Sidequest design

How would you make sidequests interesting since sidequests in games tend to be fetch quests or kill this enemy or the much hated escort missions?

Lemme think about it. I had some thoughts about this many many years ago before I was really into the whole game design theory thing, and they were so rudimentary it’s honestly not worth recording them. To say the least, they were basically, fetch quest, kill enemy, escort mission, and like 2 other types that were nearly the same. Kind of funny really. To be fair my old notes did say fetch quests were to be avoided like the devil.

I did a quick search on the best quests and the thing I notice they have in common is they introduce unique content, unique enemies, or unique mechanics/controls. In general it seems like the best quests are the ones that are solid content to play through more than anything. You could arguably say the best type of quest is something like the Painted World in Dark Souls, an entirely unique area with a nonlinear structure, unique enemies, and a boss waiting at the end. Kind of begs the question of, “is that really a quest?” though, because it’s more of an optional area. Many people would probably associate quests as being looser more story driven things, like how you keep up with all the different dark souls characters as they travel around Lordran.

So side quests under that definition end up inevitably being about bringing things from one place to another, or killing specific things because what other goals can you set up that make people run from one end of the world to the other? Side quests in this context end up being more about recycling content than anything else.

So what are some ideas for side quests? For optional content really? Here’s some ideas:

Try changing up the world a bit in response to activation of a sidequest or a phase of a sidequest. Add new enemies, change one of the areas, change the functionality of some enemies, try temporarily changing what the character can do, redefine their mechanics and how they interact with enemies in some way. maybe they jump twice as high for a bit, maybe they move slower but ignore hitstun, maybe they drive a vehicle around.

Have them take on optional bonus content. That’s always surefire.

Try having them interact with existing mechanics in a new way. Maybe you need to stealth through this area instead of fight, maybe you need to fight instead of stealth, maybe you need to lure enemies into a trap, maybe you need to separate entities from one another and deal with them when they’re all alone.

When assigning quests focused on visiting a specific node (like a fetch quest, or delivery), make sure it puts the player on an interesting path to get there, with interesting obstacles in their way.

Beyond that, the quests that seem to resonate most strongly with people are quests that have good storylines that involve enacting scripted actions that have no mechanics. That’s just a matter of coming up with an interesting story with interesting things happening in it really.

Coming up with a good sidequest is a lot like coming up with a good alternate game mode or good level design really. Look at Taunt Battle in Dan Salvato’s 20XX hack, you win by getting points from taunting as Mario, and capes can flip which team scores for a successful taunt. Look at the challenges in God Hand, and the arena challenges. Look at Witcher 3 sidequests. They introduce new mechanics with solid level design, enemy design, and enemy placement to highlight those mechanics.

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