Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

5 August, 2015

Exploration in the games I play
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:33 AM

Blaugust, Day 5

Continuing with the Bartle theme, let’s take a look at the exploration options in the two MMOs I play currently. Again, we’ll see how the two games can offer very different experiences in the same category.

A large map and a deep story

The Final Fantasy games have generally been known for having involved stories that are fairly central to the game. The games have strong characterization, sometimes to the detriment of any role-playing the player actually wants to do. FFXI was interesting at the time for having cutscenes in the middle of the game, and FFXIV continues that tradition. In FFXIV, there is a single “main story quest” (MSQ) with your character cast as the “Warrior of Light” able to crush enemies that threaten our very existence. (Of course, you do so with up to 15 other schmucks who think they are the Warrior of Light. The nerve!)

While the MSQ is pretty linear and stable, it’s bathed in the lore of the world that you can find more about through exploring the world and side quests. If you’re paying attention, you can find references to the original launch version of the game and piece together the story without even having played the failed version. There are also plenty of references from prior games in the series to keep a fan interested.

The game also has very interesting and detailed areas for you to explore. One of the advertised improvements for the Heavensward expansion was much larger zones, which were useful because they also introduced flying mounts which can make the world seem smaller. In these large maps, there are plenty of little nooks and crannies where you can see interesting details. The friend I play FFXIV with talks about stumbling on areas that would make perfect entrances for future dungeons released in the expansion; this can be a fun parlor game to play to try to anticipate where new content will be added to the game.

Related to the maps, there’s a sightseeing log you can also use. In the main continent, the sightseeing log gives you a zone and a vague description of a location and an emote. Your job is to find the location and perform the emote. Much to my annoyance, however, is that sometime you have to wait for the right time or even the right weather to get credit. In the expansion zones, they simplified the sightseeing logs a lot to the point where they’re just glowing points in the world you have to stand on and generally use the /lookout emote to look around. While not having to wait for the right weather is kinda nice, it feels too simplistic, and even harkens back to the achiever-flavored exploration I disliked in Guild Wars 2.

A dizzying depth of characters and mechanics

By contrast, DDO doesn’t have a main story quest. Some of the quest chains and locations have a bit of story to pull them together, but nothing quite as involved as casting your character as a big hero. There’s lore there, based on a corner of the Eberron setting that gave the MMO developers free reign to do their own thing, but for the most part you’re there for the gameplay.

And that gameplay is where the exploration in this game happens. As I mentioned yesterday, the character creation system is deep and complex. You pick your race, your stats, your skills, your feats, multiple classes to take at each character level, and there’s the enhancement systems to further refine your character. The bad news is that it’s easy to get excited about the wide range of choices and make a bad decision to “gimp” your character. But, once you have a good grasp on the system you can create a highly customized character that fits your playstyle well.

I could go on and on about the depth, but let me post a possible character plan for the reincarnated character I’m playing with my Tuesday night group to give you an idea of the depth of the system.

Riija TR alt levels
11/7/2 Rogue/Monk/Fighter
Lawful Good Dwarf

Level Order

1. Rogue           6. Rogue          11. Monk           16. Rogue
2. Rogue           7. Monk           12. Rogue          17. Monk
3. Monk            8. Rogue          13. Monk           18. Rogue
4. Rogue           9. Fighter        14. Rogue          19. Monk
5. Fighter        10. Rogue          15. Monk           20. Rogue

               34pt     Tome     Level Up
               ----     ----     --------
Strength        12       +2       4: DEX
Dexterity       16       +2       8: DEX
Constitution    16       +5      12: DEX
Intelligence    14       +2      16: DEX
Wisdom          15       +3      20: DEX
Charisma         6       +2

          R  R  M  R  F  R  M  R  F  R  M  R  M  R  M  R  M  R  M  R
          1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
Disable   4  1     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2  23
Open Lo   4  1     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2  23
Search    4  1  1  1  1  1     2  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  23
Spot      4  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  1  23
Bluff     4  1     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2  23
UMD       4  1     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2     2  23
Concent   2     3           5           4     2     2     2     2     22
Tumble    4  1              1        1     1  2  1  2  1  2  1  2  1  20
Jump      4  1                                                         5
Balance   4                                                            4
Haggle       2                                                         2
Swim                              1                                    1
         40 10  6 10  4 10  7 11  5 11  7 11  7 11  7 11  7 11  7 11


 1        : Combat Expertise
 3        : Power Attack
 3 Monk   : Deflect Arrows
 5 Fighter: Cleave
 6        : Great Cleave
 7 Monk   : Dodge
 9        : Mobility
 9 Fighter: Spring Attack
11 Monk   : Path of Harmonious Balance
12        : Whirlwind Attack
15        : Improved Critical: Bludgeoning
17 Monk   : Shuriken Expertise
18        : Master of Forms
18 Rogue  : Defensive Roll

Enhancements (80 AP)

Thief-Acrobat (38 AP)
    • Staff Control, Stick Fighting
         1. Acrobat Staff Training, Thief Acrobatics III
         2. Acrobat Staff Training, Quick Strike III
         3. Acrobat Staff Training, Shadow Dodge II, Sweeping Strikes III
         4. Acrobat Staff Training, Improved Defensive Roll III, Staff Lunge I
         5. Acrobat Staff Training, Staff Specialization, Spinning Staff Wall, Vault

