Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

25 February, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Exploration
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 11:49 PM

Going with the theme of exploration, here’s this weekend’s challenge: Come up with a way to promote exploring.

Bonus points if your idea works despite sites like Thottbot, etc.

A quick thought of my own follows.

There’s a few forces at work here, as people have discussed in the comments to my previous post. One issue is that achievers want a streamlined experience so that they can achieve easier, and it’s easier to look up a website than to get info from a human. There’s also the issue that dynamic content tends not to feel quite as “right” as hand-created content. Yet, as we know, the stuff created by hand takes a while to create.

I think the best you can do is add some bits of content on a regular basis. Asheron’s Call probably did this the best with monthly updates. I’m sure there were bits and pieces of the game that people didn’t discover in some months. You might also put in little bits in the game for explorers to notice that doesn’t give a huge bonus, but that gives them an advantage if they discover it. We tried to do this with every major patch in Meridian 59; it did help that part of the gameplay is discovering the game mechanics, so everything isn’t necessarily spelled out in an examination window.

Another possibility is to put things in different parts of the world. Looking at M59 again, the mana nodes were a good example of this. A few of the nodes were rather hard to get, and some still took some serious cooperation even if you knew where the node was. A clever player could get more nodes than a less clever player, which gave a small advantage while building. Just because you knew the nodes were there didn’t mean you could get them all. It became a newbie rite of passage to get the nodes. I still remember when some players took me around to get the nodes on a mortal character one time in a Beta; that node in ‘Under the shadow of the Sentinel’ is still a bitch to get, even though I know roughly were it is now!

What are your thoughts?


  1. There are a number of ways of going about this. Let’s see:

    The easy:
    -Stealth content additions. Put little bits of content in out of the way places and don’t make any announcement that you’re doing so. That way explorers will be able to find lots of cool little nooks in the world that others will miss.
    -Make there be small differences between the different servers. Nothing major just place things in different places and make minor changes to quest text. Just enough to throw off the websites since it would make locations of various things much harder to catalogue.

    The hard:
    -Basically anything that would keep the world in a constant state of flux. Unless someone’s been to area recently their knowledge of it will probably be dated. Same goes for the information on the websites.
    -Allow for more player-generated content. Think Spore.
    -Put in “flip the switch” quests that would change the world in a small but meaningful way whenever certain quests are completed. For a simple example: the rescue the princess quest spawns in the Good King’s Castle. After the princess is rescued she returns home and the rescue the princess quest no longer spawns. However, now the kidnap the princess quest spawns at the Dark Lord’s Tower and when that is completed the princess is no longer at home but is instead in the Dark Lord’s dungeon which makes the rescue the princess quest spawn etc. etc. If you put in enough of these and make the way they interact complex you’ll have a very vibrant and constantly changing world (or at least a good illusion thereof).

    Comment by Daztur — 26 February, 2007 @ 7:45 AM

  2. I have two ideas to share on this:

    1) Scattered Codex
    Stolen from Final Fantasy IX a bit. There’s a mysterious NPC race whose language you can’t read understand. There are tablets scattered accross the world for explorers to find. Preferably in a varied mix of easy/tricky/hard places.

    2) Treasure Hunts
    Every so often, treasure NPC’s appear in town’s. The NPC’s sell obscure maps with riddles. These maps if followed lead to interesting items. Maybe there could be a content team that work on one giant treasure hunt.

    How they might work despite Thotbott. My thought is that the location should change each time someone discovers an item. NPC’s provide ‘clues’ to where things might be found next. If two explorer’s both find a item. But one beats the other by half an hour. A small note is left behind so that the second explorer knows they need to go back to get a different clue.

    Both of the ideas would, I hope be fun to a specific breed of explorer: ‘scholars.’ The ones that like to know everything about the world by exploring everything. Neither idea would really apply to ‘discoverers’ who I see as wanting to be the ‘first to find something.’ My only thought on those, is that you could enhance just providing regular content, by having ‘locked’ areas. The key to unlocking them would be found in bits and pieces all over the world. So there is a timesink that gives players a chance to fight to discover something new and get server wide recognition for it. Explorer PvP of sorts :D

    Comment by Jpoku — 26 February, 2007 @ 9:39 AM

  3. A quote you might like, that I discovered here:

    “My next stop, the mountains inside of “Under the Shadow of the Sentinel”. A slightly tricky node to get, involving a hike up stairs, and a tricky jump to a narrow ledge. A quick travel up a tunnel and nursing a bite from one of the black spiders that inhabit the area, I had my third node. Luckily, I didn’t have the poison in my system too.”

