Side quests are as common in RPGs as an internet commenter mis-using ‘your’. If somehow you’re still confused, a simple definition could be: any mission/objective that is optional to completion of the game.
Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls formula is famous for many gamers choosing to ignore the main story completely and only focus on side quests found via exploration. It really puts the ‘role-playing’ in RPG when discovering content this way and Bethesda stocks their worlds full of characters, loot, and mini-arcs to uncover in every direction you wander.
In Breath of the Wild, a single NPC in a particular village will give out a clue that daisy-chains into a charming side-story. Sure, the base of the challenge may amount to a glorified fetch-quest, but following clues to complete the diversion requires just enough active thinking to feel rewarding. The actual reward at the end was a hidden Shrine, leading to more puzzles and rewards. All completely optional yet a satisfying branch off the main tree.
Mass Effect 2‘s loyalty missions have been a gold standard of side missions. Bioware upped the ante by designing each completed loyalty mission to improve the player’s chance during the final ‘suicide’ mission. Anytime a developer can tie the consequences of player activity to the overall scheme will be extremely gratifying to the gamer. Any fan of The Lion King will know this as the circle of life.
Fetch quests have a worse reputation than Ubisoft’s online servers (Seige-life). Collecting items for the sake of collecting was boring when I thought Banjo-Kazooie would be a great follow-up to Mario 64. Asking the player to find numerous items to complete a quest can easily feel tedious and unimportant. But there are ways to spice it up.
Developers can give collectables as a by-product of completing a task they were already going to do. If the gamer picks up 5 snoob-snaps from fallen enemies during regular missions and can convert those into something of use, that could be more fun than simply collecting 5 snoob-snaps for the sake of snoob-snapping.
Or if the player must solve a puzzle, think critically in some way, or complete a difficult challenge for a reward of relative equality, that can also fit nicely into the overall package.
A fantastic example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution (and Mankind Divided). The Praxis kits grant additional abilities that can drastically change gameplay. One allows you to take out two enemies with a melee takedown instead of just one. Another lets you fall safely from any height.
Since the player won’t be given enough resources through normal play to acquire every ability, it becomes much more enticing to explore every side-mission and secret spot to unlock as many as possible.
Another thing I’d like to see in games is the emphasis on the player to engage with the world. Developers should place visual and audio hints but leave out the automatic markers on the map. By all means let the player mark spots on the map to assist in navigation, but leave that up to the gamer.
For example, a player could read a poem with clues, or notice subtle arrows hidden in plain sight. Anything that demands the player look at the environment closely to progress.
Do you have any favorite or hated side-quests? Any thoughts on crafting them?