How to make good quests

Ellery: The text below was adapted by me for TubMud. Don't feel irritated by the occasional references to it and my having a different character name there. Also, don't worry about the patronizing mood I employ in the notes every now and then - this text is meant to enforce a mud policy on TubMud, it's only a source of ideas here on Nanny.

Macbeth: This is taken from the manual of a compiler for INFOCOM-like games. And while muds are different from text adventures, they have still enough in common to use similar design criteria for them. Besides, it is a very good text.

1. A Bill of Player's Rights

Perhaps the most important point about designing a game is to think as a player and not a designer. I think the least a player deserves is:

1. Not to be killed without warning

At its most basic level, this means that a room with three exits, two of which lead to instant death and the third to treasure, is unreasonable without some hint. Mention of which brings us to:

2. Not to be given horribly unclear hints

Many years ago, I played a game in which going north from a cave led to a lethal pit. The hint was: there was a pride of lions carved above the doorway. Good hints can be skilfully hidden, or very brief (I think, for example, the hint in the moving-rocks plain problem in "Spellbreaker" is a masterpiece) but should not need explaining even after the event.

A more sophisticated version of (1) leads us to:

3. To be able to win without experience of past lives

Suppose, for instance, there is a nuclear bomb buried under some anonymous floor somewhere, which must be disarmed. It is unreasonable to expect a player to dig up this floor purely because in previous games, the bomb blew up there. To take a more concrete example, in "The Lurking Horror" there is something which needs cooking for the right length of time. As far as I can tell, the only way to find out the right time is by trial and error. But you only get one trial per game. In principle a good player should be able to play the entire game out without doing anything illogical. In similar vein:

4. To be able to win without knowledge of future events

For example, the game opens near a shop. You have one coin and can buy a lamp, a magic carpet or a periscope. Five minutes later you are transported away without warning to a submarine, whereupon you need a periscope. If you bought the carpet, bad luck.

5. Not to have the game closed off without warning

Closed off meaning that it would become impossible to proceed at some later date. If there is a papier-mache wall which you can walk through at the very beginning of the game, it is extremely annoying to find that a puzzle at the very end requires it to still be intact, because every one of your saved games will be useless. Similarly it is quite common to have a room which can only be visited once per game. If there are two different things to be accomplished there, this should be hinted at.

6. Not to need to do unlikely things

For example, a game which depends on asking a policeman about something he could not reasonably know about. (Less extremely, the problem of the hacker's keys in "The Lurking Horror".) Another unlikely thing is waiting in uninteresting places. If you have a junction such that after five turns an elf turns up and gives you a magic ring, a player may well never spend five turns there and never solve what you intended to be straightforward. On the other hand, if you were to put something which demanded investigation in the junction, it might be fair enough. ("Zork III" is especially poor in this respect.)

7. Not to need to do boring things for the sake of it

In the bad old days many games would make life difficult by putting objects needed to solve a problem miles away from where the problem was, despite all logic - say, putting a boat in the middle of a desert. Or, for example, it might be fun to have a four-discs tower of Hanoi puzzle in a game. But not an eight-discs one.

Macbeth: This applies to mazes as well. However, they are somewhat different. See the section on mazes below for more information.

8. Not to have to type exactly the right verb

For instance, looking inside a box finds nothing, but searching it does. Or consider the following dialogue (amazingly, from "Sorcerer"):

    >unlock journal
    (with the small key)
    No spell would help with that!

    >open journal
    (with the small key)
    The journal springs open.
This is so misleading as to constitute a bug. But it's an easy design fault to fall into. (Similarly, the wording needed to use the brick in Zork II strikes me as quite unfair. Or perhaps I missed something obvious.)

9. To be allowed reasonable synonyms

In the same room in "Sorcerer" is a "woven wall hanging" which can instead be called "tapestry" (though not "curtain"). This is not a luxury, it's an essential.

10. To have a decent parser

This goes without saying. At the very least it should provide for taking and dropping multiple objects.

Macbeth: Unfortunately, the parser is the weakest spot of every LPmud so far. There isn't much you can do about it. I'm currently thinking about a way of making better parsing easier.

The last few are more a matter of taste, but I believe in them:

11. To have reasonable freedom of action

Being locked up in a long sequence of prisons, with only brief escapes between them, is not all that entertaining. After a while the player begins to feel that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him.

Macbeth: Likewise for MUDs. Too often quest designers choose the easy way out by making a room teleport-proof and blocking all exits until the victim has been told the entire story.

12. Not to depend much on luck

Small chance variations add to the fun, but only small ones. The thief in "Zork I" seems to me to be just about right in this respect, and similarly the spinning room in "Zork II". But a ten-ton weight which fell down and killed you at a certain point in half of all games is just annoying.