    Sounds like a fun system! Wish more games had learned something from that.

    Comment by Jpoku — 26 February, 2007 @ 9:43 AM

  4. Ancient Languages and Artifacts:

    If there is one common factor in fantasy MMOs its the presence of ruins and dungeons build by ancient mythical races. I suggest that each ruin or dungeon has a quest, random item spawn or boss drop which is an artifact. The owner of the artifact can read the script on it to raise their skill level in the language of its creators. Ruins in the world could have puzzles like the Myst series which would grant an artifact while dungeons would tend to have bosses or chests which would contain them.


    Gather enough artifacts of a specific race and you would master its language allowing you to speak it in chat if you so desired.

    Special Spells exist written in an ancient language that would require players to have a certain skill level to use it. Players could always use spells written in their own language if they were high enough level.

    Some magical and mechanical items would require a specific ancient language skill level to read the invoking keyword or understand the blueprints.

    Comment by Relmstein — 26 February, 2007 @ 1:34 PM

  5. I think the key to engaging explorers is to give the lore meaning. A lot of times the lore of the gameworld is just abstract backstory that no one really cares too much about. But if you give that lore meaning, by including things in it that people find useful, then your explorers now have a purpose.

    Things like:
    - “Treasure maps”, which can be directions to hidden locations or instructions on how to enter hidden areas or find things.
    - Useful knowledge, like the weaknesses of boss monsters. “The legions of the Empire faced the great beast armed with magical spears of lightning, and drove it back into the sea”
    - Hidden quests with the proper knowledge (the “ancient language” works well here).
    - Character flags that come in handy later in unexpected ways. For example, if you read the Tome of Ages in the Lost Library, later on when you’re talking to the Wizard of the West, you get an additional dialogue option presented to you.

    Comment by David (Tal) — 26 February, 2007 @ 3:02 PM

  6. Sadly… spoiler sites eventually ruin everything… Unless your content is fully dynamic, its doesn’t matter how many variations or hoops people have to jump through there will at some point be a full spoiler, and in fact by making things more complicated you encourage spoiler sites.

    Personally, I’d love to see a move back toward (and even beyond) EQ1′s quest style. WoW puts giant Exclamation points over their heads… in EQ, you were lucky if the quest text was in brackets. Mix that in with quest variations (not asking for the same items, having spawns be in new locations) and toggle quests (complete quest A opens quest B, complete quest B to reopen quest A, like the princess quest described by Daztur) and quests popping in to and out of existance with patches or times (quests available only during the day, or at night, or in the month of June, or only during Content Patch 17 and gone with Content Patch 18)… You can’t escape spoilers, but you can make exploring enough of a random studied crapshoot that you have to pay attention in game that people might only go to them as a last resort instead of going there first to ensure they get their reward.

    Ultimately though, I think exploration will always take a back seat to achieving and spoiling in any game that is item-centric. People seek spoilers because they want the rewards (usually items) faster… and if you removed the rewards in a game dependant on items, it just means less people would do the quest at all.

    Comment by Jason — 27 February, 2007 @ 8:37 AM

  7. Eco Systems could be a great way to perpetuate exploration. I don’t know where technology is in terms of this, but what if you could see totally different things in different seasons. I mean, going back through the world you play in could really change.

    i.e. what if there was a really lush environment that had a part of the year where all the flora spread pollen and left a golden hue on everything. It could also effect the kinds of mobs, rare spawns, and make a huge difference in what goes on there as far as pvp goes.

    Just an idea.. and I think I’ll go blog about this.. great point psychochild!

    Comment by Collin — 27 February, 2007 @ 2:47 PM

  8. I like a lot of the ideas above – in particular the kidnapped princess switching plot idea sounds like it would be fun and not be too much of a stretch to develop – of course the powerlevellers would know about the multiple start point for the 2+ plotlines and if they didn’t find the ‘!’ in one spot run off to the next to start the chain. So if you linked it to character faction or alignment it would avoid this.

