Linear questing is where a player is given a set of starter quests that introduce the player to a story arc. In a linear system it is almost always imperative to complete one quest before being given the next one. In fact often a player cannot obtain a new quest until they have completed the prerequisite quest(s).
In other words think of it as an unfolding story that forces you to read the first couple of chapters in a book before being able to read the middle or the end. Also a linear quest system often will lead a player along, telling them where to go next and who to talk to. A good example of a game that uses this system is World of Warcraft, especially in the latest expansion Cataclysm.
Open Ended structure
This system is the exact opposite of Linear as there is usually no forced direction a player must take along their journey. Often quests are distributed in “Quest Hubs” where a player will interact with an NPC and gain a group of quests to complete in the immediate area. Some direction may be given, but usually it is only where to find the next “Hub” location. Sometimes this system can also feature mini linear quest chains where a sub story can be told on a limited basis. Examples of games that utilize this system are EVE, Star Trek Online and Warhammer online.
Which is better?
Like any question that is asked this one is open to a person’s interpretation and preference, however I feel that there are distinct advantages and disadvantages for both. First off linear questing is a lot easier for new players to pick up as the game is more strictly structured and easier to follow where to go. Also this style is better suited for story telling as since it is a chain, players are less likely to miss a key component in the story arc.
At the same time linear questing inhibits a person’s ability to explore and make their own path in the world. Also it often forces a player to complete quests they may find less enjoyable or bothersome as they are unable to progress unless they do. This type of system also limits player to player interaction as each individual may be on a different level of the quest chain and unable to work together. This problem became even more evident in World of Warcraft when they introduced heavily phased content where two players may not even see the same thing.
On the other side of the coin, open ended questing is often harder to learn and navigating the game world is often trickier and confusing. Players may also miss entire quest groups all together if they miss or are unable to find a quest hub. This system is a lot less organized and efficient, but this is also one of its positives for some. Personnel freedom to go where you want and do what you want is usually better than being told where to go. Also players can drop a quest and never complete it with limited penalty if they so choose to do so.
In my gaming life I have encountered both styles. In World of Warcraft, a game I have played from the beginning, I have seen both open ended questing (Vanilla, Burning Crusade) to Linear (Wrath and Cataclysm). In WoW the difference in play style has been dramatic where leveling in “Vanilla” gave very little direction and often players would not have even visited entire areas of the world. Today’s game has been completely changed with the Cataclysm expansion. Lower level questing as well as 80-85 leveling has become very linear as a player is heavily guided from one place to the next.
I did enjoy leveling my character from 80 to 85 and some of the new early level content, but overall I didn’t get the sense of danger or an expansive world I got in the earlier game. In fact it felt very much like a single player game. In contrast if I look at my early mail wearing Pally days life was very different. I felt immersed in the larger world around me and often had feelings of concern over where I was. Even though I rarely saw another player while leveling when I did discover a new place and saw the people milling about it almost felt like I had stumbled forth from a dessert to find a small island of civilization. This also gave me the feeling that I was doing something right, as I was able to navigate the wilds and discovered further quests to do.
Now in other games namely EVE and Star Trek Online the questing system is very open ended with little to no direction. When I first played both games learning where to go and how to get there was somewhat daunting. This I’m sure led to more than one player giving up in the beginning. EVE with its very high learning curve for the general game play tried to make things easier by introducing starter quests, but after these few quick missions your pretty much on your own. To some players this is gaming nirvana, but to the general player base it can appear to be too much to bother with.
STO on the other hand was not nearly as hard to figure out as EVE, but I still had some initial difficulty finding where to go in a semi large galaxy. Quest text didn’t help much either as only a couple of words are used to tell you where to go to find quests. Also in STO quests can be turned in remotely by contacting the quest giver via the quest interface. This is nice, but it also cuts down the amount of back and forth (Map learning) a player will have to do. I enjoyed my time on EVE and still play STO, but I got to admit that in the beginning I found the games a bit confusing or hard to navigate. Then again I really enjoy the freedom of not being forced down a singular path.
My ideal quest system would include a lot of open ended questing with a little help from an overall linear design. What I mean by this is have a guiding main story arc with a linear design to guide players from place to place, but have the majority of quests be placed in an open ended system where players can choose the ones that they feel are mandatory. Give us some street signs, but don’t build walls along the way either. If I wander off into the wilderness only to emerge further down the road at a new location, don’t make it so no one there wants to talk to us because we hadn’t helped their cousin bob yet back at the last rest stop.