What is Exploration Anyway?

| Wednesday, March 9, 2011
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.


Unknown said...

It all varies by person. Some need rewards for doing something, for others doing it is the reward itself. Sir Edmund Hillary didn't climb Mount Everest because there was a pot of gold at the top, he climbed it because it was there to be climbed.

Likewise in WoW. Some players will never venture off the rails, and this applies pre and post Shattering. While questing has largely been transformed into a predetermined path, there still exists a little choice (as one example you can choose between zones of a particular level). Also, there are areas which used to 'have a purpose' but no longer do. In travelling to those areas, your only reward is having done it, and seen it and having the screenshots to prove it, damn it.

Last fall, I rode my DK around the entire coastline of both Eastern Kingdoms and Kalimdor just to see what there was to be seen. This was not what most would typically categorize as profitable. I did not earn xp, loot gold, or earn an achievement. I just did it, got some cool screenshots, and saw some things that very few other players will see because they don't allow themselves to do things in game that serve no purpose whatsoever.

Nils said...

Ever watched a truely new player playing WoW? He does explore. He will often stray from the path. There were some great things to find if you went exploring - in the old world mostly.

But I'd also argue that exploring includes linear exploration. (And I just proved it with semantics, damn, I'm good :)

One reason to play a new char is to explore what a 'blast wave' really does. To explore the feeling of doing a mortal strike with a 2H Axe in PvP.

This is exploration, too. In addition to the very nice tutorial in the first 6-20 levels, and in addition to the very well done combat, this exploration game is behind the success of WoW. It is why people twink at all! To explore another char.

Tesh said...

What Eccentrica said. I recently got my first level 60, a Druid, and Flight Form has kept me plenty busy in the Old World of Azeroth. In fact, it totally derailed the progression train. Yeah, I went to Outland and flew around for a while, but then I came back through the portal and I've spent a lot of time just looking around the place. I went off the rails because I wanted to. Perhaps you could call that extrinsic because I found things that I didn't put there or expect to find, but Blizzard didn't entice me with anything more extrinsic than just making the world to be seen.

Anonymous said...

Exploration is what happens when you act on the thought "I wonder what's over there..."

In other words, it's the result of not knowing and deciding to take action to discover the answer. Sometimes we do this while we're on a quest, thus getting extrinsic rewards for exploring a cave. But sometimes we just see a cave and wonder what might be in it and the motivation is purely a personal desire to satisfy that curiosity.

If you never ask the question, you're not exploring; you're learning about your environment while pursuing other goals. If you always know the answer, you're not exploring; you're traveling in a known world.

And yes, exploration can be linear and progressive. I wonder what's over the next hill? Oh, a valley. I wonder what's in it? A river. I wonder where that goes? The ocean. What's at the bottom? A cave. I wonder what's in the cave and how far it goes...

Sthenno said...

Just today I came across some photos of tunnels that run through and under a glacier. They are really something to see and they are also remarkably linear. The pictures don't depict a lot of forks in the road.

Now the actual tunnels themselves may have all kinds of forks and decision points. But whether they do or not really doesn't matter. Even if the tunnels were simply straight paths with no branches, it would be silly to say that a person going to photograph never-before-seen glacial tunnels was not exploring.

Exploring is finding new things. They may be wholly new things or just new to you. Whether you have to choose whether to go left or right at some point on the way has nothing to do with it. Linear and exploration are completely compatible. Of course been-playing-the-same-linear-content-for-six-years and exploration are less compatible.

Klepsacovic said...

Sorry for the lack of response, but I am mashing my *mutters thoughtfully* button.

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