It's enough to make you wonder if the problems escort missions are designed to solve could be avoided by simply making better games. Or better escort missions. Tracy Seamster, a designer at SOE, gave it a shot.
"I designed an escort mission for EverQuest II, mainly to do something slightly different with quests and get away from primarily killing things as an objective," says Seamster. "Essentially, you locate a dog and ask it to show you where it's been hiding. It will trot off and you follow him down the road. If you're attacked by any aggro mobs, he'll stop and wait for you to finish before continuing. If you wander too far away from him, he'll bark at you to remind you that you're with him."
While not a typical escort mission - the dog doesn't take damage, and you don't so much escort him as follow him - Seamster's mission nevertheless solves all of the major problems and seems to have been well received. You can even try it yourself - it's still running. "It's gone for over two years without anyone losing an eye," Seamster says, "or the dog!"
"My goal was to create something that didn't involve killing," Seamster says. "I hoped it would make players feel as though they were helping in an investigation about what's affecting the area and doing things they could to help the world. You meet one deputy who's too afraid to even leave his post, as there is something out there. ... His dog's missing, he wants to know what happened, but he can't bring himself to investigate. Cue the brave adventurer!"
This brings us back to Peter Molyneux and Fable. Or more precisely, the eagerly anticipated sequel due sometime next year. Molyneux's presentation at GDC 2007 featured a dog very similar to Seamster's that would lead you to objectives, alert you to the presence of enemies and serve as an emotional trigger in various circumstances. You could abandon it, for example, and force it to limp all the way home, still devoted to you, in spite of your cruelty. Molyneux suggested his dog is an attempt to do away with the intrusive mini-maps and escort missions of what he hopes to be game design's past.
Will it work? Only time will tell. And if the secret to reforming the escort mission is transforming it into a follow quest, we may end up in a brave, new world. Perhaps a better one.
"Like anything else, [escort missions] have to be done well," says McGann. "Players like being powerful and earning things and if the actions of an escort mission can provide this, then they will become more palatable ... if not downright enjoyable. "
We should be so lucky.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.