MMO quests have undergone a substantial transformation as the genre has matured. Newer titles have trended towards progressively more streamlined, guided leveling over the skill-focused grinding found in older titles, with quests donning the mantle of the de facto method for leveling a character. We've seen the production value for quest content skyrocket as a result, bloating to consume the majority of MMO budgets following the market's surge towards fully voice acted characters and animated cut scenes in triple A titles.
So why is RuneScape, a game with none of those benefits, considered by so many to be the pinnacle of quest design in the MMO genre? After all this effort put towards story delivery in triple A MMOs, why does the satisfaction their quests provide still lag behind?
A Hero's Journey
The answer lies buried in quests' literary foundation, which describes a narrative form seemingly anathema to the design found in modern MMOs.
In mythology and literature, a quest, a journey towards a goal, serves as a plot device and (frequently) as a symbol. Quests appear in the folklore of every nation and also figure prominently in non-national cultures. In literature, the objects of quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles, typically including much travel. The aspect of travel also allows the storyteller to showcase exotic locations and cultures (an objective of the narrator, not of the character). - [Wikipedia]
Highlighting the key features of a literary or mythological quest reveals crucial elements completely absent from the quests found in most MMOs.
Requires great exertion by the hero
Requires overcoming many obstacles
Travel features prominently
Take for example Frodo's quest in Lord of the Rings. In his journey to destroy The One Ring, Frodo travels across Middle Earth acquiring special items, soliciting the help of exotic allies, improving his adventuring skills, and fighting powerful monsters before eventually completing his quest at Mount Doom. If we were to take on the same quest in an MMO, we would find Bilbo at his house on Mount Doom, then walk 500 feet into his back yard to chuck in the ring because he couldn't be bothered to do it himself, with an optional objective of killing 10 orcs along the way.
While it's true that in a narrative sense, recent MMO quests have gotten better at stringing together a coherent story through quest chains, they've done nothing to incorporate the key features of quests found in literature as mentioned above. Unfortunately, as a necessary result of the current paradigm on character leveling, they never will.
Streamlining Compels Simplicity
The current generation of MMOs has a single-minded focus on delivering a polished, streamlined, hand-guided experience, a philosophy that has come to define the way in which quests are designed. Players are never left with any doubt towards where they should be while leveling; from the moment they enter the game until they hit level cap, they follow along a linear zone progression from one quest hub to another, never encountering a challenge that's not perfectly matched to their character's power level.
This follows directly from the switch to quests as the primary means of leveling, which hobbled the way in which MMO quests can be designed. Because quests are localized around sequential hubs, you can't have a quest send you on a lengthy journey across the world. Because quests are intended to provide 100% of a character's progression, you can't have a quest requiring special skills to be leveled or items procured (unless the item is a special quest item found in a conveniently close area; for example, a quest might send you to a nearby storehouse to find a rope, but it won't ask you to craft one).
While this new paradigm has helped to streamline the way in which characters are leveled, it has decimated the potential for quests to feel rewarding in their own right. The complete removal of preparation, challenge, and thinking from MMO quests has turned them from exciting and fulfilling journeys to boring content gauntlets players are funneled through for the sake of progression, no better than the grind they replaced. These quests are completed for that progression only, rather than to gain any sense of accomplishment from experiencing the content itself.
How RuneScape Gets it Right
This is the core difference between typical MMO quests and what RuneScape has to offer. A quest in RuneScape stands up to comparison against the standards laid by its literary forebears, while a quest in a more typical MMO would be better characterized as a random task.
I still remember doing the Dragon Slayer quest almost 15 years ago (the staying power of the experience speaks volumes on its own). The quest requires you to level specific skills, craft or purchase specific items, spend a good amount of currency, and travel across the world to gather map pieces to find and defeat the legendary dragon Elvarg (full walkthrough here, for the curious). Finishing the quest allows you to equip the prestigious rune plate chest piece, making completion of the quest something of a status symbol.
