Massively Overthinking: Should MMORPGs incentivize exploration – and how?

Our Daily Grind on exploration last week sparked an intriguing follow-up from MOP reader Miol.

“When asking about sightseeing and exploration in MMORPGs, you also mentioned the lack of rewarding incentives for exploring those worlds, or worse, a poor implementation of such features, as you pointed out by Guild Wars 2’s vistas. Many of Wander’s mechanics also come to mind for me. You and many commenters in that article stated that their exploration mostly happened by their own initiative!

“So what features would you all wish in an exploration-heavy MMO? Is Trove’s Geode with its non-combat spelunking on to something? Would exploring other players’ curation and display of art already be enough for you, a la Occupy White Walls? What would an MMO need to simulate a fun road trip? Would looking for that one place with those until-then-unmatched resource stats, be a definite must for you, as in Star Wars Galaxies? Or is open-world housing more of a priority, so you can find that perfect spot for your porch? Purely just survival features? Or maybe even, as Andrew once mentioned, a certain mechanic for dying, as in Project Gorgon?”

Miol concluded his musing by pointing out that the example I gave in the Daily Grind – of going on an on-foot pilgrimage to visit all of Ultima Online’s shrines – was something done without any incentive, and maybe that’s the very thing that made it memorable. “Is less actually more, in terms of exploration in MMOs?” he wonders.

And so do I, so I’ve posed Miol’s questions to the team for Overthinking this week. What do you think? Should MMOs go about incentivizing exploration as a sort of intentional design mechanic, and if so, how? And which MMOs do it best right now?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Of course they should be incentivized! Even themepark MMOs reward a little off roading. Achievements are the very least they could do, but things like dungeons with sweet/fun rewards whose entry only randomly appears is awesome (I think Asheron’s Call did this in both games). Even just random chest spawns that could have, say, housing items/deeds ala Darkfall work. I guess Pokemon Go does a bit of this with quests and Pokemon, plus it gives you a reason to communicate with others on where to find cool stuff that will only stick around for a short amount of time. Achievements are fun for some people, no doubt, but something about random prizes, especially ones you can share/trade, are awesome, as long as the frequency with which they’re found isn’t too brutal and the reward is something that’ll always be in demand.

(Though, as I hinted before, Project Gorgon does leave a lot of bread crumbs to find stuff in its game world, and while min-maxers may treat it almost like a themepark “must have” kind of deal, there’s so many “secrets” and so little hand holding that it feels rewarding enough to play without guides and just explore.)

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): This is a hard one. I get really annoyed when MMORPGs incentivize territorial exploration (by non-explorers) by turning exploration into an achievement – I’ve written about this before, teasing Guild Wars 2, for example, for basically turning exploration into a FourSquare check-in routine. Exploration should be fun for explorers; turning it into a checklist for achiever types is counterproductive because it diminishes the experience for explorers and bores the achievers. To me, this is on par with forcing non-raiders or non-PvPers or non-crafters to do those activities by putting all the desirable stuff behind raid and PvP and crafting gates – it annoys literally everyone on every end of those incentives.

I dearly miss the Path system originally planned for WildStar; the devs who first mapped that out really seemed to understand how funneling everyone into an achiever category doesn’t work, that instead they needed to cater to the specific motivations of each player type in turn in a specialized way that assisted rather than competed with the other styles.

The incentives I would prefer, in general, are way more organic than a waypoint checklist. I explore more when travel is only a minor rather than a major hindrance; the fact that UO allows recalling out means I’m more bold in my excursions. I care more about exploring for a purpose, like scouting out locations for a player city or finding rare material veins or cover for PvP battles. I care more about exploration when the sightseeing and musical ambiance are genuinely pretty and aren’t swarming with tedium (trash mobs, slow movement, etc.). I care about exploration when the worlds are either massive or dynamic such that I don’t necessarily see the same thing every time. I care more when there’s a really cool map with more than enough “discoveries” to go around even in a crowded game.

