Edit: You know what, we're gonna do this again. It's two years later and I now have a different opinion. Read this segment first, then go to the next segment.
Which of these questlines is more fun:
- "Please deliver this BOX to the DEMOLITIONS AGENT."
- "Thank you for the BOX. Please kill twenty DEMON COMMANDOS within five minutes."
- "Good job. I found this CRYSTAL. Please bring it to your COMMANDING OFFICER."
- "We've gotten an infiltrator inside the demon base. Unfortunately the team sent to bring him explosives has failed. We need for you to get in there and deliver this BOX to him - he can blow the core sky-high and end this menace once and for all."
- "Thank God you're here! They've been assaulting me for the last hour, and I couldn't hold out much longer. It's going to take me five minutes to rig up these explosives, and before they go off, we need to clear out the area so they can't defuse the bomb. Get to it!"
- "I can't believe it. It didn't work. The core's shattered but the demons keep coming. And there's . . . what are these? Crystals? Look, we need to get this to command. You take it - you're a better fighter than I am. I'll . . . guard your back. Just get back safely, you hear me?"
They're the same quests, but one is far more exciting. A lot of it comes down to writing - don't tell them "go kill thirty rams", tell them "we need warm ramhide clothing for our army, and you're the only one we can spare to get it". It's a lot more motivating.
If you look at recent WoW quests, the vast majority are still "kill X", "acquire Y", or "speak to Z", but they're couched in terms and plotlines that make them more enjoyable.
As of September 2012, here's my new thoughts:
Everything I said above? It's correct. I still agree with it. But it's a surface issue, and it's not the deeper issue.
The deeper issue is that MMO quests are often not built around showing a story, they're built around telling a story. I sort of accidentally stumbled into an example of that above, to be honest, but imagine this instead:
"Sir, we're cold, and we need clothes. Please go kill twenty rams and bring us their fleece."
"Thank you, sir! We've discovered a cave of ice demons that have been freezing the land. Go kill them too."
"Sweet, they're dead now? Okay, we found their leader. He's off in this cave instead. Go kill him now. Chop chop, get to it man."
Many MMO questlines behave like that. You're never given the illusion of free choice. Now, free choice itself is horribly expensive - I'm not going to say that every quest needs to be a branching quest, or anything. But even something as contrived as "stumbling across footprints in the snow", when in reality those footprints are either so common as to be unavoidable or literally spawning next to you every fifteen seconds, can give the player a sense of exploration and plot advancement that is sometimes sorely lacking.
If the player doesn't know why they're doing what they're doing, then the player won't be engaged with the quest. And maybe that's cool, maybe that's okay, but eventually it gets very, very old.
Unfortunately, players have been trained out of reading quest descriptions. What you've got to do now is to build it into the quest. One line: "It's freezing cold here. Please find us some warm clothes, and if you can, figure out what's causing this." Then send the player out to explore, and they shouldn't need to come back to town until they've got a backpack full of wool and a spear capped with an ice demon leader head.
All carefully constructed so that the player's guaranteed to meet all the important creatures, without, of course, realizing that they're being funneled down that path.