DevDiary 6 - Side Quests
Ave Legate. Side quests! What are they? Where are they? Why are they? And how did they come to be? These are the questions that we will answer in this, our sixth DevDiary. All the way back in DevDiary 3, we gave you a glimpse into our overall approach to storytelling, and an outline of the plot of Expeditions: Rome as well as the major characters that drive it – but when you’re playing a roleplaying game, you don’t expect to just follow the main questline from the menu screen to the credits, you expect distractions; tangents; quirky adventures. You expect side quests, and so help us Jupiter, we will meet those expectations.
First off, let’s all get on the same page by establishing what makes a side quest a side quest. To us, a side quest is any piece of content that presents the player with a goal to pursue, but which is fully optional. Sometimes the main quests arrive a few at a time and you get to choose which order to do them in, but what defines a main quest is that you must complete it to continue the game – at some point, you cannot go any further in the game until you finish your current main quest. Side quests are less demanding of your time – they appear when it makes sense for them to be available, and if you don’t complete them before they stop being relevant, they simply fail themselves and go away. No harm done to the plot.
There are many good reasons to have side quests. From a design point of view, the purpose of side quests is to make full use of the large, beautiful levels we’ve built, and to encourage the player to explore them and engage with them through deep content. It’s all well and good to litter a level with treasure chests, but that doesn’t make the world feel more alive – it’s characters and the stories we can tell with them that bring a world to life. Not counting the player’s legion camp, Expeditions: Rome features no less than six so-called “hub” levels which are particularly large locations ripe for exploration.
Our amazing art team has really made these locations pop. They are packed with interesting environmental details and fascinating nooks and crannies to explore. That inspired our writers to fill these places with characters and side quests that would do them justice.
Secondly, from a player’s point of view, the purpose of a side quest is for the player to have more agency over the way the game is played – to wrest some control over the pacing away from the designers. Sometimes you want a breather from the high-stakes work of unravelling a complex political conspiracy, the tendrils of which stretch from the city of Rome to the most distant corners of the Republic. When you need a break, it’s nice to visit a local city and wander around, talking to people and following strange tangents away from the main plot for a while.
The work of creating our side quests happened relatively late in the project. In what was a bit of a departure from our previous methodology, we wanted to have the full main story finished before beginning work on the side content. This had the additional advantage that our levels were largely done by the time we began working on the side quests, giving us a very clear picture of which and how many we would need. The design department claimed a meeting room and spent a whole day just brainstorming ideas.
To guide our creativity, we formulated the following rules that all our side quests had to live up to:
1. A side quest must be “pull” content. Whereas many of our main quests are “pushed” upon you by messengers seeking you out, our side quests almost all begin with you walking up to an NPC and choosing to talk to them. That way, side content is something you find and which you choose to engage with; you are not made to feel obligated to spend your time on it. It should be perfectly fine to just miss a side quest.
2. All side quests must respect the player character’s station. You are the legatus of a Roman legion. You will not be asked to deliver messages, recover lost heirlooms from sewers, or catch petty thieves. Whatever an NPC asks you to do, it should be something that requires the attention of a general of an army, or a member of the nobility of Rome.
3. All side quests must meet at least one of the following requirements: it features a combat encounter; it presents the player with an interesting and important choice; it contributes to the portrayal of major supporting characters; it contributes significantly to our world building; it strongly supports one of the core themes of the game or relates directly to the main plot. The more of these boxes a side quest can tick, the better.
Let’s look at an example side quest from the game and how it lives up to these rules. Mild spoilers follow!
As you are exploring the city of Memphis (Egypt, not Tennessee) with your praetorian guard, you wander into a cluster of buildings on the edge of the market district and discover a small group of Berber warriors who are being held captive by Egyptian soldiers. As you approach, one of the Berbers calls out to you. He explains that he and his friends are legionaries who have joined your legion as auxiliaries. The Egyptian warns you that the Berbers are proven criminals who have been extorting money from the citizens of Memphis. The Berber insists that he was merely collecting taxes for Rome, but generally demonstrates a poor understanding of how the chain of command works. Your auxiliaries plead with you to secure their release and promises a cut of their “taxes”, but the Egyptian soldiers seem unwilling to cooperate.
This is clearly a situation that calls for someone of high rank within the Roman legion, and you are the highest possible rank, so already we can see that rule number 2 has been addressed. The quest began when you walked into this situation and chose to talk to the captured warriors, so this is clearly “pull” content rather than being pushed upon you. The situation presents you with an interesting choice (do you accept responsibility for this criminal, given that he technically works for you?), and indeed one possible outcome leads to a combat encounter. Further, the quest shows us something about how this part of the world feels about our legion, and it strongly relates to two of our central themes: “Conquest” and “The burdens of command”.
Not all quests are quite so fire-and-forget, of course – some side quests chain together into little side plots that you can follow across multiple campaigns. This is the case for our companion quests, which follow the personal problems of each of your five closest companions. Companion quests can take years of in-game time to resolve, but in doing so you will learn more about your friends, and they will naturally be grateful when you help them sort out the troubles that haunt them. The completion of a companion’s quest may even come back to play a part in how the end of the game plays out.
Finally, there is one more type of side content that isn’t quite a side quest. We call these “unlisted quests” as they are structured much like a side quest, but they do not appear in your quest log. When we’ve chosen to treat a quest this way, it’s to make it feel more organic or create a sense of exploration or mystery. Often they involve clues that lead you to unique items, or steps that must be taken to reforge ancient weapons. This is a design element that we made good use of in Expeditions: Viking, and which we wanted to bring back in order to make the world feel more alive and imbue it with a sense of mystery.
Side quests are great fun to create. They can be much more self-contained than the story quests, but they can also illuminate minor themes and aspects of the story that the main quests do not have time to deal with. Moreover, we can get a little more creative with the structure or gameplay of a side quest precisely because it isn’t constrained by the overall plot. We hope that when you play Expeditions: Rome, you will take the time to explore our beautiful hub levels and find these little nuggets of content that we’ve created for you, and we hope that you’ll have as much fun playing them as we had in making them.
What kind of side content do you most enjoy in videogames in general and roleplaying games in particular? Do you prefer side quests that tie into the main story or those that feel entirely self-contained? Did any questions materialize in your mind when reading about our approach to designing and writing side quests? Please write a comment below with your thoughts and questions, and be sure to join us on Wednesday the 25th of August at 1:00 PM Eastern / 5:00 PM GMT on the THQ Nordic Twitch Channel: http://twitch.tv/thqnordic where Senior Producer Brad Logston and Creative Director Jonas Wæver will once again appear on your monitor as if by magic to discuss the side quests of Expeditions: Rome and answer all your questions!