The Dragon Slayer quest features every aspect of a literary quest. The player will venture across the game's world, soliciting aid from exotic NPCs, acquiring a magical flame-retardant shield to withstand the fiery breath of dragons, solving puzzles to reassemble the long-lost map to the dragon's lair, and leveling their skills to be able to take on the obstacles they're faced with along the way, all before eventually taking on one of the first truly challenging fights in the title's early levels. Even for a prepared player, the quest should take well over an hour.
Engrossing narrative design and significant rewards like the ability to equip certain items are only a part of why the game's quests feel so much more satisfying than those found in typical MMOs. Another is that you can't necessarily do every quest that you find right away, creating a situation where the player feels accomplished after increasing their skills to complete a task; this holds true even when the requirement is something as seemingly mundane as raising your cooking skill. In this way, the questing system reinforces the skill system, providing targeted goals for players to focus on when leveling their skills.
On a thematic level, the fact that where you pick up a quest doesn't mean a whole lot about where it's going to send you or how strong you need to be to complete it is also kind of exciting. Sure, the quest in front of you might only send you the 500 feet into Bilbo's backyard, but it might just as easily send you over 500 miles to Mount Doom.
Through these combinations of features, RuneScape's quests authentically feel like a hero's journey instead of just random filler that you're being forced to do. As a result, they are epic in the true sense of the word.
Why RuneScape Stands Alone
The degree to which RuneScape's quests blow away the competition has given rise to frequent discussions of why it's never been replicated. The answer is simple, but not particularly promising; as long as quests remain the primary means of leveling, they have little hope of becoming interesting.
RuneScape features an old-school skill based leveling system. You aren't just raising a simple character level that governs all your skills; you're working on raising individual skills by doing. Want to level your ranged skill? Fight with a bow. Want to level your melee attack? That's a different skill entirely. Though quests do generally reward experience to specific skills (Dragon Slayer rewards Strength and Defence experience), the great majority of leveling is done simply by going out and grinding away at whatever it is you want to raise.
The divorce of leveling from questing is something that Jagex has evidently found quite liberating. Because the game's quests were never meant to be the introductory content by which everyone levels, the opportunity for them to be so much more arose. The developers no longer had to worry about the accessibility concerns like everyone being able to quickly get through quests at any level of player skill or intelligence. They didn't have to worry about players who hadn't leveled a specific skill not being able to complete a quest. They didn't have to worry about leading players by the hand from quest to quest. And boy did they capitalize on this.
Now separated from the leveling grind, RuneScape's quests became more than just mandatory hurdles placed in front of a character's progression, instead being realized as their own form of challenging and engaging content that supplements leveling, much in the same way as dungeons in a standard MMO.
The separation of quests and the leveling grind also helps to direct the consumption of quests as individual journeys and experiences. Players don't go into town, pick up every quest they can find, and then knock them all out at once; they purposefully set out to find and complete specific individual quests when they believe they are ready. Some newer MMOs have tried to recreate this by limiting players to holding only one quest at a time, but because chaining quests is still the main form of leveling content, the attempt falls short.
This is the great irony from which MMO quests suffer in the current paradigm. The greater the role quests play in the leveling experience, the worse an experience they are by necessity. Even games like The Old Republic and The Secret World, arguably the dueling pinnacles of questing in the modern MMO, have failed to capture that same sense of growth and accomplishment. Even though they push it to its very limits with spot on presentation, their quest design remains predicated on the streamlined model popularized by World of Warcraft.
The Future of MMO Quests
So will MMO quests get better? It's hard to say.
The first thing that has to change is the focus on quests as the primary means of leveling. Many upcoming MMOs are beginning to eschew this method purely on the basis of it being a colossal waste of development resources, particularly those with a PvP focus. Crowfall, Camelot Unchained, and Albion Online all feature progression models in which players level without questing, whether that be by actively grinding à la RuneScape or a skill training system similar to EVE Online's. However, the PvP focus in those games makes it unlikely that we'll ever see solid quests included in those specific titles.
If we want quests to become interesting again, our hopes would seem to lie with their inclusion in the elusive PvE focused sandbox; if only someone would actually make one.