Exploration: may you rest in piece

I had a lot of fun when I played WoW seriously. Coming from a history steeped in MUDs, the idea that I could run and meet any object I saw on the horizon was extraordinary. The prospect of actually being able to climb up a mountain is something a good friend of mine was giddy about. It was that sense of “open world” that we’d never experienced before that made the game exceptional.

Yet, for all of the things I found amazing, I was let down by the exploration. WoW offered very little to the explorer. Even before the release of The Burning Crusade (about when I started), the world chests were the best reward a fledgling explorer had to look forward to.

I believed, and still do, MMOs should be worlds with a lot to discover. By looking behind the waterfall, maybe you’d find a little known cave or treasure chest. Or maybe you’d find a hidden catacomb at the bottom of a castle. Yet all of that was missing from WoW and it left me wanting.

Streamlining our games killed exploration. The proof is in the pudding. Which games still promote exploring in a meaningful way? Ones that aren’t after mass market success. Most games looking to dethrone WoW work on a rapid reward, low investment philosophy. Exploration requires time and effort, so developers don’t bother with it.

Maybe it’s all related to theme park vs. sandbox design. Games like Vanguard and Darkfall are huge rich worlds with a lot to discover, yet, both are sandbox. Theme park design creates a game on rails, where the developers point the carrot wherever they want you to go. Wanderlust let’s you direct your own adventure and isn’t something companies want to design for. Instead they try to actively engage players in quests or raids.

And that’s fine. Quests and raids are fun but I can’t help but feel that these worlds are shallower than they could be. There’s something to be said for fighting your way through a hidden cave after some powerful item. There’s a little thrill that comes from that, just like running an instance, but that stands apart by its open-world setting. Oblivion is a prime example how this works.

The final nail in the coffin is success itself. We gamers are information hungry. When a game becomes a hit, websites pop up to capitalize on that fame. Take Curse’s database sites. They’re great tools but prove that the internet is the enemy of the unknown and of exploration as a gaming mechanic.

The fact is, meaningful exploration is probably dead in the mass market. Diabloized loot (a Ferrelism!) and treadmill progression stand against all that would make exploration meaningful to your character. As Keen talked about some articles back, I think it’s a piece of what MMORPGs have lost over time. And sometimes it’d be nice to find an area that’s something more than a quest target, farm point, or blank mountainside.

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