Some years ago I was playing one of those big AAA games, an epic RPG saga, a staple of single player games. While I was leading my army against the forces of evil, in one of the first outposts I meet a guy with a quest. What an epic quest it will ever be? What dangerous task requires the intervention of an epic hero?
“Collect 10 herbs.”
What. The. Hell.
I hate gathering quests, I hate “bring this message to X” kind of quests. Whenever a gathering quest pops out in my single player experience, I get furious. Unfortunately, this is a virus that it is spreading: gathering quests are everywhere, and they are such an anti-pattern I needed to make a stand. This article is my stance: gathering quest sucks. Except when they don't. When they work? That's what we will discuss here!
(The game was Dragon Age Inquisition, btw)
Why they sucks
There are three main reason why gathering quests are horrible experiences:
- They are a massive waste of time. Playing should not be a waste of time. Collecting herbs, walking around talking with people, bringing messages back and forth, mining 100 stones; everything is very time-consuming. Time that a single player should spend doing something better: something like playing a game!
- They are a cheap, uninspired, way to make feel the player busy. They are a way to increase the game time with repetitive tasks. They are a cheap way to guide the player in the world. However, if you do not attach that to a meaningful emotion you are wasting everybody's time. That's bring us to the next point.
- They are usually incredibly disconnected from the game main emotion. Why a general of an army should stop gathering herbs. Why a powerful mage should spend time killing 10 wolves. Every time I find a gathering quest that is really out of character, the immersion with the game completely stops.
I know that sometimes they make sense. In MMORPG we already face the really disorienting problem of “everybody is the chosen one”, moreover MMORPG game design core is to “kill time while waiting for the end game”. But single player experiences are totally different: single player games are a story told to you and only you. They are an “intimate” experience. An experience that should not be continuously interrupted by mushrooms gathering! And this is infuriating when gathering quests are “required” for upgrades and other advancements.
When they work?
However, sometimes they work. There are entire games in which gathering quests are the only quests, and yet, those games are amazing. Why? There is a simple 3 steps test. Let's do an example. Describe a simple scene in which a gathering quest interrupt your main character:
- This is Amy.
- Amy wants to be a great warrior.
- Amy is collecting mushrooms.
How the scene feels? How Amy, the embodiment of your player, feels? Probably disappointed and frustrated. She wants to be a warrior! She should be out there killing monsters!
Let's see another example.
- This is Geppetto.
- Geppetto wants to craft a beautiful puppet.
- Geppetto is collecting wood.
How does this scene feel? I think better. Collecting wood is a meaningful activity for a carpenter. Add some stronger motivation to justify why he cannot get wood in a simpler way and you have a quest that makes sense in the eyes of the player.
That's why collecting quests works in games like My Time at Portia, Stardew Valley and other games in which the player plays the role of a character in which gathering is a core part of their main job. I mean, if the players play as a farmer collecting crops, selling stuff to the market is part of the job. People expect to do that; they cannot be disappointed by that.
On the other hand, if you need to save the world, if the main character is a stereotypical badass hero, then why — in the name of God — he/she needs to waste time collecting rocks? The player should be out there fighting epic monsters, not gathering daisies.
Yes, you can add gathering quests to your single player RPG. But they must be meaningful, motivated. I'll do an example.
Suppose you want to make a quest in which the player needs to fight about 10 goblins. There are two ways.
- You can do a boring quest like “10 goblins”. Just attach a motivation nobody care about, that goes completely out the main story and make the players wonder “why I care?".
- You can challenge the player with a true motivation. Maybe put an item that is relevant to the main story quest (or a side story-line) in a goblin outpost and casually put 10 goblins there.
Which two quests are more organic? Which two quests feels better for the players? Being forced to kill 10 goblins they do not care about, or finding a relevant object and coincidentally kill 9/11 goblins? I have little doubts about that.
Gathering quests (but also the MMROPG-like quest like “kill 10 trolls”) are horrible. They are a cheap way to pollute a single-player experience with tedious experiences designed to prolong the gaming experience artificially.
However, they may work if the gathering is part of the emotional experience that the player expects when approaching the game and if they fit the contexts of the players’ avatars. If not, you can still add them as small extra but, for the love of God, make them completely optional!
Gathering quests are like spices: they may exalt your recipe, but if you put them in the wrong dish or put too much of them and you will ruin everything.