Exploration is Dead. Long Live Exploration!

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?

9 comments on "Exploration is Dead. Long Live Exploration!"

  1. On August 19th, 2008 at 2:51 pm Elesias wrote:

    As you’ve already stated in your introduction, I feel that there are a lot of different topics mashed up in your article, despite trying to define what we are talking about. Exploration is a rather broad term after all (the act, the mindset, different targets, different means, etc), so that is perfectly understandable.

    But putting the focus on third party information I was surprised by the “Long Live Exploration?” paragraph. I’ve never felt that guide writers or databases were discouraged or even threatened by legal action (apart from NDAs during alpha testing). Could you elaborate on that and maybe show the underlying personal experience with that? Some methods might be considered shady Blizzard (data mining comes to mind, taking it further I’m sure they would take action against any reverse engineering and reuse of their client and server software), but I can’t imagine how a guide strictly based on in-game information (like El’s anglin) could come in conflict with Blizzard.

    I felt this paragraph was more targeted at another aspect of exploration: the “classic” exploration aka “let’s see what is on top of that mountain”. You even included the obvious BRD reference: BRD was an instance that felt strange and confusing the first time, but I learned my way around and could (and often had to) lead my groups around after the thirdish time. Looking back, it is one of my most favourite instances. It is really more of a zone. It even incorporated elements of achievment based variation that are now being discussed as “new” to the WotLK expansion (for instance at EJ): If you had done the quest, you could ask the waitess to open the bar door. If everybody in the party had done the princess rescue, she would be replaced by a dark iron high-pristess and wouldn’t show up in the first place. Many many instances after that were a big step back at this particular aspect. Players could once more not change the environment, no matter how many times they had rescued say Millhouse Manastorm.

    Anyways, I got carried away. Yes this “classic” aspect has been discouraged for whatever reason since the very start: wall walking removed, teleport buffs established, terrain changed, etc. There I can really see the developers threatening (with ban) or taking action. It is funny how the problem solved itself – with TBC they simply didn’t include any major exploring content.

    Watch Yume’s videos on WM, in particular “Nerf Slowfall 2″. 12min to get on the dark portal in Azeroth, 20 seconds in Outland (flying mounts hooray). That aspect of exporation IS pretty much dead, beaten down by the developers. Yume even states how dumb that that is: “This is irrational since the explorer gains no advantage from exploring – it’s just fun.”

    Further evidence how WoW turned from an explorer’s game to a 100% linear steamlined content game, challenging every implementation with the dreadful “what’s the use” question:
    Of course there were simply hard to access places in the first place (no flying mouts, very limited means of fast transportation, vast landscape). But interestingly that is not even neccessary – let’s take Stormwind as an example: How many non-warloks have been down to the summoning circe? How many people saw the Scarlet Crusade emissary in the cathedral cellar? How many people have been to the Cut-Throat Alley without being pointed there? I would estimate only a dozend of people per server and that is a full steet including walkable buildings in the middle of the capital city of the Alliance, populated by thousands of players every day.
    Nek’mani Wellspring in Stanglethorn with the holy water and the rare Naga? The chimaerok island in south Ferals? The IF airport? The Hyjal raid portal in Winterspring or even Hyjal itself? The island off the coast of Hillsbrad Foothills? The dancing furbolg village? Zul’Gurub (not the instance)? etc etc
    How many have been to these places? How many have really visited and discovered them out of own interest? Ask around….

    And now with outland? I can’t recall a single special area (mind you, I haven’t played WoW for over a year) that had been built without a quest pointing there. There is no redundant just-fun content anymore! In comparison with Stormwind each alley of Shattrath serves it’s purpose, no empty houses, etc.
    edit: After some thinking I recalled the Tell skelton and the Orphanage in Nagrand, but I think that doesn’t hurt my point, comparing to whole populated islands that weren’t visited by more than a hundred players per server in classic WoW.

