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I don't know if this topic has been explored before but in a handful of games I've played there comes a point where trying to explore everything, doing sidequests, or even trying to get gear starts feeling like busywork. That sort of feeling makes me less interested in the game, and I usually wind up either just stopping playing altogether or just breezing through the rest of the game just to get it finished and out of the way. This feeling seems to happen mostly with RPGs from my own personal experiences.

How do you prevent activities the player can do (sidequests, exploration, item crafting, etc.) from feeling like artificial time padding or busywork?

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Try to make the side-quests actually make sense(meaning that they actually relate to the plot). I think side-quests like "Find X for me" is more noticeable as busywork than a side-quest that actually meshes well with the plot(and is actually relevant to the player). –  Grey May 17 '13 at 16:24
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I'm personally a fan of making the extra work tie into the main story slightly (even if it's something small). Things like making the NPC reappear later looking for more of something or just showing up and giving a little extra story info makes me feel like although it was optional it was somehow important. –  Benjamin Danger Johnson May 17 '13 at 18:33
    
Does this happen to you in all RPGs or only some of them? If it's only some of them then you should pay attention to what makes a difference between a fun RPG and a "bussywork" RPG in those games. –  Karlos Zafra May 20 '13 at 8:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 43 down vote accepted

I think this can be summed up by my personal definition of the difference between work and play:

  • Work is when you spend effort to perform an arbitrary task in order to gain a reward.
  • Play is when you spend effort to perform an arbitrary task which is itself the reward.

Game mechanics as a reward:

"Rewards" in a game should be pay offs to encourage a player to become immersed in the game-play in ways you intend, and to encourage them to expand their understanding of game mechanics and learn how to play in the way you intended the game to play out.

Example- Side quests.

What is the purpose of the side quest, and what is the reward? The true purpose of a side quest in an RPG should be further branching the story, revealing more sub-plots and quirks in the tale and giving the player a feeling of uniqueness to their personal journey through the game. In this way, the side quest itself is the reward. This is far better than arbitrary non-story quests who's reward is gear. This second model causes a "minimum expected side quests" mentality, which turns the side quest from the reward itself (an expansion of the story and a chance to have more adventure) to a task (performing objectives X and Y to receive item Z which allows me to continue on the main quest as I'm strong enough to fight bad guy Q now).

There is one other thing to consider which goes hand in hand with game-mechanics as play which leads us to:


Choice of play

Choice of play involves giving players the option of performing a task, while minimizing arbitrarily limiting them or punishing them for not performing a certain set of tasks in a certain manner.

Lets take the master of this, Minecraft. The entirety of the reward of Minecraft is the creation of things, whether personal items or structures. If you view the standard survival mode of Minecraft as an RPG when you think about it the game itself requires very little to "beat". Bare bones play through you can ignore about 85% of the content in Minecraft to beat the game. Looking deeper though(as anyone who plays it at all does), and you realize that the game isn't about what you can do as HOW you can chose to do those things. In a sense, with a world with no written quests or missions the player "is their own NPC quest giver". What you take with you are your personal creations, and the obtainment of raw materials, the planning needed and the choice of what to make and in what order are the rewards themselves.

The most important part though, is that there is always a choice. How you go about retrieving your resources is a personal choice, as is the amount beyond the very bare minimums, and the "least fun"(work) choice for that player is the one which they will avoid while the "most fun"(play) is the one they will gravitate towards.

Each person is different and there really is no predicting what will REALLY be "play" in your game for a given person. In giving the players a choice each player can decide what is and is not their optimal route to enjoyment(note: I do not use the word "fun" intentionally here. Horror games are not "fun" they are enjoyable). No individual route should be arbitrarily more difficult, nor should any be arbitrarily easy (avoid "you're doing it the wrong way" game play traps).


Conclusion

The key point to take away is that if a game mechanic or set of mechanics is or can become tedious, then steps should be taken to minimize the mandatory performance of those mechanics lest they become work mechanics rather than play mechanics. This is by far not an extensive list, but I do hope it is helpful.

