Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Jeff Howard interview

Posted by Randolph Carter on January 8, 2010

In this interview Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University, Jeff Howard, discusses his book Quests, his personal gaming background, what he thinks about the current quest system in MMOs and what current game has renewed his faith in the potential of online games.

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Would you mind talking a little bit about your book Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives?

Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives is a book about strategies for designing more meaningful quests by drawing on the traditions of allegory and symbolism in classical myth and literature. The book consists of a theoretical component dissecting the main components of quests in the history and theory of quest games and quest narratives: spaces, items, actors, and challenges. The book’s theoretical component is closely tied to a set of corresponding practical exercises and tutorials in level design, object creation, dialogue, and scripting. The main aim of the book is to help quest designers balance meaning and action, finding a middle point on the spectrum in which quests are both highly interactive and purposeful in ways that shift according to each player’s interactions.

Interested readers can learn more about the book at, and the book can be ordered from

According to your website, your dissertation was on Gnosticism, post modern fiction, and computer-assisted teaching. How much of Quests was born out of your research for your dissertation?

Very little of the text in Quests comes directly from my dissertation, and few of the specific topics in the book were covered in the dissertation. However, Quests did begin as an attempt to bridge the gap between the binary pairs in the dissertation: technology and mythology, game and narrative, literary theory and educational practice.

The dissertation was called Heretical Reading and had a lot to do with a second-century Christian sect called Gnosticism, which was labeled by the church as a heresy, as well as experimental postmodern novels. I’ve moved away from those specific interests while both focusing on and deepening my interest in game design in Quests. I think the main thing the dissertation gave me was a love of heresy in the positive sense of the word: going against the majority view or mainstream practice in order to assert a deeply held belief or value. I’ve tried to do that in Quests and my other ongoing work.

What audience did you have in mind when writing the book?

Anyone who wants to design better quests. This includes game designers, academics, teachers, and students.

Would you mind describing what the process was like for you in getting the book published?

I started writing the book as an independent effort, and one of the editors at a publishing company called AK Peters was kind enough to take an interest in my description of the book in a biographical note that I wrote for an ACM SIGGRAPH conference, where I presented a paper on quests. I talked to Klaus Peters, who owns the company in conjunction with his wife Alice, and then submitted a formal proposal along with an early, partial draft. A committee of reviewers read the proposal and draft and then provided me with suggestions for extensive expansions and revisions, which I did. This process was followed by many drafts and revisions, assisted by frequent correspondence with my excellent editor, Kevin Jackson-Mead, and the help of a good copy-editor.

Writing and publishing a book is a complicated endeavor, but the great work of AK Peters made it much easier and more pleasant.

What is your professional background?

I am Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. I have a BA, MA, and PhD in English from the University of Tulsa and the University of Texas, respectively. I’ve been teaching in various capacities since I entered graduate school in 2000.

Would you mind taking a minute and talking a little bit about your gaming background (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I am primarily a console gamer (Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox, PS2). I especially like action games (e.g. Assassin’s Creed II), horror games (Eternal Darkness and the Silent Hill franchise), and action RPG’s (e.g. Demon’s Souls and Oblivion). I have been gaming since I was young, when I was influenced by tabletop RPG’s, arcade, and adventure games.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds–more specifically MMOs? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

Prior to a few weeks ago, I would have said that my experience of online games was unpleasant, but then I bought Demon’s Souls for the PS3, which has quickly become one of my favorite games. I have long believed that there would eventually be an online RPG that I liked, and this is the one, which re-kindles my hope for the genre.

I have played MMO’s, but they are not my personal favorite games generally speaking. When playing World of Warcraft, I was struck by the degree of mundane, repetitive tasks (kill eight Foozles and bring me back their tusks so that I can give you a sword for no particular reason). I was also distracted by the talking of thousands of people running around, which for me detracted from the solitary experience of what Joseph Campbell would call the hero’s journey: a voyage away from the everyday world and into a deeply personal encounter with the transcendent. I found it hard to look for the Holy Grail when constantly being forced to hunt for boars’ tusks and tune out the noise from multiple chat channels, which have to be at least partially attended to in a game where soloing is difficult and in some cases not possible. I had slightly better experiences with Lord of the Rings Online (because of its Epic Quest Line and the good company of my Fellowship) and Age of Conan (for its dark, mature world that was unfortunately marred by a broken launch and lack of end-game content).

Based on mostly negative experiences with MMO’s and a deep passion for other genres, I have tended to stick with what some have called “Massively Single-Player RPG’s,” like Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls IV and Morrowind or to gravitate toward non-RPG genres (e.g. console action games).

That is, until Demon’s Souls. Demon’s Souls is not an MMO but rather a single-player RPG with a massive and innovative online component. Because the game is so difficult, progressing in it at all requires a player to rely on hints left by other players as glowing runes (like “watch out for the ambush around the corner and try not to fall of the cliff into the pit trap with the gigantic leech monster”). By activating bloodstains left by other players, a player can watch spectral re-enactments of these players’ deaths and (hopefully) learn from their mistakes. Finally, when a player dies, he shifts from his live, physical form into a dead, phantom form. He is then able to assist other players as apparitions (i.e. multiplayer coop) and to duel them (i.e. PvP) in order to return to physical form. Demon’s Souls revolves around a single-player experience so complex and challenging that it is enhanced by online play rather than marred by it. Its combat and magic systems are also refreshingly sophisticated, combined with a dark, strange world and quest system that are both stripped down to their haunting, archetypal core and quirkily detailed. The game is difficult to describe and probably not for all tastes, but I love it.

