Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

15 August, 2009

Interesting Mechanics: Exploration rewards
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 5:05 AM
(This post has been viewed 5249 times.)

I tend to mention Meridian 59 mostly in passing on here. But, in the current installment of the Interesting Mechanics series, I want to point out one of the better mechanics in M59: the mana nodes. This fits into a larger design pattern I like to call exploration-based rewards.

Rewarding exploration is a bit tricky, since if you give it a reward it suddenly becomes fodder for the Achievers instead of a nice benefit for Explorers. But, I think the mana nodes are a nice Explorer-focued system even if others might argue otherwise.

Meridian 59 has no levels. It's primarily skill-based where if you want to improve at something you use it. Each spell is treated as a separate skill. So, if you want to get better at the spell Create Weapon to get a chance to create better weapons, you need to go create a bunch of weapons. These types of systems tend to feel really grindy, though.

Gaining Hit Points is a bit more like typical level-based gameplay. You kill monsters that aren't too weak and you increase your chance to get an improvement. The system works more or less like experience, with a random chance to improve instead of needing to earn a set amount of points to advance.

The really interesting system, though, is mana. New characters start with a small bit of mana, able to cast simple spells, but you'll quickly want to get more mana to keep casting. Mana is a vital resource in PvP, where casting spells is an important part of the game.

In order to improve your mana pool, you have to go bind with mana nodes. Mana nodes are scattered through the land. Some are in the open and require you to find a path to get to them. Others are hidden, often deviously so, and only a dedicated explorer (or someone with a friend who knows the trick) will find them. Almost every mana node you to figure out the correct path to take to the node, so each one is like a mini puzzle.

One 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 narrow ledge in an area with pretty tough monsters. Once you get to the top of the ledge, you have to make a blind leap and fall just right to get into the cave. Luckily, M59 doesn't inflict falling damage on players, so missing the cave isn't a true tragedy for your character... unless poisonous spiders are waiting for you below.

Other mana nodes are more involved and involve multiple people. For example, the node guarded by the fey require players to kill the fairies of opposite alignment. Once all the fairies are killed, the node appears in the center. If an enemy fey appears, then the node will disappear.

Another node was added in response to an oversight by the developers. The developers added a wall that had to be dispelled using a special spell to get to the new expansion area. Unfortunately, those reagents were only available in the expansion area. So, they created a little event to let people get the reagents from special monsters, but the event also allowed the players to find a special node. That event was later put in as a repeatable event in the game.

The reason why the nodes worked so well is because the first nodes were pretty obvious for players. The node in the Badlands is out in the open and easily visible. But, you can't just take a direct route to the node, you have to figure out how to get around it. The area is crawling with enemies, so figuring out the path to take can be tricky. Some other nodes just require running in and grabbing it, while others are very hidden as the Sentinel node is.

No other game quite offered the same explicit rewards for exploring. In EQ1, exploring was its own reward for finding a great xp camping site that wasn't crowded. WoW introduced a bit of token exploration experience when players filled out locations on a map. LotRO is perhaps the most complex game, where finding a series of markers in an area is a deed that will give you a reward such as a virtue. None of these systems, however, really had the elegance of M59's node systems, where it really gave you an obvious goal to pursue.

Personally, I'd like to see more games do something like this. Instead of running in a straight line between quest hubs and only going off the beaten path to see something pretty, it would be nice to have a game where you see something eye-catching that draws you over. M59's mana nodes are very distincitve, so a player who sees one they had not seen before will be drawn to it. A bit of gameplay reward for people willing to figure out a puzzle is also nice.

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16 Comments »

  1. Definitely a cool idea! (I wonder that Blizzard has not copied it already)

    Comment by Longasc — 15 August, 2009 @ 7:34 AM

  2. It's always been my feeling that if you make your world sufficiently convincing, no further incentive is required to encourage players to explore.

