One of the recent comments to Tobold caught my eye: "I do not agree that wow is remotely "exploration-driven". It's linear, it's streamlined it's candy coated."
Is linear the opposite, or at least incompatible, with exploration? To determine this, we need to define exploration. First, what is the actual physical act, how does one explore? Second, what does it cause, rewards, sense of pride, Dora the Explorer title?
What are you doing?
Initial exploration is often non-linear. We don't know where we're going, so we hit dead ends and loops and in general we can't follow some optimized pattern. At least we couldn't until we started flying everywhere. So in this initial phase of exploration, it does seem incompatible with a linear design. If it were linear, then it would be pre-optimized, essentially giving us information about the path, and therefore reducing the amount to find.
But that initial wandering doesn't cover ever single little bit. There's still that one area that we didn't have time to get into, what with being filled with elites, so we'd want a solid bit of time for fighting or sneaking in. At this point it may be semi-linear. We know approximately where we want to go, but we have to decide how we will get there. For example, before the Shattering, Grim Batol wasn't open yet, not even all the gates, but a player could run quite a ways up toward the entrance, dodging dragons along the way. It was literally linear (okay literally slightly curved, but alliteration is more fun). And yet it was also exploration.
What's in it for Me?
Ah that old problem of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. We meet again!
Exploration isn't purely intrinsically rewarding. My proof? Minecraft. It has a whole lot to find, to discover, to dig into and extract, and explore. But it's a terrible place for exploration. Why? It's meaningless. Exploration isn't the simple process of seeing something that you haven't seen before. It has to have some sort of meaning. Finding history, treasure, something. It may not be profitable in the strictest sense, but it has to be something. The next hill over, or the next half-dozen digs through a dozen blocks, will certainly be profitable, but they will be meaningless.
This is the strange strength of WoW has an exploration game. While it sticks us on rails and make everything inevitable, thereby discouraging the process, it also has something at every end of the path. There are no random areas of nothing. It is all crafted, created, meaningful. Oh of course there are little bits of nothing here and there, but the world overall has a whole lot in it.
But I suppose I just evaded the question. Is history an external reward? I'd say so. But I think we can differentiate between learning something and getting something. A scholarshop vs. a winning lotto ticket.
I wonder how much I have contradicted myself in that post. Hey, a challenge for you all. Have fun.