I’d like to see more games like this in which designers find new ways to incorporate online play.

How would you say video games have influenced you as a teacher? How about as a writer?

My job is to teach game design, so by definition video games pervade every aspect of my teaching. From a very early age, games have served as a metaphor for me about the ways that people change a written text imaginatively by making interpretative choices.

There’s been a great deal of criticism aimed at the quest system in current MMOs. I’m sure you’ve heard the popular lament that no one reads the quest text anymore. As someone who has spent considerable time studying quests and quests systems, what do you see as ways to make this a more meaningful, integral process of the game?

Communicate the meanings of your quests through mechanisms other than dialogue and journal entries.

For example, use your world and level design to suggest to players the goals and purposes of their journeys. For example, designers could use the ascent up a lofty mountain peak bathed in light to communicate a player’s struggle to redeem himself or his world.

Design quest items that communicate the meanings of quests visually and through their function within gameplay, rather than having a player collect a generic placeholder quest item that takes up a slot in their backpack and then rewarding them with a +10 Longsword of Shinstabbing. As a positive example, remember Frodo’s ring: a simple gold circlet that communicates the corrupting influence of absolute power through an invisibility ability that attracts evil enemies and slowly drives its bearer insane when used too often or carried too long.

Use scripting (event-based programming) to implement quests that alter players and their worlds according to the moral and philosophical choices that players make. These choices don’t have to involve long branching dialogue trees but can take place behind the scenes as scripted flags that track player behavior and respond to it, either as an aggregate of group behavior on a server (cf. EVE Online) or of individual/party behavior in an instance.

When you do write quest dialogue, keep it concise and focused on enabling player choice rather than giving paragraphs of quest background with only the option to accept or decline the quest.

I formulated this suggestion in part out of a GDC workshop on interactive dialogue given by Daniel Erickson, the principle lead writer of BioWare, a company that has skillfully put their own advice into practice recently in Dragon Age: Origins. Most MMO’s probably should not have the volume of dialogue as Dragon Age given the existing problem with people not reading quest text, but I think it would be possible to practice a stripped-down version with short, punchy dialogue and quest updates that offer a lot of choices.

To be fair though, do you think that part of the responsibility for making the questing experience more meaningful falls on the player?

Absolutely. Because games are interactive, player experiences are largely derived from players’ choice and only partially shaped by designers. If players are frustrated with dull and repetitive quests, then there are many ways for them to enrich their own experience. For example, a player could join a role-playing server and affiliate himself with a guild of players who want to act out their quests in dramatic ways, plan out strategies for completing them, or memorialize their achievements in a guild hall.

Another suggestion might be for players to slow down a little. Rather than hoarding a long grocery list of quests and speeding to their conclusion, be selective about the quests that would most appeal to your character. If you’re interested in a quest, this interest might even justify stopping to read a bit of quest text. Quest text may often be bad, but the writing will only get worse if nobody reads it and gives feedback to the people who took the trouble to write it. That’s a vicious circle.

On that note, if a player is dissatisfied with the current state of quests, they should consider designing their own with one of the many toolsets and level editors currently available. The Aurora Toolset, the Elder Scrolls Construction set, or (more recently) the Dragon Age toolset are all examples; and there are also opportunities to build and program persistent worlds and private servers in some MMO’s.

Lastly, I’m not sure that I’d phrase players’ ability to make quests more meaningful as “responsibility,” but rather as an opportunity. I want players to have fun. If players would prefer to skip quest text, that is their right. If they enjoy grinding or raiding more than quests, then designers should provide ways for some players to level and progress without having to do quests. In that case, players who don’t like quests at all could ignore them, allowing designers to improve the quality of quests based on feedback from the players who do.

You are currently developing a game entitled Arcana Manor. What can you tell us about the game?

Jeff Howard

In Arcana Manor, the player wields a uniquely immersive and symbolic magic system to defeat the demons of a surreal Gothic mansion and unlock its secrets. Arcana Manor is a ceremonial magick simulator with an elaborate system of gestural sigils, tarot cards, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers. In genre, the game would be closest to an action-adventure game or first-person action RPG, but neither genre label quite communicates what I’m trying to do. The game grows out of my interest in magic systems, which are the primary focus of my own current research and design. I started designing and prototyping Arcana Manor about a year ago, which involved teaching myself to operate the Torque Game Engine Advanced, do 3d modeling, script/code/debug code, and edit 2d textures and GUI elements. The game has been on hiatus during my past semester because I’ve had to prioritize grading student work, but I’m currently returning to Arcana Manor with a vengeance.

I also blog and tweet about Arcana Manor on and @arcanamanor


Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer audience?

I think there is a lot of hope and promise in the future of games, both single-player, multi-player, and all sorts of new systems of interaction that are only just on the horizon. If we keep an open mind and be positive, there will be different games for every taste and audience.

And last but not least, when was the last time you rolled a 20-sided dice?

November 2009 at Nanocon (DSU’s yearly gaming convention). I had the privilege of playing a D&D module-in-progress designed and Dungeon Mastered by a Wizards of the Coast employee. It was really fun.

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