13. To be able to understand a problem once it is solved

This may sound odd, but many problems are solved by accident or trial and error. A guard-post which can be passed only if you are carrying a spear, for instance, ought to have some indication that this is why you're allowed past. (The most extreme example must be the notorious Bank of Zork.)

14. Not to be given too many red herrings

A few red herrings make a game more interesting. A very nice feature of "Zork I", "II" and "III" is that they each contain red herrings explained in the others (in one case, explained in "Sorcerer"). But difficult puzzles tend to be solved last, and the main technique players use is to look at their maps and see what's left that they don't understand. This is frustrated when there are many insoluble puzzles and useless objects. So you can expect players to lose interest if you aren't careful. My personal view is that red herrings ought to have some clue provided (even only much later): for instance, if there is a useless coconut near the beginning, then perhaps much later an absent-minded botanist could be found who wandered about dropping them. The coconut should at least have some rationale.

The very worst game I've played for red herrings is "Sorcerer", which by my reckoning has 10.

15. To have a good reason why something is impossible

Unless it's also funny, a very contrived reason why something is impossible just irritates. (The reason one can't walk on the grass in "Trinity" is only just funny enough, I think.)

16. Not to need to be American to understand hints

The diamond maze in "Zork II" being a case in point. Similarly, it's polite to allow the player to type English or American spellings or idiom. For instance "Trinity" endears itself to English players in that the soccer ball can be called "football" - soccer is a word almost never used in England.

Macbeth: I cannot stress this point enough. Currently, nine out of ten players who play TubMud are native German speakers and not used to the intricacies of the English language.

17. To know how the game is getting on

In other words, when the end is approaching, or how the plot is developing. Once upon a time, score was the only measure of this, but hopefully not any more.

2. What makes a good game?

1. The Plot

The days of games which consisted of wandering around doing unrelated things to get treasures, are long passed: the original Adventure was fun, and so was Zork, but two such games are enough. There should be some overall task to be achieved, and it ought to be apparent to the player in advance.

This isn't to say that it should be apparent at once. Instead, one can begin with just an atmosphere or mood. But if so, there must be a consistent style throughout and this isn't easy to keep up. "The Lurking Horror" is an excellent example of a successful genre style; so is "Leather Goddesses of Phobos".

At its most basic, this means there should be no electric drills lying about in a medieval-style fantasy. The original Adventure was very clean in this respect, whereas Zork was less so: I think this is why Adventure remains the better game even though virtually everything in Zork was individually better.

If the chosen genre isn't fresh and relatively new, then the game had better be very good.

Plot begins with the opening message, rather the way an episode of Star Trek begins before the credits come up. It ought to be striking and concise (not an effort to sit through, like the title page of "Beyond Zork"). By and large Infocom were good at this. A fine example is the overture to "Trinity" (by Brian Moriarty):

Sharp words between the superpowers. Tanks in East Berlin. And now, reports the BBC, rumors of a satellite blackout. It's enough to spoil your continental breakfast.

But the world will have to wait. This is the last day of your $599 London Getaway Package, and you're determined to soak up as much of that authentic English ambience as you can. So you've left the tour bus behind, ditched the camera and escaped to Hyde Park for a contemplative stroll through the Kensington Gardens.

Already you know: who you are (an unadventurous American tourist, of no significance in the world); exactly where you are (Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London, England); and what is going on (World War III is about to break out). Notice the careful details: mention of the BBC, of continental breakfasts, of the camera and the tour bus. More subtly, "Trinity" is a game which starts as a kind of escapism from a disastrous world out of control: notice the way the first paragraph is in tense, blunt, headline-like sentences, whereas the second is much more relaxed. So a lot has been achieved by these two opening paragraphs.

The most common plots boil down to saving the world, by exploring until eventually you vanquish something ("Lurking Horror" again, for instance) or collecting some number of objects hidden in awkward places ("Leather Goddesses" again, say). The latter can get very hackneyed (got to find the nine magic spoons of Zenda to reunite the Kingdom...), so much so that it becomes a bit of a joke ("Hollywood Hijinx") but still it isn't a bad idea, because it enables many different problems to be open at once.

Most games have a prologue, a middle game and an end game, which are usually quite closed off from each other. Usually once one of these phases has been left, it cannot be returned to.

Macbeth: Well, you haven't much of a choice where the genre is concerned, TubMud having wizrule #8 and a generic fantasy setting. All the more reason to invest some amount of thinking in the plot.

2. The Prologue

In establishing an atmosphere, the prologue gives a good head start. In the original mainframe Adventure, this was the above-ground landscape; the fact that it was there gave a much greater sense of claustrophobia and depth to the underground bulk of the game.

