For game developers to attract players to their game and keep their attention, more than a fun and captivating main quest is needed. Gamers do want to see an interesting story unfold as they overcome all sorts of challenges to get one step closer to their main goal, but they also want other stuff to do along the way.
Even if your game has plenty of side quests to check out, it won’t matter if most of them feel more like a chore than anything else. This is because side quests are more than optional missions to collect rewards; they are a way for players to get more out of a game they’re enjoying. To avoid having dull and unattractive side quests, consider the following hints while designing your own.
Make the plot and characters involved interesting.
The best side quests you’ll find usually contain their own small story with some sort of conflict that the player will be responsible for solving. More importantly, these side quests are enticing when the story and characters relate in some way to the main plot. Whether they do or not, having boring characters and a forgettable problem to solve is what you want to stay away from.
A prime example of a side quest with an engaging narrative is one from The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask involving two characters named Anju and Kafei. Set to marry on the day of the Carnival of Time, their plans are ruined when the notorious Skull Kid turns Kafei into a child. Things worsen when the wedding mask he plans to present Anju is stolen, forcing him to go into hiding while a depressed Anju wonders where her husband-to-be went.
This particular quest is memorable mainly due to its impactful ending. Although you manage to reunite Anju and Kafei, it is mere minutes before the moon is about to destroy them all. This is because Link can never save Termina and help the two lovers due to the three day time limit, which means that helping them indirectly dooms them as well.
Avoid the exhausting collection quests.
When it comes to collection quests, one of the most notorious game series is Assassin’s Creed. In Assassin’s Creed III, for example, there are eagle feathers hidden throughout the entire game; 50 to be exact. These feathers are found in some of the most obscure locations that are anything but convenient to reach, often requiring plenty of time and effort to collect.
We’ll talk about rewards later but it’s worth noting that all you receive for this time-consuming task is a new outfit. Quests like these are enjoyed by some gamers, but many would argue that they’re simply added to inflate the game time via tedious, unfun tasks. Unfortunately, we can hardly blame developers for doing this. These days, gamers demand their purchase be justified by the promise of lengthy gameplay time.
If you do find yourself adding a collection quest in your game, figure out a way to make the rewards feel worth the effort. In Arkham Asylum, all you get for completing the Riddler side quest is a brief audio of him getting arrested. Fortunately, Rocksteady went a step further in Arkham City, and rewarded you with a confrontation with the Riddler himself, which is much cooler.
Use side quests to immerse players into your world.
One effective way of using side quests to captivate players, is by using text or audio logs. In BioShock Infinite you can collect portable voice recording devices called voxophones left behind by the inhabitants of Columbia. When obtained, they offer some of the most interesting story tidbits, as you listen to people that actually live in the game’s world.
Another way is to give players an attractive reason to explore the game’s environments. Even if your game ends up boasting an expansive world with amazing places to check out, chances are many gamers are never going to bother unless you give them a good reason to do so. One of the best examples you can look to is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
In this critically acclaimed game, you have the option of traveling to every single island in the game in order to chart them on your map. What makes this side quest so great is that each island has its own mysteries to discover, from unique puzzles and enemies to small dungeons with a worthy prize at the end. Many even contain small quests of their own, filled with novel challenges you won’t find anywhere else.
Offer a variety of side quest types.
If you want players to hate your game’s side quests, make them feel repetitive. This is usually done by having too many of the same types of side quests throughout your game. For instance, no matter how fun the combat is in your game, no one wants to do a dozen “kill x number of enemies” quests in a row.
Try to sprinkle different quest types throughout the game to keep them feeling fresh and interesting. It also helps to know perhaps the most common types of quests: kill quests (kill a certain boss or number of enemies), fetch quests (deliver an item somewhere), escort missions (protect a person or objective), and gather quests (collect a certain amount of an item).
A game known for having a good variety of quests is World of Warcraft, perhaps the most popular MMO of all time. No matter what zone you go to, or level you find yourself at, the designers made sure to offer different objectives for you to choose from. Delivering an impressive selection of side quests to complete is one of the reasons World of Warcraft is still at the top more than a decade after its launch.
Make sure the rewards are satisfying.
Let’s briefly go back to the Assassin’s Creed III example from earlier. Even if you use an online guide, you’re looking at several hours of your time in order to collect all 50 eagle feathers. After all that hard work, does it truly feel like it was all worth it when all you receive is a new outfit for your character to wear? Unless you’re a completionist, probably not.
We’re not saying that a quest always has to end with an amazing new item or upgrade for the player, although this is usually welcome if the quest was very challenging or time-consuming. The point is, some players are happy to complete a quest if all they receive is an interesting resolution or extra piece of story to enjoy.
Chrono Trigger, arguably one of the best RPGs of all time, offers some of the most satisfying rewards of any side quests you’re likely to play. Cyrus’ Ghost is a prime example that gives players both an upgrade to the Masamune, as well as a heart-warming scene where Frog finally gets to say goodbye to his deceased friend. So even though the rewards you get are great, it’s the story scenes tied to the side quest that feel even more special.
Have worthwhile quest chains.
As the name suggests, a quest chain is a sequence of quests that must be completed in a certain order. These quests are usually tied to the same plot, increase in difficulty as players progress through the chain, and offer a gratifying reward at the end. Quest chains can, of course, consist of any number of quests and be made available at different times in the story.
Quest chains are particularly compelling because they often take you across different locations throughout the game, encouraging players to journey into new areas they might otherwise not experience. At the same time, they also allow you to follow a single plot-line in stages, which players can find themselves attached to if they’ve been involved with it most of the game.
A good example of an interesting quest chain is the one from Ocarina of Time, where you receive the Biggoron Sword at the end. Although it only involves trading items to different characters and doesn’t have much of a story, it’s a fun series of quests because you get to learn a lot about less important characters in the game. Without doing this quest you’d never know that Anju and Grog are actually siblings, both the children of the carpenter Mutoh and grandchildren of the potion lady Granny.