Massively Overthinking: Epic Tavern-style player-generated content in MMORPGs
Ever played Epic Tavern? Massively OP reader Uli though it would make an interesting point of comparison for MMO content. “Epic Tavern is a single player game where you run a fantasy tavern frequented by heroes for a drink, food, bed for the night, and you can try to persuade those NPC heroes to go on a quest for you, sharing the spoils,” he explains.
“A comment I read suggested that would be great for MMO taverns: player running a tavern being able to give quests in the game to players frequenting the tavern. I know there are options for player run quests, but this would be different: pre-existing or otherwise player-made and engine-supported quests that are bestowed on player to match their group or skill level. And of course it would mean that visiting a tavern and meeting other players would finally have a point beyond mere chatting/RP. Ensuring people spent time in taverns to interact with would really help the socializing/third-space-in-virtual-rooms issue. But could it work in a MMO? Would that be abused for loot/rewards, biased quest assignment/withholding based on favors? Or what other problems could that cause?”
A lot of our writers and readers have experience with player-generated content, so I thought it would be fun to build on the ideas of Epic Tavern for Uli in this week’s Overthinking. Which MMOs have (or desperately need) great PGC, and when have you seen it go wrong? Could a formal, mechanical system for quest-giving like Epic Tavern’s work in an MMO, or is it something best left to the roleplayers?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Oh, I vaguely remember hearing about Epic Tavern! I remember seeing it and thinking, “This would be good as a kind of Entertainer class.”
For people who didn’t play Star War Galaxies (or haven’t read about it the zillion times we’ve talked about it), it was a non-combat support class that generally operated inside taverns, doing everything from buffs to changing hairstyles. The idea of having an actual barkeeper giving out rumors for quests and being player controlled just seems like something we should have already had. Darkfall should have done this for the RP community, plus it would have given the game a better way to distribute quests and (possibly) another reason for people to not go on murderous rampages. Most survival games should have something like this as well.
The thing is, I feel games with lots of developer generated content have done PGC decently. Neverwinter Online had some good quests made by players. The problem was that there was so much dev generated content with better rewards that it hardly felt like it mattered. A merger of the two, perhaps, where dev created quests are dolled out as abilities from tavern keeps, who may need adventurers to find rumors for them to distribute, might work better.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think the idea is lovely. Any roleplayer in our audience who’s ever participated in or run a roleplaying event in a tavern or otherwise is probably salivating over the chance to do it with in-game tools. By the time of Star Wars Galaxies and its storyteller/chronicles system – which allowed players to not only design quests but deploy temporary building pieces in the world – we’d come a very long way from having to “manually” dispatch player-run quests in EverQuest or beg GMs to decorate our RP cities in Ultima Online. Since SWG, though, we’ve become a bit stuck in terms of what games will enable. In most MMORPGs today, we can’t do more than we could in EverQuest, roleplay-wise. That hurts. It’s stupefyingly stunted.
There are exceptions, however, and specifically I’m thinking of the games like City of Heroes and Star Trek Online, which enabled player-designed missions via the AE and Foundry systems, specifically. There, as we saw, players would most definitely exploit the crap out of poorly designed player quest systems, to the point that Paragon and Cryptic nerfed the tools into oblivion and then all but abandoned them as players stopped using them in response. Especially in Paragon’s case, I think the playerbase and the genre was very much let down by the team (and you guys know how much I love that game and those devs, so take that in context). Clearly, there’s room for improvement in this space, unless we want to keep bleeding MMORPG roleplayers to things like Neverwinter Nights and Fantasy Grounds.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The biggest thing that needs to be in place for this to work mechanically is a good balance of reward for effort vs. time put in. What usually has the worst impact on PGC in games is just that it’s broken down to the point of offering the best reward for the least effort; when done correctly (such as many of the best bits of Mission Architect in City of Heroes and Foundry work in Star Trek Online) you wind up with great content exploring areas aside from what the developers see as most important. And I understand how frustrating it is to constantly be tweaking the reward-to-challenge balance for developers.
But let’s move beyond just the idea of player-made quests; this actually addresses a big failing of MMOs in general in that they tend to focus on ideas like “player economy” rather than the actual idea of economical services like this, for example. The idea of a player-run tavern shows up a lot, but offering an actual in-game structure for providing and frequenting services like this is pretty big. How wonderful would it be to have a tavern and have mechanical systems in place for improving your tavern? For offering players lower room rates? For buying your stocks from NPC suppliers and providing amenities for everyone? Why stop at taverns? Why not have player-run libraries and the like?
