This evening I was asked to handle a local infestation of boars. Of course killing boars in mmos is beyond cliche at this point so it seems appropriate that it was yet another quest to kill boars that prompted this post.
Because, you see, when I bravely ventured out to handle the fearsome boars, boars which I had been told were numerous and on the rampage, there was nary a boar to be found. And I know they weren't hiding behind trees, nor were they employing some new boar-stealth technology, as frequent application of my trusty boar tracking skill told me there were simply no boars left.
Apparently previous adventurers had already handled the boar problem.
So why did the NPC send me out to kill more boars? Was it all just some cruel joke? Surely he knew that, as he had been sending adventurers out all day long on the same quest, the boar problem had already been dealt with.
Humor aside, this is of course a long-standing problem with quests of the kill-10-rats variety. So long standing in fact that I'd guess it has made the rounds many times in the mmo blog-space. And yet, the problem remains.
Now, I've seen games that have attempted to address the problem. The most common "solution" seems to be to increase spawn rate as a function of the number of players in the area, but this is a weak solution in my opinion because it merely moves the disconnect from the beginning of the quest (go kill non-existent boars) to the end of the quest (here's a reward for the boar problem even though you didn't really make a dent in all the boars).
Other solutions I've seen include instancing (Oh, there's no more boar problem? Ok, let me create a special private magical universe filled with boars so you'll still be able to help me with my boar problem.) and on-the-spot generation of mobs for the player to kill (What? there are no boars? *makes strange gestures* Why don't you look again? See? Plenty of boars.) Again, these are weak solutions because they don't address the main issue -- that there really wasn't a boar problem to begin with.
Now, I know a lot of players don't see this as a problem. People for the most part don't care. They just want to kill stuff for experience and loot. And I can understand that point of view because I love killing stuff for experience and loot. But if we don't care about the quest-givers, and if we don't care about whether or not they were lying to us about some sort of issue with boars terrorizing the countryside, then I would propose that we eliminate the quest-givers entirely for those sorts of quests. If boars are a problem, then declare a general boar problem in the local town. Post it up on a bulletin board that boars are kill-on-sight for the week and remove the need for people to find quest givers willing to falsify boar census numbers. Perhaps individual boars are worth more experience for the week, and perhaps every 20 boars killed results in an extra bundle of experience as well as a choice of reward (magically transported to the player while out in the field or whatever method suits the lore of the day).
My point mostly boils down to this. Quests and quest-givers are there for those who care about lore and storyline and immersion in general. The ability to kill boars for gain is there for those who enjoy killing for gain -- and yes the two groups overlap. But when quests become nothing more than a transparent artifice to reward players for killing boars, then they no longer serve any real function as story-telling devices and they can end up actually hurting immersion.
So, I'd like to see boar killing quests made even more transparent and automatic by removing the quests entirely. And with regard to quests and quest-givers, I'd like to see something I've never seen before. I'd like for mmos to generate actual problems and have NPCs suddenly and dynamically ask adventurers for help with those problems. The problem can still be a problem with boars -- if only for nostalgia. But if a quest giver asks me to deal with a specific and sudden infestation of boars, I'd love to finally be able to take up the quest knowing that it was an actual problem. That there was a genuine invasion of boars in a nearby area. That I specifically had been asked to go deal with the problem. That once dealt with, the problem would go away. And that only I would be rewarded for the effort.
Of course, if someone else kills the boars, I'm not saying I wouldn't take credit. After all, the quest giver gave the quest to me and if I received help, its no concern of his.