Recently, Goblinworks, the makers of the Pathfinder Online updated their blog with information on their potential design for questing in their pre-alpha game, and their approach is radically different from almost any other MMO on the market today. Instead of viewing hubs as the most pressing problem of quest design in the modern MMO like the Elder Scrolls Online, they feel that something more fundamental is at fault: the fact that all quests are given by NPCs.
In Pathfinder Online, the equivalent to questing is their contract system, which places providing objectives to other players entirely on the players themselves. Unlike most MMOs with static NPCs and static quests, Goblinworks wants individual quests to be more meaningful because someone actually needs those ten rat tails to do something, or a player, not a NPC, needs you to use your distinct class skills to escort them to a particular location.
A chief concern of such an open system is the integrity of the contracts themselves. After all, word binds very little in MMO worlds where players often promise you one thing only to get you somewhere where you can be quietly dispatched and looted. Other times, people will just ignore whatever agreement they had to pay you back, because, after all, what could you ever really do about it?
Pathfinder Online solves this with a series of four distinct tools that create incentives to do and not do contracts. The first, Escrow, simply places whatever is being transacted into the game itself so that it cannot be stolen back by refusing to give it upon a contract’s completion. The second, Reputation, is simply a measurement of the general reliability of an individual, and functions roughly similar to your eBay account. The third, Alignment, reflects a moral standing of the action’s a player has chosen for a particular character, and ties into more dubious contracts (where murdering someone for your contractor shift your alignment toward evil or where skipping out on a contract makes you more chaotic). Finally, the game itself has laws in particular regions, and breaking certain contracts can flag you as being a criminal who will be punished in these specific regions. You can compare the last one to a very drastic reputation hit in the classic MMO design sense.
Contracts themselves are varied, and range from assassinations to bounties to purchases to loans. Some contracts also require specific skill sets and abilities to be undertaken or even given. Each specific type of contract has its own set of effects using those four primary tools. For instance, certain contracts have negative effects on your Alignment as the result of their completion. Others, like the Loan, rely almost entirely on the game to enforce via Escrow, but probably will not be given to specific players if their Reputation is deemed too low.
Of course, being in such a pre-pre-pre-release state, Pathfinder Online’s system, while potentially doable, is too radical and too far away from implementation to judge accurately. I think I can wrap my head around the idea and even get behind it, but it does seem very strange. Many questions remain, as well. Will there be contract boards? What exactly is the point of assassinating someone in a world without permadeath (or, is there permadeath)? Is creating a world where you must hire people to group with really preferable to just one where people group up?
In a lot of ways, the Pathfinder Online approach seems incomplete. Primarily because it is actually incomplete, but also because it seems like it isn’t enough to capture exactly what questing does for any quest-driven MMO.