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Best first-post ever. –  Nicol Bolas May 17 '13 at 17:44
    
+1 Indeed, well done. –  Byte56 May 17 '13 at 18:12
    
Well thank you! –  Ian T. Small May 17 '13 at 20:08
    
Thanks for the response. This is a pretty good answer. Accepting –  Shiester May 18 '13 at 3:42

This is actually quite easy to say. Just not as easy to do.

Things feel like busywork when the player is thinking of them as busywork. Which means that the following are probably going on for the player:

  1. The gameplay is no longer interesting on a moment-by-moment basis. They've figured out the basic act of play and can essentially switch off higher brain functions during the main portions of your gameplay.

  2. The elements of the story (assuming you have one) are not captivating the player's interest. From Mark Twain: the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. Things like that. If the player flat out doesn't care, then you've failed as a storyteller.

So just make sure that your game is interesting to the player, either gameplay-wise or story-wise. Easy, right?


Gameplay

Keeping gameplay interesting for hours-long play times is exceedingly difficult. There's a reason why a lot of 20+ hour RPGs have a story and try to use that to maintain player interest. MMOs use a social component to keep people playing, but then they're not playing for your game, but for the other people in your game. It may as well be Monopoly at that point; it can still feel like work, just working to get something for someone else rather than themselves.

Sooner or later, players are going to figure out your game. The best way to handle this is to make sure that your core gameplay is flexible enough to keep throwing curves at the player that they are forced to react to. Make sure that there is no single optimal strategy. Change the gameplay as they play by introducing new mechanics and enemies that they have to react to in unexpected ways.

Most RPGs tend to be mechanically front-loaded. They show all of their basic play mechanics (magic systems, skills, etc) in the first few hours. They'll expand on the list of particular fields of mechanics (adding new spells and skills), but you generally don't get entirely new mechanics in the middle of a game. Getting new mechanics is a strong way of preserving interest.

Even something as simple as a mobility-based skill can radically change how the player plays and thus increase their interest in playing the game.

Use new enemies to help introduce new mechanics. Use those enemies to ensure that the player knows those mechanics exist and that the player can use them. And don't forget to test the player on all of their mechanics often, lest they fall out of habit with using them later.

While it's good to focus on the intellectual act of playing the game, don't discount the visceral or spectacle elements either. Hitting monsters with impressive-looking spells can hold a player's interests too. Probably not as much as interesting gameplay, but it is a way to help.


Story

Story is a bit easier, in terms of basic structure. Especially since the elements of narrative is a fairly well-understood concept; there are many books and such on crafting a story. Really, start with Mark Twain's absolute vivisection of Fenimore Cooper's work and go from there.

Of course, this is a videogame, so you need to figure out how your story is going to work in terms of being a game. How will the player interact with the unfolding story.

One of the most difficult things to do in videogame storytelling (without stripping away all control from the player) is to maintain a strong element of pacing in the game's story.

For videogame storytelling, mysteries often work quite well. It's very difficult to tell story during gameplay, so games often have a lot of dead time between explicit narrative elements. As such, one way to maintain interest in the narrative is to build elements of mysteries and the unknown into the story. A few subtle hints can keep the player's interest by making them wonder what it all means during gameplay segments. A hint here, a suggestion there, and so forth.

Characters are also a good way to maintain player interest between plot points. Making the characters interesting, real, and deep, people that the player wants to get to know or wants to hate.

Sidequests are far too often just excuses to force the player to play through an area and lengthen the gameplay. That's fine if the gameplay is interesting on its own. But unless a sidequest's storyline has something to do with the story (whether it's a piece of a main plotline, some element of a more complex non-linear plot, or erudition about an important character, etc), the sidequest is going to feel pointless to the player.

Sidequests often detract from the pacing of the overall story. There's a reason why most novels and movies don't have characters going off on sidequests. It's hard to build tension if characters are distracted every 2 hours with something that's irrelevant.

TV shows and comics, long-form episodic stories, will often have the effective equivalent of sidequests: standalone episodes/issues that don't contribute to the main story. However, even if they don't contribute to a main plot, they often will contribute to character establishment/development or thematic progression.

