Why MMO Exploration is Unimportant & 4 Ways To Make it Meaningful
The biggest impediment to exploration in an MMO is questing and the emphasis on endgame content. While there are certainly some incentives to explore around – such as achievements or hidden chests with nice loot – the majority of players will stick to the linear path shown to them by the quest designers. This keeps them moving from area to area, but it also prevents them from getting to know a location and its inhabitants unless they are really dedicated. The stereotype of the cookie-cutter MMO NPC is in full force, and all the good lore writing won’t get players involved until they have a reason to be.
In order to get players interested in MMO lore, developers must present players with incentives to read quest text and get involved in NPC dialogue. Originally, these incentives were simply not knowing what was going on when you left to do the quest. This form of negative reinforcement is common – it’s the reason DRM is so popular, after all – but it doesn’t work, as negative reinforcement rarely does in the media world. Players just find ways around it, as evidenced by the popularity of QuestHelper and Atlas in World of Warcraft before Blizzard added their own quest guidance system and dungeon maps. If any game has features that take player control away instead of adding it, that is bad design. There is no argument there. I simply detest negative reinforcement.
Likewise, most questing involves leaving old areas whenever you hit a level cap and you stop gaining experience and goodies from the quests you are doing. This prevents you from experiencing the story in full in a lot of MMOs, especially older ones. While the most relevant story is always the endgame one, the events leading up to it are also important and interesting from a lore perspective. Without questing mechanics that reward players for sticking around low-level areas, the majority of your player base simply won’t know what is going on. Besides the need to kill the big bad guy, of course.
The absolute worst part of questing, however, is returning to the questgiver to get your reward. While this seems like such a standard part of the RPG experience, it’s one that drags down MMOs. When you want players to delve into your world, the absolute worst way to direct them is to force them to do round trips all the time. It artificially inflates the time you spend progressing to the next level, as you must work your way to and fro the guy who needs ten rat pelts.
While exploration isn’t absolutely terrible, it also suffers from the curse of linearity. Most areas are in a particular level range, which excludes players above or below this range. Unless the player has a reason to go back to a low-level zone (usually achievements or crafting materials), they won’t. Really, this is the crux of the entire problem of MMO exploration: There is no reason to do it at the appropriate time except for superficial awards you will end up outleveling in a day or two. When you are max level, visiting these old areas is simply a way to get achievements and gold, not experience new aspects of the game.
Finally, even if you find cool stuff in your exploration, it very rarely pertains to you or leads to something interesting. Sometimes it might be a chest of randomly-generated goodies, many of which will likely end up as vendor trash. Other times it might be a bit of lore that doesn’t really make you care more about your character or the NPCs you interact with, despite being directly relevant to your game. In all cases, there is nothing to make you more concerned with finding out more about the world.
All of these aspects end up dragging down the experience of a good MMO and make you feel like you are hitched to a rail. All you have to do is push the right buttons in the right order. Unlike PvP and crafting, though, there are a lot of MMOs that attempt to subvert the standard linear path towards the level cap. Thus we have a good collection of examples to draw inspiration from.