The Explorer’s Game

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.


5 responses to “The Explorer’s Game

  1. Part of being an online game tester (alpha, F&F, beta) is the exploration aspect. Not only being one of the few first to see new locations, but also test boundries and try to break through them. Exploring out-of-bounds (or in LOTRO-ese “FIXME locations”) also garners a sense of “what is around that next corner” that every explorer yearns with every step.

    If systems reward with titles, quests, items, etc. for players explorations… it helps the entire game. I would like games to give extra rewards for those players who take the time to run/walk in their explorations…rather than riding their transportation/teleportations to different locations. The “slow down and enjoy the trip” version.

    The biggest deterent that stifles explorations are the “invisible walls” feature. Many games throw these in where they don’t make sense. For example, in Free Realms there are invisible walls keeping a player from walking over a ridge EVEN THOUGH the well defined wide pathway LEADS OVER THE RIDGE!!! Yes, you have to take the long way around. I understand funneling players towards content but not just randomly placing barriers for no reasons.

    Most in-game explorers take their time while playing and are not interested in gaining the best gear or finishing the content quickly…for bragging rights. Game explorers are usually the ones who actually READ THE QUEST TEXT! ¦Þ


    Dolnor Numbwit
    Eternal Newbie

  2. In addition to the fact that explorers are (unfortunately) a minority of the playerbase, we’re a disproportionately tough crowd to please. It seems that some Explorers have enough Achiever in them to want explicit reward structures (or any structure) for their exploration efforts, while the other half feel constrained by even the slightest structure, being pure explorers who want an unfettered and unguided journey around the game world.

    Ignoring the latter half for a moment, I think a profession such as a cartographer would help incentivize exploration without making it a kitschy scavenger hunt. The more of an area that the cartographer sees, the more details he unlocks that he can include on a map of the area, which he can sell to others to unlock extra details in their maps or minimaps (nodes, mob zones, mob patterns, mob locations, optimal routes for harvesting or travel or leveling)

    Collections also seem to scratch that explorer itch, if they’re items found in remote spots, as opposed to pried from the cold dead clutches of Farmed Beast #3,024,917.

  3. For me having interesting mechanics to explore is at least as important as virtual real estate. That’s one of the things that I really get jazzed about when I try a new MMO, trying out various classes, looking at the details of the crafting system, ect. It’s not really an achiever thing at all, because I often get bored as soon as I understand most of the basics.

    More on topic, regardless of the fact that questing has become more linear in WoW, I think it still offers a lot to an explorer. Specializations of different classes now play pretty differently from each other from level ten one, which lends replayability to the game. The total number of leveling tracks is also huge. I imagine you could go 1-60 three times on the alliance side and see very few of the same zones. 60-70 you’ll use maybe 1/3 of the zones in the Outlands. Even in Northrend, I hit 80 without setting foot in two of the zones.

  4. Heya,

    For me it’s a combination of interesting mechanics, world lore with places to wander randomly into just because they exist.

    Like Yeebo I really love to explore the mechanics of a new game world, and the classes on offer, but once I feel I fully understand all the ins and outs that part is old hat and no longer provides the fire it once did.

    So it falls to exploring the world at large as well as the stories behind the NPC’s and what’s going on with them all. Oh, collecting shinies which tell me about the world in some way, reading in game books/notes/posters on walls or even eavesdropping on NPC conversations all expand the world and feed my explorer monster within.

    The most annoying thing for me is to find a barrier which appears to be arbitrarily blocking me from exploring any further.
    The one that sticks in my head the most is in LOTRO finding cave entrances that are only available to enter if you have the appropriate quest, frustrates me to no end as getting lost by bumbling about from mob spawn to mob spawn and coming across interesting locations or open world cave/dungeon systems to explore is what I really love to do if I don’t feel especially ‘questy’ that day.

    Basically I don’t need loot, achievement or even XP carrots to get me to enter the Dark Cave of Endless Peril…I just need to have stumbled across the entrance and in I’ll go, simply to see whatever is in there 😀



  5. I’ll third Yeebo in that I explore mechanics almost as much as content. I’m a solid 100/50/50/0 EASK on the Bartle test, and the vast bulk of my time in any game is just spent exploring and looking around.

    The biggest barrier in WoW to my exploration (aside from simply unpassable terrain which can be overcome by flying mounts) is the leveling curve. When exploration is gated by grind, it gets tiring.