundreds of orcs and goblins in the Lone Lands, battled barrow-wights on the borders of the Old Forest, visited the home of the Dunadan in northern Eriador, and so on. In that time, my character had time to spare not just for vital missions against the forces of Sauron, but also for the Tolkienesque equivalent of Superman rescuing cats from trees. A timed quest thrown into that temporality is Brechtian: it doesn't so much make the player feel a sense of excitement and urgency as to remind the player of time spent wandering around looking for a dire warg to kill in order to make quota.

Other mainstream MMOGs have similar issues with temporality and simultaneity: World of Warcraft's Burning Crusade expansion, for example, performed a subtle trick with the new races (blood elves and draenei) by situating their early quests in the "past" of the gameworld narrative.

Timed quests would seem to be a way to add challenge to existing MMOGs that would contrast with the normal methods (making quests longer, more mind-numbing or requiring superior equipment), but it's hard to make time flow urgently only on rare occasions. I'm curious about whether TN readers have encountered particularly satisfying (in both game-mechanical and game-fictional) examples of this genre of quest.

Comments on The Time of Your Life:

Syntheticist says:

Timed quests are some of the most insulting quests in MMORPGs. The ridiculous ease they place on them really hits home that you might well be a robot turning a crank for all it matters, as long as you get the sweet XP reward at the end! I'm not going to discuss the temporality of the game world, I don't think anyone could take it seriously at all, I can't think of anything that can be done!

The problem with actually making these quests urgent is that failure rewards you with nothing. Timed quests can fail for a number of reasons, but almost never the player's skill. WoW et al don't have gameplay styles that work to this type of quest, the maps are too flat and movement involves too little skill.

Crackdown on the 360 has timed quests too; rooftop races. If you fail a rooftop race, you aren't given anything. But the player does have value in defeat, seeing why you failed means that the next time, you have a better shot at it. If the timers on timed quests in MMORPGs were actually at a realistic level, the non-action gameplay style means there really is no lesson to learn; these quests are completed by jamming on auto-run and heading towards the right direction. Maybe if the location wasn't so obvious, and you had to follow a trail of clues to arrive there, this would sit better.

It's part of the wider problem of MMORPGs and failure; failure rewards you with nothing. Other games reward you with knowledge of how to avoid defeat next time. You can learn pretty much all there is to know about a class by about level 20 in WoW, and your mistakes (not running away, not healing fast enough) are just the same ones made over and over again. How many corpse runs do you make and think "Oh, I'll know for next time" rather than "damn, that's a stupid mistake, how did I manage that?" You're not empowered in defeat, you just feel foolish.

Failure of quests should be permanent, just like it is in some single-player RPGs. If you fail Lady Sylvanas, you should face consequences, say a couple of guards come to execute you. You fight them and win, and you have proven your worth to the Forsaken once more. You get a little bit of loot, and a story to tell in guild chat. All is not lost, and you feel like something good has come from the quest. That way quest designers can start putting more realistic times on these quests, and actually have them mean something. The value players get from these quests are then in their own player narrative, rather than as part of a world narrative.

My blog goes into this in greater detail.

Posted Jun 7, 2007 5:51:11 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Another example of timed gameplay can be found in Star Wars Galaxies, which introduced a racing minigame.

Based loosely on the "pod racing" from Episode I, this feature requires you to use a vehicle to complete a marked circuit within a certain time limit. One way this is used is as a standard quest: you're given a speederbike and told to beat a particular time around a track. Succesful completion allows you to talk to an NPC to continue the quest progression.

Interestingly, there's another "timed" used for races: beating the high score of another racer on that track that day awards your character a badge.

So does this help provoke any ideas for ways in which timed events can be fun?

Also, what about the notion of basing the timer not on real-world time but game-world time (for games where these are different)? If a game day equals a real-world hour, then telling a character "I'll give you a day" is no different from telling the player "I'll give you an hour"... but does the perception of having "more" time in the former case make a difference?


Posted Jun 7, 2007 7:48:10 PM | link

thoreau says:

EQ2 has a few timed quests, but they usually requiring killing X number of Y creatures in Z minutes. One quest, if I remember correctly, requires you to secure a keg of brew and return it to the inn in five minutes.

I always thought that quests should decay over time. If you accept a quest the reward is granted in full if completed on the first day (whatever that means), the reward is reduced on the second day, further reduced on the third day, and after the third day the quest is removed from your quest journal.

Better yet, it would be interesting if NPC knew your track record for quest timeliness and awarded quests based on some ranking.

Posted Jun 8, 2007 11:52:55 AM | link

DLacey says:

I think it's common enough. Besides the examples mentioned above, there are timed "rush orders" for crafting in Everquest 2, and quite a few timed missions in City of Heroes/Villains, including a series of "efficiency expert" missions in Villains, and the complex mayhem/safeguard missions with adjustable clocks. I can't quite remember whether the "lost dungeons of norrath" in the original Everquest had timers, I seem to recall they did though. You had to defeat a certain number of enemies or find a certain number of shards or something like that before time ran out.

Posted Jun 8, 2007 7:21:55 PM | link

Nazdar says:

I blame static worlds. When the world never really changes, dealing with time automatically seems contrived. Missed killing what you needed in time? Who cares, it'll respawn. Evil-threat-to-all-humanity beat you in a race to warn the inhabitants of a village? How sad - nameless NPCs died. Don't worry, though, they'll be back next time you take the quest.

Why are we shackled to a static world? We're scared. If players' actions had direct impact on the game, it would lead to griefing. Griefing can only be combatted with creativity, and that's hard! We'd rather take the safe road - a totally static experience for everyone. Welcome to Hollywood. Enjoy your vanilla.

For timed quests to have *any* meaning, there must be tangible risks. The only thing risk in a static world is play time. "Aww, I failed. Now I have to run back and start over." However, if the world could actually *change* - even just a little bit - based on the results of your quest (timed or otherwise) there would be a new sense of urgency, world, and wonder.

Take for example, in the WoW BC expansion, the outdoor PvP objectives: If you capture all the towers your faction is awarded a bonus that affects every player in the zone, while the other team is *deprived* of that bonus. The award is relatively small, but what if it were not? What if the world around you thrived or faltered based on your actions? What if you couldn't take quests any time you wanted? What if timed quests came as an urgent call-to-arms? What if everything you did became a world-altering event?

How can timers be fun? Make worlds that can change.

Posted Jun 19, 2007 6:13:47 PM | link