Dalaran. Hard to miss, it seems.

Something happened at the start of July 2008 that only happens once every 2 years. For a brief period, everything about the world was not public knowledge. A handful of people worked day and night to fill this chasm of information. To document everything that was suddenly new and uncertain. Meanwhile the world filled up with hardened veterans, many of whom seem to struggle with, well, everything:

"How do I get to Northrend?" - Well, perhaps that new harbour or zeppelin tower that's been built might give you a clue?

"Where's Dalaran?" - Did you try riding to the end of the road and then looking up to see what's blocking out the sun? (Dalaran is pictured right.)

The world is, of course, the World of Warcraft. And the 2-yearly occasion is the start of public testing of the latest expansion, Wrath of the Lich King: The only time a significant proportion of the game world changes.

What's alarming is that these questions are not from new, inexperienced players. These are from people that have already played the existing game for months or years. They clearly want to know, but seem to have lost the basic ability to explore the game world themselves.

This article explores the concept of "exploration", and tries to explain how one of the most complex virtual worlds ever created has become popular among players that are not natural explorers. On this page:

Defining Exploration

Richard Bartle's "Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs" characterised players of Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) on 2 axis: Acting vs Interacting, and Players vs World. People whose play-style involved interacting with the world, he labelled "explorers". Explorers enjoy finding out as much information about the world or its "physics" as possible.

Nick Yee's later work on player motivations splits exploration into distinct elements: Discovery and Mechanics. He categorises each under different overarching factors (Immersion and Achievement respectively), which suggests quite a significant difference.

For the purpose of this article, I will categorise exploration as discovery of things within a world, rather than analysis of the underlying mechanics. But if the world is deeply complex, analytical techniques will be applied to the process of discovery, so these terms overlap slightly.

Exploration in Game Design

Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun builds from the premise that a game is only fun until the player has mastered the pattern behind the game. Players always try to optimise gameplay; and if they succeed, the game becomes boring.

Traditionally many video games have revelled in creating a sense of the undiscovered: Part of "mastering the pattern" involves exploring the geography of the game world. One of the best early examples was Elite. The 2,000+ planets were procedurally generated from an algorithm, to create an illusion of depth and complexity within the constraints of early 1980s home computing hardware. Add hidden missions and content to that universe, and players can spend a lot of play time just exploring.

Massively Multiplayer Online games must constrain the size of their game worlds, so that players are likely to meet other players within the world. Exploration tends to shift away from the discovery of places in the game world, towards discovery of things: Creatures, items, quests.

This is where the problems start.

Information vs Exploration

In a game like World of Warcraft (WoW), over time more and more things are added to the game world, which are not formally documented by the designers: Their presumed intent is that players will explore and discover this content.

Unfortunately the volume of things is so great that players have ceased to be capable of discovering, memorising and processing most information about the game world. For example, there are now about 40,000 different items in the game, most gained from very specific sources. Most players now rely on third-party sources that gather and manage that information for them.

When, as happened at the start of July, those third-party sources haven't been written or researched yet, panic breaks out. Panic expresses itself in the game's chat channels, where confused players question other confused players. Those that know often remain silent, frustrated by the constant repetition of questions. Based on the prevailing conversation in different zones, players either gradually learn by trial-and-error, or quit out of frustration - I am not sure which is more common.

Fortunately for most players of World of Warcraft (only 1% of players can expect to participate in beta testing), by the time the expansion is released to the masses, the guide writers, database maintainers, top raiding guilds, and helpful forum posters will collectively have documented (almost) everything. The core skill for most players will once again become "knowing where to read about...", not "knowing how to explore..."

Where did the Explorers go?

Sandra Powers (herself a consummate explorer) commented that the "explorers haven't left - they're the ones writing the strategy guides." I'm personally in that category, and enjoy uncovering the most obscure patterns the game has to offer. I know I'm in a very small minority.

I suspect that explorers were never common. In the mid-1990s, Bartle comments that, "unfortunately, not many people have the type of personality which finds single-minded exploring a riveting subject, so numbers [of explorers] are notoriously difficult to increase." I'd go further, and the suggest that, almost by definition, natural explorers will tend to be amongst the "early adopters" of a technology or gaming experience. So early MUD user populations (the basis of his research) will have contained a disproportionately high number of explorers.

Long Live Exploration?

So why continue to build game worlds that require so much exploration? Exploration has become redundant for most players, because the only skill they need is information management. Explorers are a minority group, that games like WoW already fail to completely satisfy.

The fact that many customers struggle to play without an array of reference material created (mostly) by explorers, is not acknowledged by the game's developers: Most of us are treated with indifference, tinged with the threat of legal action if we break too many unwritten rules. Perhaps the developers are oblivious to the dependence of players on explorers, and get annoyed when all their obfuscated content is immediately de-obfuscated and documented? Or does inertia keep exploration in the game until someone can work out how to safely remove it? As I discussed in Platform Azeroth, the current situation creates an utterly illogical structure of information transfer.

Open-ended exploration has been removed from a lot of content aimed solely at "achievers" - players primarily motivated by advancement and competition. For examples, examine the evolution of dungeon content. Some of the early dungeons featured a lot of open-ended mazes, with little structure as to how a group should progress through them - Blackrock Depths is a good example. Recent additions have tended to be much more linear: Exploration is bounded to learning how to kill individual enemies within the dungeon, rather than trying to find what needs to be killed.

Easy to Learn, Hard to Master

Maybe the core "easy to learn, hard to master" design philosophy is a factor? The graph below illustrates the approach, which characterises much of the design of World of Warcraft, and contributes to the game's broad appeal.

Graph: WoW Complexity and Extent of Play.

The curve can be divided as follows:

  1. At lower extents of play (left side of the graph), game complexity is very easy. Players can follow the quest-lines as they find them, overlook half of their characters' abilities, and still be successful without any additional knowledge.
  2. As game complexity rises, the value of exploration also rises: The player gains a tangible benefit from optimising their gameplay.
  3. At the highest extents of play (right side of the graph), the game becomes so complex that it becomes virtually impossible for an individual player to learn everything by trial-and-error: There is too much to learn, and all that knowledge is absolutely critical to success.

A Fishy End

I will illustrate each stage - with fish! One can replace fish with almost any other game concept.

  1. In the first stage there is no significant benefit from exploration. The patterns of fish catches are simple in the early zones, and all those fish have practically no value. Go ahead and catch something! Where, when, and how you fish does not influence how successful you are in the game at the start.
  2. In the second stage there is a benefit from exploration, but you can still "muddle through" without it. So if you are prepared to spend some time catching fish at different locations, you will notice that some locations yield more valuable or more useful fish than other locations. That gives an advantage over another player that never explores different locations. But neither player absolutely needs that advantage.
  3. In the third stage knowledge is essential, but so much information is required that most players will not have time to explore everything themselves. You are raiding 5 hours a day, 4 days a week; you need a heap of Golden Darter for each raid; and you have a job or school to attend. You don't have time to explore the world, trying to determine the most efficient way to catch those fish - so you read information published by someone that has.

So perhaps exploration is alive and well: It just is not a universal trait among those testing the new expansion, who tend to fall into the third category? Or perhaps exploration is dying universally, because searching the internet replaces in-game information discovery at all stages?

Read More

Similiar writings: Game Design, Information Management, Learn2Play, Thoughts, Video Games, WoW, Games.

Archived Comments and Reactions