    Seeing what's over the next hill usually does it for me. What I can't stand are those invisible barriers that stop you going somewhere the developer would rather you didn't go. I especially dislike gentle slopes that anyone could stroll up eating an ice-cream but which for some reason act like sheer vertical cliffs.

    Stashing crafting nodes in odd, out of the way places is one incentive that I don't object to, though. The mana node thing sounds a little to contrived for my tastes, but searching for ore and herbs would be fair game.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 15 August, 2009 @ 9:46 AM

  3. A Tale in the Desert's mushroom system, Common Altars, and Test of the Cicada are pretty decent explorer-based rewards as well. The Altars eventually end up on a map on the Wiki, but with mushrooms, there is a complex pattern to what appears to be random spawning, and the achievers get involved in nailing down the patterns. The Cicada test is just evil. You're searching a massive world for one of seven objects that can only be heard (not seen), and has been hidden by another player who profits from nobody finding it.

    Comment by Bret — 15 August, 2009 @ 12:32 PM

  4. I like finding little environment dressings in out of the way places. I really like finding hidden pathways, even if they don't lead anywhere particularly useful. What I'd like to find sometime is a hidden tunnel that connects between two zones - to the outside it would look like a regular cookie-cutter cave, but deep inside there's one branch that narrows down and then just continues on and on and on, and eventually opens into the other zone.

    If the time it takes to traverse that path isn't particularly shorter than the time it would take to go the usual route, then the achievers wouldn't care and it would remain mostly undocumented.

    BTW, what with the installation of the zeppelin route between Thunderbluff and Orgrimmar, it's now possible to explore the top of that ridge between Mulgore and the Barrens - the one that has been teasing us for all these years as we fly over it on a griffen taxi, the one with the cave and the Tauren building and campfire. There's still no direct route to get up there - you just have to jump off the zeppelin as it flies past.

    Comment by Garumoo — 15 August, 2009 @ 5:54 PM

  5. That's actually a bad idea now, because players will not see it as rewarding exploration, they will see it as a really pain-in-the-ass way to increase mana points.

    It reminds me of those offline games where they put some collectible, like pieces of a scarab in an out of the way place and expect you to go nuts trying to get it and figure out the puzzle, for 100% completion of a level. I used to be all about that, but as I got older, it started to sour. If it got too involved and was necessary, I hit up the FAQ, because retrying a level 10 or 20 times to try and get that one scarab hanging just out of reach and missing the trick to get it sucks. If it wasn't, I ignored it till my second playthrough, if i did one.

    I think players attitudes now have changed to where that tying real rewards to exploration won't work. Optional rewards will, but the more necessary the prize, the more you risk players doing it not for the fun of exploring, but because they need it.

    Comment by Dblade — 16 August, 2009 @ 12:21 AM

  6. I recall several times as I played The Path that I would see something odd in the distance that didn't seem part of the forest, so I would go check it out. Though that game in particular hinges on exploration (and the ramifications of it) I still felt properly rewarded for doing so.

    Now that I think about it, The Path's exploration simply continues in a conceptual and metaphorical sense, instead of a virtually physical sense after the goal is reached. The end of a path gives you a more challenging one to traverse.

    Comment by David Sahlin — 16 August, 2009 @ 1:21 AM

  7. EQ2 offeres AA exp when you discover new areas on maps but it's lead to people running through high level zones at low levels just to accumulate easy AA points. With the Internet how it is now, I don't think we'll get get a senes of true exploration in MMOs ever again. I mean, it's so easy to find out exactly where something else and what the lay of the land is. I certainly like the idea of adding incentives for exploration though.