Basically, make sidequests matter. Never add a sidequest for purely gameplay reasons. If story is going to matter for your game, then a sidequest needs to be justified by that story.

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+1 for the helpful answer –  Shiester May 18 '13 at 3:43

This is a very difficult task. Primarily because you're dealing with the perceptions of others. What one person sees as busy work, another will see as a fun side quest. RPGs (online or otherwise) are notable for this "busywork" or "grind" because of the XP systems and leveling. If you need X experience points to get to level Y, and you know that killing monster Z gives you N experience points, etc, etc. Grind ensues.

The primary way to solve this is to abstract away the XP system and leveling, and make the progress of them game story driven instead of XP/level driven. Giving each required quest a true purpose in the game is important. Advancing the story should be more important that leveling up your character. This is the hard part, the story has to be interesting for this to work. Like a good book, your story should be a page turner. It's a role playing game after all, if the player really feels like the role they're playing is important, it won't feel like a grind.

Player skills and abilities develop as the story progresses. It depends on the skills/abilities system you're implementing for how this will work. Perhaps it's a Skyrim style system (I'm a fan of this one), that improves the skills you use, as you use them. Or some type of XP pool system that allows you to spend XP in their pool on the skills they want. Whatever way you go, it should be secondary to the story. Maybe the story unlocks a larger pool of XP, opens up more skills or increases the rate you improve skills/gain XP.

Side quests are still important for players that want to spend more time with the game and explore more of the world. These quests should add to the story of the world.

Play testing will be critical for determining the "grindy-ness" of quests/tasks. Play test it yourself and get friends (gamedevSE colleagues?) to test your game. Implement a information gathering GUI that can pop-up after each quest to ask the player to rate the quest for fun/grind/rewards/difficulty/etc.

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+1 for playtesting. –  Kevin May 17 '13 at 20:45
    
+1 for the answer. out of curiosity would you ever be willing to play test people's projects (users on this site?) –  Shiester May 18 '13 at 3:45
    
@Shiester Sure, just ask me or anyone else in chat. –  Byte56 May 18 '13 at 4:52

Just like with any design(not just games, but anything) you do not add in something unless it meets quality standards.

Designers who add "filler" in their games do a great disservice to both their gamers and to their talents as designers.

A good design only implements that which is fun. It skips the boring tasks, the repetitive dulling often coined as "the grind", and gets players straight into the action.

Critics of the "Only add what is fun" method complain that the consumers of this design are ADHD or want "EZ MODE" but these people should most often be ignored despite how vocal they can become. They claim 'filler' is required in games to separate the fun from the dull. However, one needs only to look at games which never add boring elements, such as TellTale's THE WALKING DEAD game which easily won Game of the Year.

This game takes players into the hallmark moments of the storyline. You do not have to do boring walking, traveling, repetitive combat, or any form of busywork outside of collecting clues. Yet the "busywork" of point & click not only allows the player to feel like they're taking a part in the story (incredibly important to gameplay and the player's connection to the story) but it is a vessel to bring MORE fun to the player in the form of character discussions, monologues, and other visual and audio elements that bring the story to life.

There are very, very few moments where I felt I wasted my time clicking an object, such as during a crisis where the player clicks on something useless and the character replies, "I don't have time for this!!" It is things like this that are added to games, "busywork", or content that is utterly pointless. It would have been a better experience if those 1-2 objects weren't in the game to click during those crisis scenes.

FTL: Faster than Light, is another great example of skipping the boring parts to instantly go into the FUN gameplay. There is no busy work of grinding for resources, as your time is limited in each zone. You can try to do busy work, but the fleet will quickly force you to proceed to the next level. Your character spaceship does not travel through WASD movement, but instead travels faster than light- and instantly arrives at various random encounters. Random encounters that all have purpose. Even the empty encounters have purpose! The encounters where nothing happens, gives the player a much-needed break from the never-ending difficulty of the game's relentless aggression.

These games are great examples of how to break free of busywork, by only allowing the player to experience the FUN, INTENSE moments. Both games have no boring moments, as you are constantly on edge or taking a break from a crisis. A break that is never long enough before the s*** hits the fan again.

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