    Having written all that, I believe it is safe to say that this aspect of exploring is officially dead. It now is not so much about discouraging or motivation – it is outright impossible by design. Having seen some media from the ongoing beta, it doesn’t look like they have changed their minds. Ironically with all the flying mounts and the new so called freedom, WoW is turning more and more into a game on rails. They want each and every person to experience the same by default unless they deliberately skip content. There is no effort required anymore.

    Well, thanks for reading and keep up the good posts :)

  2. On August 20th, 2008 at 12:28 pm Tim Howgego wrote:

    Interesting comments – thanks Elesias. On this specific point:

    Could you elaborate on that and maybe show the underlying personal experience with that?

    There are a handful of “fansites” officially acknowledged by Blizzard. They tend to be quite mainstream, with a strong bias towards large commercial gaming networks likely to appeal to marginal players. A cynic might regard it as primarily a marketing ploy; I couldn’t comment. Certainly most of the WoW sites I read aren’t listed. At the other end of the scale Blizzard have threatened sites carrying/promoting alpha content (from Noggaholics to WotLK-wiki), ‘bot/hack sites (Glider, the most obvious), paid guides (Kopp), and “hangers on” (Datecraft, who recently redesigned their site to take out all the WoW-themes).

    I have not got any response to enquires about being added to the first group, and I haven’t had contact from Blizzard’s lawyers either. So I’m in the middle somewhere.

    Somewhere in the middle is an uncertain place, given that Blizzard are routinely pushing the boundaries of “virtual law”. Or more accurately, ensuring their “game” is regarded as licensed software, rather than some sort of new nation state. The lack of legal action against Thott (especially owners, Zam) gives some certainty: That site was a logical target, since it makes a lot of money, had historic links to Real Money Transfer, and is based entirely on material copyrighted to Blizzard.

    Still, very few people can fight a legal action against a business the size of Blizzard-Activision or Vivendi, so it is pragmatic not to try and upset the “500 pound gorilla”.

    On your wider comments, another example to throw fuel onto the fire, which I left out of the original article: In Paris I watch (slightly bemused), as the best achievers (raid guilds and PvP arena players) were paraded as heroes. Literally. In contrast the best explorers (Noggaholics are a good example) have melted into the shadows, and players still aren’t sure if a trip to Ironforge Airport will result in an account ban.

  3. On August 20th, 2008 at 6:27 pm Elesias wrote:

    Thank you for your clarification – I can see how a feature programme can cause frustration on your side. I’ve personally never really cared about the main site and hardly ever visited it, but of course for many players this would be the major hub. Anyway, I mistook some parts of your article into having personal legal problems with Blizzard, which is thankfully not the case. Being in the middle of nowhere, a room full of legal uncertainty is definitely not enjoyable for sure though.

    I am a law student myself, soon getting my degree, and as it happens I am very much interested in intellectual property law. I don’t live in a case law system – so much of Blizzard related jurisdiction is still hard to understand for me. But I can mostly see and understand their claims, because not much would be judged differently in my legal system. The more you learn about ip law, the more it occurs to you, that most of the everyday behaviours on the web ARE simply violations of ip rights – it get’s to a point where it is outright scary. But there is a certain practical component to each written law, let’s call it the law in action. And that is, what keeps the web and the world functioning.

    I have to try hard, not to go into details or rant on about the law system in general, because it is simply not the main point of discussion here.

    Some general remarks (you most likely will already know): Most ip claims are probably steamrolled, like you wrote. They can engage a multinational specialised law firm, while you are stuck with your lawyer around the courner. They set the amount of damages ridiculously high (which is their right after having their ip violated) to an extent where no judge would grant it. That creates a certain atmosphere where in the worst case they might lose some money, but the small counterpart will either go bankrupt or “only” pay some thousand dollars, even if they defeat Blizzard (wich will often be a partial defeat). At that point a settlement could be economically better, even if you had the law on your side.
    Also Blizzard has a big advantage: They are huge, they are known, they are popular. Fulfilling this criteria they could get virtually every ip claim through in my country, since the reputation of a well known trademark is specially protected (a test could be: ask 200 geeks what company they associate with a product called XXXcraft). And something purely immaterial like a reputation is hurt pretty soon, as you can imagine.
    Operating strictly non-commercially is a certain protection (since ip law is mainly thought for business) but only to an extent (eg badmouthing). General example: garfield.de – a strictly private homepage on the main german TLD.