Sometimes a dream-sequence is used (for instance, in "Lurking Horror"), or sometimes simply a more mundane region of game (for instance, the guild-house in "Sorcerer"). It should not be too large or too hard.

As well as establishing the mood of the game, and giving out some background information, the prologue has to attract a player enough to make him carry on playing. It's worth imagining that the player is only toying with the game at this stage, and isn't drawing a map or being at all careful. If the prologue is big, the player will quickly get lost and give up. If it is too hard, then many players simply won't reach the middle game.

Perhaps eight to ten rooms is the largest a prologue ought to be, and even then it should have a simple (easily remembered) map layout.

Macbeth: In TubMud, there should also be a more or less obvious point where to start. In addition, you may try to write a quest with several possible starting points. Or one, where two players have to start at different locations.

3. The Middle Game

A useful exercise is to draw out a tree (or more accurately a lattice) of all the puzzles in a game. At the top is a node representing the start of the game, and then lower nodes represent solved puzzles. An arrow is drawn between two puzzles if one has to be solved before the other can be. For instance, a simple portion might look like:

                      /     \
                     /       \
              Find key     Find car
                     \        |
                      \       |
                       Start car
                     Reach motorway
This is useful because it checks that the game is soluble (for example, if the ignition key had been kept in a phone box on the motorway, it wouldn't have been) but also because it shows the overall structure of the game. The questions to ask are:

How much is visible at once? Do large parts of the game depend on one difficult puzzle? How many steps does a typical problem need?

Some games, such as the original Adventure, are very wide: there are thirty or so puzzles, all easily available, none leading to each other. Others, such as "Spellbreaker", are very narrow: a long sequence of puzzles, each of which leads only to a chance to solve the next.

A compromise is probably best. Wide games are not very interesting, while narrow ones can in a way be easy: if only one puzzle is available at a time, the player will just concentrate on it, and will not be held up by trying to use objects which are provided for different puzzles.

Bottlenecks should be avoided unless they are reasonably guessable: otherwise many players will simply get no further.

Puzzles ought not to be simply a matter of typing in one well-chosen line. One hallmark of a good game is not to get any points for picking up an easily-available key and unlocking a door with it. This sort of low-level achievement - like wearing an overcoat found lying around, for instance - should not be enough. A memorable puzzle will need several different ideas to solve (the Babel fish dispenser in "Hitch-hikers", for instance).

4. Density

Once upon a time, the sole measure of quality in advertisements for adventure games was the number of rooms. Even quite small programs would have 200 rooms, which meant only minimal room descriptions and simple puzzles which were scattered thinly over the map.

Nowadays a healthier principle has been adopted: that (barring a few junctions and corridors) there should be something out of the ordinary about every room.

One reason for the quality of the "Infocom" games is that the version 3 system has an absolute maximum of 255 objects, which needs to cover rooms, objects and many other things (eg, compass directions, or the spells in "Enchanter" et al). Many "objects" are not portable anyway: walls, tapestries, thrones, control panels, coal-grinding machines and so on.

As a rule of thumb, four objects to one room is about right: this means there will be, say, 50-60 rooms. Of the remaining 200 objects, one can expect 15-20 to be used up by the game's administration (eg, a "darkness" room, 10 compass directions, a player and so on). Another 50-75 or so objects will be portable but the largest number, at least 100, will be furniture.

So an object limit can be a blessing as well as a curse: it forces the designer to make the game dense. Rooms are too precious to be wasted.

Macbeth: Did I ever mention that I hated those (n+1)-rooms quests with nothing in them? Quantos's maze, albeit not an official quest, is probably the worst example. Moreover, you shouldn't make your quest too long. It probably will get too boring after some time.

5. Rewards

There are two kinds of reward which need to be given to a player in return for solving a puzzle. One is obvious: that the game should advance a little. But the player at the keyboard needs a reward as well, that the game should offer something new to look at. In the old days, when a puzzle was solved, the player simply got a bar of gold and had one less puzzle to solve.

Macbeth: This is a bit more tricky in TubMud, with all our problems with quests handing out tons of gold and special items. You should think twice before handing out any material rewards. Some experience points would of course be a better idea. But be careful not to unbalance the game.

Much better is to offer the player some new rooms and objects to play with, as this is a real incentive. If no new rooms are on offer, at least the "treasure" objects can be made interesting, like the spells in the "Enchanter" trilogy or the cubes in "Spellbreaker".

6. Mazes

Almost every game contains a maze. Nothing nowadays will ever equal the immortal

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

But now we are all jaded. A maze should offer some twist which hasn't been done before (the ones in "Enchanter" and "Sorcerer" being fine examples).