    EQII made an attempt to cater to exploration with some of their quests, collecting and harvesting. The quest is usually related to the history of the race your playing or the area you are in and requires you to visit different key points/landmarks – getting a portion of the quest completed as you visit the point in question. If you don’t download any of the map UI updates you often end up doing a bit of running around to find out where each POI is. The games also scatters collectibles around the landscape. They are random pick ups of different things that belong to a collection eg: different bugs, or bones and when you collect the whole set you can hand them in to a collector and get a reward (usually an item of some kind). And the harvesting nodes appear randomly throughout the areas (or at least seem to) so if harvesting you need to explore little nooks and crannies to find the nodes you want. As suggested above there are also little hidden quests you can stumble upon in out of the way areas.

    Guild Wars has titles for the amount of map that the character has explored – and this has some people spending ages to get the coveted 100%. The collecting and map explored concepts tap into that pokemon mentality of ‘gotta catch em all’ which tends to appeal to the explorer type players and obsessive compulsives.

    IMO the main thing you need to do to encourage people to explore is make it worth their while. If there is some kind of reward or benefit to the player then they will do it.

    I am a huge fan of great harvesting crafting experiences. To me its a little like adding my own content to the world, who knows how many toons are out there wearing that blue shirt I sewed 200 times to get my next set of recipes :). I would like to see a little more depth to this in that you can add a non-specified component to crafting an item that adds different bonuses to the item. And you need to search/hunt for the item. Eg: adding the tailfeather of a great eagle to a boots crafting would add falling damage reduction while adding it to a set of goggles would allow a binocular effect. And the crafter has to hunt and find the critter or item to add it (ie: can’t buy it in the auction house). For ancient artifacts you could leave clues to powerful crafting additions in random libraries. Hints in scrolls or maps dropped by mobs (to pick up on an idea mentioned earlier)

    Comment by PuppaSmirk — 27 February, 2007 @ 3:06 PM

  9. There are a few things that I thought of – but then I read the comments and most of them were taken. Lets see if I don’t repeat something already said.

    1) Changing environments. Its one thing to stealth add a quest giver or a random spawn – but how about changing the world now and then for a limited time before reverting it back? How about a hole in an old tree that might have some sort of lore story hidden inside? Perhaps it leads to a quest that eventually brings you back to that tree upon which it is closed for you. If you don’t go check the tree out, its going to go away after a certain amount of time – perhaps leaving a little mark where it appears that a door used to be. Do small things like this often – changing your design. Perhaps weekly – add things around the world that people can find that aren’t necessarily game changing but add to the story of the game or add some element of fun. Thinking along the lines of random house decorations, vanity pets, a custom title for completing that quest, a special cloak that’s different looking than any other in the game – etc.

    2) A dynamic moving quest hub or carnival type event. Think like the Darkmoon Faire in WoW, except rotate it randomly and frequently. Don’t alternate between two places, put it in random places that are often hard to find. I’m thinking along the lines of a handful of dwarven adventurers who offer quests for people to help them out – yet who knows where to find them next? Perhaps do some sort of instancing where its going to be random for that particular player. Eventually the spoiler sites are going to have a huge list of places where it *could* potentially be – but how useful is that really when the list is so long?

    There’s my ideas, and I’m fresh out of them for now.

    Comment by Cuppycake — 27 February, 2007 @ 10:49 PM

  10. No fixed quests at all.

    Comment by Cael — 28 February, 2007 @ 3:14 AM

  11. (rant on)

    I’m an Explorer/Achiever, and I find most joy from exploring game SYSTEMS, not the physical locations.

    This is because exploration in most games simply amounts to walking around a lot, traversing what is essentially a static space, and occasionally inspecting anything that looks suspicious. No matter the size of the space, I usually find this stultifyingly boring. Technically speaking you could build a bot to explore.

    (rant off)

    My suggestion is that exploration should be predicated on player skill and not be simply a matter of traversing the map. (Perhaps that’s the Achiever in me talking.)

    Let’s say you picked up a grappling hook or climbing gear which requires some skill to use (think of the wall-jump or grapple beam in the later Metroids). Suddenly, whole new subgames open themselves: spelunking or mountain-climbing. Because these require some level of player (and possibly character) skill, not everyone will have the time or energy to do them. You’ve gone through the dungeon before, but did you notice that vertical shaft above the crushing wall? Why not try to ascend it (while keeping in mind that failure could be… costly)?