    So knowing a little about law, you can really go and “tick off” what the example sites you mentioned did wrong.

    You are very right to question Blizzard’s actions though. It is really interesting how popular and loved a company can grow while leaving community sites in the dark, banning a good share of innocent players, suing support pillars of both gameplay and marketing. The point has been long passed where the community started to produce better trailers and showcases than Blizzard. I destinctly remember a certain Karazhan exploration video during TBC alpha – all they should have done was to feature it on the main site instead of taking it down – It would have been the best marketing ever for their upcoming expansion. The same with Noggaholics’ exploration video(s) – they were epic and showed the spirit of the game better than any official trailer.
    Well, they obviously can afford it. A smaller company without cult status or 10 millon addicted players would have to be much much more careful with their legal actions being concerned with their reputation (more of the law in action stuff there). Only because they can, doesn’t mean they always should…

    I think we can agree on that.

    From my point of view it is very understandable that they keep all options open and prefer to neither grant permissions nor to outright disallow on a general level. I would give them exactly the same advice being their lawyer. Who knows what the future holds and being in any way authorised by the ip owner is a very strong legal point, which they of course don’t want to give away. Sucks for you and all the active community sites though :-/. Again: obviously they can afford it.

    To add another amusing example of Blizzard’s legal actions: A fantasy themed adult entertainment site went from “Whores of Warcraft” to “WhoreCraft” to “WhoreLore”, each step driven by Blizzard’s lawyers of course. Generally a trademark would be registered for a certain area and a certain good (eg: publishing newspapers, toys, food, etc in the US, in Japan, etc). Now I haven’t checked, but I’m pretty sure that WarCraft is not a registered trademark for adult entertainment… see the above paragraph about the reputation of a well known trademark to see what was going on there… They could have probably gone with unfair competiton laws too, but I like to kind of omit them, since ip is a more general approach and more interesting ;-)
    (if you think that this paragraph is not appropriate for your blog, feel free to delete it).

  4. On October 1st, 2008 at 2:01 am WoW: How Blizzard is Cheating Explorers | Wolfshead Online wrote:

    [...] based MMO, many players look upon exploration as a necessary evil. Tim Howego in a recent article looks at exploration from the point of view of an achiever: it’s a means to an end, instead [...]

  5. On December 3rd, 2008 at 9:47 pm Time for Thanks « Tish Tosh Tesh wrote:

    [...] an introspective mood today. Must be the stormclouds outside. Or the economy. Or maybe the articles like these and sites like these that I’ve been reading lately. Maybe it’s the leftover [...]

  6. On January 7th, 2009 at 8:09 am Nugget wrote:

    At least in BC it wasn’t true that there were no more exploring spots there just for exploring (but it could be it was a horde quest because I never went there again as horde).

    In nagrand, way in the hills, there’s a tiny little cottage with a woman and some kiddies running around. They serve no conceivable purpose. I wish I could tell you the names and coords, but I can’t, because I no longer play WoW.

    Perhaps they are still there, just that players don’t bother to look for them anymore, and they don’t get published in information sources like WoWHead/Thottbot/etc because they have no relevance to advancing, just funnies? (I did tell all my friends that were online though… lol.)

  7. On March 23rd, 2009 at 3:55 am De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy - Tim Howgego wrote:

    [...] was paying for their apartment with donations) estimates around 20% of all players use the addon. Exploration is Dead examined the growing inability of players to discover anything themselves without help. While tools [...]

  8. On February 13th, 2010 at 6:30 am Adventures in the Invisible Tent - Tim Howgego wrote:

    [...] Exploration is Dead, Long Live Exploration, I wrote about how the need to explore video games had increasingly been replaced by [...]

  9. On May 10th, 2010 at 3:05 am A Strange Game - Tim Howgego wrote:

    [...] continually expands, so contains ever-more things to know about. At the same time, the design has shifted away from exploration, towards achievement. A core skill for most players is now “knowing where to read [...]