A forum discussion the other day sparked some musing on my part about exploration in MMOs. We’re probably all familiar with the Bartle Test, so bearing that in mind, I ask the question: For players who score high as Explorers under the Bartle paradigm, what specific features of MMOs encourage exploration, and what specific extant MMOs highlight those features? What might a hypothetical ideal exploration MMO look like?
The first place I’d be looking is at the setup of the world itself. It ought to be big, not necessarily in terms of actual volume but in terms of explorable content versus time invested. A world that’s vast but largely empty (EVE Online) is suboptimal in this regard. You’d want it to be varied, so a place like LotRO’s Middle-Earth, with its plethora of similar terrain types, is also not ideal. And you would want to see a lot of stuff not necessarily directly linked to the game’s progression structure. This last I’ll get back to.
A game’s systems get to be important as well. How directed is the content, and how possible (or practical) is it to diverge from the developer-scripted path? How relentless is the pressure to reach optimal level or gearing? While these things aren’t mutually exclusive with exploration, they don’t encourage it, and can in fact do the opposite.
As much as I and others like to complain about the lack of big worlds, there’s actually a decent number of games out there that feature them. There’s EVE, of course, which has any other MMO beat cold in terms of volume, but space is mostly featureless, and while there are hidden gems to find, they’re relatively few and far between, and one can only gawk at ringed worlds form orbit so many times (and I have gawked for longer than many.) There’s Fallen Earth, Star Wars Galaxies and Darkfall, none of which I’ve spent all that much time in, but all of which have huge open spaces and stuff to find. And of course, there’s Vanguard, with its vast and beautiful world and flying mounts to explore it with, combined with a slow progression that gives you plenty of time to do it in. Indeed, I deem Vanguard to be the ultimate explorer’s MMO, although in saying that I’m showing the bias of someone who’s spent a fair amount of time in it.
It may be that explorers represent a minority of MMO players. I suspect this to be the case, although I think that it’s probably something of a factor for a lot of folks, whether they realize it or not – and I suspect that many don’t. The same factors that enhance exploration add to the verisimilitude of the virtual space, improving the experience for everybody whether they explore or not.
Then, of course, we must ask how these factors apply to World of Warcraft and its indisputably winning equation. And how has Cataclysm and its reboot of much of the game world affected them?
One is tempted to say that Cataclysm scrubbed much of the exploration value from old Azeroth in favor of linearity and ease of progression. Certainly, these latter factors were an aim of the project, but as I’ve pointed out, linearity doesn’t absolutely exclude exploration, although it may discourage it. And yet, the content model for Cataclysm, Northrend, still contains its share of hidden goodies for the explorer, and not every zone was fully retooled by the reboot. Some zones, like Silithus, are mostly untouched, and one zone (Moonglade) in which there’s little to do but explore, is still there more or less as it was. Mounts encourage exploration, and flying mounts even more so, so how does the ability to fly in the old world factor in? I’m hearing about a number of hidden treats than one might stumble across but that the content per se doesn’t direct one to.
I don’t yet have enough information to render a judgment on this, but World of Warcraft has always been a game pretty strong on exploration. Some of this is almost certainly accidental, like the old Azshara that was simply unfinished, but in which one could find many glimpses of future intentions, and in content that was removed post-launch but which left remnants in the world. This seems sloppy, but for the explorer it can actually be a plus. We have a propensity for assuming that everything in WoW was a calculated inclusion on Blizzard’s part, but both history and the game itself say otherwise. Even so, there are tons of things, obviously willfully placed, that have never tied into any content either extant or planned (to anybody’s knowledge.) One obvious example is Azeroth’s plentiful underwater content… sunken ships, hostile reefs, submerged cities and the like, which is (comparatively) little-used by the game’s questing. How has the Cataclysm affected this?
I dunno, yet. But as somebody who does score pretty high on Bartle’s explorer scale, I fully intend to find out.