There are a few games (FFXIV and ArcheAge spring to mind) that could really do the necessary adjustment and make this a part of the game as it currently stands. Either way, I’m all in favor of creating more economics beyond “make items and sell them to players,” which is only the most bare-bones economic service out there. Some companies on Balmung have worked around this with performances in-game that cost in-game money to watch, but there’s more to be explored within this same design space.
Yes, this is something that would require a lot of time and attention from the developers to make sure the rewards are balanced and players still have fun, and it would also involve an awful lot of work. I can understand why it isn’t done more often. But boy, it’s a cool idea.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I love this idea and I think a lot of players would go for it. We should have the opportunities to do and be something in game other than business owners (crafters, auction house czars, production chain) and adventurers. And I find it frustrating that sandboxes don’t often have the support and tools in place to provide this expanded freedom.
What I’m hearing here is a feature that would be a player-created and -crafted mission system that existed in the actual world and not merely in instances (a la City of Heroes’ Mission Architect or Star Trek Online’s Foundry). And that would definitely require a robust set of flexible tools for players to create their own missions with multiple steps and stories. If the start of the mission would begin with that player, then others could access that quest only by speaking with the player (whether the quest giver was traveling or location-based).
As for missions, I think the best solution is to keep the rewards out of the hands of the creators and instead set up a reward track or randomized rewards that would work for all PGC. Such as “run five different player missions of this specific length and difficulty, get these rewards” or “run these missions and keep your eyes out for specific sparklies that can be grabbed for currency.” The devs would need to out-think players who would create generic and simple speed runs, but that can be overcome.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I love this idea, conceptually. I assume you level up by getting heroes to run and come back with your quest items, or perhaps you gain levels by coordinating a string of quests. You’re a tavern owner so you can’t go on quests yourself, but that old man with a sick daughter who just walked into your tavern needs a brew, but your brewmaster needs the ingredients and a special wizard’s cloak in order to make the brew. So you have to talk to an herbalist, who says that he needs special water to grow that herb. The brew also requires spider eggs, so you have to find one adventurer to sneak into a spider’s cave. Then you have to find an adventurer to talk a mermaid into getting the special water. Then you have to convince the local clothier to make the wizard’s robe. Once that is done, and everyone’s returned alive the brewmaster can make the brew and the daughter can be saved. I think I would be on board with this. It sounds like a weird kind of Sims game, but I like it.
If you translate that into an MMO, it sort of reminds me of how crafting in Star Wars Galaxies worked, except there are quests attached. I think it would be great! Of course, roleplayers would want everything to be given to them, but I think it could work like the Storyteller profession in SWG: You make your own quests and NPCs from a list, but you create the dialogue and can even voice some of the NPCs live if you wanted to. The more you do and the more people run your quests the better your quests can be.
WHY DON’T WE HAVE THIS ALREADY?!
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): As I have run taverns in many a game (it is my preferred gameplay after all!), and given numerous quests to folks as I did so, this topic is right up my alley. But every quest I offered was created by myself or with friends (who would often be “NPCs” along the way), and every reward was supplied by us as well. It would definitely be nice if games had more mechanics to facilitate this practice. One mechanism that comes close was in Xsyon: You could set quests on your tribe totem where people could gather certain materials and then be rewarded from your totem when they turned those items in.
I think a great way to allow this would be to have an item that begins a quest. Many games already have this mechanic so it should be very easy to incorporate. The only difference is it would be an item that the player is holding and passes out to folks. Wait, what if the person isn’t online? Well, how is that different than any GM live event in any game? besides, if there are multiple taverns, or folks manage to staff a tavern pretty regularly, then you won’t run into the issue of not having anyone there too often. How could you keep it from becoming a case of everyone having the item and exploiting the item to do repeated quests themselves? Only allow the features to be used by those who own taverns, or maybe a secret hideout that others discover — some establishment. Allow that owner to appoint a few employees to also give the item out so it isn’t left to one person alone. If I had to register my tavern in order to dole out missions for folks, I totally would! Also, you can make each item a limited supply throughout the day, or better yet, put a daily timer on it so one player can’t do the same thing over and over to milk it. Think how awesome it would be if these items rotated regularly, giving different missions on different days.
Games really are better off when they feel alive, and games feel alive when taverns are places to congregate for all types — not just roleplayers. That means people need a reason to go there; missions are a reason to go there. This totally should be a thing!