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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