    This moves the act of exploration away from a simple traversal and more towards something which requires a certain investment (in in-game cash as well as intellectual/emotional effort). Even thottbotting will not save you if you screw up and fall back down – you may not die, but the area is still off-limits to you until you conquer that shaft.

    Skill-based exploration also has positive synergy with dynamic environments or quests/etc. I see a mountain, I want to climb it. I don’t know what’s there, but it looks like a challenge, and if I find something random, unexpected and cool (a group of dwarven mountaineers offering a quest?) that’s a really attractive carrot.

    One of my most memorable experiences in WoW was on a PvP server. As a lowbie Alliance character, I was making the run from Ashenvale to Feralas through the Barrens, and was trying to figure out a way to avoid wandering gankers. Near the Rampart, by trying different combinations of climbing and jumping, I discovered that there was actually a walkable/jumpable path up to the top of the western cliffs. That was a fairly awesome experience, getting up there and wandering all the way south to the Mulgore entrance (and then further south when I found another path up).

    In short, the act of exploration should reward observation and skill, not straightforward brute-force algorithmic traversal.

    Comment by n.n. — 28 February, 2007 @ 8:33 PM

  12. A mage casts his Ice Bolt spell, which usually projects a spear-like block of ice toward his target. This time, the ice explodes in front of him, doing damage to all creatures nearby (perhaps including himself and allies).

    The reason is a static environmental influence: something beneath or within the stones in his immediate area makes them vibrate and hum, and the sonic/magic/whatever energy shatters the ice spear as the mage lets it go. That this is the cause is not something written down in the game manual. Visual or audial clues are present for players to potentially discover. If the mage knew of this particular phenomenon, he might have used it to his advantage, but a lack of knowledge may lead to difficulties or even disaster.

    In this example, something predictable and “hand-crafted” by developers acts as an interesting dynamic which rewards the application of player knowledge to individual scenarios. If such a dynamic is object-specific (just a small group of stones of this kind), rather than region-specific (an entire zone or dungeon), then it requires significant experience and time-investment to be mapped for a spoiler site. If the cause of the object’s influence is not the object itself (not the stone, but something within or beneath the stone), then developers may add, remove, and alter such effects without disrupting the lore’s believability …and thereby limiting spoilers. Combine this with partially dynamic enemy placement (ex: bears can’t always be found in a particular den, but they do prefer a generally area) and the result will be that different players of a similar template (class or skillset) are likely to have different experiences. One may encounter the environmental dynamic, perhaps even frequently, while another does not.

    As an explorative gamer, I appreciate relatively unique knowledge and unique experiences. If enough of these dynamics exist (new ones may be created all the time, and there are many ways of doing something similar to this), then the goal of personal knowledge is significantly advanced. Even if the knowledge aspect of this fell short of my hopes, it would certainly improve the experience aspect.

    Comment by Aaron — 1 March, 2007 @ 4:44 PM

  13. I see several variations on the “codex” concepts in EverQuest2 and Final Fantasy – various ways of gathering parts of a whole where the parts are semi-randomly distributed. Unfortunately, in all the games that implement such systems, there is often a conclusion whereby in order to finish one such progression you wind up having to “grind” at various mobs. EverQuest2 uses a system of world-resources that contain such items (“collectibles”) whereby randomly placed shiny little “?”s offer you the chance to pick up something simply for “being there”.

    My original concept, however, was originally intended for StarWars Galaxies: Outfit the “community classes” (doctors, musicians, dancers) with the ability to gather quest-building components (call them “rumors”). They obtain these via any of a number of methods, but fundamentally by visiting different places. You’d need two categories of components so that a resident musician, say, would accumulate different result-sets than travelling musicians, but not entirely so that there is some trade between the two groups. The methods could be from quest completion or from rendering their services to other players or both.

    Given that their gameplay is fundamentally “PtP” (Player to Player) the underlying concept a PtP/PvP translation of PvE resource harvesting.

    These community sections could then be abridged into the rest of the community – in the case of SWG – through say the bounty hunter and smuggler classes, who can put these rumors together into coherent stories which might either be neccessary parts of quests (easily available rumors/items/etc) or might be fundamental parts of extra quests or could even be very generic and provide players with “quest potential” — carry around your rumor-laden datapad and at some point on your travels it may pip up and tell you it’s found something nearby.

