Column: The Main Questions About Side Quests

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I recently finished Watch_Dogs, which I have added to the ever-growing list of games where the side missions available are more enjoyable than the main story events. Though this is not always the case, it is something that I often have lots of issues with. Obviously this applies most heavily to RPGs or adventure games, but even side objectives in something like an FPS can suffer from these same issues.

The main storyline quests for a game should, ideally, be the games’ bread-and-butter, so to speak. They should be the driving factor behind a player wanting to keep playing, as they strive to capture the villain, save the world or generally just be the hero. Main story missions usually offer the best reward, whether money, experience points or better gear and obviously move the clicker along to the culmination of whatever the story may be.

In a game such as Watch_Dogs, where the main story was not particularly thrilling, I spent the majority of my time completing the side missions, of the ‘hunt down this particular person’ or ‘kill everyone EXCEPT this particular person’ variety. These missions offered more creative freedom than the story missions, and, to the main point of this article, completing them offered such good rewards that the main story missions became even less interesting, because they were now far too easy.

Dragon’s Dogma suffered the opposite problem here, wherein the side missions were very uninteresting, and usually weren’t worth playing at all, since the rewards of money or weapons/armour could be found in far easier, much quicker ways. Another issue with Dragon’s Dogma’s side missions was that they would be considered failed, and such not able to be completed in that playthrough, if you progressed too far into the main story. Time constraints for side missions are rarely a good thing, unless they add to the story. The only game from memory where leaving a side mission too long would effect the story is Mass Effect 2, which had far greater problems than its side quests.

I am something of a completionist, so I feel compelled to make sure every notice board is cleared, and every icon removed from the map, before I finish the main story. I do this even when they are boring, or do not offer much in the way of rewards. I also cannot stand having such a crowded map, such as the first time opening the Assassin’s Creed: Unity map, below. But what to do about this? How do you make the most enjoyable, rewarding side missions whilst simultaneously enticing the player into doing the main story missions?

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The most obvious answer is to give, say, a slightly worse weapon than the one you will get in the main story. Finish five side quests, get a Sword+3, but finish the next handful of story missions and get a Sword+5. That entices the player to go for story missions, but not necessarily instead of the side quests. Of course, +3 and +5 may not be a large enough gap, but, say, +3 and +10 is too great. I’m no genius, but finding the balance here is something that could make a difference. Not to mention what happens if the player decides to complete the side missions later, after they already have a Sword+50. Who cares about a crummy +3 when you can turn enemies to paste already?

Alternatively, make the side missions actually fit in with the story mission. Have a character that appears in the main quest be fleshed out by the side missions. Watch_Dogs attempted this, but did not take into account the status of the people referenced, which made for some strange moments of side mission goons referencing their long-dead leader’s wrath (in my experiences, dead bosses are not too good at handing out punishments). Similarly, after gunning down countless mooks in side missions (and, hell, just in the open world in general), Watch_Dogs protagonist Aiden Pearce was scared that the few I killed in a story mission would make him a bad person. News flash, buddy, if the hundreds you’ve mowed down like tomato sauce filled mannequins don’t effect you, I think you’ll be right.

Basically, side missions should be rewarding, and add to the story, but not take away from the importance of the story itself. If you want to flesh out characters or events from a mission, side quests may be useful, but if they are more enjoyable than the bulk of the game, there will be issues.

What kind of side quests do you enjoy? What games have had the best secondary missions?

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5 thoughts on “Column: The Main Questions About Side Quests

  1. I think side quests are always fun because they’re short and sweet. A diversion from whatever grind the main quest has become. Heck some side quests have become other game’s main quests. Like a side quest to kill an alpha dragon that talks and has convinced all of the other dragons to attack villages. So you need to talk with a dragon whisperer and visit a cult that works for the dragon. It sounds like Skyrim, but it was a side quest in a different game.

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    1. But how diverse should they be? Hunting down the alpha dragon sounds awesome, so the main story would need to be even MORE awesome. Otherwise who would care about the main story when you can hunt down dragons?

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  2. Side missions are a fun way to get new kinds of gameplay and content in without making too much of a commitment, which for the most part usually ends up being enjoyable or at least NOT boring and infuriating. Some on the other hand are just poorly planned filler and can die in their guide quest fires.

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    1. I always hate the ‘hello random stranger, I need ten mushrooms’ quests. And then when you hand them in, they always want ten of something else, and so on. Or they want you to deliver something to someone who is standing nearby!
      But also, the difference in gameplay can’t be too severe, or it just highlights that the developers were not clear on what they were going for.

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      1. Well you can have a core action game and then as a little fun have some sort of small race like thing on the side, like a joke at how odd this would be had it be a serious implementation. Sometimes it’s amusing to deviate from genre a bit.

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