Principle 1: Branching paths and choices in side quests
Principle 2: No fail state, every choice leads to a unique reward or scene
Principle 3: No fetch quests or repetitive busy work
With very few exceptions, RPGs are my favourite genre by far. I play all sorts of RPGs including jRPGs, cRPGs, some tactical RPGs, and action RPGs. I enjoy both real-time combat systems and turn-based systems. However, I find modern big-budget RPGs (both Japanese and Western) dropping the ball heavily with respect to side quests. The biggest offender I can recall in recent times is Final Fantasy VII Remake. Good lord, the side quests in that game seem to do the exact opposite of what I consider to be good side quest design.
Why do I think FFVII (2020) side quests are bad? Because they don't offer player choice. There's a fixed outcome and players are funneled towards this predetermined outcome. I don't mind a lack of player agency in the critical path because that's where the narrative gets a chance to shine. In fact, I prefer the storytellers and narrative designers stay true to their vision and not appease the players with "choose your own adventure" for the main path. I know many will disagree heavily with me hear, and I respect your opinions.
But the side quests are the perfect opportunity to get weird and whimsical. A perfect opportunity for game designers to try out different systems that would be annoying or tiresome if done too often on the main path. This is the first design principle. Here's where you can have 3 branching paths, each with their own unique rewards, for one side quest because it's a side quest! The scope is inherently limited in a side quest and branches are manageable.
That actually brings me to my second design principle. There should never be a fail state for any side quest. Sure, you can fail the task, but that just means a different reward is granted or a different ending scene occurs. Maybe you don't get the +1 Sword of 1337 $kI11z but maybe you get the Bonk Go to Horny Jail Bat. This is also only possible if the 1st principle is met, which is allowing player agency and branching paths in the side quests.
Final design principle for good side quests is no fetch quests or Kill X monster Y times. That's beyond lazy design. It's complete fodder that took no creativity or inspiration to create. This is going to be a controversial claim, but if you care so little about your game that you shit out quests like that, it's going to make it hard for me to care about your game. Okay, maybe zero such quests is too strong a constraint. Let me relax it a little. I'm fine with finding a MacGuffin side quest if the mini-journey to get it is interesting and if failing to find it (or breaking/losing the MacGuffin) leads to an alternative outcome that's hilarious or shocking or emotional.
What are your design principles.
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