Why MMO Exploration is Unimportant & 4 Ways To Make it Meaningful
1.) Make questing non-linear
Rather than having characters gain levels and progress through quests on a strictly linear path – complete these quests, then these quests, then those quests, ad infinitum – players should have micro-stories to play through. Each group of quests should be treated more like a module in a tabletop campaign than the campaign itself. While this hampers the ability to tell a cohesive story, the benefits are worth it. Players can construct their own narratives by picking and choosing which quest groups to do in whatever order they like. This also has the side-effect of allowing players to build a character profile over the course of their actions in the game world, rather than through a set of linear and directed encounters with arbitrary extremes.
2.) Use positive reinforcement to get players involved in lore, not negative reinforcement
Not having quality-of-life game elements (like quest helper systems or dungeon maps) to encourage players to get more involved is bad design, plain and simple. Rather than forcing players to look at quest descriptions to find out where to go and what to do, reward them for reading the quest description. For example, interconnecting stories in quest camps that are optional but rewarding can be a great way to get players interested in lore. These optional quests – activities never explicitly told to the player, but hinted at in normal quest text – give players a sense of discovery, and handing out goodies to players that bother to read and respond to quest text will create incentives around learning about the setting.
3.) Make quests and exploration more meaningful to players of all levels
While Guild Wars 2 has many, many flaws, there is one aspect where it really excels: You can take any area you want and still level up as though you were doing content appropriate to your level. This is a system that desperately needs to be copied by other MMOs, as it gives players the option to discover older stories instead of being forced to continually move along the predetermined narrative. Other MMOs have approached replaying low-level content in similar ways, like the now-defunct City of Heroes and the Flashback system contained therein.
Likewise, exploration should also be useful to players of all levels. If you explore and find a chest, the chest should drop items that are useful to your character regardless of your level. For example, consumables or crafting materials. If you wander into a low-level area, you should find items that benefit you despite your high-level. In addition, wandering into a high-level area shouldn’t result in instant death. Higher level areas should be more difficult qualitatively (more complex monsters and skills), not quantitatively (higher stats than you can fight)
4.) Do not require players to return to questgivers for their rewards
This suggestion is straight out of Asian-style MMOs, interestingly enough. Games like Mabinogi often incorporate a system where you can simply “complete’ quests in your quest journal, giving you the rewards as though you talked to the NPC. More recently, Guild Wars 2 gives you money via mail whenever you complete a “Renown Heart”, which is the equivalent of getting money after turning in a group of quests in most other MMOs. While I’m sure that traditional design has its appeal, trudging back to questgivers is simply a time slog that extends player time without adding anything meaningful. It should definitely be removed in all games going forward. Connected to this: If a questgiver has another quest after the one the player just completed, it should be started without the player making their way back.
5.) Make exploration pique player curiosity through connections to other stories and locations
Chances are you have never played Uru Live. Those familiar with the Myst series might recognize the name, and for good reason: It is essentially “Myst as an MMO.” The reason I bring it up is that Uru Live does something that no other MMO has even come close to replicating. It gives meaning to your exploration. Wandering around environments and interacting with objects and players furthers your understanding of the world and gives you access to new (and harder!) puzzles. Why is it that this curiosity-driven exploration is such a rarity in traditional MMO design? Players should find a neat cove, explore it, and find clues to another cove with more interesting story details. Instead, you open a chest and get some vendor trash. It’s a huge disappointment.
These suggestions boil down to one essential truth: Players need to feel both guided and unrestricted at the same time. This paradox of freedom versus control is the most difficult aspect of MMO design, and while leaning one way or the other is obviously good enough, the middle path is the best way to go. Give players the freedom to make their own choices and mistakes, but gently push them on the path you want them to take. Don’t punish players who stray outside the formula. If developers take this advice to heart, MMOs will quickly stop being average and start being spectacular.
Of course, there are plenty of MMOs I haven’t delved into. I hear Star Wars: The Old Republic has an excellent narrative, for example. Do you think that there are things I missed? Are my suggestions complete hogwash? Let’s open a dialogue and talk about these systems. They are the very core of the MMO experience, after all, and you only improve a genre by examining its existing flaws.