The MMORPG convention of the quest hub, which swamps players with dozens of tasks as soon as they reach a new area, has become stale and is in need of a rethink.
The quest hub has entrenched itself into modern MMORPG design since before the days of WoW. Although it can be argued that its extensive use in WoW is what has made it such a staple in current design.
Its benefits to a game are well explored. They give players something to do, help standardize loot distribution, and can guide players' travels. They provide impetus and give designers greater control over players' experiences. But do players like this sort of hand holding?
A poll on Kotaku revealed that the boredom of mundane tasks is the main barrier preventing surveyed players from enjoying their time in traditional RPGs. And yet the mundanity of tasks in RPGs are usually eclipsed by random MMORPG quests, such those that would have you kill 10 wolves or collect 10 boar hooves.
For all that quest hubs add to a game, they can also detract. While they can channel players to particular areas, they are in a sense forced to go there. This discourages exploration of locations that do not deal with quests, while diminishing the value of exploring those that are. You will often find large populations of players in area where a particular quest is completed. You will often have to compete with those players for kills and pick-ups in order to complete the quest. Saving an orphan from a band of orcs seems somehow less meaningful when your primary concern is to beat other would-be heroes to the punch right as the event spawns.
Quest hubs also have a negative impact on environmental design that is typified by a grotto filled with forty growling brown bears. The phenomenon of having to cram a lot of identical creatures into a small area is an unfortunate side-effect of quests that would have you kill them en masse.
Doing away with the quest hub format, grants level designers more freedom to create the environment and fill it as they please. But more importantly, it grants players more freedom to explore that environment. They can remain in an area or move on as they please, no longer concerned with whether or not they are progressing a quest.
Turning Everquest into Neverquest?
I am not suggesting doing away with quests altogether, simply lowering the amount of quests. It's not about reducing the game to a mindless grind of random enemies, but it should be pointed out that forcing players to grind quests, as you did in WoW: Wrath of the Lich King, is not much better.
It's a matter of quality over quantity. I would estimate that during a typical experience in an MMORPG, I only truly enjoy about 1 in 20 quests. Combining elements of these standout quests into a central, story-driven quest would perhaps be preferable to spacing them out over dozens of smaller, less meaningful tasks. A great example of the type of quest I'm alluding to can be found in the Lord of the Rings Online's main storyline. Yet between the various stages of the story, LOTRO resorts to the quest hub format.
How can designers remove quest hubs without losing most of their benefits? The answer may be through a more involving environment filled with dynamic events. Dynamic events can be anything from encounters with special, or named, mobs to rescuing a villager from a pack of hungry wolves. In either case, it is important that the location and details of the event are fluid. The products of the dynamic event are similar to those of the simple quest: experience, coin, faction, and gear for the player. The difference is that they are not forced to seek them out. They should encounter events such as these along their journeys, regardless of where they decide to explore.
Dynamic events can be found in Cryptic's City of Heroes or Champions Online. In CO, a citizen saved from a group of thugs may give a player a simple task to complete in an instance. This is an excellent example of a direction designers can take to avoid the quest hub.
Another way to minimize the need for quest hubs is through a mechanism present in almost every modern game: achievements. Instead of having a farmer ask you to slay 10 rooting pigs, designers can simply include an achievement that yields an experience or monetary bonus when completed. Killing 10 of a kind can be a default achievement, which essentially gives players the quest of killing 10 of every enemy in the world. Warhammer: Age of Reckoning's tome of knowledge has shown how this type of system could be possible.
The dismemberment of the quest hub can also help make players' journeys make more sense. I've often found myself asking, "Why do I need a quest to save this child from the goblin camp? I'm here, the child is getting poked by spears, yet I have to go talk to her distressed mother back in the village before coming back and saving the kid." Then there is the sheriff that asks you to kill 12 bandits, after you've just returned from slaughtering their camp. Why can't you just tell him they're already taken care of?
Dynamic events are basically small quests that unfold in real time. They break the stodgy regimen of the MMORPG quest and prevent a lot of senseless traveling, which is a contributing factor to the loss of players -- as demonstrated by the fact that WoW keeps lowering the level required to utilize a mount.
The Love of Exploration
The point here is to minimize the presence of meaningless tasks, while re-embracing the love of exploration, which is so crucial to nonlinear games. Guiding the player to general locations can still be handled through the primary quest line.
If players want to go spelunking, they are rewarded for doing so. If they want to climb a mountain, let them. The dynamic events, just like quests, will exist only to add more color and variety to what should already be a fun journey.