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“The Lord of the Rings is a Fedex Mission”

March 19, 2008

Mark Nelson, story designer for Oblivion, recently said this to me and to a group of students, and it really struck me. In fact, it changed the way I view Fedex missions.

  • A fedex mission (also called hub-and-spoke) is one in which the player is told to deliver something or to go pick something up.
  • I asked Mark for permission to post this, fwiw. It’s never fun to find conversations you think you had in private up on the net somewhere as if you’d explicitly given permission to publish it to the world.

Anyway, back to the main point: he’s right. “It’s the story in between the beginning and the end of the Fedex mission that’s important.”

So, the challenge to narrative designers is to find a way to put a good story in between those big hooks.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 20, 2008 8:33 am

    That’s not always a good thing…honestly, Oblivions core story was fedex all over the place (of people sometimes!) and suffered for it I think. There were very few interesting main story quests – you had to look for sparse examples in the “side missions” – a shame 😦

    People critical of Lord of the Rings point out the fedex part as the stupidest thing really – ie; if they had those giant “Deus Ex Machina” eagles, why not just fly over the volcano in a matter of hours? 🙂

    See this example: http://www.howitshouldhaveended.com/Divx%20links/LOTR.html

    Anyway, quite a few stories come up with it – fair enough because they really are McGuffins to the overall plot – it’s more the adversaries they defeat, fights they have, adventures they do between point A and B which are important, not the thing they are carrying. Hitchcock did this numerous times, and had excellent films!

    I think it’s when it does become the centre of the story, it becomes strange. It should be a secondary motive of some higher point, not that this item is so important the entire plot revolves around its safety – LoTR does hitch this, since it basically leaves the ring during the first book to two guys (who have their own adventure), and gets the more interesting stuff done with everyone else. 🙂

  2. March 20, 2008 1:23 pm

    I think Fedex missions should be used to introduce you to a new part of the map. Because, in RPG’s, quite often you character will have grown up in this world so, they would, in theory, know the place already. However, the player obviously doesn’t, so, to create an excuse, the play must go take something somewhere, it certainly beats just going there for the sake of just going in terms of story. I think the key to making them fun is, A) Not give explicit instructions of where to go, I want to explore, and my character would already know B) Take me to a new place and C) put many enemies between me and the place I am journeying too, or make there be a twist or at least give me a reward (like a horse or a cool sword) for doing it.

  3. March 20, 2008 3:11 pm

    I believe it should be the people that makes up the story, not actions or objects. Fedex missions are fine as it gives players clear objectives to do. However, too many times it ends with a simple, mind-numbing delivary and reward.

    Since story involves many parts that leads to a climax and a conclusion, mission should follow same path. Should make player be involved with characters that has to do with the mission, and some dramatic conflicts to go through.

    I think a game would have a ton of more impact if player’s actions has permanent affect after the story is over (such as changed environment, tangible relationship with NPCs, visible authority of player over certain region, etc), instead of a mere item or skills or horses.

    and thk123:

    I think there are plenty of example where fedex missions leads to entering a new part of the world. I’ve done that kind of missions too many a time while playing WoW.

  4. March 21, 2008 8:50 am

    This is perhaps merging both NPC threads with a little extra off-topic material but here goes anyway:

    WoW went a little crazy with fedexing, at least on the Alliance side. I never heard as many complaints from the Horde players. It’s one thing to get sent somewhere, but the Allies had to travel way over to another part of Azeroth, get sent way over to yet another part, possibly a third, before being sent back to the first or second NPC to turn in the quest.

    I thought LOTRO’s twist on the fedex quests in the Shire was a cute, and fun innovation. The postmen in the various towns of the Shire task you with delivering a bag of mail for them, but there are nosey hobbits wandering about who will try to read that mail so you have to avoid them while delivering the mail before the timer expires.

    The NPC’s standing around with a huge ! over their heads are all fine and good, but sometimes it’s fun in say Vanguard where perhaps an NPC has a quest but no icon. (Did they forget? Bug? Who knows, but it makes things interesting when done in small spurts.) Also is it too much to ask for a teeny bit of AI to be applied to the occasional NPC to actively come to us rather than standing around like a task vending machine? If we’re qualified for his quest, perhaps he can hide in the bushes and psst! or whistle to us to get our attention *if we happen to be in his location?* Or perhaps rather than standing there he can chase after us for a brief ways before giving up?

    Finally, and this has been brought up before: quest logs have developed over the years, categorizing types and locations of each quest so the player can pick and choose which quest is where. Most of our quests are actually menial tasks that we’re doing for a simple reward. If you noticed, I used the word ‘task’ a few times previously. Is it too much to ask that some ‘quests’ actually be labeled as a ‘task’ and have its own category in the quest log? I mean, delivering mail in the Shire? Isn’t the NPC giving me that task a professional Postman? Isn’t that *his job* not mine? Ok he’s under-staffed perhaps, but it’s still a task. A quest, on the other hand, should be the more epic adventures for even greater reward.

    Don’t think of it as demeaning the ‘quests’ you’ve created, think of it as giving the player more choice by having instant knowledge at his fingertips. The ‘quests’ which are actually ‘tasks’ *already* have lower xp and rewards than we’d see in the more high-risk quests, so the differentiation is already being made. I’m just asking to go ahead and take the next small step and actually call it like it is.

  5. March 21, 2008 11:44 am

    @Talyn: I don’t think of it as demeaning the quests you’ve created, but I do think of the quests themselves as demeaning the players. “I’m on a quest to save the world! But first… let’s take some time out to fetch a mushroom for this witch because she won’t let me pass her forest otherwise.”

    As if every NPC is in full support of you saving the planet, unless it involves them actually *helping* you without getting anything in return. (Yes, this could work if you write your NPC dialogue to make it clear that you live in a society of incredibly selfish people. But most RPGs don’t.)

    I think any quest at all runs the risk of looking like an obstacle that the designer threw in arbitrarily because it was easy to script. Fedex quests are especially vulnerable to this, which is why they get lambasted so much. The trick is to write your story so that the player doesn’t feel like the quests are arbitrarily tacked-on.

    Hmm. I suppose one could say the same thing about story and gameplay in general.

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