Recently, while writing about Rift on my website, I was dissecting the titular "rift/invasion" mechanic and comparing it to similar "public quests" in other MMORPGs. It was easy to trace these sorts of designs back to Warhammer Online, which - to my knowledge - was the first to come up with the term "Public Quest" along with the basic design as emulated by Rift. But there are a lot of other examples worth taking a look at in better understanding players and multiplayer game design that might help in producing better games in the future.
Can't Touch This!
One of the key features that brought about the Public Quest "revolution" was a previous "revolution" where games would lock encounters to specific players that first engaged them. By "tapping" the monster, that player would get all the XP and all the loot, preventing others from "stealing" their kill. In some games, this would be indicated by graying out the health bar - you could still attack it, but you would know you wouldn't get anything. In other games, it would completely lock the encounter so you couldn't even attack the monster.
Although this mechanic is great for the good ole' XP grind, questing, random named monster or boss fights, and other content where you're just trying to be left alone - don't you know that the biggest problem in multiplayer games is those pesky other players? - it doesn't do much for encouraging the whole "play with other people" thing that MMORPGs are meant to be built upon. This, in turn, becomes especially difficult in any kind of big event, where players are meant to work together but, unless they explicitly form a group, they end up hindering one another.
One example that shoots to mind was in vanilla WoW, when Naxxramas was being introduced and a world event was held where the Scourge would invade various points in Azeroth and players were meant to work together to stop them. Instead, because the event monsters were dropping special loot, players would compete to "tag" them, rounding up as many as they could before all the other players would pile on. If you weren't a fast tagger, you were left out of the event; ultimately, the whole thing left the majority of people bitter about being "griefed" by other faster-tagging players.
Another Chance to Bash FFXIV...
So, as it happens, this lockdown issue has become a major problem in Final Fantasy XIV. In FFXIV, encounters are locked to whomever hits the monster first... but, to prevent abuse of this, players can only lock one encounter at a time. These two factors completely mess up FFXIV's version of the public quest, known as behest. Basically, you tell an NPC you want to kill monsters, he says great, a swarm of monsters spawns, and everyone who signed up for the behest can fight them. Sounds good, right? Except that the monsters in the behest lock to the players who attacked them, just like normal monsters. Urgh! So much for teamwork!
So, you just gotta bite the bullet and join a party in order to do behest. You had better hope that no more than 15 people show up to do behest though, or else you'll have to make two parties and the competition for kills starts all over again. An even more irksome problem arises when your party of 15 disorganized "bash everything" players attack different monsters: only one monster will be locked to your party, and you'll only get XP for killing that monster. All unlocked monsters you kill are completely lost!
What's most startling about the horrific implementation of behest is that FFXIV's predecessor, FFXI, implemented a far more coherent and sensible public quest system with besieged and, later, campaign. In these play modes everyone can attack every monster, no need for partying or encounter-locks. Prizes are doled out at the end for everyone based on their participation: damage dealt, heath healed, buffs and debuffs provided, etc.
Quest Log? What Quest Log?
Another major design influence was formalized questing and a quest log. In early MMORPGs - games like Asheron's Call and Dark Age of Camelot - quests weren't explicitly tracked by special quest flags. Instead, the quests were generally driven by items in your possession. And, in some cases, these quest items could actually be traded. The Lost City of Frore, one of the earliest quest/dungeon/events introduced in Asheron’s Call, involved collecting a token from a high level Lich, using that to unlock a stone to obtain a piece of a script, visiting two more stones to complete the script, then handing the script to a translator who would fashion a key and open a portal to Frore, where you could open a chest with said key and obtain some quest treasures. If I recall correctly, both the seals and the final key were tradable, although the transcription wasn’t. Anyhow, it meant that you could find a friend and basically say "come along and do this quest with me" and hand them a seal and the two of you could collect all the script bits... without having to talk to an NPC to get "flagged" for the quest first. It also meant you could re-do the quest as many times as you wanted.
These two features - not needing to "get" a quest and being able to repeat it - are precisely what were re-introduced with Public Quests. Personally, I absolutely hate the whole "quest grind" design that has permeated MMORPGs since WoW made it standard practice; but the fact that it heavily discourages group play (everyone has to have the quest and be on the same step and be in the same place and...) is a further detriment to the whole "massively multiplayer" ideal.
No, I don't want to join your party.
A lot of MMORPGs have group activities, such as dungeons and raids, that aren't tied to formal questing. But they are tied to formal grouping. Everyone has to agree to join a group and work together and generally has to start together. The problem is that this can be quite a hassle. Some players don't want to go through all the social hoops; they just want to play the game. Of course, it's hard to imagine a Blackwing Lair raid where people can just come and go as they please without so much as an "invite plz." But WoW raids are designed specifically to require teamwork and coordination.
A better comparison is WoW battlegrounds. Originally, players would be tossed into these PvP scenarios ungrouped. They would be working together... in theory. At least they couldn't actually attack their teammates? In any case, there were two big issues: primarily, communication; but no less of an issue was the fact that many game mechanics only worked within groups. For example, if you have a heal spell that heals "all group members within 15 yards" and you're in a pvp battleground, you expect your heal to heal your teammates, right? Well, no, not unless you're actually in a group. Doh!
WoW "solved" this problem by automatically placing everyone who entered a battleground into a raid group, but Rift suffers this problem in its public quests with no easy solution. Do you pop everyone into a raid group whenever they're in range of a rift quest? What about people already in groups? Do you add their whole group? What about people in that group who aren't in the rift quest? Such confusion! The easiest solution, it seems to me, is to make spells that affect group/raid members automatically affect everyone else in the public quest, without having to formally (either by players' initiative or system auto-grouping) group together.
All Your Base Are Belong To Us!
There are other ways of looking at the issue. One of the examples of getting players to play together without requiring a formal group was Planetside. In Planetside, every player joins one of the three factions at war and joins that army in conquering bases across Auraxis. Players can group, to be sure, but they can equally participate and have a good time playing the game by simply participating. There's no sense of "locking encounters" or "getting quests" at all in Planetside. Participation in a common objective drives the gameplay.
Ugh, Not ANOTHER Invasion...
I recall having a lot of fun for a number of years playing Planetside. No matter how many times we captured a base, the core gameplay mechanic was so much fun that we kept going back for more. This is why I was surprised when the public quest mechanic in Rift began to aggravate and annoy me after only a few days of beta. Ultimately, the public quest invasions were spilling over into the "private quest" domain. The only thing worse than continually being ganked by irksome PvPers when you're just trying to quest is to have your quest hub continually ganked by invading monsters.
Create Content that is accessible to players with no prep work (picking up a quest), no synchronicity (all having to be on the same stage of the quest), and no repeat limits (only being able to do the quest once) in order to encourage spontaneous cooperation.
Ensure that game mechanics enable cooperation by allowing all participants to participate and gain a reasonable reward. This means not locking/tapping monster encounters and not limiting group spells to people actually in a group.
Public content, just like PvP content, should be prevented from spilling over into private adventuring space. This means that your public quest monsters should not be wiping out your quest hubs, class trainers, or other private function NPCs.