    This last, I think, might be key to preventing the system feeling cookie-cutter and repetetive/grindy – by carrying the quest potential around with you for a time, it has the opportunity to create player-tailored quests or storyline. But it requires content creators to perhaps go round setting triggers and integrators – a very trivial example – if the quest potential system is triggered periodically with a random chance of observing an activity, it might observe you killing bunnies. When it’s observed you killing bunnies 3 times, it might (randomly) decide to become a quest about shooting foxes.

    On the other hand, if it observes you shooting bunnies on private property, it might finally decide to become a quest about getting out of being caught poaching – i.e. it produces a landlord who will either slap you with a faction hit/fine or ask you to do some poaching on another landlord’s land to pay for your rabbits.

    These triggers could easily be tied to exploration goals and activities, so that a player who does adventure and explore is then integrated into this content resource by participating with the community process of obtaining the quest potentials and then rewarded via that for his exploration and adventuring.

    Comment by Oliver Smith — 2 March, 2007 @ 12:46 PM

  14. Way back when, in a MMO far far away… I had a Ranger.

    This ranger was part of a small guild on a not-so-little planet called Naboo. While he participated in the raids, the friendly PvP challenges, and the rest; he enjoyed his little task of running around looking for high yield areas for the harvesters. He didn’t have any the big mines just a couple of personal ones, but he shared his information with guild mates so that they could strip mine the land. This was my “explorer” crackhigh finding something that was needed, that most regarded as boring, and being appreciated for it.

    Now why isn’t there more of that explorer content?

    Comment by Nathan J. — 2 March, 2007 @ 7:43 PM

  15. Large super high level monsters randomly spawn… lvl 60′s gather then go fight them where ever they’re found. Don’t make them so huge that you need a raiding party for. Just a group so there’s nice quick competition to kill them.

    The monsters don’t attack the weaker player’s because it’s a waste of time doowye.

    Provides a nice light show for any wannabes in the area too.

    Comment by Ketzup — 3 March, 2007 @ 10:09 PM

  16. Our game is a totally different kind of virtual world and our map is still the largest “map” of any game other than Eve by orders of magnitude – although that stretches the analogy a little far.

    For a game that is almost exclusively PvP, combat-based, we have an astonishing number of explorer-wannabees too. And its an environment in which that kind of behavior is uniquely rewarding. You can be an ‘explorer’ in a Spitfire or an SdKfz 232 or maybe by pushing an anti-tank gun out into the middle of nowhere.

    Although there’s a relatively good chance that such an adventuring sortie might uncover nothing, there’s also a good chance that a cunning and savvy “explorer” will uncover a massive enemy advance and be in a superb position to direct friendly forces to decimate what otherwise might have been a devastating force.

    Last year I put together a rough animation of player activity over a couple of days. The fast-moving dots are aircraft; the clusters up in the northwest near the Hook of Holland are destroyers escorting freighters trying to start a landing.

    If you watch it a few times, you start to notice little clumps of dots moving around slowly – e.g. north/northeast of libramont, which eventually build up into hives of activity. Infact, several of the red areas (dense activity) on the summary snap at the start of the sequence are “wilderness” areas – there was no official battle there, player forces encountered each other through the hard work of explorer/adventurer/scouts who directed friendly defenders in to intercept attacking or retreating forces, or discovered an enemy supply route.

    But we’re asking a lot of our explorers. Each frame represents 5 minutes. If you watch carefully at the start of the sequence, enough guys to register a dot spawn in from Etain (south of the map) and patrol the river south finally arriving at Verdun. It appears to be a one-way trip :) It was probably a little unfulfilling for your typical adventurer, but the same guys were later responsible for sinking the invasion fleet in the northwest, so their days worth of adventuring was, overall, highly productive.

    Does every exploring/adventuring session have to be rewarding? Or can the sparsity of reward be part of the experience itself? I have to ask, because we’re certainly not competing with WoW for subscribers :) But I personally find it fulfilling and so do many of our players. But is that a niche artefact or just a product of other parts of the product being realized poorly?

    Comment by Oliver Smith — 4 March, 2007 @ 11:17 AM

  17. Interesting Mechanics: Exploration rewards

    [...] of the more notorious nodes is Under the shadow of the Sentinel. The node is hidden in a cave behind an illusionary wall. To find it, you have to climb up a very [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 15 August, 2009 @ 5:05 AM

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