Henshin Mystic (14 AP)
    • Riddle of Fire
         1. Henshin Staff Training, Way of the: Clever Monkey
         2. Henshin Staff Training, Knock on the Sky, Contemplation III
         3. Henshin Staff Training

Mechanic (10 AP)
    • Arbalester
         1. Mechanics III, Awareness III
         2. Skill Boost III

Ninja Spy (12 AP)
    • Basic Ninja Training, Advanced Ninja Training, Shadow Veil
         1. Sneak Attack Training, Acrobatic III
         2. Sneak Attack Training, Eagle Claw Attack

Kensei (6 AP)
    • Kensei Focus: Maces and Clubs
         1. Weapon Group Specialization, Haste Boost III

And at this point the character will be level 20 and start getting into the epic destinies. But, I love this character as it fits my playstyle very well.

As I wrote before, I’m not much of an altaholic, but I have several, several alts rolled across different servers where I went in to try out different character options and explore the mechanics in depth.

Which do I like more?

I rank highest in the Explorer motivation on every Bartle test I’ve taken, so this is a topic I really love. My day job is as a game designer and gameplay programmer, so I’m going to have to say that DDO scratches that exploration itch better than FFXIV. While I can appreciate the story and exploring the huge maps in FFXIV, I really like sinking my teeth into the meaty character creation options of DDO. As I said, I’m not much of an altaholic but I have probably 20 characters 15th level or higher in DDO, and three different TR characters. Plus the individual quest instances for DDO are interesting to explore in their own right. FFXIV’s character customization, however… is lacking. As I mentioned yesterday, the cross-class skills were interesting, but ultimately very limited and didn’t really add to the feeling of customizing the character.


  1. Exploration in MMOs is sort of an odd duck.

    Because you (the new player of an established MMO) know that every inch of the physical terrain of the world has been stomped on by many players before you, it’s hard to get excited about “exploration” in that conventional sense, even if each patch of well-trodden ground is new to you. So to be attractive to Explorer gamers, a MMO needs to offer systems with some cdepth to them. Mapping the functional connections of the components of a deep system offers a pleasure similar to that of physically charting a new territory, with the minor difference that it’s not as humid and you probably won’t get your face chewed off by the local fauna.

    A “deep system” usually means some kind of richly generative construction system. And that usually means MMO == MMORPG, since those are more likely than other MMOs to offer systems like character generation and crafting. If there are enough combinatorial options, then there’s a chance that even new players in an established game may discover something new about that game through some novel combination of components. That possibility is like catnip to an Explorer gamer. :)

    The other side of such a system, though, is the old question of balance. Achievement-focused designers care a lot about balance, which is only proper if a lot of Achievers will play one’s game. In an MMO, this means clamping down on combinatorial generation systems. RPG depth gets reduced so that players can’t select gimped character builds. (Hello, fixed-ability character classes!) Crafting depth gets curtailed so that the game economy isn’t disrupted by the creation of new kinds of items (and so that epic loot drops remain better than what any player can make). Result: Explorer fun < Achiever fun. Again.

    Some games do manage to do a better job of it than others, though. The RPG side of DDO and, to a lesser extent, FFXIV, remind me in a good way of the mix-and-match skill trees of the original Star Wars Galaxies. Of course, we know how *that* turned out. Here's hoping DDO at least manages to avoid a similar fate, and retains its enjoyable depth in character development. (Well… mechanical character development, anyway. Emotional/relationship/story-based character development in games is Another Thread Entirely.)

    Finally, good job on Blaugust so far — keep it up!

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 5 August, 2015 @ 9:53 AM

  2. Bart Stewart wrote:
    it’s hard to get excited about “exploration” in that conventional sense, even if each patch of well-trodden ground is new to you.

    I think it depends. Crowded areas always feel less like exploring new territory. I also think that the proliferation of exploration aid sites ( have done a lot to make exploring an existing area feel a bit less exciting. It’s not just that people have been here, but machines have churned through the data to find the most efficient whatever there. It might be cool if you didn’t know that you could go to one of a dozen sites that have already datamined the game client.

    Here’s hoping DDO at least manages to avoid a similar fate, and retains its enjoyable depth in character development.

    It’s been around for a while, and they’ve been adding more character options, not taking them away. Doing well so far.

    (Well… mechanical character development, anyway. Emotional/relationship/story-based character development in games is Another Thread Entirely.)


    Comment by Psychochild — 5 August, 2015 @ 5:33 PM

  3. My heart sank when I first heard years ago about thottbot. I know it was inevitable, but it still was like seeing a nice forest clear-cut and strip-mined.

    This is one of the reasons I’m curious to see whether a MMO that makes significant use of procedural generation could ever work. There are obviously a lot of questions about that: would the semi-randomly generated content be interesting enough? Wouldn’t it still have generative rules that could be datamined? Would players be OK without being able to tell stories about common places?

    I think tech answers some of those doubts. The rest… well, challenges like that are what make game design fun. :)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 6 August, 2015 @ 9:30 AM

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