Oblivion’s main quest wasn’t unusually long, bad, or difficult, but it’s rare to actually find someone who bothered with it. The overbearing waffle of the introduction didn’t help, but I think it’s mostly that we just don’t want a single, long main questline in open world games. A primary story that’s the same for every player sits awkwardly in a game about freedom and customisation, and Oblivion’s sits more awkwardly still if you attempt it as the wrong class or at the wrong level.
You could have no main quest, but that might feel aimless or trivial. Even if we don’t do it, the existence of a main quest gives purpose to the world.
So what if the main quest was split up and woven into the guild questlines? People actually do those, because you can pick one that makes sense for your character and suits your style of play. In the case of Oblivion’s demons-invade main plot, each questline could have three key missions where the guild business brings you into contact with the invasion:
- One in which you first discover the demons in the course of your work.
- One in which the escalating invasion directly affects the guild and becomes a priority.
- One in which you find and kill a Daedric Prince and end the invasion.
Luckily, the guild questlines are already structured into three neat groups of quests. These special missions could come between each group, like this:
- Five quests for Burz gro-Khash in Cheydinhal.
- Main Quest 1: you’re hired to investigate the disappearence of a small expedition of travellers. You find them all slaughtered, and follow the trail of blood to encounter a single Dremora, who you kill. The guild are disturbed, but want more info.
- Five quests for Azzan in Anvil.
- Main Quest 2: a portal opens near Chorrol, and the overwhelmed city guard enlist the Fighter’s Guild to help their defense. In the aftermath of the battle, the Blackwood Company move in and exploit the lack of Imperial presence to take over the town and extort its citizens.
- Five quests for Modryn Oreyn in Chorrol against the Blackwood Company, culminating in their termination.
- Main Quest 3: a portal opens outside the Imperial City and you, as guildmaster of the Fighters’ Guild, are called to deal with it. You lead a team of the key guild characters through to face a Daedric Prince. It’s almost impervious to your attacks, but Modryn has brought some confiscated Blackwood Company Hist Sap for you as a last resort. Drugged up, you’re strong enough to kill it and end the invasion.
If you haven’t got far enough in any other guild questlines at that point to have encountered invasions during them, it’s not made clear to you at this point that you’ve only truly quelled a quarter of the demonic forces about to break through to this realm.
Once you have, you’re sent to see Raminus Polus at the Arcane University who explains their mystic types had feared as much: that the prince you vanquished was one of many. From there, the other guild questlines would unfold as if they were your first, each woven into a demon invasion of a different part of Cyrodiil, each of which is ultimately stopped in a style befitting that guild’s unique talents. It’s a bit redundant to say things like that in vague terms, so specifically:
- Four quests for Armande Christophe in the Imperial City.
- Main Quest 1: a wealthy home is found half-destroyed, its valuables ripe for the picking. During your escape, you brush witht he daedric forces that destroyed it.
- Three quests for S’Krivva in Bravil.
- Main Quest 2: creatures start appearing near Anvil, a prelude to a portal opening. You have to get Hieronymus Lex and his best guards reassigned to that city to better protect it. (This is the same as S’Krivva’s fourth quest, only the context and motive are different.)
- Four quests for the Gray Fox, gathering esoteric artifacts to use in the theft of an Elder Scroll.
- Main Quest 3: The Scroll details how to close an Oblivion portal, but the Empire were refusing to consult because it involves dark magic. The method requires a filled Black Soul Gem to be brought to the heart of the Oblivion plane, so you have to locate and steal one, then sneak your way into hell itself to collapse that realm, killing the Daedric Prince inside.
- Seven ‘recommendation’ quests.
- Main Quest 1: Your final recommendation quest involves a summoning spell that unexpectedly brings forth a Dremora. It slaughters a guild member before you can bring it down.
- Four quests for Raminus Polus.
- Main Quest 2: Your research for Raminus on Black Soul Gems suggest they might have caused the Dremora’s appearence. You’re tasked with replicating the event, which backfires and briefly sucks you into Oblivion.
- Seven quests for Hannibal Travern further investigating Black Soul Gems and Necromancy.
- Main Quest 3: The Necromancer King you kill at the end of Hannibal’s quests was responsible for the dimensional breach. You use his staff to intentionally summon a Daedra Prince to this realm and take him on, with your guildmates.
- Four quests for Vicente Valtieri.
- Main Quest 1: an early target turns out to be a Mythic Dawn member, and Daedric creatures spill forth as he dies.
- Four quests for Ocheeva.
- Main Quest 2: Lucien believes the Mythic Dawn have infiltrated the Brotherhood, and charges you with rooting out their agent the only sure way, as in The Purification.
- Seven dead-drop quests after Lucien sends you into hiding.
- Main Quest 3: The Mythic Dawn agent is alive and has been tampering with your orders. When you’ve rooted him out, you’re made Listener and entrusted with what the agent was after: a perfect blade capable of slaying even a Daedric Prince. The Night Mother can transport you to his realm, but he can only be killed if caught unawares.
Dedicated players may ultimately do all four questlines, and a final Main Quest chunk ought to wrap them up and confer a final reward. But most people would probably play the same amount of Oblivion as they already do. The point is not to try to make players see more of the game’s content, but to turn missed content from a negative thing to a positive thing.
Right now it’s a negative thing because people get bored with the long linear quest, or struggle with it because it’s not for their class, or don’t want to do the standard thing. They don’t know how much they’re missing, and they feel indifferent or even guilty about missing it.
If it were split, the stuff you don’t end up playing is just paths not taken, and the more of them there are the more meaningful and personal your choice feels. Spending masses of time and money on content most players will never see is inevitable when making an open-world game. But if it’s structured in many strands rather than one long line, unplayed content can have a positive effect on even the players who don’t play it.