The point is not to make it hard and boring. The standard maze solution is to litter the rooms with objects in order to make the rooms distinguishable. It's easy enough to obstruct this, the thief in "Zork I" being about the wittiest way of doing so. But that only makes a maze tediously difficult.

Instead there should be an elegant quick solution: for instance a guide who needs to be bribed, or fluorescent arrows painted on the floor which can only be seen in darkness (plus a hint about darkness, of course).

Above all, don't design a maze which appears to be a standard impossibly hard one: even if it isn't, a player may lose heart and give up rather than go to the trouble of mapping it.

Macbeth: YES. Maybe that's a personal quirk of mine, but I resent mapping mazes as part of a quest. This usually (though not always) means that the author was lacking the imagination to come up with something more original. But of course it is perfectly acceptable to send somebody on a wild-goose chase through a maze if he was too stupid to figure out an easier way.

7. Wrong guesses

For some puzzles, a perfectly good alternative solution will occur to players. It's good style to code two or more solutions to the same puzzle, if that doesn't upset the rest of the game. But even if it does, at least a game should say something when a good guess is made. (Trying to cross the volcano on the magic carpet in "Spellbreaker" is a case in point.)

One reason why "Zork" held the player's attention so firmly (and why it took about ten times the code size, despite being slightly smaller than the original mainframe Adventure) was that it had a huge stock of usually funny responses to reasonable things which might be tried.

My favourite funny response, which I can't resist reprinting here, is:

   You are falling towards the ground, wind whipping around you.
   Down seems more likely.     "Spellbreaker"
(Though I also recommend trying to take the sea serpent in "Zork II".) This is a good example because it's exactly the sort of boring rule (can't move from the midair position) which most designers usually want to code as fast as possible, and don't write with any imagination.

Just as some puzzles should have more than one solution, some objects should have more than one purpose. In bad old games, players automatically threw away everything as soon as they'd used them. In better designed games, obviously useful things (like the crowbar and the gloves in "Lurking Horror") should be hung on to by the player throughout.

8. The Map

To maintain an atmosphere throughout it's vital that the map should be continuous. Adventure games used to have maps like

          Oriental Room  --  Fire Station
           (megaphone)        (pot plant)
           Cheese Room
in which the rooms bore no relation to each other, so that the game had no overall geography at all, and objects were unrelated to the rooms they were in. Much more believable is something like
       Snowy Mountainside
             Carved Tunnel
             Oriental Room  -- Jade Passage -- Fire Dragon
                (buddha)       (bonsai tree)      Room
             Blossom Room
Try to have some large-scale geography too: the mountainside should extend across the map in both directions. If there is a stream passing through a given location, what happens to it? And so on.

In designing a map, it adds to the interest to make a few connections in the rarer compass directions (NE, NW, SE, SW) to prevent the player from a feeling that the game has a square grid. Also, it's nice to have a few (possibly long) loops which can be walked around, to prevent endless retracing of steps.

If the map is very large, or if a good deal of to-and-froing is called for, there should be some rapid means of moving across it, such as the magic words in Adventure, or the cubes in "Spellbreaker".

Macbeth: This is VERY important in a MUD. Try to maintain consistency.

9. The End Game

Some end games are small ("Lurking Horror", or "Sorcerer" for instance), others large (the master game of the mainframe Adventure). Nonetheless almost all games have one.

End games serve two purposes. Firstly they give the player a sense of being near to success, and can be used to culminate the plot, to reveal the game's secrets. This is obvious enough. But secondly they also serve to stop the final stage of the game from being too hard.

As a designer, you don't usually want the last step to be too difficult; you want to give the player the satisfaction of finishing, as a reward for having got through the game. (But of course you want to make him work for it.) An end game helps, because it narrows the game, so that only a few rooms and objects are accessible.

The most annoying thing is requiring the player to have brought a few otherwise useless objects with him. The player should not be thinking that the reason for being stuck on the master game is that something very obscure should have been done 500 turns before.

10. And Finally...

Finally, the winner gets some last message (which, like the opening message, should have something amusing in it and should not be too long). That needn't quite be all, though. In its final incarnations (alas, not the one included in Lost Treasures), "Zork I" offered winners access to the hints system at the RESTART, RESTORE or QUIT prompt.

Macbeth: Of course, this is quite different in TubMud. You'll have to arrange for a quest reward and guide the player back to a place which has a connection to the rest of the MUD. There may even be more than just a message - use your imagination. In general, a good quest doesn't even need to deal out a huge amount of rewards - playing it will have been enough of a reward.

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