I understand that these are the types of experiences that costly to implement and difficult to direct. They aren’t easily inserted after the bulk of the game is done. It’s much, much easier to just smack down dungeons far from cities and score achievements based on people hitting a mark on the ground. But that’s also not as fun for the people who genuinely want to explore for its own sake.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The tough part about incentivizing exploration is that it’s hard to really create rewards in a fixed game world that aren’t, essentially, waypoints. When you’re exploring, you are looking for something for a specific purpose. Once you find it, you stop, and the problem becomes that anything out there to find gives you reason to find that thing and the, well, move on. Stop exploring. Which means that, in a way, you can’t reward exploring, if you define exploring as “looking around for interesting things” and anything else as “just chasing waypoints.” Guild Wars 2’s Vistas are exactly this problem; you’re not really chasing something neat and different, you’re completing a light jumping puzzle because you desperately need those map completion points. A similar issue exists with, say, Final Fantasy XIV’s Sightseeing Log; you’re trying to get the clicky bit and then unlock your reward.

Does this mean games shouldn’t try to reward exploration? Hell no; that’s the opposite of my point. It’s not that you shouldn’t try, it’s that it requires an a priori understanding that this is a difficult task that needs a complex suite of solutions. And it’s important to understand that incentivizing exploration is less what you’re going for here; what you’re really after is offering a reason to explore while you head for your destination. The best way to provide an incentive is to not punish people for going off the beaten path, or perhaps not even providing a clear beaten path to start with, while never giving players a sense that they’re actually lost.

But therein lies the problem; “finding new things” is never going to work out quite as well when it’s about chasing a map waypoint. I like the idea behind WildStar’s Explorer path; it wasn’t totally successful, but it was at least an effort to reward several different styles of going from place to place. It just needs to give you something to do beyond chasing map waypoints. Exploration is what happens when you’re trying to find something, and in order for it to work well you need a clear goal (beyond “get to this place I know exists”) and a reason to look more thoroughly. Which, in games with static maps, is hard to really encourage or incentivize.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Have you ever played The Trail? It’s this mobile game that really nails a spirit of wonderlust as your character continually explores down a long trail through many different biomes and regions. I wasn’t enthralled with its gathering/crafting mechanics, but I loved watching my character roam down a path and felt that often-missing excitement and contentment about seeing what’s over the next hill, what’s down the horizon.

A good exploration MMO would emulate that in some way, at least for me. I’d like to see progression through various methods of exploration — running, swimming, boating, climbing, rappelling, flying, etc. — but I want a game that would continually excite and please me over what was found just beyond the borders of my journey. I wouldn’t mind a really relaxed, laid-back experience that was solely about the trip rather than the destination, and a way to document that trip, share it, and make my mark on the world in some way.

Your turn!

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Teh Beardling
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Teh Beardling

I think it could be easily accomplished if rare mobs/materials for crafting didn’t just always spawn at a certain point. Worlds would have to be slightly bigger too though. Not only would it serve as its own incentive to explore to get drops but it would make things more memorable. Rarity makes things stand out. i’ll always remember my first encounter with Sea Horror on the boat from dunes in FFXI. Or the first encounter with a rare Rag Pappy in Phantasy Star online. Secrets/mysteries also help too. Giving reason for people to look more closely at the world around them.

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Bob Bobson

No MMOs (or any games) should not INCENTIVIZE exploration but they should allow it by building worlds not backdrops for quests to put in.

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Jokerchyld

First of all, make it optional. Don’t force people to explore. I dont know, for me, I’m a simple guy. ESO started off right by having treasure maps all over the world and I love it. Also the bounty/kill quests from Dark Brotherhood, as well as (I suspect) thieving (I haven’t done Thieves guild yet but believe that is a daily). These are great examples to start with that encourage exploration.

Outside of that, if they make really good looking zones exploration will become implicit.

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Brown Jenkin

One thing I’d actually not considered until just now is that this long lasting challenge of how to reward explorers in game is actually really well addressed by Crowfall (at least in theory). One of the awesome aspects of the dying worlds concept is that when new worlds come up a guild will to some degree *need* good/interested scouts to explore and find resources, nodes, good locations for keeps and so on. Unlike in a typical MMO the dying worlds concept means that this should theoretically stay fresh!

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SirUrza

One could say WoW even went the exploring route with it’s treasure boxes everywhere. But let’s be honest, addons wrecked the exploration rather quickly.