    Comment by We Fly Spitfires — 16 August, 2009 @ 2:39 AM

  8. /AFK – August 16

    [...] Exploration. Psychochild craves it! [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 16 August, 2009 @ 4:47 AM

  9. Finding all the mana nodes sounds like finding all the pieces of heart in Zelda.

    Comment by Robert Schultz — 17 August, 2009 @ 8:12 AM

  10. I really like LotRO's exploration-friendly mechanics. Most landmarks contribute to deeds, which in turn grant traits or titles. In Eregion, exploration of all the ruins and animal lairs is needed for Hunters to learn the ability to swift travel there. Some of the areas can be rather forbidding to explore, as well - e.g. the Circle of Despair in Angmar used to be fairly difficult, since you had to find all 8 watchtowers surrounding the Witch-King's fortress of Barad Gularan. You could pretty much always see these from a distance, but finding a safe path to get there was an entirely different matter. It's become a bit easier now that the level cap is raised, but it's still a fair challenge.

    Comment by foolsage — 17 August, 2009 @ 12:04 PM

  11. I love exploration, and figure that any well-crafted game world really will encourage it. That said, it *would* annoy me if I were forced to explore to make myself competitive in a game... if I were the sort to care about keeping up with the status quo and min/maxing the game.

    Since I'm not, this sort of "hidden hot spot" feature would be great fun to explore.

    I do have to wonder if, in the modern internet information era, it might be good to make these spots variable and mobile.

    Comment by Tesh — 17 August, 2009 @ 12:09 PM

  12. Warhammer Online had a pretty good explorer system even if the rewards weren't quite as much motivation as M59s. It also occurred on several different levels.

    My memory is a bit hazy but this should be just about accurate...

    Most straightforward are the tomb unlocks, killing unique monsters, doing odd tasks, and what have you would unlock tome entries giving you titles, lore, and neat objects and trinkets.

    Then...
    Spread throughout the world you had 'sights' to find. These were generally out of the way locations or objects that gave you information about the area. One I remember finding involved jumping along some rocks to get up to a tower.

    Then even more so...
    Are the hidden layers. Never before have I seen anything so well hidden in an MMO. One lair for example has you doing the following:
    You and four players need to click on 13 tombs spread throughout the world at some point in time. This includes one in the enemy's capital city. Then all four of you need to travel to the lair and click on the tombs together to open the entrance.
    Another requires you have one of each of your faction's races present.

    Each lair contains a boss you can kill usually for some reward besides gear I believe.

    Comment by Logo — 17 August, 2009 @ 12:18 PM

  13. I think I didn't emphasize that there are a wide variety of nodes. Some of the easier to get nodes are just running to an area quickly, and that can be done by even the freshest new player if they have guidance. Some are a bit more difficult, like the node in the Badlands I described above; you can see the node, but it's not a straight-line path to get it and a bit of searching around reveals a pretty obvious path. This is different than the exploration in LotRO, for example, where often you'll just stumble across a point of interest without realizing anything special was necessarily there. The really tricky mana nodes in M59 are relatively rare, but a good puzzle for people to figure out or a bit of oral lore that people pass along to new players.

    As I point out, and as demonstrated by some comments, the Achiever mindset throws this type of mechanic for a loop. If you feel that you absolutely must have the maximum possible advantage, as Tesh points out, then it's frustrating to have to do something out of the ordinary to advance. It might be interesting to see how much correlation there is between people who complain about others getting "unfair advantages" from systems like microtransactions and people who dislike alternate forms of advancement like this; my gut feeling is that there would be significant overlap.

    Robert Schultz wrote:
    Finding all the mana nodes sounds like finding all the pieces of heart in Zelda.

    That's a very good comparison.

    Comment by Psychochild — 17 August, 2009 @ 4:25 PM

  14. Ya, giving all types of players rewards is nice and I do agree that having exploration 'goodies' is nice for not making such a linear gameplay!

    Nice read

    Comment by CodeJustin — 17 August, 2009 @ 7:21 PM

  15. I think people, even developers, can no longer understand this concept with language alone. Everyone responding here seems to have read this article in terms of 'the giant open empty MMOG world' with the addendum that 'everything just turns into grind'.

