July 11 2012
Although there are MMORPGs that don't have quests, they have unwittingly become a mainstay of the genre. For the most part, people entering the world for the first time expect to see an NPC with a suitably obvious icon floating over its head, and, upon engaging in short dialogue with this character, be assigned a task roughly equivalent to killing 10 rats. Along with its ever-so-mundane deliver and retrieve counterparts, these types of quests have become one of the genre's defining elements.
Of course, it wasn't always that way. In early MMORPGs, including (ironically) EverQuest, quests were actually few, far between, and not that easy to find. You killed rats over and over again until you had advanced enough to kill something bigger over and over again, and "grinding" was born.
World of Warcraft was the game primarily responsible for questing as we know it today. In WoW quests are everywhere, they're clearly marked, and there's more than enough of them to get you to the level cap. These are arranged into a series of hubs and they guide you to level-appropriate content. You're still killing mobs, but in effect, you're getting additional rewards for doing so. Grinding remains an option, but questing greatly speeds up progression. And, oddly enough, at the level cap WoW is more about dungeons, raids, and PvP than questing.
Given WoW's success, it's not surprising that countless MMORPGs since have largely stayed with this proven quest structure. At the same time, the concept has taken some evolutionary steps, such as the "public" quests introduced in Warhammer Online, which Rift elaborated on, and Guild Wars 2 seems determined to elaborate on even further. Along with the usual mix of assignments, The Secret World offers puzzle missions that often require players to look up information outside of the game. I should reiterate that structured questing isn't the only way to approach MMORPG design. Alternatives come in the form of games like Eve Online, PlanetSide, Wizard 101, and A Tale in the Desert.
Nevertheless, the standard kill quest will probably not be retired anytime soon, and I really don't see MMORPGs going back to the pure grind of early titles in the genre. There is definitely potential in the sandbox approach, as it encourages player interaction as content, but as long as these games are still largely about killing mobs, variations on the theme aren't likely to feel much different. I suspect a lot of gamers would like to see adventuring in MMORPGs become closer to that of single-player RPGs such as The Elder Scrolls, although it's hard to imagine how that kind of free-form questing would work in a multiplayer title.
It understandable that players want quests that are as epic as those depicted in literature and film. That can mean killing a dragon, finding the Holy Grail, or throwing a ring into the fires of Mount Doom. The latter is actually a pretty simple task; the hard part is getting there. Imagine how much less epic it would have been if Frodo been able to teleport to Mount Doom and back. Similarly, if there were thousands of rings, the whole affair would start to seem a lot less heroic.
Our expectations may be a little high given the technology of the day, but improving the quest experience is clearly on the minds of many developers. The kill quest has become such a cliche that it's getting harder for games to rely on it, even with a heavy coat of voice-acting a la Star Wars: The Old Republic. To some extent, alternatives are already being experimented with, so all hope for more compelling quest content in MMORPGs is not lost.