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Brown Jenkin

Yep and that’s part of the challenge, its kind of hard to be an explorer when everything is already mapped out. Part of what seems to make exploring feasible these days (in games like ESO) is that it tends not to be quite rewarding enough for folks who aren’t interested in it to bother. The moment it becomes important (a la gatekeeping achievements etc) everyone just considers it a part of required play.

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rafael12104

I love exploring. But is it really exploring if it is incentivized? Lol. Here let me give you an example of what I mean.

SWTOR, not an explorers paradise, but there were some interesting things to be found off the beaten path (especially in Belsavis if you took the time to check out the snow regions.). The game incentivized exploration by creating a giant scavenger hunt for holocrons. If you found these holocrons which were in remote areas or hard to reach locations the reward was an instant stat boost. And in those early days it was absolutely necessary for end game.

So, what happened? It turned into meme. Locations, answers to puzzles, and step by step instructions were easily found on youtube. There were entire websites dedicated to this info. And so when you, on a whim, did find something cool while exploring on your own, there was a line of players waiting for a holocron to respawn. Lol! It was so stupid it was funny.

Nah, forget the incentives. Let explorers explore because they want too. Don’t bring in the main pop in some effort to check off that list of what MMORPGS should be.

miol
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miol

The thought of an MMO, where you could explore and stake out attractive/viable trading routes by traveling in caravans or per ships yourself; where you had to plan ahead on how much you would need to carry in terms of food, water and other supplies for you, your companions and pack animals; on top of that, if you’re confident enough, already some trading goods too (at some point, you would also have to discover some oases/islands/coasts with close fresh water sources in-between, that have different replenishing rates, which limits on how often/intensively it can be frequented and therefore its potential for you to build a thriving trading outpost), was one I kept coming back to for a while!

Yet this would also mean a mostly economic incentive, which is obviously one of the more popular ones there is and would overshadow most of the actual exploration part. But to counter that, I thought it would be enough to have random NPC-only and nighttime-only ambushes (simultanously narrowing the potential timing of traveling between outposts and their placements) on just the most travelled and accordingly visually changed “beaten paths”.

But after repeatedly reading here on MOP about the detriment in motivation from such high risks of losing this much of an investment of personal time and in-game money (even more time), (although it’s PvE-only, it’s less risky to find new unknown trails and it’s more about smartly planing ahead), the curiosity and need for some more introspective about exploration and the many different perspectives from y’all here just constantly grew!

Anyway, a thousand thanks to all of you! /bow /bow /bow
I just love you, guys! There is no home quite like this one here! <3

Cadaver
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Cadaver

I don’t want exploration to be incentivized for players who would not otherwise be inclined to do it. No reward is necessary beyond the simple pleasure of finding something left by the developers as a quiet nod to the explorer style of play.

However, if you really want to get my attention, give me the opportunity to eschew all other aspects of your game in favour of a pure exploration experience. If I could bypass all of the character progression and the combat, the dismal digital drudgery that passes for gameplay, and simply explore the worlds of LoTRO and BDO etc, then I’d be there in an instant.

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Fervor Bliss

1) When you go explore you can pick up passengers looking for an Uber. Reward a gas station hot dog. (To much like real life?)

2) You are given a 2 sentence plot of a movie. You go out and explore taking photo’s working as a locations scout. Reward enough money to take more acting lessons.

miol
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miol

Locations scout, of course! :D

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Fervor Bliss

Miol MOP gets a percentage of game, merch, dolls, toys and movie deal your future WoW killer makes. : )

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GamingSF

I’m enjoying ESO in this respect, although many things are marked on the maps once you’ve explored a zone not all is at least until you’re up close enough to see it anyway. Quests for instance – finding little side quests organically as you wander about is much better than always being led from hub to hub. I appreciate the books, little momentoes, shrines and other interactables that you can find too. It’s all little details, nothing that grand, but it’s not all “tick box” exploration either as was described in the post.

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Brown Jenkin

Oddly ESO is the first game that came to mind for me too. I mean everything’s on the map but its still fun to wander, explore, find random chests and stuff to do etc.