    Meridian 59's node system is vastly more complex than PC gives it credit for. I think it's a great example of an 'explorer' system colliding with 'achiever', 'socializer', and 'killer' systems in certain points. Most of the nodes are easy to get - one five-minute run around the Meridian mainland will get any character to 75% of his possible max mana. Of course, the 'puzzles' involved are old hat to vets, but new players still get a kick out of the old school Doom-style jumping and climbing.

    Where I think the node system really shines is in the 'higher end' nodes that PC glossed over, that all help combine various different personality types and help them interact with everyone else more. Here are two examples:

    - A node that requires server cooperation to get. M59 has 5 'tokens' that are random 24-hour 'anywhere in the world' spawn items that players fight over to turn in to 'power up' their faction at the expense of other factions' power. This node requires all 5 of those tokens in a ritual to open a portal to it… as you can imagine, a cooperation nightmare. Many a player-run 'node event' for this one has gone awry when one faction of players decides they can't (or don't want) to wait and turn in the tokens for themselves. Definitely a 'socializer' dynamic, with liberal sprinklings of explorers finding these 5 tokens across the world.

    - A node that requires server competition. This node is the most powerful (gives double mana), but it has both a negative and a positive aspect. Your character has to be karma-aligned to it to use it. If this node's negative aspect is summoned, then all the characters on the server tied to the positive aspect *lose their tie*, and vice versa. Many, many people have been killed over the years because they pissed off a lot of people with this node. In many ways, this is the best system combination of 'socializer' and 'killer' I've ever seen (socializers to organize the massive summoning event, killers to ensure that nobody summons the opposite side later)

    The important thing to realize here is that these aren't World of Warcraft 1,000 player raids – Meridian is small enough that you know everyone participating, causing much drama - and the 'reward' is minimal. In the end, these are more like social functions that operate in a much more 'natural' fashion than the forced dynamics of later games.

    Oh, I almost forgot. M59 also has random attacks against nodes by extremely dangerous elementals that, if the server doesn't stop them, result in the node being 'drained' (can't be used for 24 hours, max mana for all chars goes down accordingly for duration) or even 'severed' (tie permanently broken and it must be gotten again). These monsters are responsible for the most player deaths of any monster, as they are exceedingly dangerous.* They also drop their stone hearts, the highest-end reagent used in rare multi-person enchantment rituals. As you can imagine, many things can go wrong (or right) when everyone involved has incentive to fight for the heartstones or take the opportunity to attack other vulnerable players, in addition to stopping the node attack…

    *tangent – these elementals are an amazing example of increased difficulty and complexity WITHOUT the 'make the numbers higher' syndrome in level-based games. The elementals are dangerous by virtue of their abilities, rather than simply doing more damage or having more hp. Between the four types, they can travel through stone walls to attack players who think they are safe, hit you with their arms AND a lightning bolt or fireball each attack, are outright magic resistant (on a 50% basis the spell fails, as opposed to the rest of the game's resistances, which resist duration or effect, but never outright resist), and cast earthquakes, sandstorms, walls of fire / lightning / poison fog, can blind you, damage your spellpower, shatter your gear, and a host of other abilities. It should be noted these are all abilities players can and do use, so they aren't super-powered – they're just present in deadly combination.

    Comment by Gar — 19 August, 2009 @ 7:29 AM

  16. I actually designed the mana node system. It actually came out by necessity - my boss demanded a use-based system for all stats, which all other stats in Meridian 59 used. But when we tried doing it for mana, we found it created altogether bizarre behaviors - people casting their lowest mana spells over and over again until they got a point increase. I had about a day to think of and implement an alternative, thus mana nodes were born.

    One of the best parts of mana nodes is that doing a world tour of the mana nodes became a very common rite of passage in the community. Guilds would frequently do weekly or monthly world tours where they'd lead all their newbies through. It was quite cool, actually. But like I said, the whole thing was practically a design accident.

    Comment by Damion S — 2 September, 2009 @ 9:04 PM

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